Can we now all agree: America was never great.
Particularly before you live here, America is easy to fall in love with. For one, it’s massive. Romantic notions of San Francisco, New Orleans, and Boston can comfortably co-exist – even though, in practice, they’re as far apart as London, Cairo, and Budapest. For two, well, you know. Because of this sort of thing (writes F. Scott Fitzgerald at the end of Gatsby):
…the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
What did we, the people, do with all that wonder? Some wonderful things, sure. But – oh boy – so much else besides. Those Dutch sailors would soon have seen that “the new world” was already home to a great many people – and, to this day, those people and their descendants pay with their blood for our American dreams.
Countless other men and women, of course, first came to this same land in shackles. To this day, their descendants still live under the weight of a country that oppresses them. In 1955, Rosa Parks (and others before her) fought for the right to sit on an American bus. Today, her brothers and sisters must still entreaty a skeptical nation that their lives matter. Read between the lines of America’s moral ledger and it’s hard to miss a shameful conclusion: we think they matter less.
American’s dogged belief in its own exceptionalism fatefully keeps its wounded soul from healing. Loving a country is not the same as fixing it. Jingoism is a balm not a cure. Flags and guns aren’t worth a dime; it’s who is holding them that counts.
Even if it ever did, the rest of the world surely no longer looks to America for a more enlightened path to follow. But it may, unfortunately, readily discern the many reasons why not: the graceless accumulation of ever-greater wealth; the systemic failure to spread this wealth more equitably; a self-defeating account of the human condition that emphasizes otherness instead of togetherness.
If you live in America for long enough, you’ll realize that all its mainstream politicians will eventually find a way to quote Martin Luther King Jr. All that really changes is the degree to which they either do this sincerely or disingenuously. But too many of MLK’s exhortations fell on too many deaf ears, and still do. In the short-term, a President Trump is one of the gravest and most recent costs of this continuing mistake. A cost that minority groups will disproportionately bear. In the long run – united at last – we all lose.
Perhaps more than any other nation in history, America has the potential to be great. But this potential continues to be unrealized. Instead of congratulating itself for producing a Martin Luther King, America should think more deeply about why it needed to.
Today’s post soundtracked by: