Athena M. Kaiman (Freedom 2022)

Athena M. Kaiman
Now I Get It, Dad

My father knew exactly what was going on in the runup to the 2016 election in the U.S. because he recognized the entity spreading propaganda. He’d fought against the communist resistance in the bloody Greek Civil War that occurred right after World War II. It marked the passage of British power to America and was the first proxy war between the West and Communist states. A proxy war is one fought within smaller countries that represent the interests of larger powers, and they may also receive funding or soldiers from those larger powers. Examples include: the Korean and Vietnam wars, Afghanistan and Nicaragua in the 1980s, and the current war in Ukraine.

When my father chose to immigrate to the United States and ultimately become a citizen, he did so with a full heart. His love for his adopted nation rivaled any self-proclaimed patriot born on American soil. After experiencing starvation during World War II, and then subsequently as a soldier during the Greek Civil War, the one food he insisted be served at every dinner was bread. For ten years, he lived through the scarcity of this most basic form of human sustenance. The trauma of being hungry affected him for the rest of his life and accompanied his mental and physical scars from combat. Waking him up from a nap was terrifying, as he awoke violently and unnaturally. His eyes would open far too wide, like a window into his damaged soul.

From the time I was old enough to understand the news, he and I argued endlessly about the state of America. Having had the privilege of being born here, I did not appreciate the freedoms bestowed upon me. My father, however, took none of those same freedoms for granted. If I dared criticize his new home, I did so at my own peril.

My earliest political memory was watching JFK’s funeral at the age of four. I found it profoundly sad and related to John, Jr., as he was only a year younger than me. As I watched him salute his father, I felt afraid. How could the President of the United States be murdered? For years, I worried endlessly about my father, who worked nights in New York City. Sometimes, I’d stay awake for hours waiting for him to return home. I no longer felt safe.

Then came the nightly scrolls of those lost or killed in the Vietnam War. I’d try to count the names as they rolled quickly up the screen at the end of the news in complete silence. Then came the riots. Whole cities were on fire, like Los Angeles in 1965 and Detroit and Newark in 1967. And then came the protests against the Vietnam war. I was taught in school that Americans had the right to protest. So, why had the National Guard killed four college students at Kent State in Ohio?

By 1970, at the age of ten, I wanted to live in another country. The only highlight was the space program. When we landed on the moon in 1969, my family was in Greece at the time. I remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap on his veranda, just outside of Athens. I pointed toward the moon in the sky and told him there were astronauts there. But he didn’t believe me. It was the one crowning achievement of my country, and he deprived me of bragging rights.

Growing up, it was no secret that my father despised the Republican Party. Why this was the case confused me. I used to witness my father vehemently argue with the parents of my best friend as well as other extended family members who aligned that way. After years of listening to both sides, I ultimately agreed with my father. So, when Richard Nixon resigned after Watergate, I was happy. When it happened, I was in my best friend’s house watching it on TV. Her father was a diehard Republican who did not appreciate my uttering “good” after Nixon announced he was resigning. The look he shot me was terrifying, as I knew from my friend that he was pretty free with putting his hands on his children. That was a defining moment in my life; it was the first time I personally experienced the partisan divide in America.

And on it went. From Jimmy Carter, the Iranian hostages, and the unending gas lines, to Ronald Reagan who preached that greed was indeed good for America while at the same time was determined to overturn a newfound constitutional right for women defined by Roe v. Wade. As I graduated from college with a degree in Public Administration, I always found Reagan’s love for the Christian Right and his pro-life stance in direct contradiction to the AIDS epidemic. His moralistic attitude on abortion seemed absurd to me as gay men were dying all around us. I bought a copy of Reagan’s book Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation. It is the only book published by a U.S. president while still in office. It was a difficult read for a young progressive, but I was trying to get a grasp on the culture wars of intolerance being stoked by the Republican Party.

Many people blame Nixon for the hard right turn of the Republican Party, but to me, it was Reagan’s fault entirely. Since his election in 1980, our country has been on a steady trajectory of leaning right. The only exception was when Bill Clinton beat George Bush, Sr. after only one term. Listening to Fleetwood Mac perform “Don’t Stop” at the inauguration ball was the last time I felt youthful hope for America. And then Clinton’s patriarchy emerged.

I felt a glimmer of hope again when Barack Obama was elected. But after 9/11, extraordinary renditions, Gitmo, and the endless wars George Bush, Jr., and Dick Cheney embroiled us in, fighting the “war on terror,” I felt defeated. I was also trying not to lose our home in the Great Recession. And I knew the backlash of electing a Black man for two terms was going to be astounding. And it was—it gave us Donald Trump.

Despite the partisan divide that has always been present in America, our citizens and those elected still behaved with mores that were embedded into our political system through tradition, not laws, until Trump upended them all. How many times did we hear people and journalists say: Trump can’t do that; that’s never been done before; doesn’t he need an act of Congress to do that? Apparently, if it wasn’t directly against the law, and even if it was, all bets were off with the Trump administration. He blurred the lines between the Latin definitions of de facto and de jure that had existed for decades, leading up to an actual insurrection at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Trump incited violence to prevent Congress from certifying the vote that Joe Biden had, indeed, defeated his chance for a second term as president.

Even those of us from the New York area, who were well aware of Trump’s penchant for lying in business and cheating on his wives and taxes, were stunned by the audacious way he hijacked the leadership of the Republican Party into giving him everything he wanted. But he had good groomers all his life, who taught him how to get others to bend to his will. Whether it involved his social life, business, or politics, there was always a trail of bodies behind Donald Trump.

But Trump is not the problem—we are. He is merely a blustering reiteration of Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, Sr. and Jr. It took fifty years, but the American experiment is like a melting pot that has boiled over, dirtied the entire stovetop, fallen all over the floor, and the flame is still on. Very little simmers beneath the surface anymore. Boiling over has become the modus operandi of our country, whether it involves racism, fearmongering, or hatred. We’ve lost the ability to behave with respect and kindness toward our fellow American, especially if they have a different skin color, culture, religion, or sexual orientation. Identifying differences, also known as “othering,” has replaced baseball as the new American pastime, and it’s “juuust a bit outside” of civil behavior.
A pandemic didn’t bring us together and, in fact, a surgical mask became akin to the American flag. That small piece of fabric and the mandates that came with it were either reviled or wholeheartedly embraced. Wearing a mask to stop the spread of a deadly virus became highly partisan. Do we care nothing for each other? Trump called Covid a hoax, just like climate change; it’s all fake news.

So, what is it called when evidence is staring you straight in the face, yet you refuse to believe it? A form of delusion or dementia? Or maybe, your brain has been indoctrinated into an alternate reality by good old propaganda. Think back to 1933 and the rise of Hitler’s Reich Ministry of Enlightenment and Propaganda (RMVP) headed by Joseph Goebbels. The principles of Nazism, with antisemitism at its core, were incorporated into every newspaper, radio broadcast, and film produced by the Third Reich. Those meticulously crafted messages were created to mobilize the German population to support all Nazi military efforts, including the deportation of Jews and others to concentration camps for extermination. Propaganda preys on the worst of our innate human traits. And it’s extremely effective, as it begins long before the actual event like Trump’s victory in 2016.

Instead of dropping actual bombs on our country, as they are currently doing in Ukraine, Russian operatives polluted the minds of American citizens through a sophisticated cyber-infiltrating-propaganda machine in 2015 and 2016. With access to new technology, stemming from the internet, along with our trust of these information platforms, Russia inflicted real damage on our free and fair election process. America has a long history of fighting against naked aggression by countries or terrorists who either directly attack us or draw us into conflicts by attacking our allies around the world. Cemeteries exist worldwide with the remains of American soldiers who died for this country, believing their sacrifice would ensure our freedoms.

So, how did the 2020 election end with an insurrection at our Capitol? How did a Russian propaganda machine expose the underbelly of so much hatred, division, and vitriol within our country? Was it always there, lying just beneath the surface? Recent polls reveal that perceptions of major events, such as the 2020 election, the pandemic, the protests ignited by the murder of George Floyd, and the January 6th insurrection follow along partisan lines. We are facing a deepening polarization within the United States.

If it continues unabated, we are going to lose something very unique to our country: our distinctive sense of humor—and laughter is a form of freedom. Our ability not to kill one another over our differences, but rather to recognize, appreciate, embrace, and laugh about them, is quintessentially American. If we lose this unique characteristic, we will lose what defines us. No other country in the world was founded the way we were. America was the first nation to codify into a Declaration of Independence the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right.

Do we no longer believe in these things? Do we feel deprived of them? Do we no longer wish to invite people around the world, suffering under severe oppression to join our nation? Do we wish to close our borders, take down the Statue of Liberty, and put her into the Smithsonian Museum as a relic of what our country used to stand for? Because the deepening polarization in America is leading toward only one thing—a civil war. It’s already started. There’s indescribable hatred between family members, to say nothing of how we feel about our neighbors, and the murder rate is increasing back to the high levels of the early 1980s. We’ve begun killing those identified through “othering” with astonishing impunity. Tick-tock, we are running out of time.

If the parameters of what defines a good American can be set by a megalomaniac president, a compromised Congress, and a foreign country that never understood the first thing about real freedoms, we are destined to become the willing executioners of our neighbors and family members. Do we have the capacity or the desire to see our neighbors or family members exterminated simply because of the color of their skin, their culture, their sexual orientation, or because they might need an abortion?

It is far easier to hate those different from ourselves. And killing is also easier than living in peace amongst our differences. But do we really want to live in a country where everyone is the same skin color, religion, or sexual orientation? If that is the case, then along with our unique sense of humor, we can also kiss creativity goodbye. Once a society becomes rigid, the first freedom lost is the freedom to create. Gone will be the American trailblazers of new art forms as well as writers, musicians, and fashion designers.

Loss of constitutional freedoms has already begun, with the reversal of the Supreme Court’s decision of Roe v. Wade. And if the case of Moore v. Harper involving voting limitations is affirmed in the fall, the fabric and tradition of our free and fair elections will forever be altered. So, how does it feel to live in a country where Russian propaganda is actively being utilized to tear our country apart? You know, the country with nuclear weapons pointed at us for decades? I thought we all agreed that Russia had always posed a danger to our nation. Do we no longer agree even on that?

If my father had lived to witness the January 6th insurrection, he would have been devastated by what had happened in his beloved, adopted homeland; he would never have gotten over it. And as for me, despite never feeling like I lived in the America my father loved so much, I was horrified to witness an attempted coup to usurp our tradition of a peaceful transition of power. Donald Trump reached too far with his rapacious hands, and he lost. But after this event, I feel even stronger that America should not be defined as the greatest country in the world, only when comparing it to other nations. I want it to be the greatest country in the world on its own two feet.

It’s taken me my entire life to fully embrace my love for this country, perhaps because I asked too much of it. But my father was right; I never fully realized what a precious concept America was until I saw my fellow Americans trying to destroy it. And as for those Americans on their knees, praying for deliverance from the hatred that has enveloped our nation—stand up! We are the deliverance! We have the power to stop the loss of our freedoms. It’s not going to be easy to reverse the beginning of the end of our country, without a bloody civil war, but we have to try. Are you with me?

Athena M. Kaiman is the author of the fantasy series, DAR & Earth, rooted in accurate historical and scientific facts, with an emphasis on climate change and female empowerment. Ms. Kaiman worked in the male-dominated world of politics, first as a grassroots organizer and ultimately as a press secretary and speechwriter. She hopes to inspire the younger generations, yet to come, to lay bare the blame for their dying world at the feet of the adults who allowed it. She considers herself one of those who allowed it and writing this series is her way of
repaying that debt.

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