America is Already Great

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast is an amazing production. On paper the idea of a guy sitting in front of a microphone and talking for four hours at a time about history doesn’t sound too enthralling. But his masterful storytelling, reliance on primary sources, and his efforts to contextualize and humanize these events elevates the whole thing. I especially recommend his multi-part series on World War One, “Blueprint for Armageddon”. It’s a great way to spend 24 hours as he gives detailed descriptions of the hellish conditions surrounding the most destructive and pointless conflict in human history.

This week I finally got around to listening to an episode of the podcast that I’d had on my iPhone for months now. “The American Peril” is about American imperialism in the 1890’s and focuses on the Spanish-American war in Cuba and then the occupation of the Philippines. In it, Carlin makes frequent reference to America as a “schizophrenic giant”. On the one hand the country was hungry for expansion, as in this era territorial possessions were seen as key to being considered a major world power. On the other, America had a prominent idealistic strain that reached all the way back to our founding mythology. We broke away from England (the story goes) with the aim of establishing a government of, by, and for the people.

Theodore Roosevelt and his “Rough Riders”

American imperialism was an exercise in reconciling those two narratives. When we annexed smaller nations and peoples overseas we were doing so as a means of “civilizing” them, of letting them partake in the grand experiment that was America. Or at least that’s how the marketing sold it. That thinking still holds strong in many corridors of American power. The Iraqis, after all, were supposed to greet us as liberators in 2003.

Over the past week what started as protests at just two universities (Yale and the University of Missouri) has turned into a wave of actions at campuses across the country. At their root these protests stem from minority student’s feelings of marginalization and discrimination. Many students have cited the events and protests in Ferguson, Mo. and the actions of the #BlackLivesMatter movement as inspiring them. Detractors of both the student actions and #BLM tend to retort by questioning the fundamental assumptions and grievances of the protesters. Minority students haven’t encountered real prejudice, they’ve just been seduced by a victimization culture borne of “political correctness run amok”. The dispute isn’t about whether the specific acts of discrimination occurred, it’s whether they merit a response at all.

These protests and the American impulse towards empire described by Dan Carlin aren’t aberrations. They’re part of the fabric of this country. I would argue that the most fundamentally American trait, the one that has without question been present in this country from its inception, is cognitive dissonance. We’re a country founded by slave-owners who took pains to write the phrase “All men are created equal” into a founding document. There’s no getting away from that fact.

Okay that’s a lie. There totally is. If trying to reconcile these two aspects of American life pains you too much there is no shortage of rhetoric to soothe your troubled mind. This is the sole reason behind Donald Trump’s success in his early bid for the Republican nomination for president. He hasn’t offered policy specifics because he doesn’t need to. What he’s selling at the end of the day is nothing more than the promise that how you feel about America deep down is true. If it feels to you like America is vaguely different from how you remember and not “number one” anymore (whatever that means) then guess what? You’re right. Full stop. And Donald Trump is going to fix it.

I would argue that a huge component of maturing as a citizen in America is encountering the inherent contradictions in this country’s public life and determining how you want to deal with them. For many people, as we’ve seen, one response has been the ideological equivalent of plugging your ears and singing really loud so the image you formed in your head when you were in elementary school doesn’t have to change.

When I see people do this I see a betrayal of the promise this nation holds. Our ability to speak frankly about our country’s shortcomings without fear of censure or punishment from our government is enshrined in the constitution. Our founders realized that the true strength of this country, it’s best days, were still ahead of it. The constitution was made with provisions for amendments because the framers knew that it was an imperfect document, they were not omniscient, and people’s ideas of what constitutes healthy public life would change over time.

I can’t wait for Thanksgiving. For me the holiday has always represented the ability for everyone in the family to gather around the table and shout at each other in the most loving manner. There’s also been reflection on how thankful we should be for what we have and the ability for everyone to gather together and enjoy a meal. At the same time, Thanksgiving also represents the moment when white people showed up in North America and set the groundwork for centuries of systematic oppression of pretty much everyone in the country who wasn’t white.

Not only is it possible to let these two ideas coexist in your brain without committing treason, I would argue being able to reconcile them (and so many others) is essential to participating in American civic life. I regard coming to terms with cognitive dissonance and accepting it as part and parcel of American history as right up there with apple pie, baseball games, and fireworks on the 4th of July. It’s central to our identity. And coming to terms with it and trying every day to lessen its presence in public life is what makes us great.

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