The controversy surrounding the comments of Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, has once again highlighted a major divide in American politics. At one extreme are those who believe that America is an exceptional nation chosen by God to bring democracy and justice to the world; at the other are those who hold that America is no different than other imperial powers. Formed in slavery and genocide, it is as responsible as any other nation for the atrocities that stain human history.
Many on the left criticize those on the right for what they view as a form of mindless and blind patriotism, of obliviousness to the evils committed by Americans. Those on the right view many leftists as bordering on traitorous, unable to recognize that America has more often than not been a benevolent power that has sacrificed greatly to promote freedom around the globe.
The middle ground is rarely articulated in American political discourse, and yet this is where the truth lies. What we need is a humbler and more truthful American narrative.
Such a narrative would begin by acknowledging the great tragedies of Native American genocide and black slavery, the legacies of which linger to this day. It would recognize that slavery hardly ended with the Civil War; it continued in one form or another until WW II, and then morphed into an extremist racial segregation that continued until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In fact, of the more than 350 years of American history, fewer than 50 have been characterized by even a modicum of decency towards black Americans. It is not an exaggeration to describe the treatment of blacks in America as domestic terrorism, made all the more evil because it was perpetrated by American citizens against other American citizens who happened to be of a different color.
But the evils that were committed against blacks, Indians, and other immigrant groups throughout American history have always been tempered by the ideals set forth in our founding documents. The Declaration of Independence states that all men are created equal. This was a revolutionary doctrine, and it was always there to prick the consciences of those who realized what it said about our treatment of blacks and Native Americans and yes, women too. Over generations, the ideal that all men and women are equal helped to create one of the most multi-ethnic and economically mobile civilizations of all time. America may be a nation of sinners, but it is also a nation that strives to live up to its ideals and to overcome its moral imperfections.
Americans, believing deeply that freedom is a universal right, have also sacrificed tremendously to help spread liberty throughout the world. Americans died by the hundreds of thousands fighting Nazism and Communism, wicked ideologies bent on world domination. Today American military bases around the world do more to prevent conflict than to incite it. While Iraq makes the headlines, no one hears about the relative peace and tranquility secured by American forces throughout much of the world.
America’s foreign policy has aided and abetted heinous crimes, but this was usually done to oppose what we understood to be even greater evils. For example, while there is no real excuse for American support of dictators and oppressors, we justified these steps during the Cold War in the face of Soviet aggression and expansionism. This irrationality reached its apex during the Vietnam War, when it became common practice to destroy entire villages in order to “save” them.
Despite all the contradictions and wrongdoings, the American experience has been marked by continual moral progress: by the knowledge that we must do more to live up to our highest ideals, and by our movement toward them. America will never be perfect, but this does not take away our legitimate right to try to influence world events. American power is best used with one eye on our own shortcomings, and the other on promoting those universal human rights that represent the best of who we are.
A more humble and truthful American narrative recognizes how easy it is to commit evil in the name of good, and the need to guard against this; at the same time, the narrative gives us confidence that our highest ideals are worth promoting across the globe.
P.S. A time stamp for the comments is coming soon. Thanks for your patience.