A More Perfect Union

I’ve been thinking a lot about the convergence of history and myth lately. Modern people like to believe we have left myth behind, but that is not true. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, many of us have a whole lot of mythology clanking around in our heads that define us, as individuals and as citizens and as a lot of other things. See, for example, The Myths That Guide Us from 2017 and The Last Hurrah of the Lost Cause from a couple of days ago.

Timothy Egan wrote in today’s New York Times that “No country can last long without a shared narrative.” That may be true, and it’s very possible that a big part of our current divisiveness is that we as a nation have been divided by narrative, and by that I mean narratives that tell us who we are as Americans and what the U.S.A. is supposed to be.

For example, we all may share some part of the history of the Revolutionary War as part of our internal narrative. But it’s striking how much the Right so often falls back on the imagery and symbols of the Revolution, as if they owned them, in support of causes that would baffle the original revolutionaries.

UNITED STATES – APRIL 6: Tea party activist John Oltesvig, of North Carolina, wears a colonial costume with a tri-corner hats as he participates in the rally at the Capitol on Wednesday, April 6, 2012, days before a possible federal government shutdown. (Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Let’s take taxes. The real founders, of course, were not opposed to  taxes, but to taxes without representation. President George Washington himself put on his army uniform and led federalized militia against the big tax revolt of his day, the Whiskey Rebellion, in 1794.

Or let’s take guns. The framers of the Constitution did not write the 2nd Amendment so that Americans could own any damnfool weapon they wanted to be ready to revolt against the U.S. govrnment whenever they got pissed off enough, as gun-rights activists insist. (See Garrett Epps at The Atlantic for background; I don’t have the strength to wade back into gun rights again.) So we see that today’s political Right is using a highly mythologized version of our founding history as part of their internalized narrative about what America is supposed to be, and it’s doing a lot of harm.

When the founders got around to forming a government, including the second one under the current Constitution, they were very careful not to put too much power into the hands of one person but to spread power around among various parts and levels of government. Today, the Right wants all power to flow to Donald Trump, and anyone considered disloyal must be part of the evil “deep state.” That’s more Orwellian than Jeffersonian, my dears.

The Revolution was supposed to be about freedom. But I wrote back in 2005 that the Right had stripped the word freedom of all meaning and rendered it into nothing but a tribal totem. The people who fetishize about freedom are too often the same ones who want to jail protesters, make excuses for police brutality, and approve of putting children in cages at the border. Oh, and let’s not even start on reproductive rights. Freedom for me, but not for thee.

The Revolution was about people shaking off the rule of a distant power so that they could form their own government with their own elected representatives, with some restrictions on that government written into the Bill of Rights. This was the liberty they fought for, not license to do whatever I want whenever I want to do it, and the hell with everyone else.

See also The Pandemic, the Constitution, and Civil Liberties. The notion that mandatory quarantines or mask wearing is government tyranny that Our Forefathers wouldn’t have approved of just doesn’t hold up. And those who are outraged that bars or hair salons are closed to get the damn pandemic under control are not people I personally want to pledge my life, fortune (such as it is) and sacred honor with, to tell you the truth. I would be concerned that on the day we are called to do our utmost for the nation, they’d be getting their nails done. (I do wonder if a lot of the people who think only “sheeple” wear masks are the same ones who adamantly refuse to grasp the concept of herd immunity and vaccinations, but that’s another rant.)

By now most of us are grappling with the fact that much of our national mythology has been all about white people. This is dysfunctional. We will not be a more perfect union until we are a more inclusive union. Timothy Egan’s column begins:

As baffling as it is to find statues of traitors, slaveholders and killers of Union soldiers ensconced in many a prominent square, consider the historical discordance of Custer County, S.D.

The hard beauty of the Black Hills, sacred land to Native Americans, overshadows the county, the main town and the state park, all named for George Armstrong Custer. The hard history was shaped by the slayer of those native people. Custer’s willful trespass into territory promised by treaty to the Sioux set the stage for the last violent encounters between New World and Old.

Just under 20 miles from Custer is Mount Rushmore, which President Trump plans to visit this Fourth of July weekend. A mere seven miles from Custer is the Native American Rushmore — a still unfinished carving of the Oglala Sioux leader Crazy Horse, 641 feet long and 563 feet high.

Here is the American paradox in a grid of stark geology.

As you know, Trump plans to get his picture taken with fireworks over Mount Rushmore in front of a maskless and not socially distanced crowd this weekend, in spite of the real danger of forest fire and coronavirus spread. The President of the Oglala Sioux Nation, Julian Bear Runner, says that the land around Mount Rushmore belongs to the Oglala Sioux by treaty, and that Trump doesn’t have permission to go there, but of course that’s going to be ignored.

We absolutely must stop treating Native Americans as some relic of past history and bring them into full inclusion of the more perfect union, treaties and all.

Today the Disney Plus channel is beginning to stream the musical Hamilton. I got to see it on Broadway a couple of years ago, I think it was; it’s wonderful. Of course, part of the genius of Hamilton is that it claims the story of the Revolution as one belonging to Americans of color just as much as whites. It’s adjusting our founding story to be more inclusive.

Back in 2016, when a casting call for non-white actors went out for the touring company, righties howled in outrage! But the mostly nonwhite cast is part of the deeply embedded message — this belongs to us, too. The only white character, of course, is King George. And that creates all kinds of subliminal messages about the nature of us and them. Who is us? Who isn’t? It’s long past time to clarify that point.

Recently Leslie Odom, who played Aaron Burr in the original cast, spoke about the tension and dissonance in the piece. Most of the historical figures depicted in the musical were slave owners, after all, and yet here were nonwhite actors recreating this bit of history as their story.

It’s really the first question that needs to be asked is, okay, whose history is this? …

… Lin, he started with, he started the conversation of, “Well, this is the history that we’ve all agreed on, right?” Okay, so these are the facts: as you’ve told them to me again and again. Okay, great. The first step is, now we’re going to take them and we’re going to tell the story in our own words. Are you okay with that?

I might ask here, why do we assume the story automatically belongs to white people? Especially white people whose ancestors got here long after the Revolution?

Odom recalls a young woman telling him, “So my friends and I talk about Hamilton a lot. And we feel like this show actually isn’t revolutionary at all. It’s just a bunch of People Of Color standing on the stage telling White people stories. What do you think about that?”

And all I could say to this young girl, this young revolutionary, was: Lin wrote the show that was on his heart to write. There is no doubt in my mind that in some time, someone is going to write the show that makes Hamilton look quaint. I have no doubt in my mind. I hope I live long enough to see that show. I said to her, “It’s your job.”

Someday, maybe we won’t see this bit of history as “white people stories.”

Along those lines, please do see this video of young people, descendants of Frederick Douglass, reading Douglass’s speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” This is part of our heritage. Not just African-American heritage; all American heritage.

I very much hope that we’re living through a lot of last hurrahs, and not just of the Lost Cause. I want to see the end of white supremacy, and the end of conservative Christians being allowed to write policy that favors their religious beliefs over all others; and the end of the notion that ordinary people shouldn’t expect government to do anything for them. It’s our government. That was what the Revolution was about. We can do with it as we want. 

Maybe this is the darkness before the dawn. Let’s hope. But we seriously need to update out national mythology to one that is both a more accurate reflection of real history and that makes us all equally visible and equally valuable. Otherwise our descendants will be refighting the same old wars.

9 thoughts on “A More Perfect Union

  1. I was thinking last night how the Black Lives Matters uproar is really the resolution of USA racism and even the Civil War to some degree. Most of the kids totally get it, and most of the country has moved on from this. It seems really violent and ugly now, but that's to be expected as the country turns a page in history.

    In Jungian terms, all the shadow material is being surfaced and dealt with, instead of hiding underneath everything.

    It's not a perfect resolution, that will take more time. But it began in the 1960s, went underground with the right's rise in the 1980s, and has finally come forward again, in a much stronger form than in Martin Luther King's day. 

    This is what happens when the earth shrinks due to advances in technology. Kids today are more interconnected and are vastly better traveled than my contemporaries, and more and more of them can see that we have way bigger problems to deal with than stupid things like way old white fossils treated black people.

    Here’s a trailer for 2040, a movie that kind of gets at what I’m talking about. We simply have to get through the next decade in the best shape possible, it’s kind of a turning point where the old guard yields to an entirely different kind of human being.

  2. The trouble with identity politics is identity is mostly illusion, and attachment to illusion causes suffering. For instance, race is 19-century pseudo-science.

  3. https://www.foxnews.com/media/erin-perrine-trump-mount-rushmore-iconic-address

     Trump is going to hit it out of the ball park. Stephen Miller has been boning up on his history and channeling the oratorical style of Robert G. Ingersoll. He's telling Trump that this Mount Rushmore speech is going to pluck the chords of patriotism in every American's heart. Bring your tissues!

     If you thought that ramming the ramparts, taking the airports, and the frozen mud of Bastogne was an inspiring patriotic tearjerker, just wait. Gettysburg address, move over!

     Trump is a fucking blight on our country.. He's a draft dodging bag of shit with absolutely no connectedness to the values that make America great. America's greatness is a spiritual value…better understood by watching a Hallmark home for the holidays commerical than some stupid massive erection inducing military display.

    • I discovered that The Hallmark Channel is extremely popular in red state America, much less so in the blue urban areas. I find it great escapism, and often wonder if the actors roll their eyes during breaks.

  4. Truth is seldom found within clean borders with square frames. Life is not a meme. People are complex. Washington and Jefferson were not perfect people, especially under the spotlight of modern mores. Did Jefferson have a loving relationship with Sally Hemmings? John Brown was trying to conduct a war of domestic terrorism against slaveowners.

    Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of trying to draw a firm line and put good guys on one side and bad guys on the other.  In 2020 we're behaving in the real world with the integrity of the writer of an old B&W cowboy movie, using the black hat identifier. 

    I detest Civil War monuments erected to support segregation. Southerners who had greater loyalty to their home state than the United States missed the point that Barbara is making – A More Perfect Union. An endless process, not an end. It falls on us to say, "hate what Trump is doing with…" and argue the deed rather than the person. It helps to say, "We're all Americans with a history of working out our differences – usually. And I don't want a rerun of the Civil War."

    On my fetish issue, big money in politics, there's agreement on the left and right among voters. And just as much bi-partisanship in Congress to keep the gravy train on the rails. That's one we could work together on and who knows what the result of the partnership would be. Respectful disagreement on the things we see differently?

  5. https://www.yahoo.com/gma/kimberly-guilfoyle-donald-trump-jr-girlfriend-tests-positive-022600058.html?.tsrc=notification-brknews

    My, my my…What would Colonel Angus say about wearing a face mask? Maybe if Donny Jr. spends a month on a respirator he might re-evaluate his thinking about the hoax that his father is so fervently trying to expose. It's pretty much a given that Kimberly is going to get kicked to the curb and replaced by a new tart at some point in the future, so maybe now is a good time for Donny to issue her a happy trails to you notification.

    " Adios, bimbo. I've got plans for the future, and you just ain't in them."

  6. Great comments gang!

    I'm not up to speed with the rest of you, so I'll cheat by posting a video from a YT channel I follow.   I think I'm getting a little squirrelly from so much time in lock down. I'm putting in too much screen time these days.

    I'm thinking it wasn't so many years ago when Maha introduced us to "Red State Update" with their video, "Independence Day."  But, those seem like such innocent times now, and a world away.

    One scene that keeps coming back to me is from the viral video of the town hall meeting in Palm Beach.  After a few speakers who were clearly more than a half bubble off plumb, a man in a veteran's cap steps up to scream, "I would die for this country!"  But, alas putting on a mask is too much to ask.  The answer is easy, the giving of his life for his country takes place in the imaginary world that he lives in with his right wing cohort.  The mask is in the real world, and he finds that inconvenient. 

    As I usually say, don't judge a book by its cover.


  7. One of the things we Americans really should know, but many don't, is that the first casualty in our American Revolution wasn't a white man, but one who was part Native American, and part Black.

    His name was Crispus Attucks, and he was killed in The Boston Massacre, on March 5th, 1770.

    Attucks was about 47 years old.

    THAT fact is an important one, imo.

  8. The first time I bought a house was in Massachusetts. My lawyer, in Concord, not far from the Old North Bridge, went over the closing statement with me. One of the many, many items was the Stamp Tax. I was surprised to see it, right there on my late 1970s home purchase paperwork, given its history in the early days of the Revolutionary War. He told me the Stamp Tax was established by the first act of the Massachusetts legislature after independence. It was never about taxation; it was always about taxation without representation.

    The folks in Concord and Lexington also were in favor of gun control even though it was the British sending a force to seize colonial armories that started the war. They had a local militia, established after the British failure to protect colonists during the Seven Years War. Militia members were required to have their pants on and their muskets at the ready on on sixty seconds notice, hence the term Minutemen. Those weren't personal weapons. They were militia weapons. You didn't use them to shoot rabbits.

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