Monday, October 9, 2017

The Things We Do Not Want to Believe

Earlier this year, the former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, made a statement that has stuck with me. 

“People who go along a treasonous path do not know they are on a treasonous path until it is too late.” 

I found it interesting not because of its applicability to treason, but because of its applicability to our own lives and, more specifically, to the current surrealistic nightmare we are in. 

People who go down any path often do not know they are on it until it is too late. 

When you are a kid growing up in this country, you are taught at a very early age about the inherent goodness of these United States of America. Scratch that. The inherent motherfucking unassailable GREATNESS of America.

Every politician - Democrat and Republican - who has ever held any political office repeats the mantra - America is the greatest country in the world. 

You learn how we threw off the yoke of British colonialism and forged the “greatest” country the world has ever seen. 

And in many ways, this is a great country. The freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, the due process protections that prevent the government from tossing you in jail indefinitely without cause, the freedom to make your own way. Not only that, but perhaps in a world of nation-states as we are in, it’s important to believe that. A country’s survival may depend on its citizens believing that. 

But there’s a dark undercurrent to believing in your country’s unmatched greatness, in refusing to understand its complete history and not just the one you learned in the second grade. Personally, I spent most of my childhood believing that "Indians" were bloodthirsty subhumans who deserved to be slaughtered by the brave newcomers to the continent. Slavery was bad, the textbooks said, but slaves were often treated well.

And I post this on Columbus Day, a holiday to celebrate the guy we all are taught "discovered" America. I remember just accepting that as fact, although I sometimes wondered why other people, like Amerigo Vespucci, didn't get way more credit or attention. I mean, why isn't there Vespucci Day? We named two continents after him! But you get my point. Only the dumbest among us would believe that Columbus "discovered" America. 

I found that people often look at their country the way little kids look at their parents - perfect. Only as you get older do you start to see that parents are like everyone else - people. Usually good people, of course, but people who’ve faced the same challenges and indecision and self-doubt and regret that we all do. 

For some reason, too many people refuse to accept the dark truths about this country. 

When you unquestioningly believe you live in the greatest country in the world, a lesson imprinted upon you at your most impressionable age, by the time you have enough experience and knowledge to understand that America has done and is capable of doing both great and terrible things, it might be, as Clapper said, too late to accept anything else as reality.  

When you first start writing (and this happened to me), there is a tendency to make your protagonists very heroic, almost to a fault. It can be very challenging emotionally to see your characters as flawed people who’ve made mistakes, have regrets, think less-than-pure or selfish thoughts, and make bad decisions that they know are bad—possibly because it makes you confront, or at least acknowledge, those flaws in yourself.

We don’t want to believe that we make bad choices or think bad things or do dumbass things even knowing ahead of time that they’re bad or make snap judgments about people that are fed by deep-seated biases and prejudices and beliefs that have developed over the course of a million different interactions and exposures. I've done it, you've done it, we've all done it, even if we haven't realized it (although we all realize it and just don't want to admit it). We don't want to believe that we, as a country, do this, because a country is nothing without its flawed people.

And failing to recognize the flaws in ourselves and in our country comes at a terrible price.

(EDITED TO ADD: I wrote this post before the Harvey Weinstein story broke, and I have edited it to add this section in light of it. I was in college the first time a female friend shared with me that she had been sexually assaulted by another student. I listened and I told her how sorry I was that such a thing happened, but I remember a part of me, at some level, not believing - or not wanting to believe that a guy I went to school with could be capable of something so awful. Of course, I know now she was telling the truth - it was my own obstinance that led me to doubt her. She would not be the only one to tell me about such an experience. Later, I would see something that showed me once and for all how widespread this is. 

One night during my second year, I was at a party at a fraternity house. It was very crowded on the main floor. As we made our way through the crowd, we approached a corridor, where a girl was standing against the wall with her friend. A guy behind me reached out and squeezed the girl's breast as we shuffled by - this happened less than a foot away from me. It was dark and loud and crowded, and there was no way for the girl to see who had done it. I caught just a glimpse of it, but I remember the look on her face, one of stunned anger. It did not occur to me then that I had just witnessed a sexual assault. I did not know the guy who did it, but I could have identified him. Again, even though I had seen it with my own eyes, I didn't want to believe what I had just seen. As the years passed, I've become more disappointed with myself that I said nothing that night. I am sure this scene has played out countless times in countless college towns at countless college parties.) 

And I think this is a big part of the reason why we ended up with Trump as president. When you refuse to accept that America is like any other powerful country or civilization that ever existed, one that bears many warts, one that has done less than pure things to achieve its current status as a superpower - when you start to think it’s infallible, then you accidentally hand the nuke codes to quite literally the last man on Earth you would want to have them. When you refuse to accept terrible things as reality because you don't want to accept that sometimes the boogeyman is the guy next door. 

You buy into totems like MAGA and the National Anthem and the flag without stopping to think what they really and truly mean. I’m not even judging America for what it has done or what it has not done. What I am judging is its apparent inability to even admit those things happened at all. 

We don’t want to believe we are racist. 

We don’t want to believe we are sexist. 

We don’t want to believe we are misogynistic.

We don't want to believe that women are assaulted and harassed every day. 

We don’t want to believe that we are selfish. 

We don’t want to believe that white Christian men spent many decades stacking the deck of America in their favor, at the expense of women and people of color and non-Christians. 

We don’t want to believe that these men went as far as they could to corner the market, running right up against what the Constitution would allow - and in some cases, then some - to protect their corner on the market of America. 

We don’t want to believe the scar of slavery will never completely heal. 

We don’t want to believe the atrocities that European colonists committed when they got here. 

We don’t want to believe that something like the Holocaust could happen again. 

We don’t want to believe that two oceans provide a pretty big security blanket. 

We don’t want to believe that other countries might not want the things we do. 

We don’t want to believe that police officers or soldiers can do terrible things.

We don’t want to believe that we really do need the government. 

We don’t want to believe that if, to steal an old analogy, the American Dream is home plate, that white people start on third base and many more people score before their mothers push them out of the womb. 

We don’t want to believe that the good old days were not all that good for anyone but heterosexual white men and women. 

We don’t want to believe these things because to believe means to cast doubt on the things that were imprinted on you as a child like someone jammed your flesh with a hot brand that reads America the Beautiful

We don’t want to believe we elected an evil man as President, despite every single bit of evidence to the contrary. 

We don’t want to believe that he lies every single day about matters big and matters small.

We don't want to believe that it's our fault because to believe would mean accepting that it was all these denials about ourselves that gave oxygen for the Trump fire to burn.

We don't want to believe that Trump is the shadow version of us, down to the easy-street lifestyle many of us wouldn't mind having, the version of ourselves that we hide from the rest of the world in our day to day life (although more and more are willing to let it all hang out online), fears and biases and prejudices that we let bubble out into a President-shaped vial of toxic waste because we were not willing to face up to them.

One thing I’ve learned in my two decades as a lawyer is that evidence does not lie. Evidence does not care. When you put on a case to a jury or judge or tribunal, you’re trying to reconstruct a picture of an event that has already happened, and you’re trying to get the fact finder to see it in a light as favorable to your side as possible. But the facts are the facts (although even that is becoming a bit more elastic as time goes on).

The evidence of America - both good and bad - is right there in front of us, if we were only willing to look. But we need to look, America, soon, or it will be too late for it to matter. We will end up in a very, very dark place that we never believed possible. 

I feel very lucky to live here, in a place with so many different kinds of people and cultures, and I would live nowhere else. But that doesn’t mean I’m blind to America’s faults or to my own. 

If we could believe for a minute that we’re not as great as we think we are, if we could believe that the founders did great things while also doing terrible things, that we are all capable of low moments, of being racist or sexist or misogynistic or ethnicist (I think that's a word), if we could stop looking at America through rose-colored lenses that belong on the face of a first-grader - then we could see the founders, in all their flawed brilliance, gave us all the tools we needed to keep making America - if not the greatest - then at least pretty great. 

Not just Great Again.

But Greater than it Ever Was.


  1. "I feel very lucky to live here, in a place with so many different kinds of people and cultures, and I would live nowhere else. But that doesn’t mean I’m blind to America’s faults or to my own."


  2. Great distillation of such complex, sordid times and wayward thinking-- and somehow you remain hopeful. Thanks for that.