One of the remarks I found most interesting in Barack Obama’s inaugural speech the other day was his claim that “The time has come to . . . choose our better history.” Now on one level this could be taken as an innocuous statement that we should in some sense prefer to affirm the noble aspects of our national history rather than those of a more ignominious nature.
However, It seems to me that there is more to this statement, in the context of the entire speech than simply that. Rather it reflects a perennial problem of popular American historical self-narration. Namely the notion that we are able to narrate our history in a way that is selective. Why does it even make sense for us to be able to think that we are able to choose for ourselves our own “better” history?
The problem with this is that our “better history” is not true apart from our less-than-better history which lies all around it. The moments of nobility and within American history cannot be isolated from the totality of its story. The whole idea of America choosing its better history reflects the fact that ultimately America as a nation is not able to truthfully narrate its own history. Perhaps the most fundamental initiatives that made our country possible are the genocide of the native peoples and the enslavement of Africans. Could Obama have said that and got away with it? Doubtful.
At the end of the day the main point is that whatever our “better history” might be it is pretty small in comparison to our whole history. More importantly, the fact is that any “better history” we might isolate and point to as “our story” is ultimately a false history. And, as Bonhoeffer has rightly pointed out it is impossible for a community of peace to exist unless it is founded on the truth.