Crown Thy Good
There was a time when I used to say, in agreement with the great Paul Fussell, that July 4th was the one day we should hold up nothing but praise for the things that make America great. The rest of the year should be given to relentless criticisms of what this country does wrong, and how it can be made to fulfill the promise that made so many of us love it. This year, though, I’m going to break that rule.
It’s not just that it’s become more and more difficult to think of the country called America in anything but the past tense. While it’s true that we have elected a leadership dedicated to isolating and destroying the small handful of genuinely good things about this society, and a president who is the nightmare from America’s id, it would take an awful lot of selective argument to call this unprecedented or anomalous or anything other than the culmination of a path we’ve been walking down an awful long time. It’s not that America has finally destroyed the American dream; it’s that the dream has now become unavailable to a lot more of the people who used to take it for granted.
None of this is to minimize the incredibly complex feelings I have about America. I didn’t have a say in where I was born, and realizing this was a big part of my political awakening. But I also can’t escape my raising. America made me what I am today, for better and for worse. I still have yet to see a country with so much magnificent scenery, such a vast array of people and places finding a way to carve out little lives and create cultural identities in a place whose reputation rests on erasing those differences or reducing them to entries on a ledger. I will never stop loving America as a place, nor will I ever join the petulant voices who insist against all evidence that it is a land devoid of culture or intellect. I have seen too much greatness here to wish it washed away.
But part of the problem with America today is that both sides are involved in a selective whitewashing of our history — both ancient and recent — that is blinding them to the pressing need for a fundamental change in our conception of what this country is and what it should be. From Republicans, the party of reaction and moralism and authoritarianism, this has never been a problem; they are jingoistic and nationalistic to the extreme, and they have always thought that any kind of interrogation of the role America has had and the damage it has done in the world is unpatriotic nonsense. But Democrats all too often fall into the same trap of exceptionalism and, to make things worse, overemphasize the sins of the past while entirely overlooking the evils of the American imperial apparatus today as long as it’s one of their own politicians in the driver’s seat.
This has been one of my biggest frustrations with liberalism as the years have gone on and the Democratic Party has shown itself to be no party of opposition, but rather an enabler of our worst excesses. One doesn’t have too look as far back as even the Vietnam War to see this pattern in action. The invasion of Iraq — the preeminent political disaster of our age — was conceived by conservatives, but it was aided and abetted by almost every Democrat in office; after it became clear to them what we already knew, they tried to pretend they were never for it, but this is a lie. We have their words and their votes, and we can watch and see which way they will move when the winds of war with Syria or Iran start to blow. They still seem incapable of conceiving any action against North Korea other than violent intervention, of the same sort that took place in the 1950s and cost untold innocent lives (under another Democratic administration). They blow off any discussion of our recent interference in Libya and Guatemala, of our blood-soaked dealings with Saudi Arabia, and of our nightmarish war on its behalf against Yemen with shrugs and mumblings about realpolitik, which leads to the suspicion that they don’t really think that killing people is all that bad as long as they’re not the ones being killed.
America may be good in unique ways, but it is not uniquely good. And America may not be the worst country that ever was, but it has done unprecedented harm to the world in the service of its own goals, and that harm has been made worse by the way we have attempted to disguise it as good. We founded this country on slavery, on white supremacy, and on brutal suppression and extermination of the native population; we built our economy on the backs of slaves until we literally had to fight a war to stop it; and we were so fanatical in our embrace of capitalism that we fought endless proxy wars around the globe to prevent weaker foreign countries from achieving self-determination. It is not anti-Americanism or treason to point at the body counts we have left behind in our bloody pursuit of profit and power — millions of black slaves; a million in the Philippines; millions in southeast Asia; a million in Iraq; hundreds of thousands in central and south America — and come to the conclusion that we have a lot to answer for.
We have done things that can never be forgiven, and the only thing we can do is to admit that we have done those things and work hard to never do them again. We have left undone things that we should have done from the beginning, and the only thing we can do is let go of the lunatic egotism that we are inherently unlike every other country and start taking care of the people, both within and outside our borders, who desperately need caring for. If we can ever truly be proud of our country, we must do it by giving up nationalism, capitalism, imperialism, and racism, and embracing America not for what it is or what it has been, but for what we can make it into.