Mike Koetting September 5, 2019
During purges by various Russian Communist leaders, there was an aphorism to the effect that while the glorious future of Communism was clear, the past was much harder to discern.
From the Civil War on, America was generally marked by clarity about both its past and its future. Both were great!
In the last several decades, however, both have become less certain and more contested. Many pundits have suggested the struggles are related and our squabbles over the interpretation of history are in fact arguments about what we hope—or fear—for the future.
While I am not generally given to naïve optimism, maybe it would be easier to come to some common understandings about the future if we could come to some common understandings about the past. The past, after all, consists of facts that are known and, at some level, not debatable. Yes, some people prefer to dwell on certain facts, while others choose to emphasize different facts. But since they are all real, maybe it is possible to create a framework that accommodates all.
There are a few basic high-level facts that are in some way so correct that it is hard to dispute them in any kind of good faith.
- American History Includes Evidence of Fundamental Flaws
There is no serious argument about the despicable nature of some parts of American history. Indian genocide, slavery, stunning Jim Crow attitudes and laws, exclusion of women and propping-up dictators around the world are indisputably part of our history. However, the essential issue, as James Loewen points out in his sharp but balanced book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, is not just that these things happened. The real issue is whether we are willing to recognize the causes of these events, which are fundamentally white racism, male privilege and the sometimes reckless accumulation of wealth. Unless we recognize how these fundamental imperfections were built into some of the core fibers of America–and continue to shape our struggles today–we are not equipped to map a better course in the future.
2. All Issues Need to Be Judged with Some Degree of Relativism
Many will balk at this. Moral is moral is moral. Fair enough. But it is totally anti-historic to think every culture at every time saw things the same way. There are no pieces of land anywhere that were not conquered by some invading tribe. The fact that one tribe swallowing another in France, Germany or China was so long ago tends to obscure that the true origin of those countries and culture was every bit as brutal for its time as was the conquering of the Indians by the white European tribes. While this is not an argument that such behavior is either moral or inevitable, it certainly has been the case through most of recorded history.
Likewise, slavery has been relatively universal, as has discrimination based on race, gender, creed, or other characteristics. Again, this does not say these things are right, but only that these issues are wide-ranging from an historical perspective. Dramatically invalidating the entire American experience based on these actions, morally objectional as they are, doesn’t make sense in the global historical context.
3. America Has Been Remarkable on Some Issues
It is just as myopic to not recognize that America is in some important ways “exceptional”. The original Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were remarkable documents. Yes, they built on a number of previous developments and had complex historical roots. And they were certainly flawed documents. But they also truly changed the nature of the world and have served as a durable framework for the maintenance of a stable democracy governed by a rule of law for almost 250 years.
America has also been remarkable in our ability to take people from all over the world and assimilate them into a single country. Part of this was simply the luck that this vast real estate initially offered more resources than people. And this process has rarely been as smooth as we might now pretend—anti-immigrant sentiment after the First World War, for instance, was as great as it is now—and assimilation has always worked better for whites, especially Christian whites. Still, one could look far and wide and not find a country that attracted more people from more places than the USA. And, truth be told, still exerts a powerful magnetic pull around the world, even if somewhat diminished from better times.
Two other important considerations. While there has been no shortage of anti-democratic activities by the U.S. over history, America has served as a beacon of democracy around the world, and often invested resources and lives to that end. It is also the case that American culture, fueled in large part by capitalism and economic resources, has proven a particularly fertile environment for innovation of all kinds. In Neal Stephenson’s 1999 novel, Cryptonomicon, he describes a Japanese officer early in World War Two deciding that America would surely win because of the speed at which they could create new tactics when old ones didn’t work. “American ingenuity” is part marketing, but like most successful marketing, based on some reality.
American “exceptionalism” can not be used as an excuse for everything the country has done. And the idea that it should become a litmus test for patriotism is absurd. But neither is it historically accurate to deny the places where it is true.
There is another thing, less factual but more important for coming to a functional notion of American history. Over time, America has in fact tried to make itself the country that it pretends it is. Winston Churchill may or may not have said: “Americans will always do the right thing—after they have exhausted all the other alternatives.” But it isn’t a bad way of viewing our history. In a very ragged, inconsistent and some-times self-contradicting way, we have tried to live up to the ideas set down in our founding documents. It is a project that is very much unfinished, but in some ways is the most important national project.
I believe taken together the above constitutes a reasonable framework for a view of American history that people across most of the political spectrum could agree on. It certainly won’t resolve all the disputes in the interpretation of our history. It doesn’t, for instance, help us determine how exactly to teach the history of blacks in America or whether there should be reparations. These are difficult issues that will appropriately continue to be debated.
But I believe there is great value in a country embracing a common intellectual and moral heritage to serve as a rough guide to approaching the future. We can cast America not as a country that could do no wrong, nor as a country that could do no right, but as a country that created itself with great aspirations. From the very beginning we have imperfectly lived-up to them, but we have repeatedly, even if irregularly, returned to these principles.
It is important, however, to take note that tacking toward these principles is not from some inevitable evolution of thoughts that existed from the founding. It has happened because certain founding thoughts have won out in hard struggles over other thoughts that were also there from the beginning. These conflicting impulses continue to clash and, not only is there no guarantee our better angels will win, there is no guarantee we will hold on to all the things that have been accomplished.
Martin Luther King famously said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We should neither take that arc for granted nor deny that is the potential. As a society, we are much better off if we focus on bending the future arc of American history toward justice. Developing a realistic sense of how of we got here is useful. Spending too much time on past problems—or worse yet, trying to wave them away—less so.
Perhaps a shared framework about our past will help us focus better on our shared future.
ARTWORK from Scott Stantis’ Prickly City strip.