The real American Experiment

Watching the events of Wednesday, January 6 unfold will forever be one of the defining “shocked” memories of my life as an American citizen. It joins the ranks of 9/11, waking up to the results of the 2016 presidential election, and learning about our country’s practice of putting immigrant children in cages and separating them from their parents.

The way police responded to white rage and the white attack against democracy, as compared to the way they respond(ed) to black rage and black protest against injustice, is infuriating beyond words. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be black in America. I won’t try to articulate more of my thoughts on this; it’s not my place. I need to let black people speak and be the authority I turn to on this. I just want to say that I am grieved, enraged, and shocked at the racial injustice and disparity in police response, and oh so anxious to be part of the effort to fight it and fix it.

I woke up this morning thinking about the phrase “The American Experiment.” It’s the title of an American history textbook and (as far as my knowledge goes) refers mostly to the construction of a then-modern democratic republic (a republic “if you can keep it”, said Jefferson) founded on the belief and guiding principle that “all men were created equal.”

Of course we now know that that guiding principle only extended to men (not women), and even then only to white men.

I don’t think the American Experiment was really about a democratic republic at all. I think the American Experiment was about how long a country can live a lie. How long can a country claim to be a democratic republic, for people of all races and genders, when its founding principles and foundational institutions are all built upon white supremacy and misogyny?

How long can a nation claim to “be about” democracy and freedom, while all its institutions and damn-near half of its politicians (from the beginning to the current Republican party) were actually focused on maintaining authoritarianism and a race-based caste system with whiteness as the head? to fighting against democracy when it results in the diminishing of their power, of the power of whiteness? A country built on a white-ruling caste system will only be democratic while its voters are white; as soon as voters of color come to influence elections (as we saw in 2020, thanks to AMAZING efforts to ensure voting rights and access to more than just white people), such a country will turn to authoritarianism. We saw it in the Civil War, and we saw it January 6. It’s been coming since before 2016.

The democratic principles written in the Declaration of Independence were less a reflection of the truth of American and more a distraction, a constructed curtain behind which the Founding Fathers and those following them could hide their actual work undermining democracy and enslaving, murdering, and oppressing black people.*

The real American Experiment was made so clear yesterday. The real question remaining is: how long will we let our country continue to perpetuate this farce of “equality,” “justice,” and “democracy” while working HARD to support and perpetuate injustice, authoritarianism, and a race-based caste system? How long will we let the GOP and their supporters perpetuate and hide behind their obvious and pathetic lie? The defeat of this lie will entail the end of the America as we know it now. It’s a significant and yet incredibly worthwhile cost. We can build a better, different America where the proclaimed self-evident truths of equality are actually reflected in our principles, our political system, our economic system, and our methods of upholding safety and rights in this country. Where Safety and Happiness for all are made the goal of our government, rather than the ultimate goal continue to be the reinforced power of whiteness and wealth. May it be so.

*Was this written lie self-delusion or intentional? At the moment, I think it was “sincere” self-delusion. The rest of the document seems to imply that they were all so, so focused on separating from England that the huge injustice of slavery didn’t really register. (To their everlasting shame — our history lessons MUST shame them as such, if we have any decency left in us.) If this lie is one of self-delusion, it is a lesson to us all that we should be very, very careful about upholding “sincerity” as an excuse for harmful beliefs and bad behavior. It doesn’t matter what someone believes about themselves and their actions in this realm — what matters is how their actions actually support or undermine democracy, how their actions build up or dismantle the caste system of America where whiteness rules supreme and violence is condoned when the rule of whiteness is threatened.

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