This is how we are observing on this most educational and precarious year. Happy Fourth, everyone. Potato salad!
Today I described the 4th of July to George as “the day in our country when some white people said they owned the place.” I’m going to need to figure out a different way to put that, or at least more nuanced, but that’s where we’re at. The 2-year-old is being raised radicalized. Except it’s not really that radicalized now: the morality of the founding fathers is called into question in a more public and mainstream way than prior.
A new level of understanding has reached the white-centered mainstream, which is exciting. We’re saying it is no longer taboo to say the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, our country’s holy declaration of all the inalienable rights we believe all people are deigned by God, was a massive piece of shit, a slave owner, rapist, and a white supremacist of his time (an “Anglo-Saxonist”).
So many political arguments seem to be about something like women’s rights vs the life of a child, or law and order vs the people’s lives are worthwhile regardless of where they were born. Except, in my opinion, these arguments are really about semantics vs reality. And the real trouble is that two things can be true at once.
For example, it is both true that the language of the Declaration of Independence, taken unto itself and observed as a Platonic document, purely as a set of ideals unsullied by our filthy hands, is a beautiful and a sound foundation of what one could imagine to be an egalitarian form of government (except for that business about the merciless Indian savages).
And, it is also simultaneously true, that intentions basically do not matter if real change is to be made.
I keep thinking about a line from Ta-Nehisi Coate’s book “Between the World and Me”, my emphasis:
“It does not matter that the “intentions” of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, “intend” for you is secondary. Our world is physical. Learn to play defense — ignore the head and keep your eyes on the body. Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the Dream. No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of “personal responsibility” in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility. The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”
Two things can simultaneously be true: Our world can be the absolute best it has been with regards to achieving the somewhat broad goal of global equality for all people. Simultaneously true: we are currently facing a dire crisis of human rights and our human souls.
Reading James Baldwin has made me finally understand that our history has meaning in the present. It is not a purely educational pursuit. It heavily informs who you are and what you are doing with your life. Nurture beats nature, in many situations. To paraphrase Kimberly Jones, a big group of people made an other smaller group of people play 450 rounds of Monopoly where they are not allowed to have money or buy anything on the board, and then the big group expected that smaller group to catch up without any extra help. And denying history’s impact is a great disservice to yourself. We as white people are standing on the shoulders not of giants but of slave owners, rapists, benefactors of nepotism and the concentration of wealth at the top. Not the coolest look. But so is pointless, performative white guilt (and if you’re talking about it, it is pointless and performative).
So… what then? What’s the call to action? I feel like I should have something for you to do. Here are one or two off the top of my head. These are my way of paying carbon credit reparations. And much like global warming, we need the cooperation and deep change of larger systems to truly make impact.
On this Fourth of July, I’m feeling cloudy, melancholy. I’m trying to sit with it. This year I have, for the first time, truly become disillusioned with the American Dream. I always had a sense of irony about it, but hadn’t considered how little old me is part of the system of unfair benefit, as are we all.
I am trying to look at the feelings I am having about this new view from a slight distance, with kindness and without judgment. I’m going to sit outside on this perfect day of 76 degree sunny and breezy Massachusetts seaside weather and listen intently to the birds and trains and cars. I’m going to grill hot dogs and eat watermelon and potato salad. I’m going to feel sad and grateful.