“America holds onto an undemocratic assumption from its founding: that some people deserve more power than others.”
~ Jamelle Bouie, The 1619 Project
“Jeffries and teachers in upper grades I talked to around the country say they spend the beginning of their presentations on slavery explaining to students that what they learned in elementary school was not the full story and possibly not even true.”
~ Nikita Stewart, The 1619 Project
“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
~ President Barack H. Obama
“We’re not going to make America great again. It was never that great.”
~ NY Governor Andrew “Granny Killer” Cuomo
America has always been “undemocratic” and racist and on top of that, it lies about it. America is no better than any other country, just one of many – nothing special. As a matter of fact, America was never that great.
Why are remarks like that important to America as a nation?
I’ve thought about that a lot as over the past several years, our own history has been weaponized and used to attack contemporary America.
Did Paul Revere really make his epic ride? Did the ownership of slaves by some of the Founders negate the ideals incorporated in the Declaration of Independence? What about honor and gallantry during the Civil War, are those characteristics denied to soldiers of the Confederacy while savagery on the part of the Union soldiers ignored?
There is no doubt that history is often in the eye of the beholder – but I think that is true of man’s history. Even when recorded as factual as possible, there are always good guys, bad guys, and victims – and it is no surprise that no matter who wins, that party that did “win” wants their actions to be validated, if not justified.
In my observation, this desire results in two different historical narratives – the bad guys, the cultures/forces we often understand as “wicked” tend to build a mythology around the past to paper over prior bad acts. This “history” is often enforced by coercion, censorship, and force as a way of attempting to explain or excuse their past.
On the other hand, the “good guys” – the “righteous” cultures/forces, choose to record an “aspirational history”, that accentuates the positives while minimizing the negatives. That does not mean that the bad parts of their history are ignored, denied, forbidden, or hidden, what it means is that the nation resulting from such historical narratives tends to tell tales that imagine what they aspire to become – a hopeful visage of their futures.
I have always been mindful of something the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote. He noted that for the sake of morality and as a ground for reason, people are justified in believing in God, even though they could never know God’s presence empirically. He also noted that “If one cannot prove that a thing is, he may try to prove that it is not. And if he succeeds in doing neither (as often occurs), he may still ask whether it is in his interest to accept one or the other of the alternatives hypothetically, from the theoretical or the practical point of view. Hence the question no longer is as to whether perpetual peace is a real thing or not a real thing, or as to whether we may not be deceiving ourselves when we adopt the former alternative, but we must act on the supposition of its being real.”
I think Kant’s philosophy is applicable to the creation, maintenance, and maturation of nations. It seems to me that nations with aspirational histories that adopt those criteria as a basis for their systems of morality, and make the decision that it is in the nation’s best interest to accept that history as true, are almost always the nations that advance the most righteous causes and support the most important advancements of mankind.
It is these are the nations that value the characteristics of freedom and self-determination far more that others. They are far less concerned with the mistakes of their past than they are getting it right for the future.