It’s been two years since I woke up to a country I didn’t recognize, and I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with what that means. I suspect that won’t be ending any time soon.
Over the course of this administration, my social media feeds have been peppered with reactions to outrages that were virtually unimaginable (in my bubble) before — an accelerating dash toward authoritarian or even dystopian policies and attitudes: Endorsing political violence. Calling for imprisonment without trial or even evidence. Designating a free press “the enemy of the people”. Caging children.
A common lament I read, from the people who call for resistance, is an insistence that “This is not America”. I understand their impulse; I empathize with it. In my heart I know they are right. But in my bones, I know they are wrong, too. A honest and eyes-open reading of history makes painfully obvious that each of these outrages has a spiritual ancestor in the bloodied story that is this nation. Those unsurprised by the dark turn of the recent past can without effort point to the forebears of the stormy present, the vile seeds of a twisted garden: Violent strike-busting. Lynchings. Trails of tears. Chattel slavery.
Those Americans, for whom the current national paroxysm is different only in that it is out in the open, say to me “This is the America you didn’t see, the America not reflected in stately murals or stirring musicals, the America of the whip and the chain and the rifle. This is America.” And in my shame, I know that they are right. But in my soul, I know they are wrong, too. America is not one or the other; America is not a shining city on a hill or a pit of human malice and ignorance. It is both; it is neither; it is complex; it is intricate and subsuming and overwhelming.
America is a choice.
Like all others, this nation is the sum of human choices. Many are surprisingly distinct and noted, recorded and documented explicitly. Many are unsung and anonymous and cumulative, the innumerable decisions and options and interactions of hundreds of millions of people living lives. The choices we make become the answers we find to the driving questions of nationhood: What do we celebrate, and what do we obscure? Who is worthy of our wrath? Who is deserving of our protection? Whom do we let in? Whom do we drive out? What can we tolerate? And what can we only abjure?
We have been told that there are not two Americas, but one — that whatever divides us is dwarfed by all those things that unite us. This is true … and it is false. America is a giant swirling nation and there is much that binds us, for good or ill; much that makes us one nation. But America is too complex for such thinking. America is divided in two — and there is more than one axis along which it is divided. This is not an evil; it is the reality of any burgeoning collective.
America is a choice, a choice we make this Election Day and every day.
One America looks inward and to the past, trying to recover a society that lives in hazy nostalgic idyll, where everyone who got good things deserved them and where everyone who didn’t, knew their place and accepted it quietly. It is an American where anyone could pull himself up by his bootstraps, as long as he was a he, and white, and, preferably, either well-off or ruthless. It is a nation of rugged individuals who transformed a continent from wilderness to wealth — and an America that didn’t look too closely at the human cost, from whom the land was wrested, on whose back an empire was built. Those who long for this America refuse to see the inequities and injustices. At best, they recognize the sacrifice of those who suffered to make the world today, but who are safely dead, their radical opinions sanded down and sanitized into greeting-card aphorisms. At worst, those seeking this older America draw sharp and impenetrable borders between who is in and who is out, who is to be valued and who is to be feared or abused. It is an America crystallized into an “us” and a “them” — and the thems had best keep out or keep quiet.
The other America is open and expansive. It offers citizenship in ever-widening circles of participation and inclusion. It is a nation not of soil and not of blood but of thought and of ideal — where being American is not a matter of winning the ancestry lottery but is an active state of being. This America recognizes that strength is not measured by how many heads you crack or how many bodies you stand on. Strength is triumph over one’s own inner demons; strength is how many you raise up, not how many you push down. In this America, it is recognized that empathy is strength and tolerance is courage … and acceptance is wisdom. This America is not an atomistic collection of rugged individuals but an interdependent web of human community. It is an America founded not on rigid focus on what divides us but on fluid celebration of what brings us together. In this America the past is not forgotten or painted over or polished to burnish our indulgent sense of self-righteousness. The past in this America is prologue, sung for its triumphs and lamented for its failings, the key to where we are today, embraced so that we may further perfect the union we share.
America is a choice: between isolation and engagement, between privateering profit and the common weal, between cynical exploitation and optimistic community-building. America is a choice between the past and the future, between tribalism and civilization, between fear and hope.
America is a choice. Choose well, America.