the state of us: on Memorial Day

For Memorial Day weekend, a lot of my family gathers at my parents’ home, where cousins swim, yard games are played, and huge meals are prepared by many hands.  This morning, around a table littered with breakfast remnants, the adults sat, forks in hand, unceremoniously sharing a large bowl of watermelon.  It was delicious, so firm as to be almost crunchy, with a depth of sweetness so refreshing I felt my body acknowledge that summer had, in fact, arrived. 

My husband expresses his delight in food with what I call aggressive affirmation.  It is not uncommon for him to throw a napkin, slam his hands on a table, or curse loudly when he tastes something he likes. “Are you kidding me? D#mn!” “Holy Sh?t! Does it get any better than this??” This morning, slapping his napkin, he asked, “How do you always have the best watermelon?”

My parents plant, cultivate and harvest a huge garden with their neighbors (#lifegoals), and they know a thing or two about growth.  “I pick the best because I check the bottom to make sure it’s yellow.  It means it sat in the dirt for a while to ripen. They didn’t pick it too early.  If you find one with a little dried mud on it, even better.”

A national holiday set aside to the idea of remembering seems kind of fabulous to me, and I’d like to explore how our collective discolored bottom can shape American memory.  Memory is a tricky thing. It is not fixed, not remembered in a vacuum, not fair.  A friend of mine cracks me up when her kids come home venting about a teacher in school.  She listens, waits a beat, then says, “I wonder how your teacher would tell this story?”  You see what she did there!  She reminds them their version is not the only, and might even be the least trustworthy one. 

Memories best reflect the past when they are contextualized with other memories.  Postmodern literature gets a bad rap among many Christians and conservatives for “playing with the truth.”  From my perspectives, postmodern thinking is incredibly helpful in getting at the nature of memory.  Single stories do not accurately describe people, just as single storytellers cannot capture the all of an experience.  We need multiple narrators in order to capture all the facets of light.

My sister and her husband arrived this weekend directly from our nation’s capitol.  Having visited the American museum, they were thinking about the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be an American.  Should a few generous white folks who helped free slaves and fund their independent businesses be used to contextualize the terrible cruelty of the government and church sanctioned system of white supremacy and slavery? Yes, I think so.  Should it be given equal weight in a way that diminishes the evil grip slavery had and has on our American psyche? Not a chance. 

Should the fact that Andrew Jackson adopted a Native American child be used to contextualize our understanding of the man who slaughtered natives and forced the Trail of Tears? Yes, I think so.  Should that fact erase or minimize the devastating impact his leadership had on the lives of indigenous Americans? Not a chance.

Many of us are struggling this weekend with the new AG Sessions’ policy that ICE criminally charge any adult who crosses our border illegally, separating their kids from them in the process, sometimes permanently.  I have seen many pleas from heartbroken people who cry, “This cannot be happening in America! This is not who we are.”  These pleas evoke American ideals of compassion and generosity, and try to remind us that we are a people of justice, a beacon of humane morality for the world.  This notion exists because of the tricky nature of memory.  A robust telling of our history would remind us that American land was established, American wealth was created and American power has grown precisely through the forced removal of kids from their parents through the systemic dehumanization of slaves, native peoples, and immigrants. 

I say this as a proud American.  I recognize that acknowledging our history of evil practices is considered unpatriotic; however, I work very hard to seek our entire history, and I feel most patriotic when I acknowledge the good with the bad.  The American ideals of bravery and sacrifice are worth celebrating on Memorial Day.  It is incredible that we could create a government by, for and of the people, established on the principal that we are all equal and worthy of sharing the dream together.  I propose that it is does not diminish that idea in the least for us to admit that we were lying about the implementation then, have struggled to make it true for over 200 years, and probably aren’t getting it right now.  We set the bar really high! This Memorial Day, can we stop pretending we have consistently gotten it right? Can we instead celebrate by remembering and sharing all of our stories, even the tough ones?

It is easy to slice into a fabulous watermelon, slurping the juices down like a kid perched on a picnic table.  It is harder to remember that the sweetest watermelons are formed in the dirt.  This Memorial Day, I remember the good and the bad. I celebrate the fact that so many men in my family were honorable soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines.  But I also need to remember that many of them developed terrible addictions, didn’t get to meet their own kids until they were toddlers, or had wives who sacrificed their parenting partner, going it alone the majority of the time.  When I think about honoring my ancestors, my country, our legacy as Americans, I hope and pray I model their bravery enough to remember all of it.  If the only American History we memorialize is of good guys with guns in their hands, courage in their steps and stars in their eyes, then we forget how easily we can betray the sacrifices they made.  As Bono, of U2 sings, “It’s not a place / This country is to me a thought / That offers grace / For every welcome that is sought…It’s not a place / This is a dream the whole world owns / The pilgrim’s face / It had your heart to call her home...There’s a promise in the heart of every good dream / It’s a call to action, not to fantasy / The end of a dream, the start of what’s real / Let it be unity, let it be community / For refugees like you and me / A country to receive us.” 

Let’s celebrate the real America, ripening in the dirt, not the fantasy that blinds us to the work we need to do to honor the legacies of the best who came before us. Happy Memorial Day.

the danger of exceptional thinking: american arrogance

Exceptionality is central to the American identity, both past and present.  It is foundational to the concept of the American Dream, and it fits nicely, although not without cramming and shoving, alongside the Protestant work ethic (boot straps and all that) we like to prize.  It is, and always has been, important to our domestic and foreign policies, and it is crucial to our idea that we are the most powerful nation on earth.  However, left unchecked, our commitment to our exceptionality not only allows us to succeed where all others surely fail, it demands that we boldly defend our actions and absolve our motives as separate from and better than the rest of the world’s intentions.  In my view, the ideas behind American Exceptionalism are the ideas that prevent us from participating in our global and local societies in constructive ways.  From raising our children to condescend to others, to a stubborn unilateral approach to global conflict, the notion of our exceptionality is ruining America.

Exceptionalism allows us to whitewash our history. 

We come by our commitment to exceptionality honestly.  Christopher Columbus’ journey was meant to expand not only the Empire he represented, but also Christendom.  The church endorsed the colonial endeavor with a blasphemous mix of greed and zeal for evangelism.  The church codified the ideas that the spread of Empire honored God, that the rape, pillaging and killing of native lands and people was perhaps deserved, and that the abused savages were rehabilitated, gratefully, into Christ through the process.  In other words, the myth of the discovery of America was achieved through exceptional (and, importantly, Christian) motives.

Our love affair with exceptionality continued as America survived the Revolutionary War, quickly rising to become a stable economic powerhouse.  We were exceptional as the only formerly colonized space that moved from protest, to military revolt, to stable world power.  These claims of exceptionality of course downplay the help of the French, and completely ignore the fact that our new country would have been crushed by its revolutionary war debt if it weren’t for the money-producing institution of slavery. 

In the last 170 years, evolving notions of American identity are best understood through our exceptionality.  In the mid-19th century, patriots were consumed with ideas of Manifest Destiny; indeed our nation soon spread from coast to coast.  Americans were specifically destined to steal land from Native people, Mexicans and even Cubans in order to fulfill God’s plan for His New Israel.  Add to that growing wealth, brilliant production innovations, and interventions in both World Wars, and you begin to see that America’s identity was founded on the idea that we are exceptional. 

There are many problems with this self-conception, and for the next few weeks I will explore how the notion of exceptionalism dominates habits and policies in parenting, gentrification and the way we think about immigration.  For now, I will close with a few of the dangers in grounding American identity in our exceptionality.

One, it reflects bad historiography.  One can only claim we are exceptional, with all the righteous moral goodness assumed therein, if we ignore historical accounts of our many failures.  Exceptionalism allows us to whitewash our history. 

  •  We endorse a narrative of the genocide and violent displacement of native peoples by saying native leaders and pioneering pilgrims worked together (“While we did steal everything from them, they taught us to plant corn because we were friends.  While Andrew Jackson did force the Trail of Tears, he was fun and spunky and exceptionally nice—he even adopted a little savage into his own home!”).  
  • We endorse a paternalistic view of slavery (“While we did have slaves, we were the good kind of owners and our slaves loved and appreciated us”).
  • We endorse a narrative of wise and heroic military intervention (“We always stepped in to save the world and make it a better place; no need to really explore the fallout of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan”).  

Two, this bad historiography means we struggle to talk about our mistakes, and instead paint everything in a positive light.  This leads to us celebrate Columbus Day and Thanksgiving but bestow no national honor on the millions of Native Americans whose lives and legacies were destroyed by our arrogance.  This leads us to honor Confederate leaders in town squares.  This leads us to attribute the racialized wealth gap to work ethic or laziness instead of to Jim Crow laws, and racist systems, like redlining and the GI Bill.  This leads us both to think we are beacons of freedom and hope in the world while we drastically reduce our number of refugees and build walls.  Our commitment to being exceptional keeps us from learning from our mistakes.

Third, our primary understanding of ourselves as exceptional leads to a weak knowledge of self, and can make us selfish bullies.  If our only understanding of how we function in the world is based on our living out the righteous choices destined for us as exceptionally good Americans, we are beholden only to our own opinions.  We are exceptional, and therefore correct, so we do not need teammates, advisors or multilateral cooperation.  We should look out not for the interests of others, but only of ourselves, because we are exceptional. 

I’m afraid we traded our kindness and nuanced bravery for the stubborn claim that we are exceptional and therefore beyond reproach. 

America loves our origin story.  We love knowing that we succeeded where so many others failed.  That said, America still signifies hope and compassion in some parts of the world (and in our own country).  We are remarkably kind, and brave and willing to work on the idea that a government can exist by and for and of the people.  Even Bono, a great critic of ours, believes that the “idea” of America has the power to lift and unite others for a common good.  However, I’m afraid we have traded our kindness and nuanced bravery for the stubborn claim that we are exceptional and therefore beyond reproach.  This kind of thinking can lead us to think patriotism means never acknowledging our mistakes, and this will destroy our ability to become the country of people we hope we have been and still are. 

Would we lose our essence as Americans if we humbly believed we were a diverse group of people committed to the idea that our wealth and standing in the world have given us a profound opportunity to lead with smart, diplomatic compassion?

The idea of America was born out of two conflicting myths, and understanding them provides context for the fraught times in which we live.  Are we God’s chosen nation, the exceptional country on a hill, shining the light of democracy for all to follow as we lead with compassion, or are we God’s chosen nation, the exceptional country on a hill, better than everyone else and committed to hoarding our wealth and excluding others?  Would we lose our essence as Americans if we instead believed we were a diverse group of people committed to the idea that our wealth and standing in the world have given us a profound opportunity to lead with smart, diplomatic compassion? That each of us is worthy of a vote, and each of us can learn from each other as we correct our missteps in an effort to form a more perfect union?  I invite you to observe the evidence of our idolatrous arrogance, of our obsession with being exceptional.  Think with me about the place exceptionality plays in our collective thinking and acting, and next week I will tackle social concerns from this perspective.