We keep talking about the United States of America and Americans as being “better than this.”
“This isn’t us,” we say. “This is America – we don’t tolerate these things.”
But we do.
History shows that we tolerate all kinds of things. The history of this country is coldblooded and sordid and full of skeletons in closets.
I was born in 1988, under the first Bush administration, but by the time I was cognizant of the world around me, Bill Clinton was the president. I thought he was so cool. I thought he was my friend, and I couldn’t wait for my chance to meet him.
I’m still waiting.
The 90s were a crazy time, though! Adjusting for relativity is important, but let’s think about things from the perspective of a 90s youth, someone who wasn’t fully immersed in the goings-on in the world, but actively living through it and yes, paying attention.
Pac and Biggie were killed. The war in Kosovo was raging. The economy was booming. Boy bands with perfectly choreographed dance routines were a thing. Michael Jackson? Still alive but going through some things. In kindergarten, my teacher chain-smoked out the window in the classroom and I regularly wore red lipstick to class. New England had four distinct seasons and no hurricanes. The biggest attack on American soil was Pearl Harbor. Trump was just a dude with his name on a bunch of buildings who occasionally got parodied on The Simpsons.
The world was a different place.
But the internet was still new. My generation had to actually go to libraries to do research for school papers. Teachers didn’t always accept digital sources because they had little way of knowing if it was credible or not. Geocities sites definitely weren’t good source material.
We had to learn how to navigate a digital world, and once it was here, it came hard and fast.
(That’s what she said.)
My family got a desktop computer when I was very young, but it was mainly for word processing and playing games.
Then came AOL and dial-up internet, and with that? Email; “You’ve got mail” and instant messenger dings.
By junior high, instant messenger was a solid and acceptable form of communication.
Then MySpace. Xanga. T9 texting on flip phones. Wikipedia.
Facebook. Social media in full force.
That’s a lot of progress to be made within a few short decades. I think we lose sight of how much was normally accomplished within that same amount of time. Technology doesn’t typically move this quickly. Civilizations and generations are usually given time to settle into advancements, but not us. Not anymore. We’re struggling to not only keep up, but to get ahead of it all. To profit off of it. To at least not get left behind.
When things move quickly, it’s easy to forget how we got to where we are because we’re so worried about what’s coming next.
So, one night when I was a kid, I was watching the news in my home in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Actually, my grandfather was the one watching, and I was playing with my brothers. There was a panel discussion being moderated by Peter Jennings (remember that guy?), and in between everyone speaking over each other, I kept hearing,
I can’t remember what the issue was. I don’t think I even knew what it was back then, but that was maybe the first time that I realized even the adults don’t have everything figured out. Everybody has that moment in their life. Some of us have several versions of it. In retrospect, it makes sense that mine happened while watching a debate on the news.
I was an Honor Roll student in elementary school, which is less of an accomplishment and more of a testament to the fact that I was used to being one of the smartest kids in the room. I’m sure that’s helped shape the larger-than-normal ego I now live with as an adult, but that’s not the point. The point is that I was genuinely confused by what I was watching, and I hadn’t entirely known that feeling yet.
It wasn’t just the issue itself that got me, though. It was the way the grown-ups on television were behaving. Surely, I thought, if they’ve been invited to be on TV, they must be experts in their fields. They each must have had a careers’ worth of credentials that had gotten them to the point of recognition that they’d been sought out by a national news producer to comment on a complex topic, one that most average Americans either didn’t know about or couldn’t understand.
Up until that point, if I didn’t know something, I found the answer. It was either in a book somewhere that I could find or I could ask someone for it. There was always an answer, one that was clear and obvious and could either be marked right or wrong on a multiple choice test.
That night on the news, the experts seemed confused. If they were confused, how the hell was I supposed to make sense of it?
On top of that, the experts were mad at each other. There were two sides being argued and neither seemed to be getting anywhere. The segment ended with nothing being accomplished apart from the commentators barely getting to present their arguments.
In my personal experience with conflict, there were always two sides. Both sides were presented and then the moderator, usually a parent or teacher, would judge the situation and issue a verdict. Considering the adults in my life, I had naively grown accustomed to a certain level of justice. It was reliable. I knew that whether I was right or wrong, the punishments would be doled out accordingly. If I was wrong, I accepted my punishment, however begrudgingly. If I was right, I could be fairly confident that the story couldn’t or wouldn’t be spun against me. The grown-ups would be able to see through any of that.
As I lived and learned, I realized the world obviously didn’t work like that.
When September 11th happened, I was in 8th grade and that was the day I realized nothing would ever be the same. That was the day I realized people saw me as a series of labels, not just as a person with kind of a cool backstory. That was the same day I learned that I’d have to actively defend myself and my people – whichever people those happened to be – against naysayers who usually were just seriously mistaken and ignorant.
Growing up Muslim in America, I never had any problems. No one seemed to know anything about my religion, let alone hate it. I would always have to explain to teachers why I needed the day off for Eid, which was always followed by a very inquisitive,
“Oh, that sounds so interesting! Tell me more about it.”
People seemed to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
We seemed to celebrate diversity and individuality.
Everyone seemed eager to learn from one another.
There were lines people seemed very unwilling to cross.
There were things that were inherently wrong, like enslavement, prejudice, and people dying – things no one would seemingly dare to justify, let alone advocate for.
That was the world as I saw it, but that was not the world as it actually was. Ever.
So, I adjusted.
As we educate ourselves, our own life experiences meld with the knowledge we acquire, shaping the narrative by which we go on to live. We’re allowed to be wrong as long as we correct course once we know better.
When middle and high school curriculums mention but breeze past things like the Trail of Tears and Japanese internment camps, it does a disservice to so many children who grow up with a skewed ideal of the country they live in. Things aren’t always pretty or nice to hear about, but we should still know about them. Every bit of information we gather contributes to our overall understanding of the world, humanity, and ourselves. We can’t afford for it to be sugar-coated or wrong.
Yes, we are a great, mighty nation, but the way we got here wasn’t so glamorous.
Even Odin became the ruler of nine nations by conquering them with the help of his ruthless and bloodthirsty daughter, Hela (according to the Marvel movies, at least). But when Hela got a little too bloodthirsty, Odin had a moment of clarity and banished her, choosing to rule the lands he’d acquired in a gentler and more ethical way. By the time Thor came along, Asgard was thriving and its people were happy.
We have a lot to be proud of.
Who we were yesterday doesn’t dictate who we must be today. We are a work in progress, a great experiment in democracy and freedom, and we live our lives with the audacity to believe that we can, do, and will make the world a better place.
So let’s do it. We have to look to our past, understand where we came from, and move forward from there. Otherwise, the sufferings we’ve both endured and inflicted on others will have been for naught.
As we head into 2019, each of us setting New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, meditate more, and call our mothers, let’s keep in mind our contribution to the whole. We, and everything we say, do, and believe, are a part of the big picture.
I don’t need to tell you that little actions and beliefs can and often do have major consequences, some good and some bad. I’m simply asking for cognition, responsibility, and a sense of justice as we press onward.
The world is crazy, but crazy doesn’t necessarily have to be bad.
Be your best version of crazy.