I don’t think it’s a secret that I love living here, that this is my home.
But I cringe when I hear politicians talk about America and greatness. No matter who, and no matter how– whether it’s President Obama describing the things that make America great in a State of the Union, the Trump campaign’s “Make America Great Again” swag, or Hillary Clinton stumping about how America is already great.
I wonder if they really believe what they’re saying, or if they just know that it polls well. I wonder if they’ve ever really thought about it, or researched it, this idea of America being somehow superior among nation-states. I especially wonder about Obama, the black child of a white single mother, and Clinton, the civil rights activist and feminist icon– do they have to train themselves out of looking contemptuous when they spout these phrases?
I mean, surely they know. They have marginalized identities, they are well-educated, they are politically left of center. Surely they can see the opressions and injustices of the past and present– the racial warfare that accompanied the birth of the nation, as transatlantic slave labor created mercantile prosperity and westward expansion was synonymous with Amerindian holocaust; the toxic patriarchal agenda that permeates all levels and ages of American history, erasing the accomplishments of historical women and constraining modern femmefolk to a life of second-class possibilities; the racial, sexual, orientational, and gender-based disparities that have followed US society into the 21st century.
America isn’t great.
It has never been great.
Not for everyone.
In fact, America as a society has only ever served the needs of a small minority of the population. Perhaps it was, or even is, great for them, I wouldn’t know– at no time in history has there been an iteration of the US in which I would be in that minority.
The American Dream– come here, work hard, and by dint of your effort alone become rich and well-respected– is a myth. It’s a convenient fiction perpetuated by the oligarchy, designed to discourage lower-class rebellion in a cultural context where Calvinist predestination remains highly relevant and wealth disparity is stark and endemic.
There have always been a few people living the gilded life while many starve and freeze and even more hustle and graft to support them.
That, to me, doesn’t fit the definition of greatness.
In order to insist on America being great, whether now or in the past, one would have to somehow magically exclude from consideration that the prosperity of the US came through the blood of chattel slaves, over the bodies of slain indigenous people, and in the ruthless industrial consumption of children, elderly widows, and vulnerable immigrants.
In order to insist on America being great, whether now or in the past, one would have to forget that nearly every major liberal victory in its history was a case of America being late to the party, an embarrassing truth in the face of a pervasive narrative about America the great Enlightenment political experiment, especially as the US remains behind the curve today.
In order to insist on America being great, whether now or in the past, one would have to quietly pretend that its status as the sole superpower was somehow more related to its inherent superiority, or at least to the deliberate actions of its leaders, than it is to the confluence of greed, indescriminate slaughter, and simple accident.
America isn’t great. Has never been.
No amount of firecrackers and political rallies could change that.
America could be great someday. Maybe it’s even on the path to greatness now. But ahistorical national pride won’t bridge the gap.
Let’s have bold, critical conversations about the American state instead. Let’s talk, not about how great America is, but about how great it could be if we perservere. Let’s talk about how to make America great, how to honor the promises of the liberal principles and founding narratives we hold dear.
Let’s talk about how to create liberty and justice for all. What it means for Lady Liberty to lift her lamp beside the golden door. What we can do now in order to form a more perfect union. How we can come together, and be one out of many.
All that starts with saying, out loud, in your biggest speech of the year, on your bumper stickers, and in your stump speeches, that America isn’t great– yet. That America continues to fail the poor, the elderly, people of color, immigrants, queer people, women, and the differently-abled. That America cannot be great when there are still children facing hunger, women tasked with preventing their own rapes, communities fighting the extinction of their cultural identity, cities bereft of safe drinking water, families unable to make the best choices for their children, people who don’t have enough of what they need to thrive.
A nation is its people. America won’t be great, can’t be great, until each and every American has the resources and support they need to live a great life.
And on that day, I will fly the flag and be proud to be an American.
Because on that day, America will be great.