With Due Respect, America, WTF?
I’ve wanted to write this column for months now, years even. I couldn’t get around it until today when Tim Wise’s brilliant opinion piece, Yes, This Is Your America started trending. The power of his message immediately struck me.
It happens every time. Something awful transpires — something that indicates the venality of the nation’s leaders or certain of its people — and we are treated to the same refrain by swaths of the newly-shocked: namely, “This isn’t the America we know.”
Wise goes all the way into deconstructing this claim, taking as examples the planned debacle of the Katrina relief efforts, the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, the George Floyd protests, and last week’s terrorist attack on the Capitol. After a convincing argument that takes us from Reconstruction, through the Civil Rights movement to today, he concludes that this is the America that all non-white people have known since its establishment, the America they still know and fear.
All of which is to say: if you continue to insist that these awful things, which we are forced to endure every few years, are not the America you know, perhaps that is because you do not know her as well as you thought.
There is nothing to argue about his essay. It left me with a single question on my mind:
With due respect, America, what the fuck?
“This is not the America I know,” “this is not my America,” “this is not my president,” all these claims have been tweeted, Instagrammed, and shared since before Donald Trump took his oath of office. As Wise points out, these claims go back decades. They sound nice and read well on social media. They probably earn their authors tons of likes, retweets, and mentions.
However, reducing them to the core argument and applying them to more mundane situations shows their vacuity.
Assume you’ve been sharing a flat with a friend of yours for a few years. One evening, you bring a date back home. It’s their first time at your place, and when they enter your only bathroom, they see it hasn’t been cleaned in months. Do you think telling your date “that’s not me, it’s my flatmate. These are not my cleaning standards, I’m better than this” will do the trick?
Say you’re driving down the street when suddenly, you see a cyclist stumble and fall hard on the pavement. They’re bleeding, shouting for help, as people nearby stare motionless. No one goes to help them. What do you reckon thinking “man, these people are heartless, why don’t they help him?” makes you if you don’t stop and go help yourself?
If you’ve answered “that makes me a hypocrite,” congratulations, you win the chocolate medal for self-awareness.
Now on to the real, fundamental question: what does it say about you?
If you see something occur that you disagree with, have the power to correct the situation positively, and choose to do nothing, you are complicit. You could have cleaned your bathroom if you weren't comfortable with it; you could have stopped your car and helped the cyclist. You didn’t.
A part of you was shocked, moved perhaps. It just wasn’t stimulated enough for you to act. These situations required no bravery, no courage beyond the ordinary call of duty, yet there you stood, motionless, complicit at best, abetting at worst.
What does “this is not my America” even mean anyway? Can we even define what a country is? I’m not talking about the basic definition you can easily google. I’m talking about the deeper meaning of the concept. What makes America America?
It’s not a territory or a set of boundaries. France was invaded and dislocated during WWII, eaten up by Nazi Germany. Part of its government fled while the rest collaborated, but France, the ideal it stands for, survived in London's halls, on the battlefield, and in the hearts of its citizens.
It is not a flag, neither a collection of signs nor some buildings. Those who adore these symbols and imbue them with immanent qualities tend to be those who respect what they stand for the least. Symbols evolve because they must. South Africa change flags when the apartheid regime fell. They adopted a design that would reflect the country's diversity, bringing them all together in the pursuit of a new ideal world.
America isn’t some specific people, whatever some would-be autocrats tell us. Much like the ship of Theseus, the human parts of the American experiment continuously change. Still, America endures, inherited by every new generation and shaped by it.
America isn’t a set of two-hundred-year-old documents either. The law is a continually evolving body of social norms and ideals that must be adapted to capture the zeitgeist. What was illegal a few years ago may not be today.
So if it is not a territory, a flag, the people, or the laws, what is America?
America is the sum of all the actions undertaken by all its citizens at any given moment. These are the only thing we, the rest of the world, and you can judge yourself on.
America is what you make of it.
More importantly, in an elected, representative democracy like yourself, we also judge you on your government's actions. You love your democracy so much you go abroad upending the lives of millions to share it with them, whether they want it or. If you disagree with what I just said, why do you keep electing the same people repeatedly?
I’m not sure you know this, America, but we see you as the school bully. You're the rest of the world’s Dudley.
To the countries who don’t have the chance to own a nuclear arsenal, you’re the abusive husband who tells his wife that if she leaves, she’s ruining the family.
I live in Europe, and we tend to joke about the French and their penchant for striking and protesting at every opportunity. However, we all must give it to the French: they walk the walk. If the government plans on doing something they disagree with, the French take to the streets and protest until they are heard. French people topple governments more often than the CIA in Latin America.
And you know what, America? French people are right.
That’s how you do things when the actions of your government do not reflect your true beliefs. That is what you do when elected officials break promises. You hold them accountable until they deliver, resign, or get fired.
Democracy isn't only happening in the voting booth. We must live it every single day and give it meaning. It relies on constructive debates, civilian involvement in government matters and, when needed, peaceful protests. Covid and social isolation have hurt democracy around the world; that’s certain. When reasonable people stay home, the unreasonable ones who go outside get to occupy the agora and shape the public discourse.
However, in the face of open treason, it is not enough to sit back and claim “this is not my country.” It isn’t enough to state vehemently “I’ll never, ever vote for a republican in my life” or “I’ll vote blue, no matter which, in 2022.” Should none of the white, wealthy people who incited and supported this terrorist plot face legal consequences, it will not be enough to say “it’s not my America.”
Your democracy is under attack, but America isn’t. The former might disappear; the latter is merely evolving. The concept of America belongs to those who shape it, and at the moment, it isn’t the right side that’s doing the doing.