Over the past year, the Newport Historical Society has held a series of Civic Conversations on what it means to be an American today. We could have a hell of a talk this week, after armed insurrectionists stormed and breached the US Capitol during a normally routine certification of a presidential election. Some of those individuals invoked their sense of the spirit of 1776, and others seemed to think they were refighting the Civil War.
The commentary has focused, at least in part, on a duality of interpretations of this historic event. We are hearing about the unprecedented nature of the attack, and how it does not represent America, the land of decency, systems of justice, and stately transitions of power. On the flip side, it has been pointed out that outpourings of Civil War resentments, race and caste hostility, conspiracy theories, and a longing for autocracy have in fact been part of our national fabric all along. “This is not us” is contrasted with “this is exactly us.”
The narrative of American exceptionalism – its role as an aspirational place – has been part of our national character since the arrival of the first European colonists, whose arrival also initiated the trail of violence, white supremacy and triumphalist myth-making that is likewise our heritage. We have wrestled with this idea often in our conversations at NHS, with some of us unwilling to give up the idea that America represents something unusual and admirable, and others claiming that this idea is based on a narrative of justice and decency that we have simply never lived up to. I am going to say, emphatically, that both of these things are true. I say this because I believe that the reckoning that we must make with our actual history – what America has been, and done, over the last 400 years – is not incompatible with understanding that we have all the elements in place to be an exceptional place, a nation we can be proud to live in. And that, in fact, the ability to wrestle with both ideas is essential to understanding ourselves today, and to getting the country on a better track.
I will argue that our exceptionalism does not lie in being good, or decent, because we are obviously no more or less so than anyone. It does not lie in having created a democratic system of government that works flawlessly, because well, see this week. It lies, in my opinion, in exactly the thing that is today making many Americans uncomfortable. It lies in the diversity of our population. In our now wavering willingness to take in the world’s tired and poor and make them citizens. In our lack of homogeneity, and our fractured understanding that when we face our differences, or find them irrelevant, we find a way forward. This is our exceptionalism, the source of our greatness in thought, in innovation, in prosperity, and in freedom, despite the obvious, ugly gap at the center that 400 years of hypocrisy about race provides. We should be addressing that gap with urgent enthusiasm, and nurturing the sources of our strength, and not continuing to take actions that support the opposite.
So, in saying all this, I have some hope that this dire moment leads us to a better understanding of ourselves, and helps us to redefine who we are along the lines of our best selves, with recognition of where our worst impulses can lead. When I talk about hope and change, as I have done in our NHS Civic Conversations, I do so from the position that hope is nothing if it does not help us define our next steps. Let’s get to work.