The nation has lost its collective mind. White activists yell at black cops, blaming them for systemic racism. A man followed a woman to her home to shame her on video for a road rage middle-finger flip. As a nation, we are giving into our worst impulses, and we feel morally justified in doing so. It’s like we’ve all sucked down an hallucinogenic drug and are believing fully our subjective perceptions of reality.
In writing this, in asking you to read, I am no less deluded than our leaders who feel they have some sway over us, or the white activists in Seattle who are guarding the black activists from the white gaze of oppression.
Patrice Cullors of Black Lives Matter says that the movement is not leaderless, but is rather a movement of leaders. The effect of no leaders has the same impact as having many leaders: disorganization in action and no clear message. And perhaps this is by design—if no one is in charge there is no one to hold responsible. If each person is a defacto leader, they can be easily replaced by another.
None of those on the left who wished to lead from the highest executive office has stepped out. They hang about in a metaphorical green room, having snacks, waiting to be asked to lead. No one is coming for you—Sanders, Warren, Biden—you may as well take your good suit and go home.
On the right it is no better. Trump leads by tweet, which is not leadership but instigation. He says something incendiary and sends social media execs into breathless pearl-clutching hypoxia. The rest of us watch and snicker, try to say something reasonable. Other than Senator Tom Cotton, most on the right are as mute and dumbstruck as those elected leaders on the left.
Media is at war with itself.
Coronavirus era ambulance sirens in New York have been replaced with sirens of another kind, blaring all night, accompanied by fireworks.
Statues are coming down to erase not only our nation’s hard and shameful history but to erase our nation.
Trump goes on TV and lists his accomplishments, but it is not his personal CV we need to hear about, it is our collective one.
America is a great nation, and it is neither racist nor partisan to say so. We have achieved great things, not only for us, but for this world, this despite our flaws.
Instead of incessant self-flagellation, instead of suicidal self-hatred, we need to tell ourselves the story of who we want to be as an American people and as a nation.
What the destroyers don’t understand is that history—American history—is not merely a statement of fact, a regaling of wars fought, battles won and lost, generals who slay, American history is the story we tell ourselves of who we want to be.
Who we want to be are revolutionary upstarts creating a new nation. We want to be great orators who declare that all men are equal bar none. We want to be men and women who escaped the shackles of enslavement and took our freedom back from those who would not give it freely. We want to be children who rose to success despite what our parents could not provide and in spite of their flaws. We want to welcome the world to share in our bounty.
There is much our nation did wrong, most fresh in our minds is the horror of chattel slavery and the forced removal of native people from their lands. These things began prior to the formation of our new nation and were practices we should not have brought with us in 1787 when our greatest legal document was ratified.
That other nations behaved similarly does not absolve us of our sin—because we should have been better, we know that.
We know that we should have been better because that is the story we tell ourselves. We as Americans believe that we should do better—we believe that as a nation we should strive for more equality and more opportunity. We believe we should give more to those who have less, and we should, because there is so much more we can give. We believe this.
Yet hypocrisy is rampant. Shame is our stock in trade, and while one group tries to tear down monuments not just to our shameful past but to our glory, and our social institutions fail, our leaders stick their wet fingers into the air to see which way the wind blows.
Our leaders, on left and right, are fully prepared to watch us burn.
And as the last embers die down and the ash still chokes the air, some opportunistic leader or other will step out of their bunker and try to lay claim to the victories of the winning side.
But I say to you now, if they are not here now, if you cannot hear their voice over the sound of the fireworks, the sirens, the protest shouts, and the cracking of marble on pavement, they are not your leaders, they are not your friends.
One of the greatest American narratives is to stand up for what you believe in fully, despite the odds, without assurance of victory, recognition, or survival. That is a beautiful thing, and I learned it from the history, statesmen, activists, and orators of our nation.
But hear this—know fully what you believe in and fight for it. Know what you believe and why. If you do not know why, if your reasons are rote, recited from memory, then you must question them, lift the label and dig underneath. Figure out why you believe what you believe, and always be ready to question it.
Know that to be American means to stand with full weight on the backs of our forefathers and mothers, sinners and saints though they may be, and to reach out with all our strength with arms fully extended for just a little bit more.