Literally Whitewashing the Past

It’s no real secret to the Inter­nets that Conor Frieder­s­dorf and I butt heads on a lot of things, in par­tic­u­lar over the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion’s pol­i­cy to use drones in North­west Pak­istan and Yemen. Even so, I don’t vis­cer­al­ly dis­like him. He’s just wrong on some issues we dis­agree over. But some­times, being wrong can cross over into ten­den­tious­ness. Take his crit­i­cism of the Repub­li­can gov­er­nor of New Jer­sey, Chris Cristie:

Per­son­al­ly, I’d strong­ly pre­fer to leave the wid­ows and orphans of all atroc­i­ties out of pol­i­tics, because it is so unseem­ly when politi­cians oppor­tunis­ti­cal­ly exploit them to com­pen­sate for the pow­er their posi­tions lack on the mer­its.

For Conor to decide, right now, that appeal­ing to the orphans and wid­ows of atroc­i­ties is unseem­ly is… well, it’s iron­ic to be sure. Espe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing that the vast major­i­ty of his crit­i­cism of drone strikes is based off of appeal­ing to the “wid­ows and orphans of atroc­i­ties.” See here if you need to be remind­ed (he also tried to gross­ly mis­rep­re­sent my views on this top­ic, and I’m glad he and his edi­tors quick­ly cor­rect­ed the post).

But let’s move on from drones. Conor takes his response to Cristie a step fur­ther, map­ping out his own the­o­ret­i­cal response to the wid­ows and orphans of the 9/11 attacks on Man­hat­tan if he were run­ning for office:

The core Amer­i­can val­ues of 1776 and 1789 that I’ve stud­ied and loved since I was a child don’t per­mit us to tor­ture oth­er humans, to use drones to tar­get and kill peo­ple whose iden­ti­ties we don’t even know, or to spy on the pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tions of hun­dreds of mil­lions of inno­cents. If it was­n’t for Osama Bin Laden and the 9/11 hijack­ers we would­n’t per­mit any of those things.

I wish him luck run­ning for office on such a plat­form. More ger­mane­ly: The “Amer­i­can val­ues of 1776 and 1789” that Conor says he cher­ish­es so much actu­al­ly per­mit­ted such things in abun­dance, and they include some doozies we would nev­er con­sid­er admirable in the 21st cen­tu­ry. That does­n’t mean those val­ues are despi­ca­ble — far from it. The foun­da­tions of our cur­rent soci­ety are con­tained there. But Amer­i­can val­ues in 1776 and 1789 were not per­fect, and we should not pre­tend they were.

Let’s start with tor­tur­ing and killing peo­ple whose iden­ti­ties we don’t know — some­thing Conor right­ly despis­es. Back in the 18th cen­tu­ry, both prac­tices were com­mon — not in the pris­ons of the white peo­ple who could vote, but among the black peo­ple white peo­ple kept as human prop­er­ty. Slav­ery was one of the great­est injus­tices ever per­pe­trat­ed by one group against anoth­er, with social and eco­nom­ic con­se­quences that have last­ed hun­dreds of years after its offi­cial end. And slav­ery was con­sid­ered so ger­mane, so ordi­nary to the Amer­i­can val­ues of 1776 and 1789, that they wrote the dehu­man­iza­tion of black peo­ple into the Con­sti­tu­tion of the Unit­ed States. The scale of atroc­i­ty and the his­toric effects of slav­ery are dwarfed only by Amer­i­ca’s treat­ment of the native peo­ple who lived here first — all of which were glee­ful­ly enact­ed and expand­ed by the val­ues of 1776 and 1789.

The Three-Fifths Com­pro­mise was an attempt to medi­ate between the pop­u­la­tion dis­par­i­ties in south­ern and north­ern states dur­ing the Philadel­phia Con­ven­tion of 1787. South­ern states want­ed slaves to count when a cen­sus was tak­en to deter­mine how many Rep­re­sen­ta­tives states would get in the House. The north­ern states weren’t any bet­ter — they did­n’t want to count slaves as peo­ple at all. Their com­pro­mise — slaves only count as 3/5 of a per­son — would not be reversed until the 13th Amend­ment.

The Alien and Sedi­tion Acts, passed in 1798 (a whop­ping nine years after 1789, remem­ber), gave the Pres­i­dent the right to arbi­trar­i­ly expel immi­grants he felt were unsa­vory, where deci­sions could only be reversed by prov­ing one’s inno­cence — the oppo­site of the pre­sump­tion of inno­cence woven into Amer­i­can val­ues. More­over, the Acts were used by two pres­i­dents, includ­ing lib­er­ty-lov­ing John Adams and Thomas Jef­fer­son, to per­se­cute and imprison crit­ics who embar­rassed the Pres­i­dent.

Ah, Conor will sure­ly say, he only meant the “core” Amer­i­can val­ues from 1776 and 1789 — not all the bad ones that result­ed in tor­ture, arbi­trary deten­tion, and mur­der. But what are those? The prob­lem with excerpt­ing only those val­ues you hap­pen to favor right now from those you find incon­ve­nient or dis­taste­ful is that doing so is com­plete­ly arbi­trary. It is not some eter­nal, shin­ing bea­con on a hill of moral val­ues, it is an arbi­trary selec­tion from a com­pli­cat­ed and not always pret­ty past to jus­ti­fy a cur­rent polit­i­cal pos­ture.

Don’t get me wrong: I see noth­ing wrong with doing that! In fact, I’m sure I do it. I’m sure every­one does it. But rather than grap­pling with the com­plex real­i­ty that our val­ues actu­al­ly have evolved and changed, instead he appeals to some false­ly puri­fied fairy tale of what Amer­i­can val­ues real­ly were 237 years ago. It requires lit­er­al­ly white­wash­ing his­to­ry, remov­ing all the hor­ri­ble things white peo­ple did to black peo­ple, in order to appeal to that peri­od of time as the apex of our moral evo­lu­tion.

The sad truth is, val­ues are just as imper­ma­nent and chang­ing as our soci­ety is and the laws that gov­ern it. In many ear­ly states, women could bare­ly own prop­er­ty, and nowhere were they allowed to vote in elec­tions. It took almost 130 years for that to become legal. Our val­ues have changed since the 18th cen­tu­ry, and I think they’ve changed for the bet­ter. There’s no need to cyn­i­cal­ly appeal to them just to score a weak polit­i­cal point against a Repub­li­can who dif­fers with your lib­er­tar­i­an­ism. But alas, such is the cur­ren­cy of much polit­i­cal pun­dit­ry today. We’re not bet­ter from it.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.

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