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‘This is America. … And here, right matters’

In her diary entry for July 15, 1944, Anne Frank wrote words that would harrow and challenge generations not yet born: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”

Less than a month later, “people” would discover Anne and seven other Jews hiding in a secret room. “People” would pack her in a crowded cattle car with only a barrel for a toilet and send her on a three-day journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The following February at Bergen-Belsen, “people” would watch her die of typhus. She was 15 years old.

All of which makes her words deeply troubling. You want them to be true, at times you may even believe them to be true, but at other times you look at the awful things “people” can do, and you wonder if she does not repose in us a faith too large, a faith we do not deserve.

In that regard, the thing Anne Frank said 75 years ago is not unlike the thing Alexander Vindman said on Tuesday. No, that is not to liken his story to hers or to suggest equivalence between them. That would be silly.

But it is to suggest that his words were troubling for much the same reason hers were. They came during his testimony in the House impeachment hearing. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney had asked Vindman, a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, about a passage in his opening statement wherein he assured his worried father — a Soviet immigrant who brought his family here when Vindman was little more than a toddler — that he would not get in trouble for telling the truth, even though that truth brought him into conflict with the president himself.

“Why do you have confidence that you can do that?” asked Maloney.

Said Vindman: “Congressman, because this is America. … And here, right matters.” The audience gave him an ovation.

Small wonder. His words were a veritable balm in Gilead for a nation sickened to its soul by the orgy of lies and alibis that now passes for leadership. And it hardly seemed worth it (indeed, would have been beside the point) to bring up all the times right has not mattered in America, to subpoena the ghosts of genocide, enslavement, exploitation and imprisonment haunting our history and ask them to testify against Vindman’s evocation of national virtue.

Because what he invoked was not America the actual, but America the aspiration — the more perfect union. And give us credit. If it’s true this is a country that has frequently betrayed its noblest ideals, it’s also true this is a country that had noble ideals to betray in the first place. It was to that America, that dream of America, that Vindman referred.

But even it has seen better days. Even the dream of who we are has been ransacked by the president and his defenders, men and women who would rather walk through fire in gasoline-soaked underwear than admit the truth of his malfeasance.

So even the dream of America emerges as some Bizarro World corruption of itself where proof is not proof, wrong is not wrong and bribery is fine so long as it’s only attempted. It becomes an open question what America stands for, what America means.

Then the immigrant soldier speaks with a moral clarity only true belief can confer. “And here,” he says, “right matters.”

Like Anne Frank’s words, his are a burden on your cynicism, a prod against your lassitude. You are not large enough to bear this faith, nor good enough to deserve it, but it moves you just the same.

Maybe because it demands you remember the America you dreamed, the self you dreamed, before Bizarro World came to power. Maybe because it reminds you of who it was both of you were trying to be.