Today, millions of US citizens gather to remember those soldiers who died to while serving in the armed forces. More broadly, today is a day when we celebrate our freedoms. When we express thanks about our national greatness. And this idea of American greatness has become a centerpiece of Trump’s vision for this country as he vowed to “Make America Great Again.”
Is our nation truly great? And whose sacrifice has made it great?
Our nation is only the “greatest” nation because we effectively used cheap/free labor to extract this stolen land’s abundant natural resources.
Throughout all of that exploitation, we chalked our greatness up to our faith, our destiny, or our grit and determination.
Now, as we look to the descendants of those exploited…the people of the land, the kidnapped Africans, the exploited migrant labor…we tell them that their struggles are only in the past. We tell them that if they can’t live up to the American Dream, it is their own fault. When they protest or act frustrated, we tell them to calm down or to stop whining.
Meanwhile, exploitation continues. We also forget that the rich are a relative few. We forget that poor whites have also been exploited for their labor. They’ve been pushed out of parcels of land or had their small business gobbled up or squashed.
And these folks are also told that their grief is unfounded, that their rage is impotent.
And, most insidiously, these poor whites who are victims of the same systems of oppression are told to blame their troubles on immigrants, on natives, and on those whose ancestors were kidnapped for enslavement. They are told to blame their troubles on the precarious masses in distant lands who feel the boot of Empire most keenly.
Meanwhile, the ruling classes and their devoted servants tell the immigrants, the natives, and those whose ancestors were kidnapped for enslavement to blame their troubles on poor whites.
All the while, the powerful rest easy on their ill-gotten thrones, mansions resting on a hill of bones.
The pushback to this is almost ALWAYS to point out all the examples of worse groups. Usually the Soviets and the Nazis and a few others.
If the only justification for your convictions or actions is to point at very evil examples and say “at least I’m not like them” then you’ve pretty much admitted that, at the very least, you are in the ballpark of evil.
Some more sophisticated folks will point out how high the tax rates are in other countries that are doing comparably better. As though slavery, genocide, and exploitation aren’t as bad a paying a lot of taxes.
I get it. When it comes to this stuff, nobody remains untouched. This isn’t me arguing for perfection or purity.
Rather, I’m saying: “At least tell the truth.” We can’t work towards greater liberation for all if we can’t tell the truth.
The truth is that any greatness…true greatness that has been achieve on this soil has come from the successes of different people and movements in our society in spite of this nation, rather than because of it.
I’m using the term “nation” in a specific way. Benedict Anderson defines “nation” as a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group. A nation “is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion…regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”
Though we are conditioned to think otherwise, the United States of America isn’t the sum total of the people who live upon this land. There are many communities and histories and identities here. And the identity “American” is one of the least helpful. It is unhelpful because it an imagined identity that make war and exploitation for a misguided sense of the “common good” possible.
Likewise, the land under our feet isn’t called “America.” This land doesn’t have a name, and if it did, I’d respect it as Turtle Island, not as the United States of America.
The best parts of our shared history come in spite of the United States of America. The greatness we experience comes from communities and peoples whose imaginations aren’t entirely ensnared within the myths of the American experiment.
Groups like SNCC and SCLC in the Civil Rights Movement…MLK and Malcom X, Fannie Lou Hamer and Bayard Rustin. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement and their descendants. American Quakerism. The Abolition movement. Woodie Guthrie and the radical folk movement. Blues. Jazz. The Black Panthers. Wendell Berry and the new agrarianism. The American Indian Movement. Stonewall. Standing Rock. Black Lives Matter. These are just a handful of the beloved people and the beloved moments that bring hope to our beleaguered land.
These movements are uniquely American in some ways, but they are in each and every case movements in contrast to the United States of America as a Nation. These movements are rooted in resistance. But, at the same time, they depended upon the reality that good people, good movements, good practices, and good communities exist in this beautiful land.
And so, on this Memorial Day, I remember them. I honor them. And even more, I hope and pray that this generation will see an abundant harvest from the seeds these beloved ones planted throughout the past two hundred years.