What America Means to Me: 2021

A nation is a community of people that, at best, is held together by a common story. When I was a kid, I was told a certain triumphalist story about America, which was loaded with words like “superpower” and “greatest.”

That triumphalist story sounds tinny in 2021, and it seems to have been rejected by many in the younger generations. As that story has faded, our country has fractured, without a cohering national narrative. So we cast about for more realistic and inclusive ways to retell our story.

Wednesday night I had the chance to walk around Lower Manhattan where my ancestors immigrated and built new lives, and to talk with some more recent immigrants whose experiences were similar to my family’s, though separated by decades and origins.

I thought about what a large role humiliation has played in American history: The pogroms and the Holocaust that terrorized Jews and sent them fleeing. The degrading poverty of the Irish famine. The religious persecution of the Puritans. The horror of the slave ships and bondage. The dehumanizing treatment of asylum seekers on the southern border. Give me your “wretched refuse,” Emma Lazarus wrote. Very few grandees came here bathed in adoration.

We’re pretty good at humiliating one another even after we’ve been here for years. The ongoing humiliation of daily racism. The condescension toward the Middle America working class. The bigotry that forces gays into the closet. The crude caricatures of evangelical Christians.

The brutal feature of humiliation is that it gets inside you. Some people’s self-image reflects the scorn they’ve experienced — because it’s very hard not to be affected by what people say about you.

“Humiliation lingers in the mind, the heart, the veins, the arteries forever,” Vivian Gornick writes in Harper’s Magazine. “It allows people to brood for decades on end, often deforming their inner lives.”

Loss of status can cause people to retreat to their tribal categories, dwell in the lost glories of the past, bloat with resentment toward rivals and lash out with horrific violence.

The mentality can be apocalyptic. “If another tribe is allowed to win, their victory won’t merely pull us down the hierarchy but will destroy the hierarchy completely,” Will Storr has observed. “Our loss in status will be complete and irreversible.”

A remarkable feature of America is that so many of the scorned who came here did not react in that way. They responded to humiliation with creative action. Disdained at home, they turned their faces to the future.

They became creative minorities along the lines prescribed by the prophet Jeremiah: keep your culture and ways, but settle down in this new land, build houses and gardens, give your sons and daughters away in marriage, seek the peace and the prosperity of this new place.

Being a creative minority is a proud role for any group. It means turning scorn into a seedbed of culture, innovation and culture. In his book “The Omni-Americans,” Albert Murray writes that the Black musicians who swing the blues are not “obscuring or denying the existence of the ugly dimensions of human nature, circumstances and conduct,” but are, instead, by expressing an inescapable awareness of them, achieving “an affirmative and hence exemplary and heroic response.”

Much of the drive and dynamism of American life comes from humiliated people saying, “We’ll show them who we are.”

The gay and lesbian response to humiliation has been one of the great acts of recent American history: having the courage to show themselves in their full humanity; committing to military service, marriage and other great institutions of American life; marching with pride. Heck, the word “pride” itself is now permanently associated with L.G.B.T.Q. life.

I assert with love that the white evangelical community has not responded as well as the mainstream has drifted farther from it. Too often white evangelicals have looked to strongman political saviors to restore their dominant place. Too often they’ve marginalized themselves into their own subculture and then complained about losing status. I have some friends who have been vocal about sexual abuse in their churches and for this they get accused of “cultural accommodation dressed as convictional religion.” If you think anybody who tells the truth is guilty of collaboration with cultural elites, then you are seeing the world through resentment-colored glasses.

The belligerent attitude is often mind-boggling since so much of the Bible is precisely about defeating scorn with sanctified love.

Some days American politics seems to be a futile clash of resentments. But I like to think that flowing through American history there is the recurring tale of people conquering humiliation through creative action. I like to think that scorn has paradoxically been a propulsive force in American life because people find sources of power in places scorn cannot reach.

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