MADE IN AMERICA
THE TRUTH COULD SET US FREE
Some of us have known for a long time that eventually the rest of the world would catch up with the lies at the core of America’s notion of itself. That we would be found out, exposed. Well, here we are. After decades of selling “democracy” at the point of a gun in other people’s lands, America’s capital city was secured by those same guns in order to ensure the “peaceful” transfer of power. All those guns were likely made in America.
For a moment, watching Trump skulk out of the presidency to the tune of a twenty-one-gun salute that he ordered for himself was too poetic not to enjoy. Then, it fell quickly to the new President Biden to pick up the pieces of a nation in turmoil. Every commentator and pundit, including me, has a long list of what is wrong and a shorter list of how to make it right. So much was wrong before Trump, and four years of Trump and his cabal have made so much that was wrong so much worse.
President Biden has one big immediate advantage going forward – he is not Trump. And for a nation watching its soul die a little more each day amid the pandemic, just having a national leader with a heart that beats and a moral compass that projects empathy and understanding will lift the nation on its own for a little while. To sustain the advantage, President Biden will have to prove that he and his administration can deliver a national plan for confronting the pandemic.
The sad truth is that Americans, lots of them, have done their part to make the nation what it looks like today. I cannot help but remember all those unmasked boobs who shouted about their freedom as they took away mine, all those callous young people who thought “their” party would be just fine and then went home to spread disease and death to loved ones and anyone else who got in their way, and all the people who still don’t want to pay those “essential” workers a living wage after seeing what they did for us every time we made it to the grocery store or put out the trash.
The nation is not done with its turmoil, not by a long shot. The allure of “normal” can be a prescription for a return to normal. However, what was normal to the fortunate can never again be allowed to overwhelm the reality for so many for whom "normal" is defined by poverty, racism, poor education, substandard housing, and limited access to limited healthcare. If you are comfortable with that normal for so many, you are likely to continue to be unmoved by the image of hungry children on your next journey to the spa, country club, or suburban church.
It was easy to be hopeful for a day as a beautifully choreographed presidential inauguration unfolded. New President Biden gave a galvanizing inauguration address, and then immediately set to work undoing the symbols of as much of Trump as he could touch with the stroke of a pen. But, amid the pomp and celebration, here we are again, where we have been so many times before - seeking unity, seeking a moral response, and seeking justice.
Every “renewal,” almost every protest march, and almost every Martin Luther King Day, someone reminds the nation that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”* Now, yet one more time, America is beginning the long journey with that first single step. How come we have to do this over and over again? What about the steps that follow if the journey is ever to be completed? It remains so disheartening that Americans need to take that first step again in the fight for a nation that is finally unchained from the fundamental lies that stain its collective soul.
Some of these lies are old lies, some are as new as yesterday. America is a shining beacon on some hill to some because it has loudly proclaimed itself to be. America is the world’s last best hope to some but only because it has loudly proclaimed itself to be. And Americans have always been ready to indiscriminately kill others for our nation's honor or cause, without ever making the connection between them and us.
While this discussion needs to be about more than systemic racism and racial justice, the homegrown lies about race in America are so profound and so undermine any moral high ground that those lies have to be collectively addressed before addressing any of the other lies will be taken seriously by those who understand the pernicious impact of the lies. When all is said and done, White Americans can only be freed from the burden of the lies by moving far beyond their continued repetition.**
Much will be said in the months ahead about “reckonings” in both the racial context and the accountability context. Racial reckoning has long been a subject of fierce debate in America and now, with pandemic negligence, corruption, and insurrection leading a parade of official misconduct, accountability will need to be reckoned with as well. Centuries of failed racial reckoning can serve as a guide to the difficulty of national reckoning in any context. Lies have been allowed to overshadow history when repeated over and over again, when believing them seems so much easier than confronting them.
While it is hard to define a formula for success, reckoning is not a process; it is an end result. The journey to reckoning is the hard part, with racial reckoning and accountability among the most difficult journeys to complete. While neither may require the full journey of a thousand miles to be achieved, neither will ever be achieved after only one step and a few more to follow.
To escape the past, Americans have to seize the present moment and finally take something more than those first steps on the long journey forward. It would be a good start to simply commit ourselves to the truth.
** See the following two books for insight and understanding: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, One World (2015); Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Begin Again, Crown (2020).