Rather than dismiss it wholesale, I allowed myself to seriously consider Trump’s assertion that teaching kids the actual, factual history of the US would be teaching them to hate their country. I don’t disagree that it might have leave students open to that position if done poorly; but even then, the comprehensive education itself should lead to conditions that would preempt, mollify, or reverse that hatred.
I speak from experience. My education in US History certainly didn’t rise to the level of the 1619 Project, and threaded the unavoidable (then and perhaps still) markers of White supremacy culture through every textbook and every teacher, no matter how well-intentioned they often were. I certainly was taught that Reconstruction was a disaster, that slavery was a Southern thing, that Westward expansion was an uninhabited landscape open to cultivation for all Americans with grit (rather than a drawn out experiment in racial privilege, theft, genocide, and environmental destruction). But I was also taught that Black people were violently deprived of the right to vote even in my older sister’s lifetime; that the Vietnam war was unjust and murderous; that the CIA was forcing their political will on left-leaning countries of Brown-bodied people; that police regularly brutalized peaceful protestors; that women had never been treated equitably.
I can’t identify the source of all these facts, but it certainly wasn’t all in textbooks or even the classroom. My parents, movies, and PBS were all contributors. Regardless, this was My Education, and when other people say they feel angry and betrayed by what they weren’t told, I don’t identify with that. Of course the amount I don’t know is too massive to even get a good look at my little lump of knowledge huddled under its ankle bone, but I learned enough to serve as trail markers to a better, more accurate education when the opportunity was available to me. I was lucky. I knew and know a lot more than a lot of my peers.
And I admit, I kinda thought I hated this country.
I also grew up thinking White people were bad.
But both of those ideas were abstract to the point of being almost meaningless. I *hated* this country, but I never really considered leaving it, and have always felt some smidgen of responsibility to improving it. White people were *bad* but most of the beloved people in my life were White. We are all hypocrites, and the hypocrisy between our personal lives and our belief systems may be the most pervasive example. American Exceptionalism shines nowhere brighter than in our hypocrisy: a country founded on the idea of liberty, whose foundation was literally built by enslaved people on stolen land fertilized with the blood of its murdered natives. Which is why we so desperately need an honest examination of our failures and achievements.
No one ever told me “White people are bad.” No one ever told me I should hate this country. But my spongy, precocious childmind did what we humans are so good at: it looked at the evidence that was given to me, detected a pattern, and drew a conclusion based upon that pattern. Slavery, killing Indians, Civil Rights Movement = White People Suck and The United States Sucks. If I’d had a better education, a more comprehensive, nuanced history of our country, an honest discussion of the crimes we committed, the context of those crimes, and what motivated them (cough*capitalism*cough), where we have improved and where we haven’t, and an open admission of and apology for genocide and slavery, to start with, I don’t think I would have felt fear and disgust every time I saw an American flag, for example. For me, the American flag has always been a symbol American inhumanity. And although I fully understand now that it means something entirely different to other people, perhaps something both noble and personal, I can’t shake that feeling. I hope the flag wavers can understand my position, even if you don’t sympathize.
What I really was, was angry at this country. Because it has so much potential, because it is so beautiful and diverse, because it really does try to balance individual liberty and community protection, because it has grown so much. When a former boss of mine, a man who smothered me with accusations and utter disrespect, asked a friend of mine if I was mad at him I was like, “how can I be mad at someone I loathe? To be mad you have to have expectations of something better.” That is how I actually feel about the US. I don’t hate it: I’m mad at it. I know it can be better. And that’s where a real education should bring students: to the desire to make the country better. If we had been given a real, consistent education, all of us, I have no doubt it would be better, that voter suppression wouldn’t be the center of the Republican party’s platform, that Trump would never have been elected.
We have to stop seeing our country as either Great or Terrible. Binary thinking is another hallmark of White supremacy culture and a useless tool when applied to the complexities of people or nations. The US is both, and other, and has the potential to tip dramatically in either direction. I have never loved the US so much as now that I see our relatively stable, relatively democratic, relatively non-fascist state teetering on the brink of Autocracy and Civil War. But that love will never be unconditional. People who blindly love this country – who think the vague ideas we were founded on are complete, correct, fully implemented and unquestionable – are not working to make it better. Those who have written it off – who have left or stopped voting or become so cynical that they believe a quick acceleration into the abyss is the best solution – are also not working to improve it.
However, blind allegiance is far worse than blind hate. Blind hatred encourages apathy and non-participation in government, which on a massive scale can certainly leave us vulnerable to narcissistic power mongers. But someone who hates the US might still be working to improve conditions within it, seeing the pain it has inflicted. Blind loyalty not only supports unjust, inevitably murderous wars, but on a daily basis it leaves no alternative but to see the people who have not thrived in this paradise as personal failures or, worse, racial or cultural failures. People who believe that the American Dream is real have no choice but to see poor people as lazy, stupid, or content with their squalor. People who refuse to learn how our country methodically implemented racist laws and policies to keep free Black people from achieving parity in education, wealth, and power – too many of which still exist today – have no choice but to view Black people as less intelligent, less ambitious, and less responsible than White people. If they believe the Justice system is just, then people of color must be more aberrant, violent, and criminally minded than Whites, since the percentage of incarcerated POC is so many times higher. And, as we saw during the 2008 recession, people who believe in the infallibility of the US are left with nothing but their own inadequacy to blame when they themselves fall short of expectations, leaving them vulnerable to depression and self-harm.
So no, I do not hate my country. But I don’t think that’s really the point. I’ve somehow circled back around to my last blog post on Clawing. Love isn’t the problem. Love it, like it, loathe it; it seems most important to know it, and to never blindly surrender your precious, loyalty to anything. And if you’re up for improving it, now would probably be a good time to do that, too.