By Clare Maxwell
The reality of the United States is all too often portrayed as a clash of narratives. The south and center of the country stand on one side, rallying behind God, the flag, and the idea that America–the richest country in the world– is also the indubitable gold standard of nations. Meanwhile, the so-called liberals of the coasts, determined to drown individual liberties in vats of hand sanitizer, are in opposition, ready to tear the country down one statue at a time. Cue the talking heads, as they insist on painting the situation as a “culture war,” an inevitable clash between dueling ideologies! It’s a grand smackdown to keep the “other side” from rewriting American history.
It’s strange to see how those howling the loudest about rewriting are often relying on a cherry-picked version of events. For example, the most ardent defenders of Confederate statues are often the first to invoke America’s founding fathers and fly the flag of the original thirteen American colonies who seceded from the British Empire. Yet those rebellious colonists were famous for destroying any emblem of the British crown, once famously melting down a statue of King George III and recasting its lead into 42,008 bullets. Whatever else one may say about the impact of this act, it was clearly a moment where history was made, not a moment where history was revised, reduced or written out.
This has always seemed like such a strange charge to level against a protest movement, the idea that protesters are rewriting history and introducing a new and unheard of narrative into the mainstream. The goal of most protest movements is not to change history, rather it’s to make room in society for stories and facts that have existed for a long time. Does this constitute a change in narrative? Absolutely! A change in identity? Most probably. But a change in history? No. What activists are fighting for is the recognition of historical truth. It is indisputable that Black Americans as a demographic have been either directly abused or passively neglected throughout the country’s entire history . Indeed, the consequences of this dark thread of history are evident through police brutality, through the disproportionate burden that Americans of color carry in the COVID-19 epidemic and through the presidency of an openly authoritarian bigot. The curtain has been pulled back, the emperor is already naked, and the consequences of original sin are being felt. Protestors aren’t responsible for any of these problems, they are merely pointing out the truth as it has been revealed, and giving suggestions for where to go from here.
Antonio Gramsci, the famed Italian Marxist, noted that telling the truth, even arriving at the understanding of truth, is a revolutionary act in and of itself. The U.S. Government thrives on the narrative that Americans are historically defenders of democracy and human rights. Thus, understanding of the depth of the country’s failure to provide equal rights for its citizens is a threat to the legitimacy of that government, and to the identity and status of people who wholeheartedly believe in that great national myth. The struggle is not about one version of events or another, but about whether a complete set of facts will be taken into account when critiquing the character of a nation and the actions of its citizens.
I wade through the everyday morass of this new world, wearing a mask as religiously as if it were a crucifix. I go to demonstrations where activists pass through the crowd with giant bottles of hand sanitizer and protesters reach out their hands as if to receive a sacrament of ethyl alcohol. I hold up a sign that reads “Less guns, more ventilators,” and I firmly believe that I, like the millions of other people across the United States holding signs with similar messages, are preaching a necessary but unwelcome truth. It’s so important. But, if we want to live up to Gramsci and his ideal of telling the truth in order to change society, we ought to keep an eye out for the other side of the story.
The most glaring problems are obvious, the exclusion of Black Americans from full participation in society, the deep denial of a pervasive and deadly disease, a news media that is not only obsessed with scandal and sensation, but that has become itself a creator of salacious gossip and skewed half-truths. There are the less obvious truths and histories here too: there is the story of a country where activism became as much a cultural calling card as it was a political commitment. Where guns became avatars of civil liberty. Where people fight for the right to express themselves as they truly are, but also for the right to never have to explain themselves to anyone. Where effort is expended on control of our own small, individualized worlds, our individualized versions of success, even as we long for an understanding of the questions that plague us all. Most of all, I see people who never really understood that they were characters in the same story coming to terms with interconnectivity.
When we look back on the year 2020, I hope the story that people in my country tell is not one of two competing interpretations of reality that went to war with each other, but rather of a time when reality was laid bare. I hope history curriculums don’t try to render this year in neatly buttoned-up statistics and anecdotes, I hope they write about this point in time in excruciating, messy detail. I hope we all recognize that individual humans, or whole governments, or even mass movements cannot create a narrative so compelling that we end up actually rewriting history. That is a path that will always fail, one way or another. The option we do have is to decide what comes next and stake our identity and culture in a more unified vision of the future, rather than a contested understanding of the past. As Gramsci put it, our “real nature” is determined by the struggle to recognize our full past in order to become what we want to become.
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