I love America. I believe that it is a great nation. And I am proud to live here. By most definitions, that makes me patriotic. However, there is a form of hyper-patriotism that goes far beyond this. Hyper-patriotism requires more than viewing the United States as a great country. It demands that people believe that the United States has always been a great country and that any of our nation’s flaws are minor–unless, of course, you are referring to flaws, real or imagined, that only emerged in recent years. For instance, saying that the country was great until President Obama was elected is generally considered acceptable according to the hyper-patrotic view. I was reminded of this dangerous, false vision of America by the presence of Dinesh D’Souza’s new tome, America: Imagine a World Without Her, in Barnes and Noble. In this book, D’Souza does not simply argue that America is a great country. He argues that the United States did not steal land from Native Americans tribes and Mexico, that African Americans today are better off because of slavery, that abolitionists were wrong to try and force a hostile majority to end slavery, and that Jim Crow, while bad, was intended to protect blacks. Coming from Dinesh D’Souza, of course, this isn’t much of a surprise. It has been obvious for years that bigotry is D’Souza’s bread and butter. It is interesting to note, however, that none of the claims he makes in his book are necessary in order to argue that America is a great country. I argue that the United States was not a great country originally. Rather, it took the work of reformers, from Wendell Phillips, to Ida B. Wells, to Bayard Rustin, as well as fair minded statesmen and stateswomen from Charles Sumner, to Hubert Humphrey, to Bella Abzug, to make this country great. I also believe that, thanks to the work of such people, America has made tremendous progress and deserves to be called a great country, even though it did not deserve such a title one hundred or two hundred years ago. That said, we still have a great deal of work to do. For example, LGBT Americans still do not have equal rights, bigotry is still a major problem, and Native Americans are still subjected to terrible conditions on reservations. These are not minor flaws. These are huge ones. So while our nation is great, we have a responsibility to make it even better. However, D’Souza and other people with similar views (former Arkansas state legislator, Jon Hubbard, who suggested that slavery was “a blessing in disguise” because it brought blacks to “the greatest nation ever established upon the face of the Earth,” comes to mind) believe that the version of patriotism that people like me subscribe to is woefully inefficient. So instead, they argue that America has always been great and that its past atrocities were minor mistakes that generally worked out well in the long run. That way, in addition to not properly acknowledging the suffering of those who have been wronged by the United States, they can also attack anyone who seems to be going against the vision of the Founding Fathers. Or, rather, their idea of the vision of the Founding Fathers. (James Madison opposing military chaplains or Thomas Paine advocating entitlement programs is ignored.) This narrative insults those who have been denied fair treatment due to traits like race or sexual orientation, but some people embrace it because it gives them, as Van Wyck Brooks would say, a “usable past” with which to promote their views. And I should mention that not all the people who embrace a rose-colored narrative about America’s past in order to promote their views are conservatives. Two years ago, a clip from a show called The Newsroom, created by liberal Democrat Aaron Sorkin, went viral. The clip involved a character ranting about how America used to be the best country in the world but now no longer is and how Millennials were the worst generation ever. Of course, the rant was obviously a crock. Why would a liberal believe that the generation with the highest level of support of equal rights for gays is the worst generation ever? Why on Earth would anyone seriously believe that America was better back when sodomy laws were still in effect, women were denied the right to vote, people were put into camps solely for being Japanese, Native American children had their braids forcibly chopped off by teachers as a means of “assimilation,” and African Americans were forced to drink out of separate fountains? Yet somehow, many liberals praised this speech, though others eviscerated it, such as Noah Barron in the brilliant essay “Were We Ever Great?” The best way to instill patriotism is to look at all the progress our country has made, not to create absurd myths about the country’s past.
Monthly Archives: August 2014
When Abraham Lincoln died, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton proclaimed, “Now he belongs to the ages,” Stanton probably did not guess that Lincoln’s racial views would be the subject of so much controversy. In the days of Jim Crow, Lincoln was revered, on the one hand by African Americans and white supporters of racial equality and on the other hand by mainstream politicians who tended to believe in white supremacy. The NAACP attempted to have its founding coincide with the centennial of Lincoln’s birth, while Woodrow Wilson, the most anti-black president since James Buchanan, also admired the sixteenth president. Franklin Roosevelt, who generally favored appeasing Southern racists except when backed into a corner, invoked the memory of Lincoln to justify his own civil liberties violations. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a staunch advocate of racial justice, arranged for African American singer Marian Anderson to perform under the Lincoln Memorial after Anderson was snubbed by the racist Daughters of the American Revolution. The lawyer Samuel Leibowitz made the decision to begin defending the “Scottsboro Boys,” a group of black youths falsely accused of raping white women in 1930s Alabama, after he heard that they had initially been found guilty and called the verdict, “an act of bigots spitting upon the tomb of the immortal Abraham Lincoln.” In essence, Lincoln was, just as he continues to be, something of a Rorschach test. When Jim Crow fell, Lincoln’s racial views became a major subject for debate. On both the Right and Left, people have described him as anything from a pseudo-abolitionist who dreamed of an America free of racism to a rabid, proslavery white supremacist. I recall watching Barbara Walters interview the Obamas for Thanksgiving and noticing that Michelle Obama seemed to look displeased as Barack spoke of his great admiration for Lincoln, making me wonder if even our nation’s First Family can’t agree on Old Abe’s racism or lack thereof.
New life has been breathed into the controversy thanks to the discovery that Abraham Lincoln was in possession of a book entitled, Types of Mankind, which argued that whites were a superior race and that different races had different origins. The book was used to justify slavery. Author Thomas DiLorenzo, who has in the past approvingly cited fellow authors opposed to Brown v. Board of Education, is, apparently without any sense of irony, using this discovery as another opportunity to try and eviscerate Lincoln for racism. Obviously, owning a book does not automatically mean that one agrees with its premise. An argument has been made that Lincoln purchased the book to be more informed about the views of his opponents. Given the use of Types of Mankind by some Southerners to justify slavery, this certainly seems possible. But it should be noted that Lincoln never attacked slavery with arguments based on racial equality. When accused by Stephen Douglas of wanting a society with racial integration and equal rights, Lincoln denied the charge. His argument was that superiority did not give someone the right to enslave someone else. So it is highly unlikely that he ever planned to try and publicly refute scientific racism. The fact that he was in possession of a book that promoted scientific racism is not particularly earth shattering precisely because there has never been compelling evidence that he regarded blacks as equal to whites. There are, however, numerous quotes from him that are clearly racist.
To what extent can Lincoln’s racism be chalked up to the era in which he lived? I would caution strongly against completely excusing his racism based on him living in the 1800s but also against viewing him as equivalent to someone like Jefferson Davis or Strom Thurmond. On the one hand, the idea that all white people were racist in the 1800s is a myth that withers under closer scrutiny. Many white abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Lydia Maria Child, accompanied their denunciations of slavery with denunciations of racism. By attempting to argue that every one of Lincoln’s white contemporaries shared his opinions on race, we malign the small but dedicated group of antebellum whites who insisted on racial equality. Even within the GOP, Lincoln was often at odds with more progressive Republicans, known as “Radical Republicans,” including Senator Charles Sumner and Representative Thaddeus Stevens. At the same time, if one were to make a list of the most racist white Americans of the era, Lincoln would fail to even make the top 100. Most Democrats, North and South, argued that the Declaration of Independence’s statement that all men had certain inalienable rights did not apply to black men. Lincoln disagreed, arguing that people of every race had the right of self-ownership. Even the conservatives in Lincoln’s own party, like Edward Bates, were frustrated by Lincoln’s eventual support for black soldiers and his steadfast insistence that any attempts to resettle ex-slaves in Africa had to be voluntary, rather than acts of forced deportation. Furthermore, as important as it is to remember that Lincoln opposed banning slavery in the South for most of his career, it is also important to remember that he ran for reelection in 1864 on a platform of a constitutional amendment immediately outlawing slavery nationwide. Finally, I would be remiss in failing to point out that many of the same people who castigate Lincoln for his shortcomings on race seem very willing to overlook or make excuses for Founding Fathers like George Washington who owned slaves and drafted a proslavery Constitution. The man who became the first successful presidential candidate to run on a platform of abolition looks a sight better than people like Washington do. We should study Lincoln’s 1860 remark to Alexander Stephens that if Southerners were afraid of the federal government freeing their slaves, “there is no cause for such fears.” We should also study his quote, in the same letter, that, “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.”