Myths about America obscure its original sins

Marc Thiessen’s recent commentary on America’s greatness is deeply problematic. He conflates American mythology with American history, thus hiding our nation’s ugly past.

The fact that he cannot distinguish fable from fact is at the very core of what is wrong with our country. The fiction of America’s origin story becomes more important than its truth.

Thiessen writes, “America’s greatness lies in the fact that it is the only country in human history built not on blood or soil but on an idea – the idea of human liberty.” This statement is arguable and demands critique.

The founding fathers defined “humanity” in racial terms. Whites were “human” and people of color were not. This denial of Black, brown and indigenous humanity is the original sin of our nation.

The Declaration of Independence was racialized as rights were only given to free white males. The declaration was written in the contextual realities of slaveholding and frontier settlement. Whites were legally given the “right” to trample on the freedoms and liberty of nonwhites.

The wealth of this country was created by the millions of enslaved Black bodies who made cotton king and the industrial North prosper. At the same time, the U.S. waged war against indigenous peoples. The 1830 Indian Removal Act gave states permission to steal native land and forced the natives onto reservations. Conditions on those reservations led to disease, hunger and death; what the United Nations defines as genocide.

Death, destruction and disease in the interest of power and profits are what built our nation. We cannot substitute mythology for history. Nor should we create an ideology that romanticizes and erases the brutality of that history. Because that history created a legacy that shapes the political, economic and social realities of life in the United States today that affects all of us.

When Americans create and accept a mythologized history separated from reality, we do so at our own peril. How can we solve the problems of racism, sexism, misogyny and police violence if we hide beneath the mask of greatness? As if all lives were at liberty from our nation’s inception?

If we separate an idea from its context, reality or practice, we create a falsehood. The application and practice of the idea is what is real; it is what matters. It is what makes the ideal absolute.

If we don’t face our shadowy past, and see how that past shapes our present, how then can we create a future that has a lived practice of human liberty for every citizen? Is it any wonder then that we have a citizenry that is more outraged by those who “disrespect” the symbol of “liberty and justice for all,” the American flag, then they are by the fact that in this year alone, the police used fatal force to kill 1,020 citizens?

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