328-foot-long Black Lives Matter sign

Volunteers paint a 328-foot-long Black Lives Matter sign with 25-foot-tall letters on the pavement in front of the State House in Montpelier.

With the cumulative impact of a changing climate, a deadly virus and the uprising of millions of Americans over the injustices of our privileged society, Americans are taking stock. Many are considering, from their quarantine retreats, whether the bedrock principles of American democracy are still alive. Our country’s reason for being was founded on the proposition that all people are created equal, and that our government is of, by and for the people.

President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, at the dedication ceremony for the Civil War burial grounds, put the matter to the nation: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that (our) nation, or any nation so conceived (in liberty and justice) and so dedicated (to equality), can long endure.”

Today, 157 years later, we are still testing. And it would appear we are failing to keep our core principles alive. Our government is of, by and for the corporation and equality is only for the 1%. The mindset of today is clearly at odds with our claim on democratic principles.

If we really believe in the inclusionary, egalitarian democracy our country is based on, then we will need to change our actions to reflect the thinking that created the America we all want to believe in. Rarely has the occasion to make significant strides to improve the lives of our whole population been offered up as starkly as it is today. With the trifecta of pain and suffering from environmental damage to disease and injustices, we have been handed a golden opportunity to make positive changes in our social structure, to re-examine the way we approach economic stability, education, food distribution, caring for others, making a living, raising a family and how to create a more just, inclusive and diverse society.

Civilizations evolve, communities can either deal with course corrections and thrive, or deny the handwriting on the wall and become irrelevant or failed. We are at that juncture now. Has the American experiment failed? Can we manage a system of government that promotes fairness?

The more we oppose the premise of equality, the more we do not walk our talk, the more fragile our democracy becomes.

The pandemic and the heightened awareness of continued police brutality, economic inequalities and failures of governance, have laid bare problems we have swept under the rugs of our culture for generations. We want desperately to not see them. We want only to return to the comfort of business as usual and rule over others, and over the environment. The trick will be to hold on long enough to the painful realizations that these old ways do not serve us, so we can think about them with new eyes.

We need a new narrative, one that weaves together a comprehensive understanding of how a more diverse society can work for the common good. We are in a unique position to keep the best from the quarantine days — the carbon dioxide reductions, the taking care of each other, the getting to know our children and neighbors, integrating home with work and school, growing our own food, having time to reflect.

We know on some level that our bedrock principles are threatened. But are we sufficiently awake, informed and aware to see how pervasive the dis-ease is and how urgent the call to unite in solidarity to rescue our failing democracy and a critically ill planet? Can we believe once again in the proposition that “this nation shall have a new birth of freedom (and justice) and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”

Elizabeth Courtney is an author and environmental consultant. Email her at elizabethcourtneyvt@gmail.com

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