In the days since an unhinged mob of domestic terrorists stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday, spurred on by the president in their effort to thwart the free exchange of executive power, some media and political figures have been offering refrains that seek to sanitize and compartmentalize the chaotic images of a futile coup attempt broadcast around the world. “This isn’t America,” they intone. “This isn’t us. We’re better than this.”
Are we though?
To perpetuate the notion of the United States as a clear-minded exemplar of justice wedded to democratic principles and egalitarian ideals, is to propagate the great American myth. Yet the country’s foremost power brokers remain steadfast in their support of America’s undaunted righteousness: In a speech on Wednesday, President-elect Joe Biden said that the shameful episode didn’t represent the “true America.” Apparently this was a fringe minority of interlopers that came from some other place—never mind that, in a time of extreme political polarization, more than 70 percent of Republican voters have suggested they don’t trust the outcome of the 2020 election, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey.
Hopeful assurances that “this isn’t us” effectively whitewash the stains out of America’s history—the fact that slavery, segregation, imperialism, rampant inequality, gun violence, systemic racism, and a host of other social maladies are the progenitors of our modern plight. Beyond that, it’s a platitude that a lot of people find offensive, as it effectively erases the struggles of those who exist within a very different country from the imaginary one in which justice prevails and everyone has an equal chance to live the American dream.
Instead of saying “this isn’t America,” or “we’re better than this,” we should all go about discussing the next social upheaval in ways that actually address the issue with clearer eyes, and more nuance and sensitivity.
Why you should stop saying it
In most cases, if you’re saying “we’re better than this,” it’s coming from a well-intentioned and optimistic place. But it’s a reductive statement, and one that underscores, albeit ironically, the circumstances that led to Wednesday’s horrific events.
If you want to talk about this, you should at least try to sound like you’re not obscuring the uncomfortable but distinctly American tenor of this episode. For starters, you have to examine Wednesday’s events not only the within broader historical contexts that have shaped U.S. inequality for centuries, but by specifically citing the last four years as the kerosene that accelerated the conflagration: Donald Trump’s presidency propelled conspiracy theories to the mainstream, winked encouragingly at white supremacist movements, and gave birth to an ecosystem of misinformation and “alternative facts” that reached an apex this week in the form of an insurrection fueled by the fiction that the 2020 election was rigged.
You also need to understand the dark cloud of racism hovering over Wednesday’s events: The mob was almost uniformly white, a fact that can at least partly explain the laggard response of Washington, D.C. and Capitol police forces to an attempted breach of the seat of government. By contrast, last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in D.C. garnered a militarized police presence, with members of the National Guard standing sentry on the steps of the Capitol in full tactical gear.
The hoard that descended on the Capitol was of genuine American composition, with QAnon conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, holocaust deniers, and at least one corporate CEO from Chicago among their ranks. If you want to explain why we aren’t better than this, you have to explain how we aren’t better than this—and it starts by understanding the forces that gave Wednesday’s insurrection an unmistakable American flavor.
Say these things instead
We can opine and lament the sorry state of things in ways that don’t sound so callous or misinformed. The American story is in many ways one of eternal striving. It’s OK to note that we haven’t truly achieved greatness on an all-encompassing scale, but that the struggle to shape the nation into a true beacon of equality must continue.
Rather than agreeing that “we’re better than this,” try thinking in more aspirational terms. Consider a more nuanced perspective, by saying: “I think we can be better than this, but there’s work to be done.” Instead of saying: “This isn’t America,” maybe think of saying “this definitely is America, but it doesn’t have to be.”
To ignore the current American reality is to deny voice to so many people who’ve long understood this version of America to exist, because they simply cannot escape it. You certainly don’t have to erase them—or pay homage to a false American ideal—simply because times are tough.