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May 24, 2019

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Know thyself and be true, America

Visiting a high school the other day, I was reminded of the painful path through adolescence, and the relief that arrives for most of us around the end of our teenage years: After the anguish of experimenting with varying identities — how we look, how we behave, even what we eat — there finally comes a blessed point that we may consider the beginning of adulthood, when we develop some comfort with our own sense of who we are.

Not that adults don’t sometimes still struggle with their identity, and act in ways that conflict with their true selves. The middle-aged guy who suddenly abandons his family or the woman who throws away her career invites the suggestion that they’re going through an identity crisis. Maybe, if they are lucky, they find their way home, or something better emerges from their personal struggles.

Lately it has seemed as though our nation is grappling with its identity, though at age 230 you would think the United States would be through adolescence. Were we just sampling some progressive policies (access to health insurance, an international effort on climate change), much like the way you try on a pair of jeans, or a young guy grows his first facial hair? Are the policies of the current administration (tax changes benefiting mainly the rich, a bellicose foreign policy) the real America? Or is our true self revealed in the resurgent progressive wave of the last election?

Actually, a look at American history suggests that we’ve always had trouble staying close to the inner soul of American-ness. We have been conflicted from the birth of the nation.

Our national identity crisis is clear in our founding documents: The Declaration of Independence asserts that “all men are created equal,” but the Constitution enshrines slavery by counting every slave as three-fifths of a person, giving extra representation in the Congress and the Electoral College of this supposedly egalitarian nation to the slaveholding states.

We’re taught as youngsters that many Europeans came here for religious freedom, but the lesson usually stops before noting that the colonists brooked no dissent from their own religious orthodoxy. Puritan Boston banned Catholics and hanged Quakers. Jews were denied civil rights in Maryland. Delaware required an oath affirming belief in the Trinity.

So are we surprised that this nation, which claims religious tolerance as one of its fundamental values, implements a ban on visits here by Muslims from certain countries? Why are we shocked by a Twitter message from a member of Congress that strikes many as anti-Semitic?

“America has always struggled with knowing who she is,” the Rev. William Barber II, the noted civil rights leader, told an audience at the University at Albany this week. “There is a great gulf,” he added, “between what she dreams of being and what she is.”

We see the peril of this clearly on a human scale. It’s not unusual for individuals to experience a dichotomy between what they say they believe and what they do. Hypocrisy is a quite common human trait. It can lead to emotional turmoil and personal ruin: The priests who sexually abused children made victims of themselves even as they victimized helpless youngsters.

And so it is with a nation. The divide between our national ideals and our real-world behavior shames us. It not only ruins our image around the globe, but also damages our own belief in America’s greatness.

Nowhere is this clearer than in our current divide over immigration. I grew up believing that America always extended a hand to less fortunate citizens of the globe, a notion symbolized by the Statue of Liberty standing as a beacon to immigrants. But a wall on our southern border would be a powerful counter-symbol. There are more practical ways to secure a border, but nothing makes as powerful a statement as a wall that nobody else should try to share what’s ours.

It’s no accident, of course, that the president wants a symbolic but very real wall on the border that divides nations of mostly darker-skinned Americans from nations with a majority of whiter Americans.

“This wall isn’t about border security. It’s about identity,” Barber said.

It was just 153 years ago, after all — an eye blink in history — that our Constitution finally was amended to strike its embrace of slavery. Our history and our current reality suggest that America is hardly as averse to racism as we wish to believe.

“Knowing who you are,” Barber said, “is critical to your ability to sustain hope in times of despair.”

No wonder these days are troubling. We are wrestling with our nation’s very identity, desperate for our true selves to be as good as we have long believed.

Rex Smith is editor of the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union.