(Photo by Frank McKenna for Unsplash)
Fewer Independence Day fireworks, family gatherings and friends this year — because we struggle to understand our reality of interdependence.
We might — still —have something to celebrate and work toward in “this terribly flawed but miraculous country.” But our irrational insistence on independence from one another has gotten us into trouble.
I write this from Lenape Land, land taken through trickery and conquest, then settled by Europeans who enslaved Africans through systematic, horrific brutality. There were some exceptions. Europeans resisted colonial subjugation from its earliest days, and Europeans spoke out against slavery in North America before the United States was even founded. But this doesn’t excuse white settlers. Instead, it demonstrates the repeated lie — that so-and-so was merely a product of their time. All along, Black people resisted.
Enslaved people began revolting in the colonies in the 1600s. Centuries later, at terrible personal risk, enslaved people emancipated themselves and fled in the lead-up to the Civil War. But what, the repeated objection goes, does this distant history have to do with our present United States?
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Dartmouth College professor and peace activist Elise Boulding defined the historical present as a 200-year window. That present stretches from the oldest person we can remember holding us when we were children, to the end of life for the youngest person in your extended family. Within this historical present, all across the United States, whites have benefited, and Black, Indigenous and people of color have suffered, through a noxious mingling of American exceptionalism and white supremacist ideology — where white is imagined as better or, simply standard.
Never apologizing makes old wounds fester, never attempting to understand, never working to right wrongs — never reconciling. The arc of history has hardly bent away from subjugation, as slavery moved to Jim Crow, then the school to prison pipeline and mass incarceration in an amplified police state. We are interdependent with our histories, and the violences and exclusions crisscross the country and manifest in specific ways in every community, including the Philadelphia area. Police brutality is one manifestation of our inability to ethically engage interdependence. Our failure to deal intelligently with COVID-19 is another.
The virus respects no borders. It travels along our webbed interconnections yet it is no equalizer. It reveals inequities, disproportionately killing in Black communities and striking delivery and grocery workers unable to physically distance.
Leading thinkers and politicians, including President George W. Bush, philanthropist Bill Gates, The Obama Administration, The Pentagon, and — in January of this year — the current administration itself, all forecasted this pandemic. But scores of our leaders and millions of our fellow citizens ignored this scary, perfectly predictable inevitability of interdependence as it swept toward us. Our ignorance has cost more than 100,000 lives.
The President’s approval ratings are plummeting, and for good reasons. But he’s only one among millions of Americans insisting on a fantasy world in which we stand apart from history and ecology. So what must change?
Our educational systems are founded from and for a colonial imagination. The narratives of history that make the building blocks of our identities therefore imagine separation at the outset. Four decades ago, Benedict Anderson demonstrated the arbitrariness of national identity development in Imagined Communities, clarifying that countries are historically contingent, socially constructed, and extraordinarily recent inventions. It is long past time we integrate those lessons.
On Independence Day and everyday, we are all parts in an interdependent ecology and products of a tangled history.
We are among one another. We are implicated in each other. Now we must, if we are to deliver on James Baldwin’s desire to “achieve our country, and change the history of the world,” — we must love one another. I think that’s ultimately what’s required — a public love, whether it’s rooted in Christian Agape, Catholic Social Thought, indigenous or Buddhist understandings of our sacred interconnectedness — or something else. The task is the same: we must see the dignity in one another.
We must live up to that notion sometimes said to be an American Ideal: that all people are created equal. If we agree all people are created equal, we must fundamentally reimagine, dismantle and restructure our communities and country.
I’ve recently worked with scholars and community organizers across the country and around the world to develop a learning toolkit, Interdependence: Global Solidarity and Local Actions. It’s still in its Beta version, but we’ve deliberately made it public and open-access, in the hope that others might use it and contribute to it (and other colleges already have). I’ve linked to some of its pages in this essay. If we are to become whole selves and a healthier polity, we all have a great deal more to learn about interdependence.
This is one small offering on what will be, if we are to walk it with integrity, a long path toward deeper reconciliation, harmony, freedom, and liberation.
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