I’ve spent most of my life now studying my country’s history, and in particular the ways it has so consistently, so systemically, failed to live up to its ideals. Those are the ideals that justified its bloody founding, the ideals Americans say make their country exceptional. We are a beacon of liberty in a world of darkness, are we not?
For me, it’s always seemed like basic honesty to be willing to test those claims against the historical reality. No one likes a hypocrite, right? — especially when fundamental principles like freedom and equality are at stake. We wouldn’t want to be like those other places — the places we despise, the places we promise we can never become. The places that proclaim their principles only to traduce them when it’s convenient.
That’s why we study history. And if we have the strength to see, we learn that from its very inception ours has been a deeply flawed democracy. Our past is replete — with genocide, slavery, racism, labor exploitation, misogyny, intolerance, mob rule, lynching, and state-sponsored violence of every sort. Every hero we honor — from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Susan B. Anthony, to Caesar Chavez — was spat on and shat on, by mobs composed of our grandfathers and great grandmothers and great great aunts and uncles and distant kin we’ll never name. Those relatives collected the ashen bones of the prophets and made trophies of the flesh that remained.
Somehow, it’s always supposed to come right. Somehow, we tell ourselves, it’ll work out. This is America, after all. We’ve seen the movie. The bigots are always overcome and the path toward a fuller democracy is always set right.