I’m not proud to be an American. Nor am I ashamed. I simply don’t’ have any personal sense of ownership of the many great deeds and misdeeds of our forebears. But even if our history isn’t a source of pride or shame, it is important to me, as an American citizen, to try to understand it.
That is the perspective that I bring to the recent controversies over monuments to major figures of the American past. I’m not talking about Confederate statuary and symbolism. As I argued some time ago, it is incongruous and outrageous that a revolt against the United States of America, whose purpose was the maintenance of slavery, should enjoy any kind of legitimacy in our public life. But how should we recognize the morally flawed but genuinely great men who have led this country at critical junctures in its history? Washington and Jefferson, along with probably most of the rest of the founding fathers, were slave-owners. Washington freed his slaves only in his will; Jefferson, the great apostle of human equality, couldn’t bring himself to do even that.
My own rule of thumb, which I applied to Christopher Columbus, is to ask: what is the person mainly known for? Washington and Jefferson were mainly known for their major contributions to the founding of American democracy. Those contributions deserve recognition and honor. An understanding of the foundation of American democracy is important to intelligent citizenship, especially at a time when those foundations are under threat from a would-be autocrat and his cult followers. At the same time, we need to be realistic and honest about how the moral abomination of slavery underpinned the remarkable construction of a great (albeit highly flawed) democratic republic. So, while I’m glad that Washington and Jefferson are appropriately memorialized in our nation’s capital, I would like visitors to their memorials to have the opportunity to view prominently displayed didactic materials that tell a balanced story.
A balanced story is exactly what most right-wingers don’t want to tell or hear. They want to airbrush our history. So, Sen. Tom Cotton doesn’t like the 1619 project, which is too emphatic in depicting the centrality of slavery and racism in American history. There are two reasons—one general and one specific—why American rightists want to underplay our racist history. The general reason is that If you are going to defend inequality—and that is what the right is all about—then you need to exploit primordial sentiments. So, rightists almost universally rely upon appeals to nationalism or patriotism (I’ve never really figured out the difference between the two) as an important basis of popular support. Cotton doesn’t want ugly details of our history to invalidate his proposition that ours is the greatest and noblest country in the history of the world. The specific reason the right doesn’t like to talk about racism is that more or less veiled racism has been an important component of Republican electoral success for over half a century. A full and frank acknowledgment of the evils of racism would require a shift in political strategy that thus far the GOP has been unwilling to make. Under Trump, quite the contrary.
There are also some on the left who have trouble dealing with the moral ambiguities and complexity of our history. So, Princeton has removed the name of Woodrow Wilson from its school of international and public affairs. Wilson was a horrible racist, but he did do a few other consequential things that have earned him a respected place in our history. A great university should be able to deal with that tension. A few weeks ago, Trump complained that radical leftists were trying to tear down all the monuments to our nation’s founders. Typically, Trump had no evidence to support his claim, but as if on cue, a few days later the NY Times published an op-ed by one Lucian K. Truscott IV advocating the takedown of the Jefferson Memorial. The Trump campaign must have been delighted.
Post-surgery Update: I’m coming along fine, fine enough to have typed this post with both hands. The pain is moderate now and manageable with over the counter anti-inflammatories. Thanks again to all the well-wishers.