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America: What’s the Real Story?
Arguing over CRT, a complex legal theory that few fully understand on either side of the issue, misses the point of what this ongoing debate is about.
I’m currently sitting in the NICU, watching over my newborn son, who finally graduated off the CPAP machine as his lungs get fully working. Seeing new life come into the world tends to put things in perspective, and I’ve been contemplating the ongoing debate over Critical Race Theory and similar alternative interpretations of American history, American culture, and the American system of government.
As I look at my young son’s sleeping face, it occurs to me that most of this debate is about something far more straightforward than the fine particulars of a mostly vague legal theory or the bullet points of some publication’s historical exercise in looking at a nation’s history through a different lens. What we’re arguing about is what story we choose to tell the rising generations.
While both sides in this debate seem to be coming from entirely different directions, the thought process is quite similar. The shared desire is to impart to the next generation America’s real story and not a propagated fantasy of half-truths and contrived notions. The problem, of course, is that we disagree on which versions of history or perspective of American society is the real story and which one is the fabrication.
The story I was raised with, and the one I’m quite partial to, is that of a noble country whose course was set by patriots who embarked on a journey to establish and maintain a country that provided “liberty and justice for all.” I subscribe to the idea of a perpetual American Revolution, where each generation has propelled the founding vision in a steady march towards “the good society,” a journey that may never be fully accomplished but whose travails and endeavors constantly make for a better society so long as each generation stays the course.
This was the story I saw unfold when, as a young man, I witnessed my country come together in the face of the World Trade Center attacks. My earliest memories are of firefighters unfurling the American flag over the Pentagon, of bipartisan tears as Congress gathered on the Capitol steps and sang “God Bless America,” and the unforgettable moments of solidarity as people of all political beliefs, races, and creeds came together in displays of patriotism in Super Bowl XXXVI and the 2002 Winter Olympics.
But, today, there are many who are telling us that this story is not the real story. There are those who tell us that the American flag is “a symbol of hatred” only flown by those who are “racist” and living in a “different America.” There are those who question the good faith of those who established what I term the founding vision, who assert that “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written,” that the “true founding” of America occurred in 1619 with the first arrival of slaves, and that the actual motivation for fighting the American Revolution was the preservation of the institution of slavery.
There are those who tell us that the founding generation “weaved white supremacy into our founding documents and principles.” There are many who are coming to believe and assert that the entire structure of American society, from our system of government to the fine points of our culture, is shot through with racism at its core, and that no accurate estimation of America as a country can be made without arriving at a conclusion that it is a racist country with a racist legacy whose declared values and principles are a hypocritical smokescreen whose only purpose is to obscure the awful and ugly truth.
So, what is the truth? What story do we teach our children? As I look at my young son sleeping in his crib, can I impart to him the love of country and patriotic zeal that I held as a young man without engaging in some perpetuated generational lie? But if I teach him this new, alternate view, that our country has failed time and time again and is more properly defined by those failures, might I be letting slip a vision that still has value? What do I do? What do we do as a society? What is the truth?
Truth is almost always maddeningly frustrating yet, inexplicably, insufferably simple. Often, the best way to arrive at the truth is to examine whether or not something is a lie. Truths are often held in tension in ways that make deductive reason quite difficult. If we begin from a premise that because one thing is true, everything else must be false, we sometimes miss the broader truth entirely.
For example, when I witnessed a nation rally around the flag and come together after 9/11, was that sense of brotherhood, that patriotic zeal, that sense of oneness that allowed us to pull together and overcome those moments of adversity a lie? It sure didn’t feel like a lie. It sure felt real. And that spirit that bound us together as a country in a time of crisis is the kind of thing the human spirit is made of. How could that be a lie?
But on the other hand, was the generational poverty I witnessed as a young missionary knocking doors in the Bellaire Garden Projects of Cleveland, Ohio a lie? Is the legacy of slavery, felt and experienced by so many who struggle to recognize and share in the American dream, a lie? It sure didn’t feel like a lie. The pain was all too real. The despair I saw in the eyes of parents who had lost hope that their children could find a better life than they had will forever haunt me.
The problem is, what we’re talking about is human truth, and human truth is impossible to find without understanding the duality of man. Individuals can engage in acts of great bravery only to act cowardly moments later. Remarkable selflessness can turn to shocking selfishness in seconds. Neighbors who pull together in times of crisis become backbiting enemies in times of calm. Like every human being ever born, my young son has in him the capacity for good and evil, for greatness and degradation, for living up to his full potential or shrinking into pettiness and hypocrisy.
A nation is no different. If every human being has “sinned, and come short of the glory of God,” surely every nation composed of these frail, imperfect creatures we call humans has fallen short of whatever lofty goals they were established upon. No nation has ever been free of injustice, free of tensions and depravities, or free from the abuses of law or corruption of office and power. How, then, do we judge a nation? Specifically, how do we judge a nation that claims to be established on “liberty and justice for all” that has, at times, fallen far short of that vision?
I don’t have the answer to those important questions, at least not full answers...not answers that everyone will be content with. But what I do know, and what I believe, is that the institutions of government within whose sphere of influence liberty and justice can be strived for are fragile. They’re far more fragile than those such as us who have been gifted them, whose maintenance has yet to require much sacrifice on our part, are often willing to admit.
Too often, I fear, we look about our world and, in seeing injustice, we point the finger at everything and everyone but ourselves. There is no system of government yet known to man that can overcome what humans are willing to do to themselves. And yet, generation after generation, we give in to that age-old temptation to believe that, if only we could pull down the ancien régime and the “injustice inherent in the system,” we could build ourselves a better tomorrow. And, time after time, we discover in the reigns of terror that follow that human weakness and human depravity survive and that, far too often, what has been thwarted in the name of justice were guardrails that steered humanity away from broader injustices.
History’s lesson, often taught yet rarely learned, is that tweaks and adjustments are often far preferable to revolutions that tear societies to pieces. The ashes of institutions and systems burned to the ground are too often mingled with the ashes of the innocent in whose name they were destroyed.
Is America perfect? No. There have truly been far too many times when our country has fallen short of its ideals and creeds. But is American inherently evil? Again, no. Time and time again, our country has risen to the occasion, and its people have not only lived up to its creeds but have expanded the franchise of liberty towards a truer realization than its authors ever dreamed possible.
Could there be a better way than America’s, a path better suited to human thriving than one established on our system of government? Possibly, but history has yet to show me one. For all our failures and all the times we have fallen short of what we claim to be, Americans have overcome these failures, made things right, and proceeded to the next challenge. Freedom has progressed, liberty and justice have marched forward, and the American dream has, with each generation, spread its wings all the wider.
So, what will I teach my son? I will teach him the truth. All sides of it. But I will also teach him hope. I will teach him the story of freedom’s progress. I will teach him to believe in the good of people while being wary of times when people are not good. And similarly, I will teach him to be a patriot, to believe in the good of our country, to honor its symbols, to stand up for its institutions, to champion its creeds and its ideals, and to prepare him for the time when I will pass the torch of liberty from my hands to his and hand over the mantle of responsibility to continue America’s ongoing revolution, but all while teaching him to be acutely aware of the times when our nation has fallen short and to maintain a constant vigil against the rise of such times in his day.
Some will arrive upon the same conclusion I have. Others will not. But I offer this final word of advice:
Beware both the forces of nationalism and nihilism, do your best to avoid the sway both of those who say America can do no wrong and those who say America has done nothing right, challenge those who either deny the tragedies of the past or assert that such tragedies perpetually and unavoidably define us, and, above all else, banish those who seek to divide us, whose doctrines build walls around our hearts and minds, and who make enemies and scapegoats out of fellow citizens instead of seeking the bonds of brotherhood and reconciliation.