The greatest story ever told, American version, begins at Plymouth Rock. It’s the story of innocents arriving on virgin shores, triumphing over unprovoked attacks, and boldly heading west, triumphing over unearned hostility and fulfilling their manifest destiny, a destiny that extends across the globe as they export democracy to grateful nations. The occasional moments when the innocents fail to triumph are never their fault: they are the victims of sneak attacks, or insufficient support at home, but they are always in the right. As innocents are.
This story has been heavily edited, of course. One part that it leaves out begins more than a year earlier, when the White Lion docks in Jamestown. It’s the story of West Africans kidnapped from their original kidnappers and sold to the English settlers, inaugurating two and a half centuries of slavery and another century and a half and counting of oppression. Another part of our history that didn’t make the cut also starts at the beginning, the story of the people who were already here when the Europeans arrived, people who over centuries were systematically eliminated, dispossessed, and forced to assimilate.
The greatest story, the official story, doesn’t work unless those other stories are left out. There’s no way to tell a story of righteous innocents building their new Eden on the backs of enslaved people, on land violently cleared of the people who had lived there. It just doesn’t hold together. There’s no way to cry victim when you lose if you’ve left behind so many victims of your own. Leaving out that much from your national story takes a lot of effort, which may explain the anger and violence that seems to erupt when people try to surface the left out bits, when events occasion the telling of the other stories.
In the last two days we’ve seen the effort it takes to maintain this greatest story and the rage that erupts when the other stories become visible. McCarthy’s speech last night and this morning’s Rittenhouse verdict offer glimpses of these stories at work. The anger, the petulant cries of victimhood, the righteousness. Above all, the innocence, unjustly attacked, defending itself. McCarthy’s unhinged rant didn’t come out of nowhere. The celebrations on the right of the Rittenhouse verdict, the public thanks for the blow he struck for gun rights and “self-defense” when he used the rifle he brought to a protest to kill two people and nearly blow the arm off a third–they didn’t come out of nowhere.
McCarthy’s America, where friendly congressmen run to their house to get you some antifreeze for your overheating car, is apparently being threatened by outside forces, by China and all sorts of brown foreigners crossing our southern border, and by those among us who coddle them. Rittenhouse’s America has to be defended against protestors, with long guns if need be–and then its defenders get attacked for defending it! This vision of America the innocent, strong but under unfair attack and needing defense, may be most threatened by assertions of what it refuses to see. This is why The 1619 Project has gotten such organized, astroturfed opposition. It’s why Black Lives Matter is Public Enemy Number One when China isn’t enough.
The last thirty-six hours have been tough if you’re not a true believer in America’s unerring innocence or in the people who are. We’re just a couple of flipped seats away from McCarthy being Speaker of the House. We are one verdict closer to the cosplay cavalry feeling not just emboldened but invited to mow down protestors. But there’s one messy, hard-to-tell part of the story of the last day and a half that’s falling off the radar and that gives us something hopeful to focus on–the House passing Build Back Better. The people behind it are trying to address the inequities that spring from the history I’m talking about, the stories that some would rather not get told, or taught. If you’re feeling hopeless about where the country is headed, maybe this will help. If you think our flawed institutions can’t address what’s wrong, you’re going to have to ignore what this administration has been working so hard to do. You’ve got to try to see–and tell–the whole story.