Untended Wounds

I used to get a periodic newsletter in my email; a conservative bookseller’s club.  I signed up for it, to be honest, I have a tendancy to do such things.  Though I haven’t in some time, I’ll occasionally check out the Christian Broadcast Network, typically when I’m really pressed for something to write about, and I’ll sign up for conservative newsletters if only jut to hear what the other side is talking about.

The last newsletter I ever received before cancelling it was selling a severe revisionist history book to combat the liberal ruination of our proud past.  According to the blurb, if people listened only to liberals (read: us), then you would be forced to believe that our founding fathers were a bunch of slave owning racists.  While never coming out and saying it, the blurb made it real clear that the point of the “history” book was to dispell such myths.

Now conservatives and liberals both can get pretty far out there, and say some silly stuff, but this one just really fell flat with me.  Okay, not all of our founding fathers were slave owners, but some were.  Thomas Jefferson had a couple few, and even had what is referred to in some polite circles as “relations” with some of them.

What bothered me was that from the promotion of the book alone, the ultimate goal was clear; to remove any concept of fallibility from the founders of the USA in order to deify them.  I have little patience for this kind of thing, you should know.

The purpose of deifying the founding fathers serves a broader goal, of course.  If we can remove imperfections from the founding fathers, we can make the metaphorical United States itself free of any and all blame, any actions it has ever done as a single entity could therefore be deemed morally correct.  This is vital for the conservative, and more specifically neoconservative ideologies which are, to say the least, particularly aggressive.

The new conservative movement is very much ambivalent towards consensus building.  It is right by virtue of being right, and therefore any decisions made by the selected class should be joined lockstep without question.  Hence the attitude of the remaining few who vehemently support the war.  It is not enough to debate the details, but instead merely enough to call anyone against them defeatists and wrong.  Morally wrong.

A great example is posed by Rush Limbaugh.  While Mike did a great job of covering the aspect that dealt with Rush believing soldiers that were against the war “phony” in a much calmer and cogent manner than I ever could, I wanted to focus on Rush’s opinion on Republicans that opposed the war.

Simply put, they don’t exist.  Whether this is something he truly believes, or merely a part of the opinion peddling that he partakes in every day, I don’t know, but the nature of the statement itself hits exactly at what I’m talking about.  Rush Limbaugh has made a career out of demonizing both Democrats and Liberals.  And I’m not talking about respectively disagreeing with them, or even pointing out specific ones he doesn’t agree with.

No, we’re talking about wholesale, anyone left of center or anyone with a D behind their name is hellspawn.  So when he says that you can’t be against the Iraq war and still be a Republican, when he insists you must be a Democrat, the message is clear.  There is a right, there is a wrong, and he is clearly on the right side of it.

But there is a significant danger in this kind of mentality.  No one is flawless.  Every idea has room for improvement, and dissent, when itself not attacked but welcomed, only makes the idea/group/concept/ mission/ etc. stronger.  Failure to admit mistakes and listen to dissent, on the other hand, results in an inability to address failures.  If you won’t recognize a problem for what it truly is, then you’ll never fix it.

And slavery is a particularly powerful example of this.

Michael Medved, writing for Townhall, has a particularly, in the attempt of using a civil word, near-sighted piece up about the subject entitled, Six inconvenient truths about the U.S. and slavery.


The title alone should be enough to raise warning flags and sound alarms.

Further, the opening paragraphs pretty much fall in lockstep with the concepts described above:

Those who want to discredit the United States and to deny our role as history’s most powerful and pre-eminent force for freedom, goodness and human dignity invariably focus on America’s bloody past as a slave-holding nation. Along with the displacement and mistreatment of Native Americans, the enslavement of literally millions of Africans counts as one of our two founding crimes—and an obvious rebuttal to any claims that this Republic truly represents “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” According to America-bashers at home and abroad, open-minded students of our history ought to feel more guilt than pride, and strive for “reparations” or other restitution to overcome the nation’s uniquely cruel, racist and rapacious legacy.

Unfortunately, the current mania for exaggerating America’s culpability for the horrors of slavery bears no more connection to reality than the old, discredited tendency to deny that the U.S. bore any blame at all. No, it’s not true that the “peculiar institution” featured kind-hearted, paternalistic masters and happy, dancing field-hands, any more than it’s true that America displayed unparalleled barbarity or enjoyed disproportionate benefit from kidnapping and exploiting innocent Africans.

The entire purpose of this whole piece is simple; to mitigate the errors of our past such that they do not leave a blemish upon our history in the arena of “freedom, goodness, and human dignity”, thereby elevating us in our current actions.  If we had a history of not necessarily always being good and free, than our actions of today would rightfully deserve to be questions.

But, if on the other hand, we have never transgressed outside the realm of being free, and good and defenders of human dignity, then there is no reason for our actions to be brought into question.

And then Medved goes into his arguments.

“1. SLAVERY WAS AN ANCIENT AND UNIVERSAL INSTITUTION, NOT A DISTINCTIVELY AMERICAN INNOVATION.”

Which of course excuses nothing, and is a rationale that can be utterly destroyed by most people’s mothers.  I know I heard my mother at least once in my life ask rhetorically, “If everyone else jumped off of a bridge, would you?” (I don’t think she quite got the concept of bungee jumping at that point).

Precedent does not necessarily make any one thing moral or immoral, because something is the norm does not mean it is the right thing to do.  In fact, the moral thing is often times at odds with the standard thing, and it takes great courage and tenacity to affect a change for the better.

We simply failed to make the right choice at the very beginning, and there really isn’t much of an excuse for that.

“2. SLAVERY EXISTED ONLY BRIEFLY, AND IN LIMITED LOCALES, IN THE HISTORY OF THE REPUBLIC – INVOLVING ONLY A TINY PERCENTAGE OF THE ANCESTORS OF TODAY’S AMERICANS”

This one is particularly ingenuous because it requires a sort of slight of hand.  What Medved is doing is having you look at the quantitative and not the qualitative aspects of slavery, and as the saying goes, sometimes big things come in small packages.

President Bush taught America that a softball of enriched fissile material will give you a nuclear bomb.  You can hold enough heroine to achieve a lethal overdose in the palm of your hand.

Something doesn’t need to be vast and widespread in order to have significant and disastrous effects.

Even if slavery was such an eensy weensy little portion of American culture doesn’t matter, the effects have lasted for centuries.

The primary mechanism that allowed slavery to occur was evident in many European cultures at the time when sea going exploration led to meetings with foreign peoples and cultures.

When European pioneers met with Africans, with native Americans, and the indigenous peoples of South and Central American, one word, one idea persisted throughout all occasions.

“Savages”.

It was a near knee jerk reaction which resulted in the immediate subjugation of all races that were not White, European, and God Fearing (at least not fearing of the Judeo Christian God anyway).

By putting these other cultures beneath those of the European explorers/conquerors, behavior that would not be considered decent if inflicted upon another man was all of a sudden made right and acceptable by the mere fact that these other peoples of darker skin and strange languages and gods were not really considered people.

The fact that this persisted even AFTER the principles of the Declaration of Independance which proferred that ALL men were created equal with inalienable rights is a severe transgression indeed.  The Constitution, which set about guaranteeing these inalienable rights only served to pour salt in the wound, especially when you take into consideration such things like the 3/5’ths law.

The thing is, even after the abolishment of slavery, the underlying causal factor that allowed slavery to exist was never addressed, or redressed for that matter, and subjugation continued for hundreds of years following.

Making black people free in words did not even begin to scratch the surface of what was made necessary, and instead of it being a simple one for one transgression passed down through generations, as Medved would imply, in truth those issues left to their own devices have only spread and festered in the time since.

More on this later.

“3. THOUGH BRUTAL, SLAVERY WASN’T GENOCIDAL: LIVE SLAVES WERE VALUABLE BUT DEAD CAPTIVES BROUGHT NO PROFIT.”

If the previous argument was childish in nature, this one is outright made of the stuff of grade school logic hurled back and forth with epithets such as “I know you are but what am I?”  It can hardly be a justification that because a situation was not as bad as it could have been makes it alright.

This is akin to my toddler telling me it should be okay for her to draw on the walls with a crayon because her little sister is doing so with a permanent marker.  In fact, what this is is a straw man.

The idea is to get you thinking about genocide and not the institution of slavery.  Of course slavery wasn’t genocide, it shouldn’t take a scholar to understand that.  Genocide is the intentional endeavor of removing a race from the planet, and therefore would be highly detrimental to slavery since slavery requires the people to actually remain alive so it can work for you.

The mere fact that slavery was not genocide has no bearing on the merits, or lack thereof, alone.  It was cruel, dehumanizing, and subjected those shackled by slavery to brutal and callous treatment.

This isn’t comparing apples to oranges, this is comparing apples to Volkswagons.

“4. IT’S NOT TRUE THAT THE U.S. BECAME A WEALTHY NATION THROUGH THE ABUSE OF SLAVE LABOR: THE MOST PROSPEROUS STATES IN THE COUNTRY WERE THOSE THAT FIRST FREED THEIR SLAVES.”

By now, the argument Medved employs has long since entered the absurd.  What, I ask you, is the significance of whether the US became wealthy from slavery or not?  Does such a fact make it any more or less correct?

In truth, the argument that the economy of the South would crash if slavery was outlawed was an attempt to justify the practice to the growing disapproval of the north.  Centuries later, the agricultural industry of border states, particularly California, would make a similar claim about illegal immigration.

Using humans for labor, without pay, with brutal, physically and mentally violent treatment is severely wrong, regardless of the economic impact.  That the United States did not make a mint off of “the peculiar institution” does not in any way, no matter how slight, relieve it of culpability.

“5. WHILE AMERICA DESERVES NO UNIQUE BLAME FOR THE EXISTENCE OF SLAVERY, THE UNITED STATES MERITS SPECIAL CREDIT FOR ITS RAPID ABOLITION.”

Here there is some sort of qualitative analysis regarding the merits of unique blame and non unique blame.  In truth, this is no different than a rewording of points 1 and 2.

“6. THERE IS NO REASON TO BELIEVE THAT TODAY’S AFRICAN-AMERICANS WOULD BE BETTER OFF IF THEIR ANCESTORS HAD REMAINED BEHIND IN AFRICA.”

If this sounds somewhat familiar, good, it should.  Read: The administration’s anti-terrorism programs work as evidenced by the fact that there have not been any 9/11 style attacks on US soil since.

This is a wild hypothetical, and a lame one at that, that serves little purpose in furthering Medved’s argument.  Even worse, it’s an oversimplification of the facts.

It is true, that there is no telling whether modern African Americans would have it better or worse had slavery not been in practice.  We are talking about centuries worth of history during which anything could happen.

But it is also misleading because it fails to account for the SPECIFIC problems that face African Americans, and in truth all of America.

Medved’s argument can be boiled down to two salient points:

1. Slavery wasn’t as big a deal as everyone seems to think it was.

2. We weren’t the only ones doing it, so cut us a break.

There’s only one problem with these assertions; they do not take into account the reality of today.  Slavery was abolished long ago in America, but slavery was not the only problem, nor was it even the heart of the problem.

In truth, the real heart of the problem was the way in which one part of the population of this country viewed another part.  For whites, particularly Southern whites, blacks were subhuman, a different species, and therefore not deserving of the rights believed inalienable to all peoples.  This is the lasting wound that slavery has left upon the fabric of our nation.

And it had been allowed to grow infected for far too long.

Even after such healing salvs as the Civil Rights movement, Civil Rights Bill, Desegregation, Hate Crime Legislation, after all of it, the effects still linger and eat away at the soul of a country that is born of immigrants and travelers and cultures from far off lands.

In a recent conversation, I defended my patriotism, and it is for this: the idea that so many cultures can come together and make each other stronger.  That the freedoms afforded us are great, and noble, and just.  But for me, my ideal of patriotism is that these are ideal to be continuously fought for, not to be smugly assumed are in supreme existence regardless of the actions of the state or the people therein.

By mitigating the significance of slavery in American history, we are performing a grave error.  We are allowing those problems connected with slavery to continue to grow and bubble underneath the surface.  Often times, these cultural woes are not content to stay below the fold.

Just recently, look at the racial tension that we have seen:

-Jena 6

-Republican Frontrunners bowing out of a debate for black people.

-Allowing DC, a largely black population, to have a congressional vote voted down in congress.

-Don Imus

-Bill O’Reilly.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg.

But there is an ideological drive behind refusing to let these wounds heal.  With 9/11 it was to allow the emergence of the State grow unfettered, here, the continued racial tension seems to benefit the politics of fifty plus one mentality.

This does not suit the ideals that I strive for in a country I am most proud of despite it’s shadowed and checkered past.  True patriotism does not mean exalting your nation to eminence, it means looking at it with a scrutinous and tough eye, recognizing what it has done, and continues to do, wrong, and trying to fix it.

The racial tensions and transgressions are not a problem for and of minorities alone.  They are the problems of Americans.  They are the problems of human beings.  For me, while Jena 6 may be about racism, the solution is not justice for black people, its justice for people.  For members of our great American community.

Somewhere embedded in our rich history is the idea that United We Stand, Divided We Fall.  The only way to truly be united is to actually heal where we are divided, not by ignoring these divisions and hoping they’ll go away.

(All apologies to Matt for stepping on his toes on this one.  I had started writing this hours ago and kept getting interrupted.)

3 Responses to “Untended Wounds”

  1. matttbastard says:

    Pshhh. No toe-stepping. Multiple perspectives are always welcome. 😉 I wasn’t willing to wade in the muck as deep as you did. Hopefully no stains were incurred.

  2. A very good dissection of these lame-brained arguments.

    There’s also Gary King, a black man shot in the back by a police officer and left on the sidewalk for 15 minutes to die; Megan Williams, the black woman in Virginia who was tortured, forced to eat feces and called the N-word; and Pleajhai Mervin, a 16 year old black girl who had her wrist broken for not cleaning all of the cake crumbs on the ground at her school. Of course, I know your list wasn’t meant to be exhaustive; I’m merely putting it out there for other readers to look into these other cases.

    But, yes, the right-wingers are so emotional and reactionary. It’s as if they feel an immediate sense of guilt and then must rush to defend themselves and their mythologized heroes, the Founding Fathers, so they can wave their flags with unmitigated fervor.

  3. No, no stains, I do feel particularly dirty though. *shudder*

    And yeah, it’s very reactionary, and the thing about the founding fathers is that they are mistakenly used to justify everything that they want to do as prescribed by their ideologies. For instance, reintegrating the church and public schools.

    The common argument there is that htis is a christian nation sprinkled with a little bit of Christianity is good and not nearly as bad and violent as the other religions. What they fail to take into account, however is that two of the founding fathers who were probably most prominent in writing the Constitution, Madison and Jefferson, were neither Christians, nor supporters of endorsement of any religion by the government. Just recently, John McCain made the statement that this was supposed to be a Christian nation, but while the Declaration of Independence did reference an almighty Creator, that document has no power beyond the symbolic.

    That document that does direct the laws of the land, the Constitution, by contrast, actually omits references to anything theoligical at all. ONly in the First amendment andthen the fourteenth, I believe (I would have to double check) is religion addressed and that to the purposes of establishing the metaphorical “wall” between church and state that madison had fought for.

    But judicious study of the framing of the country, nor of virtually anything else is particularly helpful to any hard set ideological drive. Even the most extreme fringes of the liberal ideology must shun such scrutiny for new knowledge has the potential to threaten an ideological world view.

    What makes this so pervasive among the right is that the mainstream right has been significantly over ran by factious extremists.

    Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

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