Yes, this land is a great land, if by “this land” you mean the Ohio Valley or the Midwest or North America or even the giant plot of land that is the current territory of the United States of America. This is a continent of riches, riches that could sustain the many. But if by “this land” you mean the Republic for which the Stars and Stripes stand, there is no sense in which this land is great. It was built on Slavery and Genocide, expanded by War and the completion of that genocide. And currently it maintains a fragile global hegemony by exploiting its workers, importing cheap goods to appease those workers from counties that have outlawed slavery only in name, and is now putting the indigenous people who are migrating away from wars and violence that we helped to create in concentration camps. No, this republic is not fucking great. We happened to be on the “right side” of WWII. Great, some moral accomplishment. All we can say at this point is that we fought the Nazis 75 years ago. We outlawed chattel slavery and said that brown people have formal equality to whites. Great, we have done the barest minimum of making this a land for all. This republic encompasses some of the richest land in the world, land capable of providing for the human flourishing of multiple millions more than we already have, but instead the greatness of the land can be enjoyed only by the few. This land, in the sense of this country, this republic could have been great if our fore-bearers from Europe had encountered the indigenous people of this land and asked permission. For everything. Come to this land as guests and only moved here on invitation. But instead we have that stain of slavery and the theft of this land. This land is great; it is bountiful; it could provide a happy life for many multitudes for generations, but instead we turn the brown people looking for this land’s bounty away at our gates. No, we don’t just turn them away; we put them in cages to rot. Because for whatever greatness this land has, there is a rot in this land. Do you not realize that this isn’t the beginning of a possible future genocide. This is the latest phase of the European genocide of the indigenous people of the Western hemisphere. Do your fucking history. First as a tragedy, then as a farce. The tragedy at our foundation is obvious, but the farce is that no one understands how this is the repetition of that history. For us who remain inactive, their blood is on our hands, and when we think about what we would have done in 30’s Germany were we there, now we know. Now this land can only be great again if it becomes the land that is cared for by everyone for everyone in a way that generations can count on. The camps must be liberated. Then we must bring about justice. That won’t make America great. But it’s where we have to start.
Three books ruined me for living a comfortably boring middle-class life among the petty bourgeois. Before I tell you what those books are, I have to confide that it tickles my sappy romantic soul that books can still ruin people. How many people are ripe for being completely molded by a book? I cannot say. But we exist, and as long as there are a few of us, writing books and reading them will still be worthwhile.
The first book that ruined me was Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—which is itself three books, but no matter. The tale about Hobbits, Elves, Rings of Power, Dwarves, Dragons, and Wizards, told in an almost mythic voice, gives the reader a taste of what it would mean to live in a world where actions have moral weight, where identities matter, where who we are and what we do have ultimate meaning and significance, that they affect the fate of all good creatures in an enchantingly beautiful but fragile land. Good and evil exist, and there is satisfying and exciting adventure and peril in fighting for the good and resisting the evil, all for the cause of freedom and contented happiness of the small and the weak. Meaning. Weight. Death not in vain. But Tolkein’s books are a mere taste of weight because it’s not real; it is pure fantasy, and only the insane or those obsessed with cosplay would say otherwise. If a person is sufficiently taken with the life of meaningful adventure in a fantasy world, real life with its lack of apparent meaning seems dull and weightless, lackluster, and so as I child I would lose myself in play, pretending what I did was exciting and that it mattered. Playing with the idea of moral significance in Tolkien’s fantasy world was the perfect way to prime a child for what came next.
The next book that did me in was the Bible, the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. All of that make believe and play in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth that sustained my meaning-craving as a child failed to satisfying my developing reality principle as an adolescent. I needed something serious enough that it could withstand an adolescent coming to terms with the real world and the increasing pressure of the social world. With the Bible, that meaningful and exciting struggle between good and evil was both real and something I could be a part of. Though the meaning that the Bible finds in the world isn’t actually real—there are no gods, no afterlife, no redeeming drops of blood—I could pretend they were real, and I could surround myself with people who would tell me they were real. And oh, I believed in God and the afterlife and the redeeming drops of blood! I organized my life around them. I gave my life to them. Every action, every thought, every deed, every conversation mattered; the fate of the souls of the lost were always at stake.
If the Lord of the Rings showed me what it would be like if things mattered and the Bible showed me what it would be like if I believed it that they really did matter, then Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil taught me how to live meaningfully after learning that nothing could ever matter in the way Tolkien hinted at and the Bible promised. God is dead. God’s been long dead, at least from the perspective of a single human life, and most people have no idea what that even means. It’s not that god doesn’t exist; he never did, and besides that’s not the point. The point is that god no longer matters. We have ceased to understand cause and effect and the natural world in terms of a creator. We no longer believe sickness and health, good fortune and bad are the result of the providence of a beneficent yet inscrutable creator. We no longer believe that morality depends on the will and command of the Lord our God. At the same time nature has become disenchanted. No sense of destiny. No sense of mission. No sense of fate, character, good, or evil. But weight exists nonetheless. Weight depends on the will and health of the one for whom things are heavy. Mattering, significance, and moral weight are nothing more than the way each person relates to their world. And yet each of us are the kinds of beings who, seemingly inevitably, find ways to make things matter. Just because things don’t matter on their own, just because there is no god and no good and no evil out there in the universe, doesn’t mean that we can’t find things meaningful.
And here is where I return to that average, middle-class, contented life among the petty bourgeois. A house. A car. A husband or wife. 2.5 kids. A career. Health insurance. Security (or so we believe). A 401k. Since there is no meaning written into the nature of things, it’s perfectly possible to find value and meaning in these particular things; nothing’s stopping you. I just can’t do it. I was primed by these three books — Tolkien, the Bible, Nietzsche —for a more mythic, heroic, and morally sublime sort of meaning. What ever happened to the liberty and happiness of all free creatures, even the weakest? Whatever happened to the fate of souls (including the fate of one’s own soul!)? There may be no ring of power to destroy or Great Eye to defeat. Souls may not be fated for all eternity. There may not be any redeeming drops of blood. But there are still compelling enemies to fight and still satisfying battles to be won. Things to be overcome. Works of great beauty and sublimity to create. And if enough of us can see it, there are still free peoples whose liberty and comfort can be secured from their oppressors. One only has to have the vision for it. And the courage.