Wednesday, November 23, 2016
America and its Greatness
On "Making America Great Again"
What I have found personally surprising and a bit irritating in the last several days is the cognitive dissonance, on the part of both the Left and the Right of the nation's political spectrum, that seems to be coming from all quarters, in the wake of the statements of both proposed Trump staffers and political supporters and hangers-on. The Left seems to be horrified by the US-variations on "Sieg Heil" uttered by Donald Trump's allies and supporters on the Alt Right. The Right seems either willfully ignorant of the implications of these statements or tacitly supporting them. While these utterances have been ugly, I have found myself laughing about them, or perhaps I have been laughing at the reactions to them. In truth, I have been neither surprised by the expressions of vitriol on the extreme Right, nor have I been willing to denounce them as fundamentally un-American. They are as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. This is 'America', and it always has been.
What are "American Values"? Have they ever really existed? Does such a thing even exist? Is it just a figment our our imaginations? Is it the glorified claptrap we see in our favorite Westerns? I don't know about you, but I liked the ones that were much more realistic, whether it was Brando and Malden in 'One-Eyed Jacks' or more modern grim tales like Unforgiven or No Country For Old Men. They always seemed far more realistic than the famous John Wayne fairy tales of a lone white man taming the land, the native peoples, the blacks, the womenfolk, the animals, the elements, and any other thing he might come across. I never once bought these mass hallucinations, where the hero ends the movie, standing silhouetted against the sky as the credits roll, with his wife submissive and passive by his side, his homestead the product of his effort and his alone (perhaps with a little help from the blonde Jesus who never seems to be visible amongst the teeming masses we see on broadcasts today in the region of his birth), without any government handouts, regulations or public agencies to hinder him.
"Making America Great Again"
Let's be clear about one thing. "America" has never been great. It is an experiment. It is a place that is trying to become great. It is an amalgamation of peoples, who all have their origins in the barbarism, oppression and poverty of their collective nations or origins, who believe that this country offers a unique ability to transcend the circumstances of your birth. In the more hidebound societies of the rest of the world, this is a much more difficult undertaking. Nations whose people see and define themselves in historical and ancestral terms have a much more difficult time redefining who and what they are. They can never be made of more peoples than those who were here first. They can never incorporate other words or languages into their lexicon. They can never share beliefs with other people that were not their at their founding.
What is great about 'America', or more precisely, the United States of America, is that, at least in theory, and occasionally in practice, it has shown itself to be a political entity that, perhaps more than any other nation with the possible exception of Germany, can learn from the horrors and mistakes of its past and make at least a halfhearted attempt to make itself a better nation. Germany has arguably done a better job of this, for a variety of reasons, among them that it is generally more homogeneous, and so arriving at a common cultural understanding might be easier as a national exercise. Nevertheless, the German government and the overwhelming majority of its people, seem to have largely made their peace with the horrors of their nation's (and many of their citizens') deeds during the early 20th century and are amongst the planet's most vigorous in avoiding anti-Semitism and stamping it out among its people.
The United States, by comparison, has paid lip service to the evils of the nation's founding, but still fails to fully acknowledge it and take steps to right its historical wrongs. While it does admit that the past includes many wrongs, the U.S mantra of "individual responsibility" means that no one is collectively responsible for the horrors of the mass land theft from genocide perpetrated against the continent's first inhabitants, nor the centuries-long barbarism shown towards people of African descent. The incessant prattling on about the nation's "greatness" makes many of its inhabitants, and not only those of European descent, believe that the nation has its origins in some fabled past, which the darker hordes of the planet have somehow conspired to "steal" from them.
With that in mind, the United States has never been great. Continuing to think it has been is one of our greatest impediments to change and bettering ourselves as a society. People who view the nation's greatest moments as those that are already behind them often find themselves unwilling to accept newcomers, new ideas, or new ways of doing things. Recognizing that we have been horrible and need to do better is the impulse behind almost every improvement that the nation has made. This has been the case with the ending of slavery, women's suffrage, ongoing civil rights struggles, the inclusion of the gay and lesbian community, or the welcoming of religious minorities into the broader fabric of our society.
The truth about this nation, and in my opinion, the only thing that makes it "great", is its ability (at least on paper, and occasionally in practice) to learn from its mistakes, to commit itself not to repeat the horrors of its past, and its ability to define itself as a product of something more than a race of people or a faith. It is ostensibly committed to the idea that a people and a sense of community can be formed from something other than a group of individuals with a common primordial past. It is a place where we have determined ourselves to not be bound by destiny or some hidebound concept of clan, group, or other form of identity. We hold an ideal in front of us (or at least we should) and commit ourselves to achieve it. That ideal is the "more perfect union" of the Constitution's preamble. We have not achieved this union yet, but what is supposed to make us great is our willingness to change and adapt ourselves as we try to get there.
Unwillingness to admit mistakes and learn from them is the biggest danger facing the country, the body politic, and the culture broadly. An inability to say "we are wrong" and to commit to learning from the mistake and not repeating it prevents progress in all areas that require scientific inquiry to address. We can't address human impact on the earth's climate if we refuse to admit it even exists. We can't address issues of sustainability if we believe our concept of the God of Abraham gave the planet to Western Europeans to do as they please and will constantly replenish it for us. And so on, and so on…
Instead of "making America great again", how about committing to simply trying to make America great for once?