Year in Review: How Patriotism and Revisionist History Shapes America
This piece is part of our 2021 Year in Review, a reflection on the issues and causes that mattered most this year – and the tangible ways you can support before year-end.
2021 opened with images of tear gas wafting over the Capitol steps as the Trump presidency came to a close. With the current Biden administration representing a stark return to normalcy, some proclaim they are once again proud to be an American.
But the pivotal horrors of the Trump years started long before his election. From murderous border enforcement to unaccountable policing, they largely continue to the present day. Americans can’t address oppression without recognizing that we live in the most bellicose country in the world and one of the most unequal, as well. U.S. commandos roam seven out of ten countries on this planet at will. U.S. military action has killed an estimated 20 million people since World War II closed with the vaporization of 200,000 civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This country was the birthplace of the very concept of race and, with it, racial oppression. This oppression — genocide, invasion, and chattel slavery — funded this nation’s railroads, space flights, shopping malls, and attack helicopters. White supremacy is a feature, not a bug, of the American project. We can’t address systemic inequities without taking a hard look at the systems themselves.
Tolerance for social justice initiatives often screeches to a halt at any perceived disrespect towards patriotic symbols. Consider the violent backlash against Colin Kaepernick for having the audacity to protest police murders by kneeling during the National Anthem. When those fighting for liberation reject one of the symbols of the society that furthers their oppression, we are asked to choose: do we identify more with the idea of a nation or those seeking justice within it?
Confronted by historical injustices and contemporary barbarities, we can develop a certain defensive reflex to preserve our national pride. Call it the No True America fallacy. “Perhaps America’s past was unfortunate, but it’s better now.” Or, “maybe it’s still bad right now, but at least the ideals are good.” “Centuries of American white supremacy aren’t what America is really about.” That ethereal, pure, real America recedes smaller and smaller into the horizon. The truth is, that sanitized America’s enlightened ideals were penned by a colonial ruling class enriching itself off of enslavement and human misery. We can’t fight for Black lives today while honoring founders who stole them.
Americans are infamously clueless about other parts of the world. This allows U.S. citizens to remain unaware that more than one out of every three nations in the world is home to an American military base. Or that the last few decades have seen American military “interventions” everywhere from Haiti to Somalia to Libya. On December 14, the Biden administration announced it would enhance its “instruments of national power” in the Indo-Pacific by “reinforcing our strengths so we can keep the peace” in a region on the other side of the globe. And when this country’s adversaries are said to be people of color abroad, communities of color in the United States suffer, as well.