Michelle Obama mentioned in her DNC speech that the White House was built by slaves. Bill O’Reilly then announced on his show that he had looked it up and reassured his viewers that the "slaves that worked there were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped hiring slave labor in 1802.” People were justifiably angry with O’Reilly over this. It came across like he was saying, “Yeah, ok, I admit the U.S. government used slaves in the past, but it wasn’t that bad and we stopped doing it right away. We can all keep our faith in America’s moral purity.”
His comment and the backlash got me thinking about the defensiveness on all sides here. O’Reilly and others of his ilk have very little patience for criticism of America’s past greatness, what they call “revisionist” history. Since America is clearly great, to point out its foibles and imperfections is to obscure the issue, when (to them) America's greatness is clear. Likewise, folks who think slavery and its legacy are a really big deal have very little patience for people pointing out the times it wasn’t so bad. Since slavery was clearly an abomination, to bring up mitigating examples of humane treatment of slaves is (to them) to obscure the verdict of history.
On the surface, this might seem like a conservative-liberal issue: conservatives want to preserve the image of America’s past greatness in order to defend the soundness of its founding spirit and principles, while liberals want to point out the extent of past problems in order to show progress has been made and should continue. At one level, that makes sense as a reading of the situation. However, in terms of ethics, these cases are clearly not equal-and-opposite ideological perspectives.
Slavery is not the original sin of our country only because of its harshness or cruelty; owning people is wrong categorically, like lying or murder. Pointing out that some slaves were treated well is as inconsequential as reminding folks that you murdered someone gently; the fact you murdered the person is the still the main thing. What O’Reilly said is completely irrelevant to our moral judgment concerning slavery and the building of the White House. You feed and house slaves well for the same reason you change the oil in your car: to protect your investment. You earn no moral kudos for it.
Now, is America’s greatness categorical in the same way slavery is wrong? That is, is it great without qualification or caveat? Or is the greatness of a country a judgment of degree in which the verdict follows from tallying the check marks in the + and – columns? It’s clearly the second, but perhaps O'Reilly and others are still right because the check marks are so overwhelmingly on the plus side that to bring up the negative points is to obscure reality.
What matters here is not how great America really is, but whether our tendency is to over- or underestimate our greatness as a nation. It seems to me that, whether conservative or liberal, we should want our estimate to be neither positive nor negative, but correct. If you believe the Bible or have ever met a human being you know that we humans have a tendency to overestimate our own virtue. Thus, being accurate in our self-evaluation requires that we pay specific attention to those embarrassing and disheartening parts of our past. If we don’t, we’ll continue to display an awkward naiveté about enemies abroad and dissidents at home. An overly rosy picture of America does not spur us toward its preservation; it leaves us shocked and clueless when others count us as enemies, or minority groups express grievances at home. It makes us see Muslim insurgents or other enemies as unreasoning monsters because we can’t imagine a reason someone would hate us.* It makes us see protestors at home as lawless criminals, because we can’t imagine they have legitimate grievances against the greatest country in the world. In short, our puritanically naïve faith in our greatness leaves us unequipped to interpret the world realistically, to understand what is really going on.
So, as this election spirals into a shouting match about when or why America is or ever was “great,” maybe those of us not running for office should remember that the secret to strength is clarity about weakness and that the secret to being great is not insisting you already are.
*There is, of course, a difference between understanding an enemy’s reasons for opposing you and excusing what your enemy does.