This is Day 5 since the Capitol Mob stuck while Congress was in session. Five dead, a sixth related death over the weekend. Italian questions have tapered off a bit – for now – until the next violent demonstration flares up, and I suspect it will. The U.S. is starting on a long path toward a new destination. It’s going to get darker before it lightens up.
In the year we have all just experienced, and survived, if you’re reading this now, there was so much happening in the U.S. that required our careful attention. The pandemic. How it impacted everyone’s work and income, childcare and school. Healthcare and hospitals, families and spaces. Insurance and savings. Where people lived, and where they wanted to live. Key elections. And yet here we are, dissecting human nature, and focused on a certain narcissist who’s bored of his job.
After the election of 2016 was called (on Wednesday, you’ll recall), Italians in town regarded my sniffling with no small amount of sympathy. We survived Berlusconi, they told me. We felt just this way when he was elected, and elected again. It will be hard, but you’ll be fine. You’ll come out of it wiser and more resilient. These words from my very international Florentine friends. I believe them when they say they know how graft and corruption work. You want to see some political gridlock? Come to Italy in most any year; they’ve had 61 governments since 1945. (Americans tend to say this as though astonished, when our biannual election schedule does something similar to Congress, as we anticipate now in the upcoming rearrangement of Senate leadership within its 20 permanent and 4 joint committees.) But Italians have seen centuries of political intrigue in their territory, well before statehood. They have a certain wise weariness about it all. They live their history routinely through their decisions and perceptions. Rome, the Church, the Great Schism, duchies and papal states, Spanish and French incursions, all live in the collective memory. Little surprises them. Humans are humans. Some people are bad actors, other people are goodhearted. This portion is idealistic; that section is pragmatic. Italian culture excels at this kind of emotional wisdom. They understand things on a cultural level. This is my perception as a global American. It seems to stand in contrast to much of what I lived and experienced in the U.S.
I feel Italy is shaking its head kindly, some days, tsk. Poor America. What took you so long? Welcome to the rest of us, here on the planet, struggling with culture and communication and competing priorities and prejudice and good (and bad) governance. Why did you think you were different?
America and Americans really want to be different. I get that. Americans want to feel they are different. This is very important to American culture. What a shock to realize that American society is destined, like all peoples, to struggle with culture and communication and competing priorities and prejudice and good (and bad) governance. I remember the “city on a hill” metaphor about American exceptionalism recounted by a political science professor with shining eyes (by the way, I cannot believe that passed for collegiate coursework – why weren’t we urged to more deeply interrogate the trope?). American exceptionalism is harmful, and it harms America most of all. It harms us. It harms Americans to think we are different and special because it cuts us off from the collective psychological support and wisdom offered by example in the other 194 countries in the world.
I urge all Americans to read more widely in the news. Repeating that you can’t believe this could happen in the U.S., and no one can believe it – you know, the rest of the world believes it. They wonder what’s taking us so long to believe it. Have Americans somehow discovered a way to escape human nature? The miracle of America, insofar as one can be said to exist, is the idea that people in America are different than people elsewhere. That we too do not fight bitterly, resort to violence, cheat one another, lie, sell out. The miracle of America works only as long as everyone is aware of human nature, and prizes key values more than human nature (cue freedom, liberty, open debate, inclusion, tolerance, respect). It is possible for a country to act broadly with an executive function (in the psychological sense), but this can only happen if everyone – everyone – every last person – is aware of and admits to the pitfalls of human nature. Everyone.
If you’re glued to your laptop, to MSNBC, the barrage of memes and TikToks and American news about the violence, consider visiting other news sources to help balance your reading and understanding. (Although the NYT has been doing a grat job, and I appreciated that they ran this essay by Yale historian Timothy Snyder. Aside from the BBC and the Guardian, I’ve been following a Sri Lankan journalist, Indi Samarajiva, who writes with truth and insight about recent events in the US. This piece ran in November, and its clarity brought tears to my eyes. He published an equally honest and stunning follow-up piece in PRI on Friday. I happen to crave the truth, even when it hurts, even when it’s bitter and unpleasant. I’ll spit out that sweet lie any day of the week. I also like cutting satire to help me understand the world around me, and this piece about Kenyan journalist Patrick Gathara does not disappoint. These journalists seem like fortune tellers, but they’re just honest and observant, and good writers. Read news from sources that go beyond privileged anglo outlets. Their insight is priceless. It can help us out of this mess, and understanding is the first step to healing.
There’s a whole world out here that cares what happens in America, but which is not surprised. We’re not alone. America was never alone. Please realize this, and put down shock and claims of specialness. There’s work to be done, and there’s some for everyone.