Who Are We?

“That’s not who we are.” It’s a favorite message of political hope sounded by some of our favorite politicians.

To which I can be heard to mutter, “Except sometimes.”

I’m not the only one. Other folks from my side of the aisle have been popping up all over the place insisting “That” is exactly who we are. Meaning racist, misogynistic, predatory assholes. And have been from the beginning.

To which I can be heard to mutter, “Except sometimes.”

Here’s the thing. Telling it like it is, or was, is something we need reminding of if we are to create a more perfect union. But defining ourselves as a nation of assholes is, if you ask me, a losing proposition. Being honest with ourselves as individuals is often necessary but looking in the mirror and singing a heartfelt rendition of You’re No Good is not a recipe for improvement.

Our ancestors drove the native people they found here off their land and, if not into extinction, it wasn’t for lack of trying. (No wonder we’re afraid of illegal immigrants these days.)

We hijacked entire villages of African men and women and brought them here to literally slave for us and then to absolve ourselves of guilt we concocted volumes of material to prove to ourselves that this was ordained by nature and nature’s god, and when slavery was wiped off the books as a legal institution, we decided that the phrase “liberty and justice for all” could not possibly mean “for all.”

Women couldn’t vote from the get-go, and until all too recently it was assumed that we all needed a man – no, literally, needed a man – for such things as credit cards and legal agreements. It’s been a long hard slog out of the cave.

LGBTQ folks didn’t even legally exist.

Our collective heads hang in shame.

But here’s another thing. We don’t celebrate those things. Or if we do, we make up some other reason for the celebration (see Confederate flag/statue contretemps). We say Robert E. Lee was a great general, yay him. We don’t say Robert E. Lee defended the institution of slavery, yay him.

We don’t celebrate our “victory” at Wounded Knee.

We don’t celebrate the Triangle Building Fire or the riots at Stonewall, the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or the imprisonment of Japanese citizens during WWII.

We do celebrate Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, Teddy Roosevelt and National Parks, FDR and the New Deal. Even Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Vietnam War bogeyman of my side of the aisle, remains the hero who sacrificed the solid (Democratic) South for civil and voting rights. We do celebrate the enfranchisement of women and the legalization of same-sex marriage and Roe v. Wade and lots and lots of other time-capsule moments when the better angels of our nature claimed a victory and set the bar a little bit higher.

My point is that recognizing our shortcomings, failures, and outright sins is instructive and morally necessary, but beating ourselves over the head with them is just going to put us back in bed in a fetal position, of no use to anyone.

Remembering that we have also fed the hungry, cared for the sick and visited friends in prison or something similar is much more likely to send us back into the world where there is still work that needs to be done. Where there will always be work that needs to be done.

So maybe the mantra shouldn’t be “That is or is not who we are.” Maybe it should be, “We’ve always believed we could be better than that.” Because sometimes, we are.