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.

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