Hope in a flawed America
Independence Day just felt different to me this year.
I certainly didn’t feel like celebrating. Living in a nation that is so divided, with so many challenges that seem beyond the reach of political leaders and Americans across the country, I found it difficult to celebrate our nation’s 246th birthday.
America seems like a nation that has lost its way, with institutions that seem to be incapable of protecting us or unifying us. I’ve dedicated nearly 40 years of my life to education, and I’m not sure how those of us who teach will be heard by the young, who face a nation so fractured and scarred.
But I know our nation’s history, and I know that we have faced incredible challenges in our past. I also know the history of African Americans and Native Americans and the challenges they have faced– often manifested in horrible violence—before surmounting what lie before them.
Hope is possible. Indeed, it’s necessary.
But it’s not easy to be hopeful right now. Where do we find hope in these times? I’ve asked myself this over the past few months, as each week—sometimes each day—brings us new mass shootings and devastated communities changed forever by this senseless, incessant violence.
We’ve seen evidence emerge that the former president was actively involved in planning a coup to overthrow our democracy. And we have a radicalized Supreme Court issuing decisions that do not reflect the traditions of the court—while echoing the extreme views of a minority of Americans.
There are many—far too many—with voices amplified by the ignorant, who thrive on division and fear. These voices claim that the history of our nation is perfect, or close to it, and that to speak otherwise about America is destructive or—even worse, unpatriotic.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Ironically, this is where I find hope—in the imperfect nature of our nation.
Many nations have come and gone throughout history. Whether they were tiny principalities or massive empires, what eventually led to their demise was their inability to deal with a huge challenge—and an unwillingness on the part of leaders to accept the challenge as one that necessitated change.
To put it simply, the flaws of a nation are what doom them, unless there is an acceptance of those flaws and an ability to learn from them.
Nations are human creations and, much like us as humans, they are flawed. Our nation is flawed, marked by centuries of racism that has led to the brutality of slavery and genocide.
Ending slavery was an historic and magnificent triumph in our nation’s history, but the establishment of Jim Crow segregation in place of the attempt at biracial democracy during Reconstruction was a tragic failure.
Accepting and understanding those pivotal stages in American history is central to understanding the present struggle to overcome its continued racism. Likewise, the genocide of Native nations did not eliminate indigenous peoples from the continent. It was the incredibly difficult work of survival by natives and some allies that have served to help these people survive and emerge as vibrant members of our rainbow nation.
The worst tragedy would be for those who deny our real history to become the dominant voice in the American conversation. For that would mean that we would never acknowledge our guilt for crimes past, present or future. This sort of arrogance would ultimately lead to our decline—and end—as a nation.
Ignorance is dangerous; willful ignorance in pursuit of political gain is destructive. Wisdom demands of us the truth and thus, the opportunity to learn and move our nation and civilization forward to a more humane future.
The choice is ours. Hope is not a feeling. It is a calling to labor for the truth, for justice and for a reckoning of the challenges we face. And make no mistake, the challenges we face will not be dealt with easily. The struggle to overcome will require all of us to leave behind myths and grasp the reality of our circumstances.
Only then can hope flourish – but only if we set ourselves to the work of acknowledging our flaws and thus the chance to grow.
Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.