"How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"
— Samuel Johnson
I first read that when I was a sophomore in college and it shocked me. Dr. Johnson was talking about the Founding Fathers, whom I had been taught in high school to worship as secular gods. This shock was aggravated by my recently cultivated admiration for the Great Cham of 18th century London literary life. He was brilliant and witty, so how could he not like George Washington?
Well, this kind of dissonance is what universities are supposed to produce. You take a kid from a lower bourgeois background who'd only ever read best-sellers and genre, who'd been stuffed with predigested jingoed-up high school social studies, and expose him, as my college did, to The Canon of Western Literature, and the result is kind of intellectual panic. That’s what’s supposed to happen in college. Maybe your mom told you not to suck on pennies because ‘you don’t know where they’ve been;” good advice, and college teaches you not to put ideas in your head unless you know where they’ve been.
It also teaches you to hold contradictory ideas your head at the same time, without going crazy. For example, the Founding Fathers were trying to “form a more perfect union” a main purpose of which was to “secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.” In order to do that, however, they had to allow the Constitution to embrace slavery, the antithesis of liberty, because the nation they were conceiving politically in liberty, was economically dependent on chattel slavery. The whole nation, by the way, and not just the South. So these gentlemen, whose high-minded sentiments are enshrined in our founding documents, also thought it was sort of okay to own human beings, to get rich by working them to death, to rape them, to consider the progeny of these rapes as slaves themselves, to sell children away from their families, including the children of their own loins. (It is not recalled sufficiently that some fifteen per cent of the people held in slavery in the United States by 1860 were indistinguishable physically from their masters. Scarlett O’Hara’s nanny would not have looked like Hattie McDaniels, she would have looked like Scarlett O’Hara, and might have been her half-sister.) So we have to recognize the nobility of their sentiments at the same time as we despise them as drivers of negroes.
This we may call the National Filth. All Americans are in it, some up to the ankles, others up to the chin. Some drown in it. Some think the shit is Shinola, that it doesn’t exist or that went away a long time ago. Some think that if you mention it, you don’t love our country, but that shouldn’t be a problem, because almost everyone loves someone with a serious problem. (Dad is a drunk; Bubba shoots heroin…) If we’ve learned anything from our long immersion in the culture of therapy it’s that denial doesn’t make the problem go away; it makes it worse.
Our problem is compounded because while the drivers of negroes lost the Civil War, they managed, by a remarkable intellectual sleight of hand, to win the battle of history. I was educated in the New York City public schools eighty-five years after the end of that war, and what I learned there was that the war was terrible tragedy of complex origin (Name the five causes of the Civil War—15 points), that Robert E. Lee was a noble fellow, far more attractive than General Grant, that Reconstruction was a failure, that black legislators in the South were corrupt and incompetent and were rightly flung from office by decent white Southerners. We did not much discuss lynching or Jim Crow. Once, in elementary school, my lilly classmates and I were shown (what a treat!) D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and cheered for the Klan riders as we would have for the Lone Ranger. I can only imagine what history classes were like in the actual South; perhaps they are still shoveling out that shit.
As we have seen recently, the National Filth is still robust, and stoutly defended as sacred heritage by young men united in their disappointment with modernity and their ignorance of history, marching under flags symbolic of lost causes. In this they are encouraged by the sly ambiguous condemnation of their President.
Suffice it to say that they order such things better in Germany, whose own National Filth is recent enough to be recorded on film. Regardless of what particular Germans may think, the German state is solidly on the side of remorse and apology. There are lots of Holocaust memorials in Germany, but none celebrating the undoubted valor of the Waffen-SS. We have the opposite: hundreds of monuments celebrating the valor of the South but none commemorating the long continuing story of the torture, rape and murder imposed on black people, which that celebrated rebel valor was aimed at perpetuating.
At this juncture, justice is probably beyond our grasp. Justice might have involved the mass hangings of the Confederate generals and political leaders. It might have required a dragonnade of the entire South, shipping the white ruling class on its very own Trail of Tears to some barren place in the Nevada Territory, and turning their land over to the people who had worked it for so long. Absent that, perhaps a little remorse and apology would be in order. Some twenty years ago I happened to be in Melbourne, Australia, and was able to observe the first National Sorry Day. During the first half of the 20th century it was a policy of the Australian government to forcibly remove Aboriginal children from their families and “educate” them to be imitation white people in prison-like “schools.” (We did the same to Native American kids; for a take on the Aussie version, see the film Rabbit-Proof Fence.) The Australian people felt remorse for this atrocity, the government acted, and Sorry Day was established.
There is, of course, no Sorry Day in America, because, well, we didn’t really do anything wrong, and it all happened ever so long ago and things are just peachy now. We don’t have drivers of negroes anymore, but oddly enough we still have the loudest yelps for liberty coming from those who want to do other people dirty: those victims who are hideously constrained into baking cakes for gay couples, or oppressed into providing contraceptives in employment health plans, or brutally lashed into to provide employment and housing and public accommodation to people whose skin disgusts them, or dragged into oppressive courts because all they did was shoot a threatening unarmed black guy. Jeez Louise! Where will it all end? Really, it’s worse than slavery! It’s no wonder that so many lovers of liberty march under the swastika, that dear banner of freedom, or the flag of rebellion in service of slavery.
On the other hand, no one in the world is better at integrating disparate people into one nation. This process is a little scary because every time we add a new population the nation changes, and change freaks out weak spirits. This change is always for the better, because it’s a strength not a weakness, a feature not a bug. It’s the feature, in fact, the core of American exceptionalism. Can anyone imagine an America entirely inhabited by the descendants of the original colonists? It wouldn’t be the country we love. We all know this, but sometimes, in times of great demographic upheaval, we forget. There have always been people in America who resisted this change (as now) and America has always, eventually, rolled over them, because bigotry never beats e pluribus unum. This will happen again, despite the Swastika Boys and their yearning for liberty from the future.