Last week, I watched an angry white mob storm the heart of our nation’s capital in an attempt to subvert the will of millions of voters. These people came armed, not just with weapons, but with an innate sense of entitlement endowed by their skin color, a certainty swimming in their blood that they could livestream what they were doing with no fear of repercussion. I watched in horror and fury as the foundation of our fragile democracy trembled beneath thousands of angry footfalls, unsure if it would hold after the last four tumultuous years.
In the wake of this failed insurrection, I watched dozens of public figures proclaim that we are better than this as a country, that this is not who we are. There were social media posts aplenty making similar pronouncements, such that they became a persistent drumbeat that was impossible to ignore. Unfortunately, these hearty arguments and entreaties were little more than feel good bullshit.
America, this is exactly who we are.
I’m not sure what part of our history these folks are referring to when they make sweeping judgments that we, collectively, are better than whatever terrible event just occurred. The hundreds of years of chattel slavery? The horrors inflicted upon indigenous people, including genocide, land theft, and broken treaties? Jim Crow? Redlining? The War on Drugs? Internment camps during WWII? Women treated as second class citizens? The exclusion of the LGBTQ community? Lynchings?
Stop me when I get to the parts that prove what we’ve always been wasn’t on full display when hundreds of terrorists invaded the Capitol Building the other day.
Listen, I think America is the land of endless promise. It’s something on which the Founding Fathers and I are in complete agreement. The country is at its greatest during the times when we inch closer to its founding promise, the one that says everyone is entitled to a life lived freely and with dignity. But we are not that country all the time. We need to accept that, because lasting change doesn’t occur unless we do. Pretending that we are better than we’ve proven ourselves to be throughout our history is disingenuous and self-defeating. The idea of America is a shining beacon of freedom and equality recognized across the globe. The reality of America is much less hopeful, though not completely hopeless. Therein lives the motivation so many of us feel to make the reality of this country finally live up to its promise.
This country is comprised of millions of people living their lives within its borders. Many of these people are good. But there are also many that aren’t. Thousands of the latter kind were in the nation’s capital the other day, attempting to disenfranchise about 81 million of their countrymen and women. I could go on for a few hundred paragraphs about the kind of deep seated entitlement one must feel — that this country is yours and always has been — in order to do that kind of thing, but that’s not the point of this. The point is to pull us around to a collective mirror and invite us to really look at what we see there: good, bad, hate, love, forgiveness, stubbornness, hope, fear, entitlement, and pain.
This country isn’t just one thing, good or bad. It’s many things. We are the people that stormed the Capitol Building, armed and determined to keep a failed president in office by any means necessary. We are also the people that peacefully protested for Black lives after the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. We can be both, and a million other things, at the same time. What we can’t do is pick and choose the parts that we use to define ourselves. We’ve done that for far too long, and it’s gotten us into the mess we’re experiencing now.
Refusing to reckon with our complicated past is as American as apple pie. We cleave to the good things, holding them up like gleaming, hard won trophies, and forget the rest. But history repeats itself when we refuse to learn from it the first time, or when we refuse to even acknowledge it. That’s where we are right now: relearning lessons we resisted initially. Pretending the actions of these fellow Americans don’t reflect the country that birthed, coddled, and empowered them just continues this unfortunate cycle. We can be better — I truly believe that — but only if we embrace our collective faults and commit to changing them.
Our democracy suffered a real hit this week after years of repeated blows, and it troubles me to know how delicate it is, how unstably it sits atop layers of air and convention, how much of what we understood to be foundational to the health of our way of governing is more akin to a gentlemen’s agreement. I can honestly say the events of last week shook me to my core, but they also infuriated me. This is my country too. I see it clearly, and still love it, for all it could be if only we keep pushing. But I refuse to suffer those that indulge in revisionist history in order to view this country through the rosiest of rose colored glasses.
We are not better than what happens within our borders or on our watch. We are not better than the things we do. But we can be better. That’s what keeps me going.