Americans love honesty. In the abstract, anyway. Young George Washington could not tell a lie about cutting down his father’s favorite cherry tree (“the story first appeared in an 1806 autobiography of Washington, whose writer admitted that he was just trying to show how our most beloved president’s “unparalleled rise and elevation were due to his Great Virtues.”). “Honest Abe Lincoln” was, well, “notoriously” honest in, well, everything. Americans really liked that about him then and we still do. “Honesty’s the best policy”, we insist. Tell the truth and it will set you free. Hey, even Shakespeare got it. Above all: “to thine own self be true”.
But, as much as Americans talk the talk about honesty, Americans collectively suck when it comes to actually walking honesty’s walk. Especially when we have to be truthful to ourselves. As we stand before the bathroom mirror each day — just us and, well, US — as we look into our own eyes and attempt to take stock of ourselves, that is when we need to be most honest about every last little thing that got us from wherever “there” is in our past to wherever “here” is. Forgetting vital details is one thing; sometimes memories need to be stoked to life like an old furnace. Deliberately refusing to confront them, regardless of why, that’s a sign something’s desperately wrong. America is staring itself in the bathroom mirror and if we can’t be absolutely honest with ourselves (on both sides of the looking glass), we will absolutely plunge off the precipice.
I’m just speaking from experience here. Very long story short: I kept a secret from myself for 45 years. What I mean is, as I stared at myself in every bathroom mirror I ever stood in front of for that whole time, I refused to acknowledge to myself (and for my own benefit!) that when I was 14, I was sexually molested twice by the religious director at the synagogue where my family belonged. Can I tell ya? Doing that made a mess inside my head that came within literal inches of killing me. Not to worry — I got better. Between a great therapist, the right mood stabilizer and copious amounts of smoked THC, I managed to put my darkness at arm’s length, admit to myself that I was the victim of an adult committing a crime against me, not the one responsible for it happening, and begin to create bonds with other people that I had been unable to beforehand because of the secret I was keeping (“if they didn’t know my secret, they couldn’t possibly know me” was how I saw it). Getting mentally healthy was life-changing. The process itself was hard. But worth it!
Something in the American character reflects Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” —
Church Lady is very, very, VERY judgy. What makes her funny however is how bang-on right she is! We get the behaviors that disgust Church Lady. She sees on such a granular level though. And kind of obsessively, too. That’s what makes Church Lady really funny and a great character: she’s the guiltiest of “unchristian” behavior, really, and the least able to see it in herself. Church Lady, like that great swath of racist America, cannot to her own self be true.
If America was really and truly honest with itself, it would admit a few things to itself. For instance — we are not nor have we ever been a “Christian Nation” founded by Christians. Some of the men who took part in founding America were, indeed Christian. Plenty were deists however like Thomas Paine (they believed in a “Supreme Being” but not one defined by any institutional church. They saw “God” in nature and in logic and in democracy. We should also be honest about what the country’s founders did and didn’t do. They did have a great idea — self government where the rule of law dictated everything. However not all great ideas are executed the right way right out of the box. Some great ideas (human flight, for instance) take a long time for us to perfect enough to not die every time we try them. “All men are created equal” has a lot going for it — but it’s not perfect and never was.
For starters, the white, Christian, land-owning men who gathered together to articulate what they thought this new nation should be, started their work from a skewed position. They didn’t mean “all men” though they did mean “only men”. By “men”, the men who founded America meant them. Just them: men who looked, acted, sounded, spoke, prayed and thought just like them. But, at the same time, James Madison encapsulated the American ideal this way on our Great Seal: “E Pluribus Unum” — out of many, one. See how much cleaner that is? How much more inclusive? Nothing about E Pluribus Unum says “but give the white guys all the advantages they can possibly have because otherwise they can’t compete”.
Why did America cut a deal with slavery? Simple: money. Without stealing the labor of every slave who worked a cotton, tobacco or sugar cane plantation, none of those crops would have been nearly as profitable. To this day, you’ll hear arguments from serious people that this justified slavery — how else could the Confederacy have risen without all that free labor (minus the costs of housing, clothing and feeding one’s slaves)? I wonder, would any of those slavery apologists be apologizing for slavery’s “necessary evils” if their families had been in bondage or if their family’s wealth had been taken from them along with their freedom? Puh-leese! Ask a hard question!
It’s like asking a racist if they’re a racist. How the hell would they know? They’re a racist! Racism isn’t in the eye of the racist anyway — same as beauty. It’s in the eye of the beholder — more exactly, in the eye of the racist’s victim. If anyone sees racism in someone’s attack on them, it’s not for any of us to question them, NOT being subjected to the racism. Oh, yeah — this can be messy. But racism is way messier. To fix things of this nature, it doesn’t do to aim for the middle. You aim for the other extreme because it’s the only way you can possibly get tot he middle. We have to see and call out every bit of racism for the time being in order to assure ourselves collectively that we’ve really and truly leveled the playing field for everyone.
That is democracy’s true goal — to get the very best out of everyone by giving everyone the very same opportunities. Consider how much genius America has denied itself simply because our racism refused to educate or nurture certain people. Consider how fearful some Americans have always been about learning anything new! The “Know Nothings” were an actual political movement who were anti-Catholic, Anti-Irish, anti-immigration, populist and xenophobic. This, really, is pure conservatism. It wants to conserve what was — the imperfect version of America the founders put into practice. That is what originalism wants to enshrine in amber and call “America” — our first draft.
Well, fortunately for America, E Pluribus Unum finally overtook “All men are created equal” and that’s what triggered white rage — the fear of losing (or worse, having to share) political power with the rest of America’s citizens.
How do we fix it? Oh, it’s soooooooo simple (yet soooooooo complicated). We walk into a private bathroom. We lock the door. We go to the bathroom mirror and we look at ourselves in it.
And then we cut the shit.