Myth and reality
We like, for instance, the story of Romeo and Juliet, two young (some say about 15-year-old) lovers who got together in spite of their parents feud. Or maybe at least partially because of it; youth often does things just because the elders forbid it.
It may be technically correct that people on both sides of the argument were at least partially at fault for the mayhem and deaths that occurred in Charlottesville, Va. last weekend. After all, my mother taught not to hit back when someone hit me. It was not an excuse to say, “But he hit me first.” (It was a much easier principle to voice than to follow.)
Our nation is founded on a myth of equality and justice for all – a myth because sometimes we have fallen a bit short of the ideal we have set for ourselves, but it is a goal upon which most of us seem to agree.
It’s complicated, this system pursued by humans. When I was in grade school, I was taught the Pilgrims sought religious freedom, but what they really sought, I later learned, was freedom from royal edict. They had differing ideas – indeed, ideas that differ widely even today. And in spite of the commands of the First Amendment, we still sometimes find one religious system pitted against another.
Our ancestors came here claiming to believe in freedom and equality for all people – and vanquished whole nations already established here.
We brought Africans here to work for free, based a whole economy and justified a war on the unpaid sweat of people presumed to be lesser because they had no formal education and they wore different clothing – when they wore clothing all. A century after the war that supposedly ended slavery, we still treated – and still treat – those of African descent as inferior peoples, just as the Dutch did in South Africa when they established Apartheid.
Or we did, by turns, in the roles we assigned Chinese and Irish workers, brought here to enrich the wallets of successive generations of industrialists.
In the name of equality and justice, we fought a great World War to vanquish a despot whose existence was predicated on the erasure of a whole people – while simultaneously we blocked those same “inferior people” from our door. We sent citizens from Harlem into battle intending that they would not survive to return home, and injected others with disease merely to test its effects on those considered to be “not-us.”
But through the years, we have clung to the myth – that all men are created equal – and we’ve even adjusted, from time to time, the definition of “men” in our ceaseless quest to make it true. The fact that our history is marked by so much progress is a testament to those of our country-folk who have spoken out, marched, fought and, in too many cases, died to give us the freedom to keep working toward the equality and justice on which our forebears founded this great mission.
When two passionate protagonists stand at either side of a pasture or schoolyard and scream epithets at each other, taunt each other to “come over here and say that” or “keep it up and I’m going to go over there and …”, sooner or later one of them is going to have to do something – drive a speeding vehicle into a crowd, perhaps, or drop a few missiles near Guam.
Our job is not to focus on blame. We need instead to be reminded of our self-imposed mission to turn the myth of equality into reality.