“Happily the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” - George Washington, 1790
Wandering about the Independence Mall in Philadelphia a few weeks back, this was just one many inspirational quotes I saw from America’s forefathers. I still don’t know if this particular quote was the most profound; there are a lot of them about the mall. But it certainly was the most prominent; the script is written in 10-foot high letters on a building just a few hundred feet from the Liberty Bell.
But when I read these words, I didn’t feel inspired; I felt duped. Something that was supposed to make me proud of my past, enraged me about the present instead. The whole story of America seems to have become a sham, one now made solely for other people.
This past visit to Independence Hall was my third, and before this trip I’ve always felt proud to be an American. This time, however, I looked around at this place where America began, and I was wrapped in a swirl of sadness, shame and anger. Each story from history bringing it on anew.
Standing in the east wing of Independence Hall, our guide told us about Thomas Paine. How when America was founded in that very room 241 years ago, it was Paine’s words that inspired the likes of John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin. Paine was an immigrant – the same type of man our president demonizes by calling them criminals and drug dealers. A legacy of hate that’s built today to throwing children out of the country, and denying entry to the victims of war.
My guide then talked about George Washington presiding over the creation of the Constitution itself, a responsibility he took as America’s first and greatest military hero. The same military that today’s president and his followers demand be expunged of honorable transgender men and women who fight even now for the very commander in chief that denies them their equality.
Our guide even talked about Thomas Jefferson, whose first draft of the Declaration of Independence included a condemnation of slavery: “Violating (the) most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death…” That Jefferson himself owned slaves until his death – and even then freeing only a few – complicates his legacy. But he would be aghast I’m sure at the North Carolina legislature, who sought so desperately to disenfranchise African-American voters that they violated the very Constitution Jefferson help create.
So it was the whole tour: every great deed that the guide discussed, every moment of historical precedent toward liberty made in that hall, is today being systematically destroyed by the very government that was created there.
One thing he said struck me as particularly tragic: “Our country’s history isn’t just important to us; it’s important to the world. For many nations, the roots of their democracy began here.” Looking at the tourists in the room – some from Brazil, Canada, Japan, and the Netherlands – I knew he spoke the truth.
Or at least what was the truth. Today, we have abandoned that legacy of leadership. While the most of the civilized world moves forward in its attempts to protect the rights of people of diverse LGBTQ, ethnic, and racial status, ours moves backward.
It is our Justice Department that newly claims LGBTQ people do not have the right to be treated equally, and that governments in places like Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore may continue to harm the very people they are sworn to protect. What began twelve score and one year ago is today a model for no one who cares about freedom. Instead, we have become a mockery of what we were created to do. Looking once last time at General Washington’s desk, I wept.
Leaving the hall behind, I thought about those athletes who our president has now labeled “Son of a bitches”: those who have refused to stand while our national anthem plays on the sidelines. I supported their right to do so, but until Philadelphia I’d been keeping a physical and intellectual distance.
But now, gazing one last time at the tower where the Liberty Bell once rang, I at last understood. They protest because they know from personal history what my privilege has only now made me understand. I am ashamed of what I did not know, what I refused to see.
Yes, I have supported their actions, but I have not defended them nor tried to make others understand. The simple truth, however, is this: those people who refuse to stand? They do so not to insult the military, or the police, or America’s past, but to proudly represent what those very things have always worked to protect. They do not insult those that founded this nation; they are the ones who embody those founders. Exercising their First Amendment right to decry what has for them is a historical litany of failures, ones our president now works so desperately to continue.
As I concluded my visit to Philadelphia I felt sick. On every visit before that day, my ignorance and privilege let me radiate with the history of our country. My life, I thought then, a small but shining example of what was possible. But I am not that at all; I am instead an example of what this nation finds impossible: to live up to itself.
I am done. I will no longer live this lie about myself or others. I will no longer stand by and watch the destruction of this nation’s legacy to itself and the world. That’s why I, too, no longer stand by on the sidelines, in the stands, or anywhere else where it is expected. Sitting because I mourn what this country has become – but more because I love what this country can still be.
Until that future day, though, I will not mindlessly deny my own experience and the history of millions of others by standing up, putting my hand on my heart, and repeating or singing words of liberty that now ring hollow for so many Americans. You, of course, may choose differently, and I respect that decision, too.
But I cannot stand – not until once again those words on the wall mean to me what they are supposed to.