Repeating It Doesn’t Make It True

Back in the early 1990s, Saturday Night Live had a character who began his skit sitting in front of a mirror repeating positive comments about himself. I’m good enough. I’m smart enough, and doggone it, he would say to his image, people like me. The rest of the skit mocks Stuart Smalley’s willingness to open up and share his consistent slides into shame spirals. His guests inevitably reveal deep, recessed emotional weaknesses, whether real or imagined, and finish the skit repeating positive comments to themselves in a mirror.

He’s a character that reveled in his dysfunction.

The idea, of course, was to satirize the self-help/self-esteem movement in America. What we see in the mirror, the skit reminds us, isn’t necessarily what everyone else sees. More importantly, the face we put on to meet the faces that we meet is often constructed on thinly hidden lies, half-truths, and self-deceptions.

As we head back to work after a Memorial Day full of parades, speeches, and declarations of American superiority, I’m reminded of Stuart Smalley and Saturday Night Live.

I will say, and argue, that America is a great nation. We have unprecedented freedoms and opportunities that virtually no one else on earth can offer. People aren’t sneaking into the country because we are all so good-looking and they have a hankering for Big Macs, KFC, and 200 cable channels.

But I think we have too many politicians and their constituents who are staring in the mirror and seeing images that might not exist.

The greatness of America has always been in our potential to get better. Our power as a nation is directly proportional to our willingness to see what’s actually in the mirror not what we wish was in the mirror. Our dysfunction fed our innovation.

And we have transformed the world. Let’s make no mistake: America has done more good than harm over the course of time. Our intentions are, almost always, noble and democratic.

Yet, we seem to be losing that self-critical sense of our national self. Patriotism, increasingly, is defined by loyalty to the American brand and not to the ideals of America.

In Texas, we recently abandoned our state curriculum provider because they asked students to consider whether the Boston Tea Party participants were terrorists in the eyes of the British in the 18th century. We’ve narrowly defined what kind of history can be taught for credit at the college level and eliminated those courses with too much “ethnic” studies.

In my hometown, we are hearing more and more invocations at public events delivered by elected officials and school administrators that are aggressively Christian, denying the very real possibility someone in the audience might not see Jesus as her lord and savior.

And criticizing America or admitting fault has become a treasonous offense to some.

This staunch rejection that other views exist, this stubborn unwillingness to recognize our flaws, and this radically un-American emphasis on unity of thought has turned us into the Stuart Smalley of the international stage. We profess freedom, we trumpet the Bill of Rights, but we too often insist on narrow dogmatic interpretations and actions.

We stare in the mirror and believe anything our image says. Just because we repeat it, though, doesn’t make it true.

We have, it seems, lost our collective confidence that our flaws, and recognizing those flaws, makes us stronger.

America became a great nation by embracing our empathy for the poor and downtrodden. We willingly stole the best parts of other cultures, learned from our mistakes, and rejected the totalitarian dogma of the past. We might be slow to apologize but we work hard to correct our mistakes.

This nation was built on dysfunction and diversity, disgust and desire, contradiction and consistency.

As we reflect on this past weekend and our Memorial Day celebrations, we should note the men and women fought for those inconsistencies and those flaws. We memorialize their sacrifice not for our Christian nation but for our democratic ideals.

We are smart enough. We are good enough. But, doggone it, we can get better if we stop pretending the image in the mirror is perfect.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

One Response to Repeating It Doesn’t Make It True

  1. I really think it’s up to the individual, and as more individuals gather, communities are formed… this is what will glue a nation together. With so many freedoms comes so many schisms. I don’t know what would be worse, if we were all the same, or if we just keep in-fighting. Anyways, I’m Canadian and I think my country does an A++ job too!

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Things I Read

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Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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