“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” — Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: a Story of Justice and Redemption
Citizens of The United States of America do not do guilt and shame very well. If the national self-image is, in the obnoxious words of Madeleine Albright, that of “the one indispensable nation”, and in the delusional words of Ronald Reagan, “a shining city on a hill”, ad admission of shame or guilt would be tantamount to rejecting the idea upon which the nation was built, that the USA is “novus ordo seclorum”, the new order of the ages. We would be just like every other nation, capable of evils great and small.
The attitude of the American nation towards its crimes and misdemeanors stands in stark contrast with that of postwar Germany, whose political culture reminds its citizens of the horror of Nazism at every turn. For Germany, guilt and shame prompted responsibility, an effort to make sure that the phrase “never again” was meaningful. Yet for the United States, such an admission would be a plenary shock shaking the national self-image to the core.
So it was not surprising that President Donald Trump delivered an Independence Day address before the Mount Rushmore national memorial that was a mishmash of nationalistic jingoism, an excoriation of those who question monuments to Confederate “heroes” and slave-owners, and a condemnation of “the radical left” who supposedly wish to destroy the ideals of the American Revolution rather than retrieve them. The speech was, predictably, a call to continued amnesia and denial. And if you don’t do guilt and shame, amnesia and denial are the opiates of choice.
Guilt and shame are delicate emotions: if you do not understand, own, and transcend them, they will return, repressed, in all manner of awful ways. I have always been reluctant to trade in personal anecdote in my political or philosophical writing, but I think it is telling that my mother’s and grandmother’s maxim, more often lived-by than enunciated, was “You are only as good as your last failure”. This is the antithesis of Bryan Stevenson’s maxim. I think that my mother’s and grandmother’s words-to-live-by were very, very in tune with the moral-political sensibility of the United States. It is all important, then, to never, never, never fail. And if you do fail, never admit it. Because if you do you will be annihilated.
The idea that one can never admit failure, finitude, and incompleteness without self-annihilation is, in DSM-5 speak, a clear sign of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Viewed thus, Trump, himself probably a malignant narcissist, may be both an aberration and the logical outcome of the American psyche.
While I am suspicious of the idea of “Political Theology”, it probably has some purchase here: in not doing guilt and shame very well, Americans do not have a robust sense of, or clear perspective on, sin. Sin becomes an all-or-nothing matter: either we are sinners, or we are spotless as lambs. And if we are sinners, penance is eternal and never effective. It is a conception of sin that out-Calvins Calvin: no second chances. It is a misreading of “repentance” based on a mistranslation of metanoia, the New Testament Greek word to which it corresponds. Metanoia literally means “beyond your mind”, transcending one’s taken-for-granted mis-grasp of reality. By changing one’s mentality one simultaneously proceeds to change one’s life. Such change is painful, but the pain is not the point: the liberating change is. It is not something with which a narcissist, and a political culture of narcissism, can come to grips.
If a form of political narcissism has been baked into American political culture from its beginnings, genuine and radical change is called for — change that acknowledges national responsibility for the Native American genocide, chattel slavery, white supremacism, sexism, class warfare, nonstop militarism abroad and violence at home, and the most brutal forms of possessive individualism and capitalism. Such change will need to go to the root of things, pull the decaying tendrils up from the soil, and expose them to the disinfectant of sunlight. The removal of public monuments to Confederate generals and open racists is one necessary element of this radical excision of the cancers that afflict the United States. It is far from sufficient.
I fear that this de-monumentalizing could turn, against the intentions of its proponents, into one more variant of national amnesia: out of sight, out of mind. Such monuments deserve museums of their own, along the lines of Holocaust museums, where Americans confront and do not hide from the “worst things they’ve ever done.” Hiding from the past, just like denying its relevance, is a narcissistic ploy that guarantees the repression of shame and guilt rather than its acknowledgment. The repressed “worst things” will survive as unconscious symbols, displaced in consciousness as “heritage” and “history”, but lurking deep in the national psyche as malignancies, hungry for fresh batches of narcissistic supply.
Symbols are never mere symbols. In the words of the theologian Paul Tillich, symbols, unlike signs, participate in the reality they represent. The flag, the plug-ugly Mount Rushmore monument and its even uglier Confederate counterpart on Stone Mountain, the Statue of Liberty, the neo-classical pastiche of Washington D.C. architecture, all are not just about the United States of America but in a way are the United States of America. And insofar as the inability to do shame, guilt, and sin are part of what the United States is, neither their removal nor their preservation will eradicate the problem of the United States’ citizens to accept responsibility for its “worst things” and to move forward from shame, guilt, and sin, as the German Federal Republic did, albeit imperfectly. What then can be done?
I propose a symbolic reboot. Remove the Confederate monuments, to be sure, and put them in museums so that Americans of future generations do not forget about the horrors of chattel slavery and the Civil War. But recontextualize all the old symbols as participating in something other than what the nation should be. Mount Rushmore symbolizes what the nation was, something at odds with itself given the Liberal, Democratic, and Republican ideals imperfectly expressed and embraced in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Gettysburg Address. What would then be needed is a set of symbols that participate in what the nation should be, one guided by the better angels of our natures.
Let us start with the flag. On the assumption that the present Trumpist regime will fall, if not in November then sometime in the future (since time is always the enemy of despots), it would be beyond foolish to think that the oligarchic, plutocratic, and authoritarian power-grab of that era can just be ignored as a blip on the national screen. The episode of aspirational tyranny and actual kleptocracy that was the past four years was not just an aberration, but an aberration one might expect given the history of the self-professed republic to fail to seriously acknowledge its imperfections. If some kind of break with that past is not seen as necessary, then the narcissistic demand behind our inability to recognize shame and guilt will continue to boil under the fake surface, and the return of the same will be inevitable.
So, I offer a modest proposal, one that I am sure will not be enacted: so be it. The United States needs a new flag. No stars and stripes — or stars and bars. Either no red, white, and blue, or a different symbolic arrangement of them, possibly among other elements in the color field. It will acknowledge both continuity with the “old” republic and its discontinuity with the “new” one. It will not destroy the old symbol so much as transcend it. Unlike previous revisions of the flag, it will not symbolize variations on a common theme, a symbolism of “more of the same”. While acknowledging continuity it will announce that the USA is doing it differently this time. It will announce not a “New order of the ages”, an exceptionalist sentiment that all to easily lends itself to the narcissistic refusal of shame, guilt, and sin, but “a new order of the republic”, a second beginning, a metanoia of the nation.
To reiterate Tillich’s point: symbols are not mere signs, and symbolic change is not mere surface alteration. And symbolic change not easy, either. But as Spinoza once said, “all things beautiful are as difficult as they are rare.” And it is high time that The United States of America embraced the difficulty of overcoming its repressed shame, guilt, and sin, and emerged into the uncertain future that offers the prospect of a heretofore unknown moral beauty.
(Independence Day, July 4, 2020)