“We will make America proud again!” Donald Trump declared at a rally last summer. This rhetoric is reminiscent. My father came of age in the midst of the Reagan revolution; I remember him saying that Reagan “made people proud to be American again.” The nation had just weathered Vietnam, Watergate, the oil embargo, and the Iran hostage crisis. The period was so difficult that historians have referred to it as a “decade of nightmares.” Reagan promised “morning in America” and a fresh start, and that resonated.
Today, “make America proud again” has a somewhat different meaning—it refers not to the state of the nation in the world, which was doing just fine under Obama, but to “liberal guilt.” You can see this reflected in Trump’s words during a speech last summer:
Pride in our institutions, our history and our values should be taught by parents and teachers, and impressed upon all who join our society.
Pride in our history.
Many conservatives have come to feel that in conversations about slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, or Jim Crow, liberal academics have focused too much on the negative aspects of our heritage and not enough on positive things like individual rights, widespread freedoms, and a democratic form of government. They prefer an overarching narrative that minimizes the mistakes in our nation’s history while promoting patriotism and maximizing the things our forebears did right.
I remember being in a history class once and noting that, in some sense, the history of the U.S. is a history of overcoming and of advancing rights and freedoms. I pointed to those who fought to give women the right to vote, and those who fought against Jim Crow. Yes, the instructor said. Yes—but who were they fighting against? Those who strove to protect the status quo were American too.
This, I think, is what conservatives miss. There is absolutely much in our nation’s history that we can be proud of. No one is saying otherwise. But there is also much in our nation’s history that was wrong. We cannot make that go away by ignoring it. It did happen. Sure, we weren’t the only nation to have slavery. But we were the only nation where slavery was so entrenched that it took a bloody civil war to end it. We can’t just pretend that didn’t happen. We can’t wish it away.
Let me make an analogy. Sometimes, in my day-to-day life, I’ll make a mistake that I feel terrible about. I’ve hurt someone, or I’ve messed something important up, etc. Yes, I feel terrible when something like this happens. It’s not a pleasant feeling! But simply pretending it did not happen is a horrible solution! It doesn’t change what happened, and it doesn’t help me make sure it won’t happen again in the future. Far better to admit the error, fix it, and figure out what I did wrong so that I can avoid this mistake in the future.But in many cases the problem is worse than just ignoring what happened. In some cases conservatives have worked to literally rewrite history. The Civil War wasn’t really about slavery—not at all! Slavery wasn’t so bad, most slaveowners were kind, and honestly they were just as interested in finding a way to end slavery as anyone else—it was the abolitionists who stirred up all the trouble! There are various levels to this, of course—there are those who would argue that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery but not that slavery was benign, say—but the motivation is similar. It wasn’t that bad.
The Native Americans should have just assimilated. No, really—I had someone tell me this. The Trail of Tears was an abomination, they said. The Cherokee had assimilated and shouldn’t have been removed. But many of the Native Americans’ problems could have been avoided if they had assimilated rather than wanting to maintain their culture and practices. We could have avoided all the problems we see on Indian Reservations today, the drinking, the hopelessness.
The problem here is both a conflict in values (a belief that Native Americans should have been willing to give up their own culture) and a conflict in historical fact (a belief that Native Americans wouldn’t have faced racism and discrimination had they just assimilated, a lie made obvious by the Trail of Tears). There’s also the lack of acknowledgement of the horrors of the Native American boarding schools, an attempt to force Native Americans to give up their culture and their beliefs by forcibly removing and reeducating their children.
Ignoring or rewriting our mistakes does not make them go away—and it does not help us learn from them, either. Interestingly, German schools do not shy away from teaching the Holocaust. The opposite, rather. Are we to believe that Germans have no pride in their country? Absolutely not. Instead, Germany’s path makes clear that it is possible to acknowledge, own up to, and learn from the mistakes of one’s country in a way that points toward a brighter future while acknowledging a darker past.
And I’m baffled that conservatives can’t grasp that.