Recent public discussions about American identity raise concerns that the American narrative of democracy, equal opportunity, and prosperity are being replaced with a Russian counter myth rooted in a need for economic and military protection from “the other.”
But crisp narratives crumple when up against deep culture. The deep culture of my childhood home, Alabama, is far more 19th century Russian in soul and state than it is American. And there is hope for a more beautiful future.
In 1960, Southern historian C. Vann Woodward wrote in The Burden of Southern History, “An age-long experience with human bondage and its evils and later with the emancipation and its shortcomings did not dispose the South very favorably towards such popular America ideas as the doctrine of human perfectibility, the belief every evil has a cure, and the notion that every human problem has a solution.…The experience of evil and the experience of tragedy are parts of Southern heritage difficult to reconcile with the American legend of innocence and social felicity as the experience of poverty and defeat are to reconcile with the legends of abundance and success.”
Woodward might have well been quoting Dostoyevsky. But this narrative is not Russia’s or Alabama’s. The story is human. It’s the story of despair. Despair – or utterly giving up – is a mortal sin. Despair is also a choice.
Health Outcomes of Two Oligarchies
Russia and my home state were established as feudal oligarchies, Alabama’s by the French in 1702. A few people owned a lot and the majority of the population was serfs or slaves. Both cultures embrace the icon (church) and the strong man’s axe (militarism rooted in fear of the “other”). (For a deep dive into Russia’s cultural history, consider James Billington’s The Icon and the Axe.)
The original DNA of any community is stubborn, be it a business or a community. “That’s the way we do it here,” is hard to overcome. I have taught innovation in 17 countries and on five continents. My experience is that inventing the future requires a group to imagine a future state that is healthier than the one they currently live in, and one entirely unfamiliar to many in the group. When stress tests hit and two good values come into conflict (say, “economic growth” or “fairness”) one sees which cultural value holds the trump card.
Today, citizens of both oligarchies experience shorter lives than those in peer states. According to the CDC, Alabama’s mortality rate was the third highest in the USA. The average Russian citizen will die ten years earlier than citizens in peer states. According to WHO (2014) Russia has the ninth highest heart disease mortality rate in the world, the third highest stroke rate and the 14th highest suicide rate. According to American Health Rankings, Alabama’s rates of sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, diabetes, poor mental health and childhood poverty are some of the worst in the U.S. Diseases from addiction plague both Russia and Alabama. Despair deaths in Alabama are some of the highest in the U.S.
Significantly, the original structure of Alabama’s tax code permanently warps Alabama’s finances according to this 2017 Montgomery Advertiser article. In short: land is not taxed at a high rate, creating a regressive tax on the majority of the population when the wealth of Alabama remains concentrated among the few. Alabama’s income inequality ranks near the top of the USA. (Russia’s income inequality is the most unequal in the world.)
The Walking Dead: Living with Trauma
If one knows anything about the fruits of despair, these results are not surprising.
Recently, science has drawn a straight line from despair to early death. When negative stimulus occurs early in life, according to the Centers for Disease Control, trauma occurs and is stored in the body. Trauma, at its root, is the body’s response to a situation that overwhelms one’s coping capabilities. The experience is stored in the nervous system as hopelessness, according to trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk. Trauma does not heal with time but remains in the body causing all sorts of mischief: impairing nervous system functioning, impairing risk analysis, and leading to risky behaviors, chronic diseases, and early death. While childhood is fraught with uncertainty and often danger, when communities conspire to say, “This is the way things have to be,” hopelessness becomes a stubborn part of the community narrative.
Inventing the Future with a Refreshed Imagination
William Faulkner wrote that the American South was not a “geographical place” but an “emotional idea.” Despair for those surrounded by unhealthy communities is a tempting purchase. Yet there are other choices. When we identify a spiritual problem like despair we immediately have access to spiritual resources: hope, beauty, and love.
Does it work? The Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney said his poetry became great once he made room for “the marvelous” as well as the “murderous.”
I will never forget the shock to my system when my U.S. Air Force family landed in Selma, Alabama in 1977 near the now shuttered Craig Air Force Base. I was an 8-year old, happy, snaggled-tooth kid with a New Jersey accent. It was not the winning combination it had been back at McGuire Air Force Base. The palpability of despair felt like a fan blowing a truck’s hot exhaust fumes at me on a humid day.
Yet I was lucky. I found classmates, teachers, and guidance counselors in the Selma public school system. They were my saving grace. I am forever grateful to teachers, black and white, who changed our world during and after the Voting Rights movement. They changed my world in classroom. The world could be better they insisted. Don’t settle. Let the bad stuff go. These humble leaders lived lives of moral grandeur, had high standards, and expected great things from me. They taught me about purpose, morals, perseverance, and positive support.
I am also grateful for my release from the myth of American perfection. When I grew up, brokenness was all around. There was no place to hide it all. And from that stance, I can see where hope and love and creativity shine through. Not fake hope, love, or creativity that never really sate, but the joy that emerges from observing the well-lived life.
What kind of leaders transform -and do not mirror – society’s brokenness?
Since leaving Selma, I have sought out great leaders in the global peace and reconciliation movement. These leaders transform their communities, and do not mirror the brokenness. An example of their life-saving work in identity politics is here, Prof. Fr. Emmanuel Katongole’s impactful pamphlet on changing identity politics in east Africa or here, at the Duke Center for Reconciliation which fosters conversation among great indigenous leaders in the US, Asia, and Africa. I define a leader as one who influences others for good. Thus in this essay I focus on peace and reconciliation leaders, Alabama and other places I have lived and work have great grassroots leadership in pockets as diversified as engineering, forestry, the culinary arts, etc.
Sometimes it is easier to see ourselves when standing on a different continent. I use this space to highlight people you may not know who transformed the imaginations of fellow citizens in east Africa. Leaders like Angelina Atyam or Maggy Barankitse who articulate a vision of a wholesome, hopeful, flourishing community. They have a realistic view of their situation. They know how to express pain in a way that clarifies their mission but does not wound themselves or others. (For a political theology of lament consider Emmanuel Katongole’s “On Learning to Betray One’s People“, “Things that can be seen only with eyes that have cried,” or The Sacrifice of Africa.)
They know what hope looks like. They find nourishing resources.
One resource is a strong moral vocabulary. They have a deep and clear multidimensional understanding of “awareness ” (I include Thomas Aquinas’ definition of practical wisdom in that essay), “ultimate purpose (telos),” “flourishing,” “despair,” “lament,” and “hope.” They ask “What is our ultimate purpose? What steps are we taking to get there?” Martin Luther King, Jr. said his ultimate purpose was to build beloved community. Each action he took, he needed to ask, “Does this take me closer to or further from beloved community?” Aristotle said the human purpose was to flourish. He discussed virtues, such as courage, as the energy that can push us towards our goal.
American freedom is not a choice between “Russia” or “US” mythology. America’s choice is the choice and search for flourishing with unremitting perseverance and unstoppable optimism.
And that choice is the promise of America, even in my irascible, truculent, rebellious Alabama.