“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever:”- Thomas Jefferson
The above words were written by a man who lived by forcing hundreds of human beings to labor without compensation; a man who had people whipped, confined and sold away from their families, to coerce them into working as his farm equipment. He was a trader in abject misery, and only incidentally in tobacco and wheat. Though he penned beautiful, stirring words explicitly in the pursuit of human freedom, and even from time to time raised his pen in excoriation of slavery itself; though he supported legislative measures to reduce the profitability of slavery in order that its horrid tenure might be more quickly ended, his own bonds-people continued without relief to wear sorrowful paths up and down Monticello’s mountain. Thomas Jefferson trembled for his country because of slavery. In chapter 18 of “Notes on the State of Virginia” he acknowledges that no just God could side with him and his fellow enslavers. Yet, knowing this, he placed himself square in the path of God’s justice, even declining a bequest which would have compensated him for his slaves’ freedom and set them, at long last, on the path to free, dignified lives. While acknowledging the manhood of his slaves, though denying the African’s perfect equality with the European, he penned words which even now ring boldly in my ears: “We find these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
A slave waited upon Thomas as he penned these words, living a life barely worthy of the name, his liberty stolen before he could even know it and happiness to be found only through tiny cracks in the walls of slavery’s prison. How can a man so brazenly flout what he believes to be the edict of an almighty God whose will to vengeance no man can resist? What I ask of Jefferson must millions of times over be asked of the country he helped found. Must we not, if we believe there is a moral order to the universe which abhors injustice, believe that America is worthy to be damned? Patriots of all temperatures will tell us that the founders found themselves trapped in an odious system which they did not build and that they did everything possible to lay the groundwork for its destruction. I ask, what more need Jefferson have done to banish slavery from Monticello than fire his overseers, stop setting bounties for runaways and abolish the network of informants he maintained to keep his slaves in place? All he had to do to quit himself of the repugnant institution was lay off the extensive efforts he expended to maintain it. The same goes for all the framers. Patriots will point to the significant risks and hardships attendant to a hasty abolition of slavery. I ask, what hardship could be greater than the 750,000 dead over four years of civil war? Surely, adding 8 more slave states infected with this disease and allowing it to wind its way deeper into the body politic did nothing to lessen the sting of abolition, 1865 was hardly an easier ending point than 1788. The slave empire which the 13th amendment finally slew was vastly greater and more entrenched than the one which faced the founders. In 1790 America was a land of 700,000 slaves, by 1865, its chains held four million. Surely the framers did the country no favors by putting off the national day of Jubilee. If they could not have foreseen that slavery would only get harder to kill with age, then their noted wisdom is a farce and we should admit that by their foolishness they condemned three-quarters of a million men to the slaughterhouse on top of those they held as slaves in their lifetimes, and those who would live and die in bondage through the interim. If they could have foreseen, then they could not have thought they were doing the nation a favor and it was only their avarice which extended slavery’s hypocrisy so far into the future. I tend to favor this latter view, I think America is founded on a horrible viciousness.
Again, the patriots will say: “But we freed the slaves, and the American project showed its infinite perfectability and basic goodness thereby.” I will not ask by what magic abandoning crime pardons what has already been committed. I will instead focus on Jefferson’s own estimation of the impact slavery had on those who practiced it. In the same chapter 18 of “Notes,” Jefferson observes that the necessities of slave holding bred in the master class a congenital brutality. This is a basic yet deep truth about human nature. We are formed by what we do to others as much as by what is done to us. When we commit charity, the noble feelings which swell within us make us more likely to do so in the future. In doing charity, we become more charitable. When we commit acts of sadistic violence, we either strengthen whatever in us caused us to lash out, or, in silencing out better instincts, we make them weaker and may even cause them to evaporate. In other words, in order to commit brutality, one must become brutal. What is true of humans is true of nations. With the passage of the 13th amendment, America did not suddenly stop being the kind of country it had to have become to ebulliently practice slavery for 250 years, just as the serial killer does not cure his depravity by a single act of kindness, however great, and abolishing slavery was no act of kindness, it was simply the end of a particular horror. The change in conditions required to pass a single piece of legislation, no matter how noble, are not anywhere close to the change which must prevail to eliminate the effects of a century’s old culture, especially if that culture was born and defined in the context of the ignoble institution said legislation was created to destroy.
We could say the same of the civil rights movement. Patriots seek, by the same conjure which makes them think America was born again after the Civil War, to define America according to the brief thirteen year period from 1955 to 1968 during which we might say that the rights of Black Americans were a national priority; though even this exaggerates the reality. The passage of the 1964 civil rights act did not, nor could it, unmake the fact that Mississippi and therefore America was the kind of place where two grown men could be acquitted for the murder of a Black child by accusing said child of having addressed a White woman rudely. When we appreciate this, American history suddenly loses its rosy tint and we can begin to contemplate its unfolding in true color. We can see present injustices as growing naturally out of what America has always been. How out of character is it for a country which systematically exterminated its indigenous population to blow up hospitals half-way around the world? It isn’t. How out of character for that same country to topple democratically elected regimes for its own gain? The moralistic washing of the American past allows us to watch our country do horrible things and assume they are good, and even when we acknowledge that bad things have been done, it allows us to still consider ourselves fundamentally good, which gives the needed moralistic cover for the next atrocity. We do not even have the decency to tremble. True, the average American pays as little attention to the national body count as White northerners did to the lynching epidemic, but, the ability to assume American goodness makes it easier to hide the evil even in the rare moments where it is in full view, it makes every thin rationalization issued from Washington seem 10 million times more plausible than it should. While conservatives typically come to mind when we imagine the classic bull-headed American jingoist, progressives are as chained to this myth as they are. During the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton said: “America is great, because America is good,” a more impiously brazen lie than which the human mind can scarcely contemplate much less create. But can we be shocked at this boldness from one that sought the endorsement of Henry Kissinger, the war criminal who in condemning the un-offending people of Cambodia to a bloody holocaust, directed the U.S. Air Force to deploy “Anything that flies against anything that moves.” The devil himself must envy such murderous pith. Even Bernie Sanders, in criticizing America, yet feels constrained to sacrifice whatever moral integrity he has at the altar of American goodness and to treat the negatives as aberrations. You may criticize everything about America, but you may not damn it, when America commits injustice, it is not revealing itself, it is departing from a mythical true self . So what is the alternative to the mistaken assumption which even American liberals can’t seem to shake?
It will be argued, that there never was a nation which was not convinced of its own basic goodness. This much I concede, even Nazi Germany was convinced that it was fighting to allow the best of humanity to finally triumph over the worst. This reality is precisely why America must accept that it is worthy to be damned. If Americans realized that their pretensions to goodness were nothing more than another national mythos, they would be forced to believe that they have done horrible things in the past, are doing so now and will continue to without some kind of intervention. More specifically, they would no longer be able to define America by the few legitimately shining moments it has had, and would instead define it by the quotidian brutality that has dominated this polity for the past 410 years. Moreover, appreciating those shining moments as the true aberrations would, hopefully, keep them from being consumed by the master narrative and instead reveal them in all their insurgency.
The American mainstream resists freedom movements of all kinds, then, when they finally succeed, they rewrite history to make victory seem inevitable, which leaves us with no need to question the mainline culture which they fought against. Then, we can look at all the insurgent movements which failed, rest comfortably in the knowledge that they must have fallen outside of the gloriously moral American master narrative, and therefore conclude that their failure was due to their own moral turpitude, not the triumph of might over right. When we turn the Black freedom struggle into yet another instance of American moral catholicity, we ignore the structural factors that hindered such movements, thereby quarantining the questioning, criticality and subversion which made these movements possible to begin with, in order to fit them into the mindless nationalist impulses which had been trying to destroy them for decades. If America is ever to live up to it’s ideals where it counts, the real world, the country as it is and always has been must be revealed, this cycle of historical and cultural amnesia must stop. Insurgent movements that question America (to borrow Fannie Lou Hamer’s singular eloquence) are good, America is not. According to the very moral code that most Americans and, indeed, most humans claim to live by, America is worthy of damnation.
Another notable instance of Americans accepting that the God they claim to worship is not a federal employee came in Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Unlike Jefferson’s tremulous moment, Lincoln’s was not part of a book of answers written to satisfy a French official’s curiosity, it was an address to the nation, a war-chief’s proclamation to his people: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” Reflecting upon how remarkable this is, leaves one feeling that at least some portion of the Lincolnian mythos must be true. How remarkable to tell a suffering people that they have earned their suffering by the lights of heaven. How remarkable to tell people the truth. In speaking these words, it was clearly not the president’s intention to break his people’s will and spirit. No, he meant to galvanize his people, with the thought that by continuing to persecute the already long and brutal war, they were merely purifying themselves, according to the ancient law which demanded the paying of debts.
If from this, the people had understood that they were fit to be bled and bankrupted for their iniquity, and that anything less than this must be an act of divine grace, not compensation for the good work which they were then doing, they would have devoted themselves at the war’s close, to never being worthy of such punishment again. Instead, after the brief glory of reconstruction, they turned again to their inner brutality and have made doubly ponderous the record of their evil. There are those who would accuse America’s crimes by listing the iniquities of others. These would cite the millions held in bondage all over the world, for instance, or point out that ethnic cleansing has been a regular feature of human life for millennia. If America would claim no more for itself than not being the worst in all things, it must cease calling itself a shining city on a hill. It will be argued, that America should be judged relative to the records of other nations, not to accuse the wrongs its own wrongs, but as a simple matter of context. The least murderer is, if we may not say that he is good, at least definitively better than the worst of murderers. To return to slavery, the indictment against America for this sin is often met with the rejoinder that while America abolished slavery 152 years ago, there are still 30 million slaves, mostly in the developing world. Admittedly, America is on the low end of the global slavery index, if you exclude the 2 million prisoners whom it is still legal to force into unpaid or barely paid labor for the state. Even then, is it not fair to point out that when we talk about slavery in most of the world, in 2017, outside of the penal system, we’re not talking about legal slavery. We’re not talking about governments enforcing wills which list hundreds of human beings alongside cattle and land, but an illegal practice done in the shadows. But even this is not strictly relevant, because as I said, damnation is not based on comparison, my evils can’t expunge your moral record. Behind this threadbare defense is the assertion that on measure, America has been a force for good in the world. “We defeated the Nazis.” Adolf Hitler called “The Passing of the Great Race,” a racist screed by Madison Grant, adviser to several US presidents, his “Bible” and the Nuremberg laws were based on the Jim Crow laws. In historical memory, WWII has been transmuted into a war against racism and fascist ideologies. If this were the case, wouldn’t America’s war against the Third Reich have begun in 1935 when Jews under German control were instantly divested of their civil rights? “We destroyed communism.” It is an understatement to say we might fruitfully debate the merits of having kept the world in a state of constant precarity for decades, while toppling and undermining duly elected governments, in order to make the world safe for capitalism. Aside from this, that there are evils beyond America does not excuse this nation’s ample past and continuing contribution to the global sum. I could lay out the litany of crimes, from native genocide, to slavery, to imperialism: Supporting dictators, toppling dictators, bombing non-combatant nations, upholding the global system of finance and neocolonialism that perpetuates Western hegemony; but that would be its own essay and any honest appraisal of American history reveals it far better than I ever could. Until such day as the cultural reckoning which I lay out occurs, if it ever does, America be damned.