The Better Angels of Our Nature

I watched “Angels in America” last night for the first time. I think that’s one advantage to being right on the cusp of getting well. You can devote yourself to six hours of something and not feel guilty for not leaving your couch.

As everyone knows, it’s incredible.

I don’t know why I hadn’t gotten around to seeing it before now.  Sometimes I think that’s a difficult transition to make between being rural and being urban.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s good to be able to entertain yourself.  But I’m not accustomed to having this readily available for me to do and so am not in the habit of doing them.  And then I’m always surprised when I do go do stuff to discover that it’s always there for me to do.  I guess that sounds stupid, but there you go.

Anyway, “Angels in America.”  I finished it and thought about how great it is that people are still making art like this, that is so cued into our shared history and rich in allusions to things we hold dear.

But isn’t that tricky?  Talking about things we hold dear?

I remember back when Mississippi was voting on whether to change its state flag, seeing a black guy on the news talking about how he voted to keep it and the reporter was all “Why would you do that?” and he said, “So at least people will know.  They’ll know what kind of place this is.”

I’m slowly reading through Lies My Teacher Told Me and one of the things that’s stood out most is his stuff on race, starting with how our history books teach us that Reconstruction was a failure because black people were not prepared to govern and so were corrupt and ineffective and so they had to be removed from power, when really we ended Reconstruction as a way to try to reintegrate white southerners back into the larger society.

When I was in Memphis in October, I was talking to a guy about the whole “Confederate Memorial Hall” controversy at Vanderbilt and he said, “Truthfully?  I don’t give a shit about any of that stuff.  The Confederate flag?  Fuck it.  The Confederacy lasted four years.  That flag flew over a country dependant on slave labor for four years.  How long did our flag fly over a country dependant on slave labor?  How long?  And no one’s talking about changing that.”

It’s funny to me the ways in which the internet age lets you see that people are having the same kinds of discussions all over the place.  The Professor has been talking; I had a nice long talk with my professor from college; and I see other folks struggling with it, these kids today.

Ha, these kids today.  It tickles me a little to get to the point where I have that worry.

But I read some place–which I can’t find now–about how some professors are making students sign waivers before taking their classes that indicate that they know up front that there will be disturbing materials in their class.  (Oh, found it.  Pandagon, of course.)  And the Professor and I have talked about this at length, how the shift from student as student to student as consumer means that students have a different expectation of college than they have previously.

As consumers of higher education, they expect to get what they paid for.  And as much as I admire that impulse in some regards (and understand where it comes from.  Shoot, if you’re paying $40,000 a year for something, you damn well want to feel like you’re getting your money’s worth out of it.), there’s an underlying premise that really disturbs me–because, of course, in order to be able to evaluate whether you’re getting what you paid for, you have to already know what it is you’re getting.

I don’t know when this shift happened.  I suspect I was on the very front end of it.  We were moaning and complaining about how much we had to pay and whether that shouldn’t give us some say in what we’re taught.  But as I was saying to my college professor, we still thought college was supposed to change us.  We might have resisted (in some cases successfully) that change, but I don’t know anyone who was unsurprised or shocked to find that our professors had much different and sometimes scarier viewpoints than we’d encountered in our lives until then.

They were supposed to.  That was the point of college, to have your mind blown and your assumptions challenged.  If you already knew everything there is to know, why would you go?

And I guess that that’s the thing that scares me.  It’s not just for “kids today,” but for all of us as a whole.  What does it mean for us to be willfully ignorant of other points of view?  How will we know if we’re being lied to if we don’t know how to question what we’re told?  Why would we rather be comfortable than knowledgeable?

I have my suspicions.

I’ve mentioned before how I believe that it’s imperative for most people to believe that they are good and that they come from good people (see, for example, Bill “The Kitten Killer” Frist’s book, Good People Beget Good People).  It’s funny to me both because we are a country so steeped in Christian tradition and that you hear that crap so much from people who consider themselves Christian.

America, don’t you pay attention in Sunday School?

No, you’re not!  You’re not good people.  You don’t come from good people.  You, yourself, are always going on about what a bunch of sinners, Sinners!, SINNERS!!!! you are.

What exactly do you think that means?

It means that you say you don’t believe that you are good.

And yet…

And yet let’s say that I were to say something like the reason white Southerners are still so hung up on the Civil War is two-fold, with the most important fold being that they cannot reconcile the fact that their ancestors were so desperate to continue the immoral enterprise of slavery that they would rather tear our country in two and destroy it than to face a future in which slavery would inevitably end, that the reason we’re still talking about the Civil War is that white Southerners want some way to understand the actions of their ancestors as anything but bad.

Don’t get me wrong.  I understand that impulse.

I have whole long personal narratives that center around how the folks I identify with did the best they could, even if the best they could wasn’t good enough.

But I want to talk about recognizing not just the mistakes of our forebearers, but that they did things that were bad, that were wrong.  We’re not covered in a bubble of magic protection just because we’re Americans.  We do bad things.  We do things that are wrong.  Sometimes, even when we’re doing what we think is the best we can do, it’s not.  It’s not the best we can do and it’s not good enough.

Because believing that you can only do good is a kind of a trap.

Maybe I’m crazy, but I believe in transcendence.  I believe in the transcendent nature of art and love and the frail, fragile friendships we eke out in terrible times.  I believe that we can aspire to be something better than we are, but only if we admit that who we are often falls short. 

And if we can’t admit that, we’re lost.

But here’s the thing about America.  It’s not just for the people who belong here, the folks easy with conformity and the assuredness that comes from knowing you are a chosen people in a chosen land at the most important moment in history.


Excuse me.  I had some gas, I think…Ginsberg, the specter our American Scrooge is constantly trying to pass off as our fragment of underdone potato.

America is not just for the people who feel at home here.

And maybe this is what we’re afraid of learning at college, that being an American is not just about going to church and getting married and having your 2.5 kids and all your prejudices reconfirmed as being correct.

Out here, mapped right along side that America is this one.  This America starts when you’re always afraid.  Or maybe it starts when you roam and ramble and follow your footsteps.  Or when you realize that not even ten miles separates where Robert Johnson died from where Emmett Till was murdered.

 But out here, this has always been America, too.  Another rich tradition of American-ness, another choice, another way.  One that prefers the unsteady drunken stumble of people half-blind with grief and anger and half high as kites.  The America who doesn’t know what will happen, who doesn’t have time to worry about it, who’s busy suffering and rejoicing.

The America where my voice is heard, and yours, and yours, and yours.

The America where angels are wrestled and angels are overcome.