Twenty years ago, for the July/August 1998 issue of Books & Culture, I wrote a column titled “America the Ugly.” Here is the first part of it:
There were two icons on the near wall of the bedroom my brother and I shared. One was a plaque showing Jesus knocking at the door; the other was a photo of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Both were dear to me as a boy. Years later, when I first heard Bach’s cello suites, I thought of that picture of Jesus: the dark browns of the painting and the almost unbearably beautiful notes seemed to blend, expressing Jesus’ sadness and love. MacArthur I admired for his heroism, his patriotism, and his stubborn integrity. “Admired” isn’t the right word, though, insofar as it suggests a disinterested connoisseurship. I was a boy without a father (except the cold one whose weekly, then monthly visits I dreaded). MacArthur was one image of the ideal Man, the father I would have wished for. He was, I knew, a devout Christian. I loved the flinty set of his jaw; maybe also a certain cockiness in his look. The way I heard the story, he had been betrayed by President Truman, a perfidious Democrat, who prevented MacArthur from winning the Korean War.
That was a theme that came up often in the informal history lessons I received from my mother and grandmother. I was taught to love America—a lesson that came easily, and that I haven’t forgotten—but to recognize that those in power were often not to be trusted. (Consider the arch-fiend Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had done his best to bring the nation to ruin!) Received opinion in general, in fact, whether in textbooks or in newspapers or on the TV news, was to be regarded with a healthy skepticism. And there were many old hymns, subversive of any conflation of God and country: “This world is not my home.”
Those early lessons were good. They prepared me to acknowledge the complexity and tragedy of American history, past and present, in ways that sometimes conflicted with the verities of my childhood. (MacArthur, for instance, wasn’t an unambiguous hero, and I can recover my boyish sense of him—embarrassing now—only by inadvertence.) I am thankful for the work of historians like Mark Noll (see “Cracks in the Liberty Bell”), who refuse to settle for rousing tales of the Founding Fathers.
When we celebrate Independence Day again this year, with profound gratitude, we are not thereby endorsing the historical whitewashers—those who, for instance, try to explain away our policies in Central America, who seek to swathe brazen evil in talk of “hard political realities.” We are not impatiently dismissing the consequences of more than three hundred years of slavery. America the Beautiful is also America the Ugly.
Acknowledging this simple truth will not settle all our differences, but it is an essential starting-point, the need for which is even more apparent today than it was twenty years ago.
In American Catholic Crossroads: Religious-Secular Encounters in the Modern World, published in 1959, the Jesuit scholar Walter J. Ong—addressing fellow Catholics—observed: “Among Western nations we Americans score the very lowest of all in the proportion of the recent Hungarian refugees, for example, to whom we have granted asylum. . . . Despite their own devastation by war, England and France and Germany have of late years been the refuge of the oppressed on a much more generous scale than the United States has been.”
This reluctance to offer shelter, very much at odds with America’s self-image, has not been characteristic of our entire history, but it hasn’t been limited to a handful of episodes either. We should be honest about that. To do so doesn’t require us to agree with those who are saying that the US today is a “hellish dystopia.”
Now that I think about it, I may need to contradict myself. After all, if large numbers of Americans actually believe that the state of the nation is so dire, despite all the evidence to the contrary, then it follows that we are living in a dystopia of sorts, a country in which a critical mass of the citizenry has lost all sense of proportion. That’s an unwelcome thought. But maybe the ranting voices we hear are not so representative as we’re led to believe. And maybe a lot of the people who are warning that we’re on the eve of destruction don’t really believe what they’re saying. That would be much better, more like business as usual. In any case, the Cubs are playing the Cardinals in a few minutes. It may not be the National Pastime any more, but baseball remains a sovereign remedy for a brooding spirit.
John Wilson was the editor of Books & Culture from its first issue (in 1995) to its last (in 2016).