It’s been many long years since I still fell for the tired old myth of “American exceptionalism.” I’ve learned a lot since then: about the horrors of colonization and the slave trade on which this nation was founded, about our genocidal actions toward Native peoples, our legacy of unjust wars, our irresponsible use of our natural resources, the inefficacy of our economic system, as a means of sustaining human flourishing. Most of the standard rhetoric about “American freedom” and the “home of the brave,” is reducible to state-sponsored propaganda. Most of the infamies we regularly deplore when meted out by other nations we have also meted out ourselves.
Still, until recently I did feel warmly about some aspects of our history and culture. I love our wide open spaces, our rolling hills, our farmland, the simple but majestic architecture of our old barns that have stood for over a hundred years. I am drawn towards the mythos of the tough homesteader, even knowing that the reality of frontier life was often traumatizing and grueling, as well as coincident with the systemic annihilation of Native tribes. I am enthralled by the diversity of our native species, as well as particular domesticated species unique to this land -all the heirloom varieties I grow that were developed by Native growers, the different horse breeds that were developed by brilliant trainers and equestrians to meet the specific needs of farms and ranches, the old-world traditions that took on new form and meaning here – such as the art of California vaqueros, who – unlike their European counterparts – were often non-white and working class.
I can look back with pride on some of my ancestors: my great great grandfather who fought against the slave states; my great great grandmother who dumped kettles of boiling water on slave-catchers under her window; my grandfather who went over to Europe to serve the Allied forces as a medical officer, in the war against fascism; my grandmother who planted her victory gardens and organized charitable efforts in her community. I am proud also of my immigrant ancestors, Jews escaping pogroms in Eastern Europe and forging their new lives in a new world. What the United States meant for them was represented in the words on the Statue of Liberty – it meant welcome, safety, equality, justice.
And in thinking of these and countless others who labored before us, I am ashamed of the United States as it exists today. Not because I think we used to be “great.” No nation in which inequality and racial injustice are so enshrined can ever be great, without first doing great penance. Perhaps what I am seeing now, a culture of hysteria and chaos and conspiracy-theorists run amok, is the logical outcome of our having failed to do such penance. Maybe we are reaping what we sow, as evil breeds stupidity. But without succumbing to the temptation of romanticizing our past, I reserve the right to deplore our present failure to act with decency and morality in the face of a global pandemic.
This Memorial Day weekend we should all be in a state of somber mourning for those whom we have lost. We should be standing together, united in our solidarity, agreeing to take whatever measures we as individuals and communities can, to keep safe the most vulnerable among us. We should be acting creatively in our endeavors to keep the poor from suffering further, to keep businesses afloat, to keep people connected and consoled without compromising the obligations of public health.
How can we even have a pretense at being a land of tough patriots, when people are having meltdowns over the mere prospect of having to wear a mask in public, or staying home for a few weeks? How can we call ourselves a “Christian nation” when, instead of standing in collective mourning for nearly one hundred thousand dead in a pandemic, we are instead gleefully clamoring because “the country is opening up!” – or whining and crying because it isn’t?
Our grandparents lived through the Great Depression, world war, quarantines, lockdowns, and rationing. My father remembered the summers when pools were closed because of the terrible threat of polio. It was understood, by some at least, that in times of crisis, sacrifice is necessary, and that fundamental decency means acting in consideration of our fellow citizens, restraining our own liberties so as not to endanger their lives.
For all our vast moral failures in the past, were we ever, as a culture, this spoiled and undisciplined? This is not a rhetorical question. Maybe, in fact, we were. At least some of us. There have always been the moral heroes and the arbiters of justice, too but too often we ignored them, jailed them, even killed them – then finally embraced their message after they were gone.
It is possible that the massive selfishness, frivolity, greed, and moral indifference that I am witnessing in those who demand that the country open even if it means hundreds more lives lost is nothing new. Possibly I have been sheltered from seeing just how debased our culture truly is, because of my whiteness. But whether this is who we always were, or whether this is a new foray into a new moral degradation – I am ashamed.
And as a Christian, it is hard not to think that we have brought our own judgment upon ourselves.