Dispatches from the Creation Wars

How the Right and Left View America

After I wrote about Michele Bachmann’s inanely sanitized version of American history it occurred to me that her view of such matters really helps illustrate the way the right wing tends to think about a whole range of issues. Most importantly, she views America as just another paradise lost archetype, much like the Garden of Eden — America was once a perfect place where all the races got along and everyone was treated equally, until liberalism came along and destroyed everything.

But the right’s absurd view of American history comes with its own lifesize straw man of the progressive view of American history. The right’s view is that America is perfect and holy (literally, sanctified by God to rule the world) and has never done anything wrong. And the left, the right thinks, believes that America is an evil monster that has never done anything right.

But this is merely another manifestation of the right’s need for absolute moral clarity — every person, every group and every country is either pure and holy and must be supported, or is evil and irredeemable and must be stopped. There is never any room for any view in between.

I have no doubt that there are some on the extreme left, primarily Marxists, who really do have a view of America that is close enough to that caricature. But do mainstream progressives really think that? I don’t believe they do. There is, of course, a far more reasonable third view. I hereby present a genuinely progressive viewpoint of American history.

Progressives should view America not as an angel on a white horse or as a devil but as a nation that began with idealistic promises that were only partly fulfilled at the time. While it’s true that the original constitution allowed slavery to continue to exist, it also made a final reckoning over that issue inevitable a few decades later. And the idealistic premises in our founding documents, the notion that all men (and women) were created equal and are endowed with unalienable rights, was a powerful rallying cry against that great injustice.

Despite that rhetoric of equality and liberty, it would take the bloodiest of wars to eradicate slavery. And it would take decades more of legislative fights, court victories, lynchings and protests to even begin to erase the legacy of injustice that slavery brought with it. And there is more work yet to be done.

The same is true of women, of course, who were systematically exempted from the coverage of those great promises of equality. And it took decades of protest and struggle to get the mere right to vote for all American women, much less legislation to protect them from the many other oppressive laws and cultural mores that they were burdened with.

But those struggles were worth it. And they won important victories. And today America is a far better nation than it was before because we took the promises of our founding seriously enough to extend them to those who had been denied them for so long. The entire history of America is one of progressively extending those promises to each of those groups, one by one. That struggle continues today for the LGBT community and for others.

Just as important, one should always remember that in each and every one of those struggles it was conservatives who were opposed to extending those promises. It was the defenders of tradition who fought tooth and nail against woman’s suffrage, against desegregation and civil rights, and today for the emancipation and equality of gays and lesbians.

But in that history we find our own tradition, a far more compelling tradition of perpetually having to fight for the ideals that were advocated both eloquently and incompletely by the men who wrote our founding documents. That is the progressive tradition of taking those founding ideals and putting them into actual practice for those who were denied them for far too long.

Far from viewing America as intrinsically evil, progressives should — and I believe mostly do — view America as a nation that is at its best when it lives up to the ideals it was founded on. America is great when America is good, when it uses its power to liberate rather than to enslave. Martin Luther King called the Declaration of Independence a promissory note and America is at its best when it is making good on that note, not when it ignores the ideals of freedom and equality found in it. And we are at our worst when we fight against that progressive tradition.

But we also know that our government often acts in violation of those ideals. And when we fight against such actions we are being loyal, not disloyal. When we protest the government’s callous indifference to the consequences of its latest adventurous war abroad, we are supporting our country by opposing our government. Because America is not synonymous with its government. America is found in that set of progressive ideals and in that tradition of expanding liberty and equality, not in the often reactionary actions of its government.

Progressives love their country too. They love it enough to demand that it does the right thing rather than the most convenient, most dishonest or most profitable thing. They love it enough to demand that it love up to its ideals and promises rather than ignore them. And because they don’t hold such a cartoonish version of the world, they don’t have to pretend that it’s perfect in order to warrant such loyalty.

These are concepts the right, I fear, will never understand.