SOMERSET, KY. — “That’s not who we are.” A number of Democratic presidential candidates have joined other national leaders in uttering these words. Presumably they’re meant as a rallying cry for the sane among us, served up to define principles of fairness and justice — the country’s core values.
Actually, it’s not who we are. What we are is the spasm of lies, violence, injustice, and hate that has characterized much of American history, a black blanket of cultural rage that has again settled on the country.
This is not a screed on the American president–though he encourages the mistrust and contempt destabilizing the country–or that Make America Great Again embodies too many of our worst national traits. And it’s not a lament that half the country approves what he’s up to and seems to enjoy the show.
Instead it’s an essay about us, written at a time of apparent full employment, when Krogers are arrayed in a bounty of food and goods, when Fords and Toyotas are flying off of dealer lots, and gasoline costs less in real dollars than it did in the 1970s. It’s prompted by a conversation I had earlier this month with a friend from Chicago, a Chinese immigrant, who told me he and his family have noticed a coarsening of attitudes, a hardened inflexible barrier in their interactions with Americans. Four years ago, when they arrived in America, they felt more welcome. People were friendlier, more accommodating.
My friend said he was nervous about an America he did not recognize. An interesting thought, considering he is an American archetype. My friend is a successful and brilliant engineer. He was born, educated, and employed overseas and chose to come with his family to America. He’s done well and lived well here. Same for his wife and children.
But he was worried because as a boy, he and his family lived through the same kind of coarsening in Chinese society, a cultural revolution a half century ago that was brutal and in some cases deadly to the most successful professional and educated people of that nation.
I told him he ought to be worried. I’m worried, too.
I also told him that with a few exceptions, our 243-year history has been stained by inequity and pain and evil intent aimed at every group that’s ever lived within our borders. America is great at fostering myth, I said. Few are as powerful and enduring as the myth of the benevolent America shining a beacon of hope and a lantern of opportunity on its immigrants, on its own people, and on the other nations of the world.
The reality is quite different. From the very beginning, we arrived on these shores and took everything we wanted from the Native Americans who lived here — land, women, wealth. And since that time, every immigrant that came to the United States has been the subject of torment and attack. Now many members of those same groups are the tormenters.
We’ve been an angry, selfish, perturbed country since the start. We enslaved Africans to build the agrarian economy of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. We terrorized their descendants with a state-sponsored system of apartheid and lynching for 100 more years. We wrongly convicted and mass-incarcerated thousands more black men and women.
After the Civil War we declared a separate genocidal war in the West on indigenous Native American tribes. In that same era, we wiped out most of a Great Plains buffalo herd that once numbered over 60 million animals.
Our largest industrial companies fought union organizers by erecting machine gun nests at the corners of their factories to mow down the very people they employed.
Sixteen thousand coal miners have died in cave-ins and explosions, and 76,000 more died of black lung disease before the country decided to reduce the risks. We turned back a passenger ship loaded with Jews seeking asylum from Nazi-held Europe. We imprisoned Japanese Americans in California internment camps.
We detonated not one, but two atomic bombs that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens in 1945. Then we detonated over 100 nuclear weapons in our own country, on the Nevada desert floor and lied about the hazards to Baby Boom infants from measurable levels of radioactive strontium and cesium in their mothers’ milk. Our National Guard troops killed student activists in the early 1970s. We assassinated our greatest leaders, and wounded others.
We allow insane headline hunters to kill our children in schools. Our theaters and malls and night clubs and outdoor concerts are no longer venues for entertainment. They’ve become shooting galleries . And we are incapable of controlling the weapons that made such murders possible.
Given this record of intolerance and hazard, nobody should be surprised that the American myth of national benevolence is collapsing into a steaming heap of anger, distrust, insecurity, and fear. After so many years of erecting a myth of national goodness, we are disoriented by what’s being so graphically revealed about ourselves.
The question is, what do we do about it? The answer is to be courageous in the face of hate. Be kind and welcoming to strangers, loyal and loving to family and friends. Reach for the best in us and resist the worst. And by all means vote next year to replace a president who is stirring so much of this national anxiety and personal turbulence. Let that be the start of who we really are.
— Keith Schneider