I am thankful, in passing, for a lot of things—decent health, relative financial security, bourbon mixed with sweet vermouth, sunset on the South African highveld, NASA, Miles Davis, and baseball. But in my bones, I am profoundly thankful for a few things—my wife, my daughter, my grandchildren, my dog, the aching joy and sadness of the unspeakably miraculous act of being alive, and the theoretical perfectibility of the United States of America.
We live in an era of rising fascism and resurgent racism. White nationalists and leftist cynics both sneer that this is the real America, and there’s no changing a country built on native genocide, black slavery, and private profit. But if it’s hopeless, and this is the natural order of things, why do the nativist racists fight so hard to shove the country in their direction, and why do the rest of us grind on, tooth and nail, to create an America that serves more of its people?
If the true nature of America is the inevitable triumph of predatory capitalism and racial hatred, then struggle is senseless and we might as well beat feet for the Mexican or Canadian borders, or book the next flight to Lagos, Havana, or Auckland.
If this is the actual United States, there’s no sense in even trying. If the true nature of America is the inevitable triumph of predatory capitalism and racial hatred, then struggle is senseless and we might as well beat feet for the Mexican or Canadian borders, or book the next flight to Lagos, Havana, or Auckland.
We fight because, while an America based on justice, decency, and shared sacrifice remains a theory, it’s the only thing that explains the existence of this country at all. Physicists have never been able to measure the stuff they call dark matter. But the theory of its existence is the only thing that explains why the universe exists as it does, countless planets rhythmically circling countless stars in countless galaxies, and not as a collection of dust and space debris chaotically spiraling toward the outer edge of the universe, and oblivion.
The theory of America’s perfectibility is the only thing that explains America itself. In the dog pound of nations, America is the only one that was designed to be a mutt, a mongrel, a mixed breed with a cocked ear and a swagger that the purebreds only wish they could imitate. This country, albeit slowly and often accidentally, is specifically designed to toss scores of different races, religions, origins, and attitudes together in a giant bowl and then raucously brag that this, by God, is what a real salad looks like.
The founders, all white males and mostly slaveowners, laid down a dangerous theory: that all people are created equal, endowed from birth with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At first, of course, it just covered male property owners, and immigrants from northern and western Europe. Several million dead from slavery and war later, the theory became more inclusive.
The unincluded continued to rebel. The theory expanded ever further. It finally became clear that the theory included all people, which is the root of the current neo-fascist backlash. The idea that the founders’ words meant what they said horrifies the chickenhawks and flag pornographers who wrap themselves in the Stars and Stripes while spouting un-American bilge about converting the country into a white ethnostate.
The calculus of converting the theory of a perfectible America into reality has run into this before. It was present, of course, when the Constitution was written declaring slaves to be three-fifths of a white man. In the 1840s, native-born Protestants fighting Catholic immigration from Ireland and Germany formed the Know-Nothing Party, aimed at limiting immigration to northern European protestants. It disintegrated.
The Confederacy, a government based solely on the ownership of human beings on the basis of race, drowned in an ocean of blood. The Klan would remain a force in America for another 80 years. Jim Crow laws lasted another century. The America First movement was pro-fascist and tried to keep America out of World War Two. The German-American Bund was just pro-fascist. Legal segregation’s apartheid was an ordinary part of American life. They all collapsed.
As Grant ground his way toward Richmond and Sherman rumbled through Georgia in 1864, Confederate president Jefferson Davis said, “If the Confederacy falls, there should be written on its tombstone: Died of a Theory.”
The theory was that human beings could own other humans. But he could have just as well been talking about the perfectible America theory, that bent, like Dr. King’s moral arc of the universe, slowly toward justice. That theory, backed by the struggle of millions of Americas, has—eventually—killed most mass racist and totalitarian movements in America.
Of course, America is still often racist, still harbors authoritarians, and still elects both to office. But the theory, the idea, the hope of an America absorbing all comers, amoeba-like, and giving all of them an honest shot at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness will eventually, as it has always done, drive them back into the rancid far corners of American thought.
But not yet. Other sociopaths will follow Trump. Other white nationalists will seize control of what used to be the Republican Party. Other authoritarians will attack minorities and demand law and order. The U.S. Supreme Court will outlaw abortion and will make some of the worst decisions since Dred Scott. Right-wing domestic terrorists, organized or lone wolf, will kill dozens, maybe hundreds, maybe more.
In the end, they will lose, or the United States will cease to exist. The ideal of America can not exist inside a totalitarian society. That idea exists because free women and men, as jaded and tired as they may become, realize that the theory of a far more perfect America will become a reality simply because that’s what the entire American experiment is about.
W.E.B. DuBois wrote that black folk “simply wish to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American.” The theory that drives that wish and the country that delivers it is what we fight for. All of us. And for that, I’m thankful.
St. Louis American