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The Carletonian

Dissecting America, a nation of contradiction

< be an American is to live in contradiction. America, formed in the crucible of lofty ideals and countless horrors, is a nation standing in the gutter forever gazing up at the stars (and you can’t help but wish someone would look down and realize we needn’t stand in this muck any longer!) We are a revolutionary nation tied to the form, the cadence, of our founding documents, yet forever forgetful of the vision they offered (and the limits they enshrined). All Americans are embodied oppositions, beautiful, blended bastards of an ideal yet undealt. We are a nation of immigrants and colonizers, of natives and slaves, of Donald Trump and Maya Angelou. To hold these truths to be self-evident and look around and see reality’s smug, smiling face staring back at you is a maddening feat. It seems that to be American is to indulge in a very particular form of insanity. There is something in the blood of our nation that demands contradiction, that screams it on the national mall in protest and whispers it quietly in the supermarket between bags of frozen peas. It is, as James Baldwin said, “a rich confusion,” but it is confusing, nonetheless. There is something in us that cannot resolve itself.

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

And then, “The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners.” And then, “22 percent of American children live in poverty… 39 percent of black children live in poverty… 35 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty”. And then, “the richest 1 percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.”

It’s madness!

In the past our ideals were grandly aspirational, beautiful in their aspect of hopefulness, but now they stand a profoundly conspicuous reminder of all that has been left undone. Much of the appeal of idealizing the past must come from this. Given all the facts, facing the reality of our ideals is embarrassing, and many crave the old perspective, the old ignorance, because back then the water was untested and everything was more calm and clear. Now, the water is murky for our troubling, and it feels as if America might drown. Of course, many Americans are already drowning and have been doing so for a long time. Many Americans have only known drowning in America.

Despite it all, I’m glad I am American, because every nation has its own problems, but not every nation is equipped to change in order to answer them. We have change in our blood. There is revolution in our founding, and there can be revolution today. We have allowed ourselves to stagnate, to congeal, because we have fallen prey to “comfort, complacency… and our proneness to adjust to injustice.” But, we can change and we must. Like a fish adapted to water, we are adapted to freedom, justice, and equality—we just need to remember we can swim. Our constitution sets us to move about in the fluid world, to react to it, and to progress in it.

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of how our failure as a nation is not that we are no longer something we once were, but that we have failed to live up to the promise “to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated.” “Our only hope,” he said, “lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” If we are to live, we must grow forwards, not recede backwards. Make America Great Again? Until now, we have only dreamed of our greatness. Let’s get busy being born anew, for that transformative capacity is our greatness.

Langston Hughes said it best:

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

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