America on Fire — A Moral Reckoning Arrives

(Graphic: Brian Covert / Photo: Associated Press)

In the countryside, mountain wildfires rage out of control, destroying all life in their path for hundreds of miles at a time. The daytime skies are covered with layers of ash and smoke, and in the evening are lit up by a luminescent orange-yellow glow. Meanwhile, in the cities, mostly peaceful public protests boil over, igniting some local buildings in ferocious flames. The orange-yellow-tinted nighttime skies, punctuated by police helicopter searchlights, radiate with rage and the heat of history.

The United States of America, in the summer of 2020, has been a nation on fire, both in the country and in the city. At first glance, these rural and urban blazes across many different locations may seem to have little in common. But in fact, they do: centuries of officially sanctioned neglect, abuse and violence in the USA — against nature in the countryside and against human beings in the cities, especially Black lives. And as this year continues on, those two sets of blazes edge closer and closer toward each other, signaling an even worse fate to come that will not easily be extinguished.

The USA’s war on nature, both at home and abroad, over the course of the past few centuries — and especially in the last one, the 20th century — by the U.S. government, military and industry has resulted today in a country that is virtually a cesspool of land, water and air pollution from sea to grimy sea. The guiding principle in American capitalism has always been what I think of as PISS (Profit is Super-Sacred): If a living thing doesn’t produce money, then it isn’t worth keeping alive. And the evidence for that abounds, not least in the 1,300-plus Superfund toxic waste sites scattered around the country today.

And that’s just within the national boundaries of the USA. While the United States makes up only four percent of the world’s population, it stands as one of the most wasteful, polluting societies ever on Planet Earth. Nearly every week now we hear of the latest scientific study concerning the human-caused effects of extreme climate change and global warming, and the U.S. cannot escape blame for its part in making that happen. Is it any wonder that the environmental pollution the USA has spewed upon the rest of the world now comes home to roost in the form of wilderness fires that devour its own national parks and rural areas?

As for the urban areas of America: From the moment the first enslaved Africans were shipped in chains to the North American continent in 1619, the destiny of the United States of America was set — and no, it wasn’t Manifest Destiny. From that moment on, there would never be peace without justice, no calm without destroying the roots of racism and white supremacy. In other words, you cannot go on robbing Black lives of their humanity and dignity forever; at some point, something has to give.

And it’s not like we haven’t been warned about this state of affairs many times over the last 400 years or more. The late Native American activist Dennis Banks of the Anishinabe nation, for one, put it well when he said in an interview not too long ago:

“Mother Earth is gonna be here, will survive. Will survive the nuclear holocaust that she is suffering through right now, will survive the pollution. She’ll survive the contaminants. And Mother Earth will replenish, purify herself over an extended period of time.

“What America, Corporate America, must do now: It must totally abandon its policies and redirect them. Not conquering the Earth, not using the Earth. It should be one of getting along with the Earth. It should be one of harmony. There is a way to use forests for human beings, to build homes. There’s many reforestation programs; that’s what planting and harvesting are about. But when there’s all harvesting and no planting, then Mother Earth will rebel sooner or later, and will refuse to be abused any longer. The abuse which human beings inflict upon Mother Earth will haunt us. And the only way we can change the end result is to make those massive changes now. They have to be dramatic, and they have to be in harmony with the Earth. Not against it.”

And no less an esteemed figure than writer James Baldwin put it this way in his 1963 book, The Fire Next Time, concerning America’s fate in race relations:

“If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfilment of that prophesy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”

Time after time, we see how the ongoing public protests over the killing of unarmed, innocent Black men and women by heavily armed white police officers become violent at the instigation of the police, right-wing white militias and/or agent provocateurs. The level of Black rage is then raised another degree or two higher and the vicious cycle continues. No one wants to see needless loss of human life or property destruction anywhere in the USA, but for white America to continue denying the origins of that Black rage in the first place to let whites off the hook of their guilty crimes of the past.

It is natural, then, to watch the unfolding of these latest fires erupting across the cities and countrysides of America and conclude that some kind of moral reckoning has arrived for the United States. It is a reckoning that is as old as Christopher Columbus or Jamestown, Virginia, yet as new as the latest headlines on your Twitter or Facebook feed. It is the story of the reckoning of America, and how exactly that reckoning will play out in the long run only a prophet can say.

But we can easily see which way the wind is blowing today as it carries the billowing smoke from one of these human-caused hellfires toward another, and we know that somewhere within that smoke is to be found the future of America. The only question remaining is how much loss of human and environmental life it will take before that reckoning comes to pass and things start truly moving in the right direction — and whether the lessons of American history, when the fires finally die down and the smoke clears, will be learned at last.

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