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Lions Roar : January 2018
ROM THE VERY BEGINNING of this country, America has been two things, not one. We have our founding reality and our founding dream. And the two are not the same. Our founding reality was ugly and unequal. Nobody can deny that. Take it from Thomas Jefferson himself. If you go to Wash- ington, D.C., you can visit the great Jefferson Memorial. It’s this beautiful place, this amazing place. You can climb those grand steps and see for yourself these words from Jefferson, a slave owner, writ- ten in marble and stone: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.” You might be thinking, “This doesn’t sound like proud tri- umphalism from the founders.” Well, you’re right. It doesn’t sound like somebody who thinks he’s solved all the problems of the world. It sounds like something is off. Jefferson’s words reflect a concern that something profound is wrong with the republic, at the very point of its founding. He’s talking about slavery. The violent enslavement and subjuga- tion of hundreds of thousands of human beings of African descent. And he is worried because the founders failed to abolish that mon- strous institution; he himself was guilty of the same personally. There were many more flaws in this country that should have left the founders trembling. At that time a woman could not vote in America. Native American land and lives were being stolen at mind-boggling rates. LGBTQ folks didn’t even have a name. Unless you were a straight, white, wealthy landowner, you essentially had no citizenship rights. That was the founding reality: ugly and unequal. Now, if that’s all America ever was, it would command zero allegiance from anyone. It would be impossible for a decent hu- man being to be a patriot. If America were only about keeping that same small circle on top, it would never have stirred the imagination of billions of people over the centuries. In fact, it would never have survived. But that’s not all America was, even at the start. And that’s not all we are now. While you’re standing in that same Jefferson Memorial, if you turn your head just a few degrees, you’ll see something else. Something astonishing in its beauty. You’ll see that the same slaveholding Thomas Jefferson also made this statement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all... are created equal.” And there you have our most powerful articulation of the founding dream, which is a beautiful vision about equality. What is the American project? What are we about? Who the heck are we, anyway? The answer to that question is one that has inspired the world. We are that rainbow-hued people, unique on this earth, who contain in our multitudes every color, every faith, every gender expression and sexu- ality—every kind of human ever born. And we are living together, in one house, under one law. And we mostly get along. Just a few decades ago, what we do every single day was considered impossible. But here we are—a miracle in human history. At our best, our mission is simple. For more than two centu- ries, we have been working to close the gap between the ugliness of our founding reality and the beauty of our founding dream. Each generation tries to narrow that gap a little bit more than the last one did. No, we will never have a perfect union. But we can always have a more perfect union, decade after decade, generation after generation, century after century. That’s who we are. That’s what we do. That’s what makes us Americans. ♦ From Beyond the Messy Truth, by Van Jones. Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. PHOTO(center)©GIUSEPPECRIMENI/DREAMSTIME;(Rightandleft)BYEDUARDORAMIREZSANCHEZ/SHUTTERSTOCK Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Flaw What is the American project? VAN JONES says it’s the ongoing struggle to close the gap between beautiful ideals and ugly realities. F LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2018 71