There is a curious strain of dialogue that attempts to paint the America of years past as a beacon on a hill which we must aspire to return to. Such comments include the confusingly jingoistic statement made by John Guarco in his recent editorial, where he wrote “America’s history as a nation is inextricably bound to the destiny of mankind.”
Ignoring for a moment that mankind managed to survive without the United States for the vast, vast majority of its history, statements such as “it has been the United States which has served as an arbiter of hope, peace and justice” do not contribute to any meaningful sense of solidarity but rather perform a dangerous erasure both of the atrocities America has either perpetrated or let occur and the discrimination and injustice felt by many of those who live here day in and day out.
It may be worth examining some of the examples cited in that opinion column. While America certainly played a key role in defeating Germany in World War II, we also placed Japanese-American families in internment camps across the Pacific coast. The Marshall Plan helped Western Europe get back on its feet, but the nation providing assistance was built on the destruction and desecration of Native American lands and peoples. The United States may have pushed back against communism during the Cold War, but it is dangerously unwise to ignore the grave consequences of wanton U.S. intervention in, for example, Latin America.
Ours is a nation that still struggles with structural and institutional racism and police brutality, and has contributed in no small part to the climate change that is already wreaking havoc upon the globe. We praise "Hamilton" for casting black and brown actors and actresses, somehow glossing over the fact that “not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play.” We teach the Civil Rights Movement as if it were the most peaceful protest ever undertaken, sweeping under the rug the reality that it took extraordinary pressure and sometimes threats of violence to persuade the U.S. government that treating an entire class of individuals as subhuman may not be the right thing to do. We decry the manners in which countries such as North Korea treat their citizens, while simultaneously turning a blind eye to the unacceptable treatment the people of Palestine receive at the hands of our ally Israel. We love to deride Trump supporters as uninformed rednecks, all the while ignoring the history of radical politics and environmentalism that runs through stereotyped regions such as Appalachia.
This is a country with some of the most advanced research and scholarship in the world, and a country with a public school system that fails its most underserved, underprivileged students. This is a country with an electronics industry in no small part pioneered by the very South Asian individuals now stopped for random checks at every airport. This is a country where a woman will, in all probability, become the president; and it is also a country where such a woman must deal with a buffoon unrepentantly bragging about sexually assaulting women. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and also suspended habeas corpus to indefinitely detain “disloyal” citizens without a trial. Our constitution seeks to codify the notion that all men are created equal; ignoring for a moment the subtle sexism in that statement, it would be remiss not to note that this very same document ratified the Three-Fifths Compromise. We lay claim to being one of the most diverse nations on the planet; and yet so many of those who comprise that “diversity” either came here unwillingly as slaves or landed upon our shores only to find themselves reduced to tokens and stereotypes. This is a country where for far too many the American promise is very much a lie.
It is easy to deride Colin Kaepernick for supposedly disrespecting those who serve in the military; and yet, is it so unreasonable to suppose that someone who cannot interact with a policeman on the road without a fear of getting shot for no reason is reluctant to support the very nation that brought his ancestors here on slave ships? Is it so unreasonable to reserve support for a national anthem whose third verse reads “And no refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave”? How is it correct to, on the one hand, deride “disruptive” or “unreasonable” protests, but on the other hand celebrate the violent revolution and expansion that birthed the United States and made it what it is today? I do not wish to make it seem that I am fully in favor of violent protest that victimizes innocent bystanders; only to suggest that maybe, when we all live in a nation that systematically excludes and mistreats huge swaths of people, the notion of “bystander” may not be so clear as initially thought. To live in the United States is to participate in a system that continually exploits its poorest to satisfy the excesses of its riches, and inasmuch as we inhabit this country, we are complicit in that process.
Ours is a complicated nation, and to paint over the very complexities that define the United States is to do a disservice to the innumerable people who have struggled their entire lives to make the United States of America what it is today. Rhetoric that claims that we have lost sight of some great intuition the Founding Fathers possessed runs dangerously close to the Trumpian notion that America must be made great again. Our goal cannot be to make America what it was, but to make it what it should be. To quote President Obama’s speech from Selma, Alabama in 2015: “What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical?” This question of how we understand ourselves in America, how we stand in relation to what America was, what it is, and what it could be, is the very question we are forced to ask ourselves each and every election. To quote Jay Sullivan’s opinion column from a year ago: “What we have are interventions that can push us forward to more equitable and just realities, but we have to opt-in to those changes despite the pushback in order to reach those futures we imagine.” True progress requires growing out of the sort of Hollywood history that teaches us that we are, were, and always have been The Good Guys and that everyone else is, was, and always will be The Bad Guys.
There is no danger in acknowledging the faults of the United States, nor in acknowledging that sometimes we must choose the lesser of two evils to move our nation closer to where it must be. There is, however, a very clear danger in romanticizing the past and deluding ourselves as to what the challenges we face are. There is danger, very real to those who deal with discrimination on a daily basis, in an inability or refusal to recognize the faults and schisms that have always run through the fiber of our country. If we are to move forward, we must understand where we are now, not where we wish we were.
We owe such an effort not to ourselves, but rather to the innumerable people we will never meet for whom questions that only exist to some of us in theory are in fact painfully real. We owe it to every man, woman and child who has been unjustly shot by the police or victimized by the criminal justice system. We owe it to every person who has ever been on the receiving end of structural racism. We owe it to the contracted and sub-contracted workers who keep this university afloat, for whom questions of minimum wage are more than just numbers on a page. We owe it to our friends and family members who, in virtually every instance, have sacrificed more than we can imagine that we may be in a place to start breaking apart the chains that have held down those who came before. We owe it to all the people whose struggles pass silently through our gaze, who cannot take for granted the resources and realities we use and inhabit without a second thought.
If we are to move forward, we must grapple to the extent that we can with the infinite complexity and millions of unique experiences that make up our nation, and come to terms with a reality that is neither as simple nor as rosy as it ought to be. Turning to some checklist of Great Books and Great Thinkers put together by the very institutions that have legitimized and institutionalized the forces of injustice in our nation reflects both a profoundly narrow understanding of history and a refusal to truly engage with the present on any more than a cursory level.
We can, and we must, do better.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.