Henry Rollins: America the Not-So-Exceptional
Photo by Heidi May
Several days ago, I was driving on the 15 to Nevada. I was going to visit an old pal of mine who is fighting for his life against cancer. As I was wondering what his condition would be, what would comprise our conversation and if I would be able to see him in this condition without breaking down, I listened to live reportage of the memorial march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
I am sure you know your history and what took place at this location on March 7, 1965, otherwise known as Bloody Sunday.
The 2015 march, thankfully, wasn’t nearly as memorable as the first one, at which many were attacked and beaten senseless or worse by Alabama state troopers. America and the rest of the world watched that 1965 march with probably every emotion on the human palette. A century after the Civil War, this was how America was conducting itself. Obscene, revolting, despicable. Not exceptional, free or brave.
Fifty years later, thousands of people arrived from all over to peacefully march across that same bridge, with their President Obama, whom Rush Limbaugh characterized as “Halfrican American,” in front.
I wondered what this 2015 event was supposed to mean. Was it intended to be more than the acknowledgement of this horrific, violent event and the passage of the Voting Rights Act? Was it to note the great strides made and the further steps to be taken?
Why did Americans have to make that march all those years ago? The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, states, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” Why was there a need for the Voting Rights Act when all this was covered and in the books decades before? Is this how it goes in the most exceptional country in the world? Is this what you point to when you want to explain to someone from another country why yours is better than theirs?
To be exceptional, you don’t swear to protect citizens, wear a badge, then take a stick and bash someone in the head for walking across a bridge.
We do this a lot in America: We go back to these places, where churches were blown up, citizens were herded into relocation camps, pointless battles were fought and people died for causes that should never have been causes in the first place. We go back and dwell in the still-open wound.
To be exceptional, you don’t repeat obviously bad behavior and call it progress.
Talk about a long way to go. I don’t think we have gotten more than a few steps off the starting blocks. Good grief, why are people still having these ignorance-drenched arguments over race in America?
Not exceptional. Pathetic is more like it.
Events that seem small can have huge impact. When University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon members sing about what kind of men would never be allowed in their fraternity, it’s more than just some bonehead frat guys being stupid. These are college students! Future leaders, movers and shakers. This is a microscopic event, but it is a setback and illustrative of how far we haven’t come.
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How could you, as an African-American person of any age or occupation, hear what those students said and somehow get past it? Why would you bother? What’s in it for you? The “bigger picture”? What does that look like? Is that the magic day when everyone cuts this dismal bullshit and gets a clue? Why wasn’t that yesterday?
I used to think it was generational — that one day, this would literally die off. But if you’re one of the aforementioned frat guys, are you going to teach this prejudice to your kids? Are you going to potentially send this revolting point of view forward? Why?
The reason all this infuriates me so much is because, like hundreds of millions of other Americans, I love America. I am fully aware that those to whom I am diametrically opposed do, as well, which I think is truly exceptional. It is this almost genetic affection for this amazing country that makes all this race stuff so hard to take.
Hours later, I arrived at the hotel where I was going to overnight before my visit the next day. After dinner, I drove up and down mostly empty streets and looked at massive chain food outlets, brightly lit, anonymous, and thought about what I was there to do.
Nervousness and anticipation got me up early the next morning. I sat in a Starbucks and waited for the agreed-upon time.
I arrived at the house a little after noon. When I settled down in the front room, I had a spell of déjà vu. I have spent time with people at war with cancer. Often, they are the ones who have to put you at ease.
Our conversation over the next several hours was very much like the ones we have had throughout almost 20 years of friendship. Eventually, the topic turned to what he is going through.
I have found practical discussions about life and death, when one is working to outwit a lethal and devious foe, to be at once perfectly logical and totally surreal.
The sun had almost gone when I promised to visit again as soon as I could and took my leave. He’s hanging in there — stubborn, brave, exceptional. I have not one excuse for my many shortcomings.
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