Monday, March 6, 2017

America, the Incredible

For some people, I suppose, the fundamental problem with the idea of "My country, right or wrong," is that it presupposes that one's country can be wrong.

And that's the feeling that I took away from this GQ article about a speech by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson.

That's what America is about. A land of dreams and opportunity—there were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships who worked even longer, even harder, for less. But they, too, had a dream, that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.
Now, I wasn't around when slavery, let alone the trans-Atlantic slave trade, was still practiced in the United States. So I can't really speak to the heart of Secretary Carson's words, which are that an American spirit of optimism was so all-pervading that even after being abducted from their homes and surviving a horrific passage across an ocean to become the literal property of other people, that African slaves understood that they were in a land of boundless opportunity - if not for them, then for their descendants. But suffice it to say that it strikes me as being iffy, at best.

In the end, the issue with this statement isn't it's historical iffiness. After all, there's no way to go back and survey the slave population and ask them if being in a nation so far from home had filled them with a hope for the future that they hadn't possessed beforehand. It's that there are ways of expressing that aspect of American Exceptionalism that won't come across as anywhere near so bizarre, or beholden to an idea that the United States could never do any wrong. The first step to uniting a group of people is speaking to all of them; and doing so in a way that's understood to be speaking to all of them. Speaking of the past in a way that says that, by today's standards, it has nothing to atone for doesn't do that. Not because there are people who are simply so invested in the wrongness of the United States that they demand self-flagellation as the price of their allegiance, but because there's just something... off about the idea that any human institution can somehow manage to completely transcend the failings and missteps of humanity.

Secretary Carson seeks to evoke an image of a perfect America. One that rarely managed any harm even in the worst aspects of its history. One that always projected its promise to everyone, no matter how lowly their station - or the effort expended to keep them there. And it's a nice image. But it can't ring universally true, and so it comes across as partisan. And therein lies the problem.

No comments: