What the grievance brigade misunderstands about America

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The ongoing crusade against America’s civic rituals and founding values picked up pace this summer.

The city council of St. Louis Park, Minn., stopped reciting the Pledge of Allegiance before its meetings, lest immigrants feel “uncomfortable.” Nike junked a commemorative Fourth of July shoe with an embroidered Revolutionary War flag on its heel because the flag could “offend and detract” from the national holiday. The Charlottesville, Va., city council scrapped the city holiday celebrating Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. The San Francisco School Board voted to cover up a mural of George Washington. Colorado State University recommended against using “America” or “American” to refer to the United States and its citizens since those words “erase” other cultures in the Western hemisphere.

Previously, monuments to American history have been shrouded, vandalized and removed; patriotic ceremonies have been cancelled or renamed. A former San Francisco school board president, now a city supervisor, encouraged schools honoring Washington, James Monroe, Jefferson, and Francis Scott Key to rechristen themselves, because those historical figures “are not relevant or meaningful or inspire pride.” A statue of Abraham Lincoln at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has been targeted repeatedly for removal because, as one protester from an indigenous student group explained: “Let’s be real. He owned slaves . . .and ordered the execution of Native men.” 

These erasures are done in the name of fighting patriarchy, racism, genocide and colonialism. At the next outbreak of iconoclastic zeal, two questions should be posed to the purifiers:

Compared to what? 

There is hardly a single world culture that has not aspired to domination of the “Other,” often achieving a level of subjugation surpassing anything accomplished by the United States. Slavery has been almost universal throughout much of human history, practiced by the Ottoman Empire, the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese dynasties, Native Americans, the Aztecs, and the Mayans, among other tribes and nations.

Brutal indentured servitude can still be found in the Middle East and Africa. Recent civil wars in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo used rape as an instrument of war; young girls were abducted for sex slavery. Islamists in Sudan have engaged in torture, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. Hutus in Rwanda massacred hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in 1994; the blood bath continued within refugee camps. The Khmer Rouge, Idi Amin, and Robert Mugabe crushed human rights. Japan colonized Korea. According to historian William Osborn, Native Americans committed wartime atrocities – deliberate murder and mutilation – against over 9,000 civilians and prisoners during three centuries of conflict with European settlers; the European settlers committed two thousand fewer such atrocities. Females continue to be treated as chattel in large swathes of the Middle East and Africa. Blackface remains a popular staple of entertainment throughout the Arab world. 

Whose values are you vindicating? 

The campaign against American history is based on values derived from the very Western tradition that the academic and political Left currently reviles. The movement to abolish slavery arose in the West; it employed principles of equality and individual rights unique to European political theory. That the United States was willing for so many decades to tolerate slavery’s grotesque violation of the country’s founding ideals is a stain on our history. But those ideals did belatedly win out, and they continue to inspire movements for freedom the world over.

The academic and progressive Left preposterously regard the Enlightenment as the source of the world’s racism. If the Left succeeded in routing Enlightenment ideas, it would have nothing with which to fight the hatred and contempt for the “Other” that has characterized tribal relations from the start of human history.

Martin Luther King, Jr., understood how precious America’s Enlightenment ideals were, even if the country betrayed them for so long. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” the Reverend King said from the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. “This note was a promise that all men—yes, black men as well as white men—would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” No member of the intersectional grievance brigades would grant such legitimacy and honor to our founding documents today; the authors of those documents are being unceremoniously thrown on the dust heap.

The anti-American crusaders’ woeful ignorance of the past goes beyond thinking that Abraham Lincoln owned slaves; that ignorance extends to the present world as well. They have a brittle intolerance of human frailty and of the messiness and complexity of social change. America’s founders made compromises with their own ideals that today we may regard as egregious and unacceptable. But humans are never perfect; history is a record of moral failures as well as triumphs. We learn as much from the former as from the latter; erasing history is simply a power play and an act of sullen revenge.

The saddest part of the current rage against the American past is that after the monuments have been removed, the paintings effaced and the nationalistic words banished, nothing will have changed in the status of the self-proclaimed intersectional victims. The academic achievement gap will be intact. The greatest barriers to racial equality today are not statues and patriotic holidays; they are family breakdown and a street culture that regards academic effort and achievement as “acting white.” The time spent spray-painting statuary could be far better spent in the library acquiring knowledge and mastering skills.

Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal and author of The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine our Culture (St. Martin’s Press, 2018).


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