“We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the U.S., Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban.” Representative Ilhan Omar
Countries, all of them, have their myths and narratives. They are hard-wired and deeply felt. Like all myths many of them were shaped by the winners of military and political battles.
America’s overarching story begins with brave people crossing a vast ocean to escape religious persecution and to find opportunities freed from the over-lords of society and commerce in the countries they left. As the stories of America unfolded, it became clear this was not a timid group.
Over time, battles and wars were fought, first with the indigenous people and then the colonial powers, to seize and hold land and to escape the British over-lords. The Revolutionary War was crucial and won and its creative aftermath was profound.
It is, of course, human nature to overlook or understate the predatory nature of victories or commercial successes. Winston Churchill, looking back, said of his time as Prime Minister: “For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself.” Churchill was, among other things, a historian.
In America, something remarkable occurred. Among the winners were a few who had superb minds and could write and lead. They were not perfect men, but created the most profound and hopeful set of founding documents in the history of the world. They wrote the future; most importantly the end of human slavery and more generally human subjugation. While the Civil War was still decades away, it was inevitable as was the civil rights movement, one hundred years after Appomattox. Most regrettably, slavery existed, and Americans took way too long to right the wrong.
Knowing imperfection in humanity and in their own lives the Founders aspired to break free—to write a set of statements and rules that would lead to a better nation. Briefly, and incompletely, the documents included the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the conclusion of The Federalist Papers in 1787 and in that same year our Constitution. I must add the Bill of Rights, which was added to the Constitution in 1791.
As with all things human there has been push back. The Founders have been attacked—their imperfections used to criticize their creation. Yet, it is not possible to attack the creators without attacking their creation and ultimately the nation’s stories. It must be remembered that political battles and the trade-offs they always require had to be won for the thirteen states, fundamentally different in many ways, to form a union in the first place.
I use words like myth and stories because when we choose to glorify people and their accomplishments the default position is to edit out the errant moments. Those devoted to America’s story, for example, do not want George Washington or the second founder, Abraham Lincoln, cut down to size.
History, of course, begs to be re-visited. After all, if much of history is at least influenced by the winners, seeds of skepticism are organic. So, reexamine we should.
But, as we read stories of Thomas Jefferson’s slaveholding or Alexander Hamilton’s pride dying in a duel or Franklin Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans, we need to keep at least one thing in mind; the best of us are human and humans are imperfect.
Today America’s overarching story, the one that materializes in speeches, parades, songs and a flag, is being attacked. The creation that guaranteed that a free people could engage in the messy business of governance is said to be wanting. Implicit in these attacks is that there is an alternative, a utopia, if we can just subordinate this or that group of people. Explicit is that our deep division is ammunition; foreign enemies use our unrelenting attacks on each other as a part of sophisticated propaganda machinery.
As those who have internalized America’s narrative are attacked, they of course, counter-attack. This is the state of politics at any time and especially today. Dystopia not utopia comes to mind.
The Left in America sees political opportunity. One of its flawed assumptions is that once people of color (POC) are in the majority a new utopia can be built. They should keep in mind that a large share of POCs came to America or chose to stay here not to cancel its culture but to thrive in it.
The Right, more likely to resist re-visiting history, is schizophrenic. The hero of the moment, to many, Donald Trump, bears no resemblance to the heroes of America’s most creative and constructive moments. At any given moment, in a democratic republic, bridging differences is necessary, hard work, and can only succeed with a modicum of humility and reciprocal good will.
So here we are, in a century that offers artificial intelligence and robots to get things right and to do so quickly. Maybe we should step aside; replace our inadequacies with robots. But then somebody is going to have to write the software.
Utopians all, let me suggest a better way forward. Why don’t we quit screaming at each other and recognize the utter futility of lasting success while digging rhetorical trenches.
Finally, if I had that handy “magic wand” often featured in children’s stories, I would use it on the election process. The foundational stone in America’s cathedral is democracy—a belief in the ultimate wisdom of a majority of the servants, not the over-lords. There is much work to do to make our every two year expression at the polls better informed. Yes, better informed.
In earlier columns I have alluded to the possibility that “rank choice voting” has the potential to improve the outcomes of our election process. And even the staging.
This form of voting, ranked choice voting, is now used in Alaska and Maine and will soon receive a fiery baptism in the Mayoral primaries in New York City. The New York City test will be daunting given the number of candidates, complexities and rivalries and still existing Covid restrictions on political gatherings. Regardless, trial and error and adaptation have always been central to America’s progress. We should pay attention.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.