Assaults on the
Idea of America
Ignorance of the Fragility of the United States
By Victor Davis Hanson
October 21, 2021
As the 2020 election season began, the New York Times, promised its readers a recalibration of American history called “The 1619 Project.” The ensuing series of essays and media kits had a twofold agenda. One was to rewrite the origins of American history as the four-century foreign intrusion into a pristine North America. It was co-predicated on stealing Native American lands with the help of the racist exploitation of imported African slaves. Racism then was the key that supposedly defined the birth and trajectory of the later United States.
A second catalyst to relabel the American founding was political. The 1619 project was aimed at forcing a supposedly flawed contemporary America to admit its mostly foul pre-Constitutional origins. Only that way might it recalibrate the present nation, in reparatory fashion, to embrace a radical equality of result, one necessitating an all-powerful woke federal government.
Aristotle long ago warned that in a democracy those who are politically equal thereby assume that they also deserve equality in all other aspects of their lives—even beyond the reach of the state—and therefore vote accordingly to empower the state to do just that. Almost all assaults on constitutional citizenship reflect both personal and career agendas. To state without evidence that the DNA of America was, and thus is, always racist is to expect to be granted the current material resources and power to redeem such an original sin.
Apparently, the implied preferred model for millions of Americans recently has become the more all-encompassing French Revolution that sought to implement egalitarianism and fraternity at any cost, rather than the American Revolution’s emphases on individual freedom and personal liberty and private property.
For example, arguing for free higher education, universal health care, and wealth redistribution, socialist Bernie Sanders almost won the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2016—in a way no prior socialist presidential candidate had come close. Sanders, for a while, led the primary candidates again in 2020.
Sanders talked often of “revolution” and his supporters sometimes fancied themselves as French-style Jacobins. In 2011, the journal Jacobin appeared as a self-described “democratic quarterly socialist magazine.” Its motto “reason in revolt” deliberately sought to echo the supposedly rational role of Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794), the catalyst for the so-called “Reign of Terror” during the cycles of French revolutionary violence, and the influence of his Jacobins on later movements such as those in Haiti.
Statue toppling, name changing, and warring on the custom of the past that followed the death of African American George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police were in the tradition of the French, not American, Revolution. The targets in spring 2020 among protesters were not Jacobin-like figures such as Robespierre but the names and statutes of Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson.
Critics of the American experiment apparently believe that because our Founders idealistically often envisioned or thought about a free society of equality under the law for all its citizens, thereby they should have had the absolute power in 1776 to implement such visions. But they did not.
They were, after all, men, not gods. At the founding, the Framers did not have the ability to create all-encompassing unified ethical values within individual states under the auspices of the Constitution. Northern colonies certainly were not going to be able to war instantaneously with the pre-Confederacy states, in a forced effort to end slavery, and thus match constitutional aspirations with a successful eighteenth-century civil war of abolition at the very founding of a fragile nation. As Alexander Hamilton pointed out in Federalist Papers 15 and 16, the fatal weakness of the failed Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was the impotency of a central government, and the unwillingness of squabbling states for some eight years to surrender elements of their own authority to a unified federal power.
So, the U.S. was never, and is not now, perfect. It is an aspirational nation that seeks to live up to the promises of the Declaration and stay true to the Constitution, assuming that the result is better than the alternative, and perfection is not the requisite of a good nation.
And the alternative? Despite the glitter of globalism, contemporary Chinese are not treated equitably under the law—and are routinely electronically surveilled, monitored, and “graded” with social credits and demerits, by their own government. Hundreds of re-education and forced labor camps seek to transform Muslim Chinese into atheists or agnostics—on the premise that no one in China has inalienable rights of habeas corpus or freedom from unwarranted search, seizure, and arrest.
Currently roughly one-million Chinese Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province have been forcibly interned in re-education camps (“vocational training centers”), where Chinese Muslims are forced to renounce Islam, often required to undergo sterilizations, and to pledge fealty to the Chinese Communist Party. So far global outrage has been muted due to Chinese economic clout and commercial reach, along with Beijing’s brilliantly cynical posturing as a victim of historical Western racism.
Elsewhere, Russians cannot choose their own president. Iranians have no inalienable rights protected by a written constitution. Bolivians cannot say or write what they wish. Those jailed in Mexico discover that their fates do not rest with supposed guarantees of equality under the law. Palestinians do not hold regular free elections. Women in Saudi Arabia could not drive until 2017. Cubans cannot travel where they wish. Pakistanis cannot worship as they please—safely. Elsewhere in much of Africa and often in Latin America, what makes life miserable is not even so much authoritarian government as no government at all. The chaos of contemporary Somalia or Venezuela ensures that necessities and security are all but non-existent. Justice there is meted out in the manner of ancient Norse sagas—by individuals and tribes.
In sum, people elsewhere in today’s world, whether under a constitutional government or not, usually cannot speak freely, vote, or use or even own arms. National boundaries, especially in the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans, often drawn by outsiders, do not reflect a unique society with a distinct geography, language, customs, and traditions. The history of nationhood until the present day has been mostly one of dependent residents whose futures were—and still are—determined by forces and people well beyond their control.
What we see in unfree societies past and present outside the West is mostly a landscape of repression—and, to a lesser degree, for many centuries for some inside the West, especially women and slaves. Yet it has always been an odd but characteristic habit in the West that it damns itself as inferior to other civilizations that are wholly unfree. Apparently, its own notions of citizenship are so exalted, that anything short of is perfection is considered not good enough.
Unfortunately, this escalation of self-reflection to self-loathing is often an unfortunate characteristic of post-citizenship. In a cynical sense, one can identify a true democracy by its vibrant self-criticism that in the postmodern age often devolves into a perpetual attack on its own institutions and past.
Such are sometimes the wages of Western freedom. They appear often in the current West in the form of warring on the past by statue toppling, name changing, and culture canceling, in a perpetual quest to achieve perceived perfect freedom and equality, and/or more cynically find pathways to power.
But beware: constitutional citizenship is history’s rarity. It is a fragile thing and the exception both in the past and in the present. There is no guarantee that we remain free citizens next year or a decade from now. The weight of history is against us. So, unless each according to his station reinvests in the republic, there will be none. And remember the years 2020–21—a national quarantine, a hold on many of the first ten amendments, 700,000 dead from COVID-19, a self-induced recession, 120 days of exempt rioting, looting, and arson following the death of George Floyd, a woke revolution, the desertion and hollowing out of our major cities, a bizarre 2020 election, the Capitol riot, and the disastrous first 9 months of 2021—all did more damage to the foundations of the American republic than any event since and including Pearl Harbor.
If you enjoyed the above, you will find more of VDH’s wisdom in this vein in his excellent newly released book The Dying Citizen the brilliance of which I am enjoying on my morning bike rides via Audible.com.