Getting real

After Charlottesville, we face a battle over our shared historical narrative — the truth of who we are and who we have been as a nation

BRATTLEBORO — In June, my wife and I had the chance to drive my daughter's car back from where she lives out West. We decided to take the long way home.

It was a great trip - 20 days and 5,000 miles on the car, Taos to Brattleboro, by way of Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minneapolis, and Detroit - and it made me realize how vast and extraordinary our nation is, not simply in landscape but also in character.

Our travels caused me to consider a distinction between authentic and curated experiences, and how that distinction might be a way of understanding some of the tension and divides of our current political age.

Most people hunger for authenticity in their lives, burning with the desire to experience real and meaningful people, places, and things directly as they are. I have been teaching college students for three decades and have yet to meet one who did not crave such connections.

Yet most of our experience is curated: shaped and formed, consolidated and packaged, made general and appealing.

Teachers curate knowledge and information, delivering it in deliberate and calculated ways. The mainstream press does the same thing, capturing and taming the welter of each day's facts into stories that become part of the narrative of our shared civil life and eventually turning the mixture into history.

We rely on others to make sense of what might otherwise be simply inchoate. But the act of shaping and making sense of things - whether a collection of art or the latest news from the Russia investigation - inevitably falsifies, even as it might be getting toward a sort of truth. You have to leave some stuff out, and choices about what to include are shaped deeply by the ways in which we have been taught or conditioned to respond to the real.

One hopes that curation - which can also be authentic and true - is done with integrity and a moral compass. But often raw authenticity is lost in the process, contrary to our strong desire for what is real and has meaning.

* * *

My wife and I stayed for a few days in a room in Wall, South Dakota. Besides being on the edge of the Badlands, Wall's great distinction is a huge drug store purveying all sorts of items and representing a highly curated version of the Old West - a tourist trap, essentially, but a large and well-managed one.

We drove a lot out West, so it seemed like a good idea to make a loop from Wall down to the memorial at Wounded Knee and then up again through Custer State Park, and it was really that day when the idea of the tension between authenticity and curation burned into me.

Of course, we were aware of the irony of traveling from the mass grave at Wounded Knee, the last exchange of fire in the war on the native inhabitants of this land, to Custer State Park, named for a headstrong and flamboyant U.S. colonel whose fame stemmed from misleading his troops into a massacre.

The juxtaposition was part of the point of that day's travels.

* * *

I began to write this piece before Charlottesville. Initially, my plan had been to discuss our hunger for authenticity within a media-curated world as a way of understanding a change in the nature of our electorate and the peculiar power that Donald Trump exerts over one part of the populace, much as Bernie Sanders' quixotic campaign did over another.

The tension between our hunger for authenticity and disdain for curation has reached a breaking point in a way that fundamentally changes the nature of electoral politics at the national level. The mainstream press was slow to pick up on the meaning of this reality, and Trump's win in the primaries and on Election Day took most people by surprise.

Trump is not sincere - he is a pathological liar - but he reads as authentic. He resists any attempt at curation, as his recent public discourse has demonstrated. He is as authentic and real as the latest hit reality show, and for too many people in this country, this false appeal gave him the edge over his obviously curated opponents.

We have entered a new era in our politics, in which the battle will be waged along lines of the appearance of authenticity rather than the curation of positions on policy, legislation, and national security.

After Charlottesville, I came to realize that we also face a battle over our shared historical narrative - the truth of who we are and who we have been as a nation.

The civil conflict that erupted in Charlottesville is a battle for the control of history and the definition of who we are and what this land will become.

* * *

Wounded Knee is in the Pine Ridge Reservation, the most impoverished county in the United States. The average yearly household income is under $4,000. As we planned our visit, comments by other travelers on sites like TripAdvisor made us apprehensive. We read stories about aggressive panhandlers, small sullen gangs, cars robbed.

It turned out that all of this was a sort of nonsense, but both of us were city kids, so we prepped like we were planning to go to a rough neighborhood. We needn't have bothered. It was a friendly, quiet scene. It was also heartbreaking.

The memorial at Wounded Knee is small, surrounded by an old chain-link fence. It sits inside the much larger confines of a still-active graveyard. It is not a national monument or state monument. It is overseen by the Lakota people who live there and who have forestalled attempts to put the monument in government hands and upgrade it.

The monument itself is a stone pillar inscribed with the names of those who died that day - about 40 names, the last warriors.

The pillar sits on a patch of flat concrete, about 20 by 12. Under our feet lay the remains of about 200 men, women, and children. It was the one place we did not take pictures during our trip.

It really is not curated at all.

The drive from Wounded Knee to Custer State Park was beautiful, as all of our drives out West seemed to us. We had gone to see the wildlife - bear and elk, prairie dogs and buffalo - promised in the brochure. The state park's marketing made it seem that it would be a banner day.

There was a buffalo herd right by that first turn after the gate, and we both jumped out, daring to take a few shots. Then we drove in a 12-mile loop through beautiful terrain, in a long line with other cars, pickup trucks, and some RVs.

We saw prairie dogs and a bluebird, but apart from that, our brief sojourn was kind of a bust as far as animals went - we came at the wrong time of day. We left the park the same way we had come in.

The same herd of buffalo was there. I joked that they probably were on salary, like underpaid extras in a B movie.

* * *

These bookends of that day - a memorial to the last massacre of Native peoples and a state park named for one of the victors - made me think in a new way about how we memorialize, narrate, teach, and pass on our national history after Charlottesville.

History is inevitably curated, and to tell the full truth about the American experience has always involved a kind of battle. That's what this business of monuments to heroes of the slave states of the South is about. Many of them were erected during the period when white supremacy regained full power in the South and scores of black men were lynched or burned alive each year.

I wonder how many high schools include the massacre at Wounded Knee or the destruction by white racists of the prosperous black section of Tulsa in 1915 in their curricula.

I wouldn't want to change the name of Custer State Park, and the statues to Confederate generals and racist heroes are also works of art. If they live on along the full context that surrounds them - if they are surrounded by the truth of the history that created them in a way that is absolutely profound and inescapable - they might have value as civic monuments.

If not, they should be torn down. If we are not ready to tell the truth about our history, in every public square and university building, then all must be erased.

* * *

I am old enough now to still have some hope for the future. If I were younger, I would feel only despair and anger, and I would tug on the rope to pull the marble down.

Genocide and slavery are founding elements of the republic. These are inescapable realities, and however we seek to erase them, the blood sticks to our hands.

The United States is also the great best hope of the enlightenment - a system based on the rule of law rather than of men. There are periods when it truly has seemed that the arc of our history bent toward justice.

We face a watershed moment now, in which so many dark truths are written and seen on the public stage. Will we choose justice and the republican ideals on which we were founded and let the natural progress that has unfolded on this land proceed in new, enlightened ways?

Or will we turn to the darkness of empire and crony capitalism and our inevitable decay?

As we left the memorial at Wounded Knee, I noticed a piece of graffiti scrawled on the marble entrance gate that no one had bothered to erase.

In all its raw authenticity, it read: “Fuck that genocide victim shit. We will always survive.”

We got back into our car, silent for a moment, before I switched on the ignition.

Then my wife said, “Every schoolchild in America should be taken to see this place.”

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