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National Opinion

The Soul of a Nation

He was tall, and heavily built. He spoke in a dragging southern drawl and, as we talked, he sank deeper and deeper into his armchair, like a forever wilting flower. Having met this older gentleman at a conference while we were waiting for an event, we talked about Louisville, where he was from and where I had once lived. It was the summer of 2016, and the conversation naturally drifted into politics. He was a Trump supporter, and seemed to revel in it. This was before the Republican convention, while Governor John Kasich was still rallying his banners for one last moderate hurrah and Senator Ted Cruz still had a shot at unseating Trump on a second-ballot vote. In other words, he had chosen Trump.

I was fascinated and appalled by this living anachronism, a man from a culture as backward to progressive New Englanders like myself as colonial Benjamin Franklin was to the people of Paris. He was a seventh-grade history teacher, a churchgoing man (he used the fact that two Black teenagers had sporadically attended his church, some years ago, as evidence of his open-mindedness), and a well-trained parrot of Fox News talking points. He did not understand why Black Americans could not just “behave themselves, like you all do,” alluding to the ‘Model Minority’ trope that stereotypes Asian-Americans such as myself as the JV team for white people. He used the fact that Lincoln favored deporting emancipated African-Americans to Liberia as evidence that the Republican Party was too progressive on social issues. I was horrified that this man was an educator, a teacher of history, someone who had the power to shape childrens’ understanding of their heritage and their nation. Finally, we talked about guns, and his arsenal at home. He insisted that he needed the weapons to defend himself from government tyranny. So I asked, “Even if it does come to that, do you really want to die fighting your own country?”

He slumped even deeper in his chair, “It’s not my country anymore.”

***

In the weeks following the police murder of George Floyd, protesters have once again pointed to the issue of statues enshrining the legacy of slavery, its champions, and its enablers in America. The traditionalist response to claims for racial justice has been a slippery slope argument: if we take down statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Confederate traitors who sought to wring “their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” then we will be taking down Presidents Washington and Jefferson’s statues tomorrow. We might have to rename Yale (gasp)!

The question of the legacy of Thomas Jefferson is the most essential question about the first principles of America. The chasm between the American promise and American reality stems from the gap between Jefferson’s Declaration and Jefferson’s deeds: slaveholding and Manifest Destiny expansionism. Did the aristocratic plantation owner understand what force he was unleashing upon the world in those haunting, hallowed words, “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal”? Had Jefferson known that his self-evident declaration would become a watchword for Americans of color, feminists, the landless, and every marginalized group to stand up and seize their rights, would he still have written that phrase? Or would he, like Prufrock’s unnamed woman, shake his head ruefully, saying, “That is not what I meant at all / That is not it, at all”? Were we a nation built on the promise of equality for all, or were we just another slaveholding, colonial power of wealthy white men, run by wealthy white men, for wealthy white men?

The northern, Lincolnite position has become the dominant view of American history: that we were “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” In President Lincoln’s eyes, the very first principle of this nation was radical equality in a radical democratic republic. Just a decade before Edmund Burke argued, via the French Revolution, that meaningful rights are only derived by ethno-national heritage, the newborn American republic had declared in its foundational document its dedication to the equality of all men. President Kennedy, in his inaugural address, framed the American Revolution as a repudiation of the conventional, Burkian position: “And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe––the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”

Looking upon the cemetery in Gettysburg, President Lincoln reframed our Civil War not just as a struggle for a union, but for an ever more perfect union. He sacralized the sacrifice of the Union dead not just as federal troops against rebels, but the “last full measure of devotion” of Americans, black and white, who died to work the unfulfilled promise of Jefferson’s words into reality.

If Lincoln was correct, then America was truly an exceptional nation, engaged in a project no other state in the history of the world had dared to attempt. The question of Jefferson’s legacy is a question of how America was organized: what sort of a community are we? Primarily, it is a debate between whether America is a community of values or a community of tribalism. A community of values, like the ecumenical Church, organizes itself in the pursuit of a shared ideal which supersedes political, geographic, socioeconomic, and linguistic barriers. A community of tribalism, by far the most common form of state formation throughout human history, organizes itself around some shared (and often immutable) identity, such as ethnicity or native language. It is natural to want to band together with people who look like you, who talk like you, who live like you. It is natural to ingratiate yourself into your own “little platoon” of society and stick by your tribe: just think about a middle school lunchroom, or Greek life at Yale. 

If America was a community of values, founded upon the propositions of equality before the law, a representative democracy, and a liberal, tolerant public sphere, then we were indeed the great torch of liberty, sparking fires of emancipation around the world. President Kennedy embraced the northern vision of America as a community of values, championing liberal democracy everywhere, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” In fact, the reading of America as a community of values is reflected in the radical success of the musical Hamilton, in which Americans of color and women could dare to see their own stories told in those of the Founding Fathers, united across time, race, and gender by the shared project of American liberty, diversity, and (consequently) excellence.

But the northern vision of America as a community of values, a shining city on a hill for liberal democracy, was and is only one among a number of readings of American history. It did not have to become the dominant narrative of American history, and soon may no longer be. Nikole Hannah-Jones and the New York Times’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project received widespread criticism from historians when it debuted last year for making the case that America was “founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.” This is a massive and shocking concession to the Confederacy, conceding that America was indeed founded as a community of tribalism for landed white men, as the Confederates claimed.

According to Hannah-Jones, the Confederacy fought to preserve the true spirit of America’s origins: white supremacy over a black slave class. According to this argument, instead of fighting to defend the great experiment of liberty and equality, as President Lincoln insisted, the Union was actually effecting a revolution, undermining the very basis of America’s foundation, and starting anew with a fresh set of first principles. In the New York Times’s reading of history, there was a first American republic, under the founders, conceived in slavery and dedicated to the proposition that all men are not created equal. President Lincoln, in effect, overthrew the first republic and oversaw the foundation of a second American republic, this one conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Of course, this reading of history ascribes no moral value to the Confederacy’s cause: people fight for horrifying traditions all the time, and tradition summons no moral legitimacy in and of itself, as Shirley Jackson demonstrated. However, the 1619 Project’s assault on the Lincolnite vision of America from the left shows how fragile and malleable our national stories are.

Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project claim that the story of America began in 1619, when traders brought the first African slaves to North America, but I submit that 1676 is even more consequential in the history of American racism. In that year, the American frontiersman Nathaniel Bacon, upset at the colonial government’s refusal to endorse violent westward expansion against Native American allies, led Black slaves, white indentured servants, and colonials from the lower classes in revolt against the ruling British aristocracy. When the aristocratic class had finally put down the uprising––only with the help of professional soldiers imported from the home island––they vowed to never again let a multiracial coalition of the subjugated classes unite.

In order to divide their servants not only along class lines, but also along racial lines, the Virginia legislature passed the Slave Codes of 1705, establishing a clear racial hierarchy that granted white peasants social superiority over black slaves. Thus, the ruling class pulled open superficial racial divisions in order to distract their servants from the class struggle. Ever since 1676, this has been one unending story of American democracy: how the rich and powerful aristocratic class have invented the social construct of Black America (“welfare queens,” “thugs”), Asian America (“hordes of barbaric yellow dwarves”), Hispanic America (“they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists”), and every other America in order to keep down the working class by dividing it along superficial ethnic boundaries. President Johnson, a Southern Democrat, sardonically remarked, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

***

I have always been immensely proud of the fact I grew up in the Midwest, the “Heartland,” as most Midwesterners are. The Midwest conceives of itself as the “true” America: working class, physically robust, and morally hardy. But there is a coded, ethno-centric message at the heart of the “Heartland.” Unlike most nations, where the standard vernacular is the dialect of the capital, standard American English is the Midwestern dialect, not Washington, D.C.’s, because the Midwest is white, and D.C. has a large black population. The Midwest is everything the community of tribalism imagines America to be: white, evangelical, and suburban or rural.

When Trump advisor Mercedes Schlapp discussed the President’s horrifying pandemic response on CNN, she made a point of interrupting the host at the mention of Minnesota and Iowa to declare, “They’re great Americans!” Why interject at the mention of the Midwest to declare that? Are New Yorkers not great Americans? Are Californians poor Americans? In Schlapp’s tribalist eyes, Midwesterners are great Americans because they are homogeneously white. According to the tribalists, like Trump, no one else really belongs in America.

As an Asian-American child, the Midwest quickly taught me that I was not white, and that I would never be truly accepted in an ethno-national America. I learned to assimilate into an ethno-centric, white America: I played football, I joined the Boy Scouts, I listened to Bruce Springsteen and Roy Orbison. In my self-presentation, I made sure to emphasize the ‘good ole’ American boy from the Heartland. Still, it was never quite enough to be seen as legitimately American.

On the first day of practice in freshman year of high school, my football team’s captain greeted me with cries of “ching chong.” He refused to address me as anything other than “ching chong” for weeks. In seventh grade, one classmate ran through the school hallways while returning from recess, pulling his eyes into wide slants and giggling, “Look, I’m Tim Han.” My track and field coach called me a “chinaman.” I love my country, and I loved Wisconsin, but I knew that Wisconsin did not love me. So when I received an invitation in the mail to transfer to a prep school on a full scholarship, I seized the chance to escape to progressive New England. Unfortunately, as I was soon to learn, racism is not a regional problem, but a fundamental stain upon the human condition.

***

The story of Wisconsin reveals much about the complicated history of American progressivism. The same politicians in Madison who conceived of the Wisconsin Idea, the first plan in history to make higher education accessible to the general public, were at the very same time fighting ethnic warfare over the arrival of new German immigrants. The Bennett Law of 1889 ignited a political war between Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian Republicans, and the newly arriving German Lutheran and Irish Catholic Democrats. Settlers who had arrived in Wisconsin a precious few decades earlier immediately turned around and joined the Know-Nothing Party in order to keep out their fellow immigrants. Men living in a city named Milwaukee, stolen from Native Americans, elected the first socialist mayors in a major American city. The same state that stood solidly behind progressive champion Robert M. LaFollette was responsible for Joseph McCarthy’s nativist “Red Scare.”

American progressivism is, sadly, deeply implicated in the lies of demagogues who, like the Virginia aristocrats after Bacon’s Rebellion, divide the working class into fictional divisions of “us” against “them.” I do not mean to create any sense of false equivalency between 19th century progressives and their contemporaneous conservative counterparts: the dream deferred is infinitely preferable to the dream denied. Nevertheless, the fact that even the progressive movement was deeply implicated in the failures of American pluralism demonstrates how troubled the narrative of Lincolnite multicultural egalitarianism is. To this day, populists on all sides of the political spectrum continue to indulge in a terrible strain of American nativism. As the story of the Bennett Law controversy shows, generations of immigrants in our nation of immigrants have, too often, walked through the open door of America only to slam it shut behind them. Stephen Miller’s own uncle recently reminded Trump’s immigration czar that Miller’s proposed policies would have prevented his own family’s immigration to America. Moreover, some of America’s greatest progressive victories have been marred by nativist and exclusionist motivations.

In the infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, the Supreme Court accepted the constitutionality of “separate but equal” segregation. The sole objector to the Court’s opinion was the Justice John Marshall Harlan, who declared in his great dissent, “our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” Nevertheless, Justice Harlan demonstrated the necessity for civil treatment of Black Americans by using a derogatory comparison to Asians just a decade after Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, “There is a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race. But, by the statute in question, a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger coach with white citizens of the United States…” Or, more clearly, even “a Chinaman can” be treated with dignity. It is a strange progress indeed that grants rights to one man by asking him to step on top of another.

President Wilson, the champion of self-determination abroad and reform at home, established his legacy as a progressive champion. Yet progressive President Wilson also resegregated the federal government. In the midst of seeking a newer world through his Fourteen Points, Wilson’s administration sent a secret dispatch to our French allies requesting them to please treat Black American soldiers, fighting and dying for our nation, worse! I cannot fathom how a commanding officer could tell a foreign power to treat his own soldiers like slaves instead of men, as President Wilson’s government did:

“The French public has become accustomed to treating the Negro with familiarity and indulgence. This indulgence and this familiarity [These] are matters of grievous concern to the Americans…. They are afraid that contact with the French will inspire in black Americans aspirations which to them (the whites) appear intolerable…. Although a citizen of the United States, the black man is regarded by the white American as an inferior being…. The vices of the Negro are a constant menace to the American who has to repress them sternly.”

So yes, it is good that Princeton took this man’s name down.

The Civil War was supposed to decide the question of America’s foundation, and establish, once and for all, a multiracial nation committed in its first principles not to ethnic superiority or cultural homogeneity, but equality and liberty for all. Instead, the community of tribalism bided its time and struck back when the North looked away. In 1876, a narrow election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden returned inconclusive results. In the following weeks, Southern Democrats reached a compromise, the Compromise of 1877, with their Republican opponents. The Democrats would cede the Presidency to Hayes, and in exchange, the North would withdraw all federal troops from the South, essentially ending Reconstruction and disenfranchising African-Americans for another century. The Democrats and Republicans were able to come to this agreement, to sell away the rights of African-Americans, because they were not fighting over a question of community of values or community of tribalism. Members of both parties may have made appeals to democratic values and egalitarian principles, but in reality, they both implicitly if not explicitly accepted that while their America may happen to be a community of values, it was first and foremost a community of tribalism for wealthy white men.

***

On election night, 2016, I was excited. There had been long lines of cars snaking through the town, covered in blue bumper stickers even in populist New Hampshire. The country had come to a moment of moral reckoning, I felt, on its first principles. Were we a unique, multicultural republic built on the promise of equality for all, regardless of color, class, or creed, or were we an ethno-nation state, like every other country, established only to preserve and promote a white national identity? I was eager for the disease of white nationalism, which has plagued America since its foundation, to be finally beaten down and crushed in a decisive confrontation between tolerance and extremist intolerance. I believed in the marketplace of ideas, I believed in the bending arc of the moral universe, but most of all, as a Christian, I believed in the Day of Judgement.

Before I checked into my dorm for the night, I bought snacks for the watch party. I went down to the common room, where one of my friends, another financial aid student, like me, another student of color, like me, was watching the early election returns. It was just the two of us. At her table, our dorm’s faculty adviser (“dorm fac”), a South Asian teacher at the school, was calling her husband. But a curious thing happened. As the “blue wall” began to crumble, the rest of our dormmates, one by one, started coming down to watch. My boarding school was probably the most progressive community I have ever known, but our dorm happened to be overwhelmingly white and wealthy: we had a lot of the crew team and the hockey team. When Ohio went red, our faculty adviser stepped outside. By the time they had called North Carolina for Trump, the rest of our dorm was in the common room, whooping and hollering. After our dorm fac had gone home for the night, one of my friends remarked that he had heard our teacher despondently asking her husband over the phone, “How can we raise our daughter in this country?”

One of the hulking jocks, a student who currently attends Yale, laughed uncontrollably and howled, “Fuck that! We’re going to deport her!”

***

What America is, for what (and whom) it stands, and what it means for the history of organized society are less obvious questions the further into American history one recedes. But the community of values must win. America cannot become just another ethno-nation state.

America is an idea and an ideal, and therein lies its greatness. The whole history of organized human society has been one tribe against another, people who look like me against people who look like you. It is natural to retreat into our tribes and point fingers at the outside world. It is natural to mythologize our own ethnic greatness and deny another’s. It is natural to wall ourselves off from people who do not look like us, do not speak our language, or do not share our faith. It is natural to fall prey to demagogues inciting xenophobic fear, racial tension, and crying for culture war. America is an aberration in the history of the world, an unnatural community that dared to defy conventional wisdom and aim for something greater. Those who want to drag the country into a mythical past where America was white and utopian would return the United States to the league of ordinary nations. We are great because we dared to be diverse, to be pluralistic, to be multicultural, and tolerant. When we fail to do those things, when we are fearful of outsiders, or distrusting of each other, we become just another nation.

The debate over Jefferson’s legacy and the nature of America’s community will not end in 2020. Even if Trump loses (and liberals must remind themselves that the proposition remains a big “if”), the GOP has become the Party of Trump, and is likely to remain so for a long time. Like Odysseus’s fatally irresponsible crew, the decision by Trump’s enablers to open his bag of white supremacist bluster has tragically blown back the American ship of state in its epic course toward racial justice. As with the evils of Pandora’s Jar (the “Box” is a mistranslation), once released, the demons of xenophobia and bigotry are not easily tamed. But those who argue, like President Lincoln, that America is a community of values, ought to argue all the more vociferously and win the debate. The American story––ultimately, who we were and what we meant to the world––depends on it.