America, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, is an enigma wrapped in a contradiction.
In the 18th century, we created a framework for one of the most liberal, idealistic political cultures in the world. The Declaration of Independence, in one sense, was intended merely to justify our political divorce from the British monarchy. But it eventually became one the most powerful memes in the history of the world — an intellectual blueprint for freedom, self-determination and individual fulfillment, aka “the pursuit of happiness.”
And yet, this noble endeavor from the beginning was built on a dark foundation of genocide, slavery, and lawlessness, shaping an American character informed by the best of intentions and corrupted by the worst — our fundamental national contradiction. Almost three centuries later, we are still struggling with it.
For the most part, the so-called “long arc” of history, the best of our intentions have prevailed. America remains a vibrant, pragmatic, ingenious preserve of liberal thought and personal liberty. But our dark side is reasserting itself in some disturbing ways.
—As of May 10, there have been 194 “mass” shootings in America, which the Gun Violence Archives defines as a shooting that leaves four or more people dead. That’s more than one a day.
—From California to Times Square over the past week, there has been a rash of brutal, unprovoked attacks on Jewish people, speciously wrapped in the broader cloak of the Israeli-Hamas conflict.
—Louisiana police were captured in a 2019 video, which has just emerged, brutally tasing, cuffing, kicking, and dragging Ronald Greene to his death. They later told the family that he had died in a traffic accident.
—And, of course, the Big Bang of Jan. 6, when we watched in horror as a wave of violence (literal and figurative) overcame the Capitol.
None of this is new, of course. From Columbine to Las Vegas, we’ve seen worse mass shootings than what we’ve witnessed so far this year. George Floyd’s killing was every bit as brutal as Ronald Greene’s. The wave of random violence against Asian-Americans has been revolting and inexplicable. And as bad as Jan. 6 was, it was a shadow of what Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma City in 1995.
What feels different right now is the way we are responding — or not responding — to these incidents. Either we ignore them — “OMG, another shooting, what should we watch on Netflix tonight?” — or we try to explain them away with some convenient narrative. To illustrate this point, I’ll pick on the New York Times, an imperfect but plausible bellwether of contemporary “progressive” thought. Reporting on the uptick of mass shootings in the U.S. recently, the Times attributed the spike to the “despair” people were enduring in the pandemic. I’m not sure how a groundbreaking vaccine developed in record time, extended unemployment benefits and mass adaptation to working at home leads to despair, but maybe I’ve just lost my sense of empathy. And in its coverage of anti-Semitic attacks in New York, where gangs of thugs beat people dining outside in Jewish neighborhoods, the Times described the incidents as “clashing protests” over the Israeli-Hamas conflict.
Welcome to the new death cult in America, where brutal, violent, aberrant behavior is explained away with a wave of sociological armchair analysis.
In this new death cult, we prefer narratives over reality. Gun violence is driven by “despair” brought on by the pandemic, not the more powerful forces of our political and popular culture; Israel is an aggressor against a persecuted minority, not a defender against a terrorist culture that wants to wipe it off the map; and the Jan. 6 insurrection was merely a demonstration of First Amendment rights that went a little too far, not a reflection of the twisted, nativistic cauldron on conspiracy theories percolating on the Internet.
To be charitable, it may be that life has become too complex for us to handle. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.” Or maybe we’ve just succumbed to exhaustion after enduring the Great Recession, Make America Great Again, and the Great Pandemic, all overlaid with the incessant cacophony of the Political-Media Complex.
Whatever the reason, the American character is at an inflection point right now. The cult of death lures us to look away, to respond to complexity with the brutal simplicity of violence and prefabricated narratives and to respond to the most vexing cultural and political challenges with a shrug of “Whatever.” Our true American character, the one that was called forth in 1776 and fortified in 1865 and 1964, calls for us to confront reality fully and fearlessly. Being American is hard. It requires courage, energy and an unrelenting focus on regeneration.
The best way to honor that American ideal is to honor each other. To expect the best from each other. And to “see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.” That’s the cult of life.