I know very well that much is wrong with our Western society. But I still have no doubt that it is the best that ever existed. And much that is wrong is due to its ruling religion. I mean the ruling religious belief that the social world we live in is a kind of hell.—Karl Popper
Unlike past cultures that yearned for or claimed to have achieved the ideal society, America’s founders never envisioned a utopia. Recognizing human fallibility, they pursued a better aim: progress.
Their enterprising attitude, which was inspired by the philosophical advances of the Enlightenment, established an optimistic American cultural legacy. American optimism transformed a small, renegade nation, filled with slaves, into a free society and the first global superpower—a superpower that fought not to enslave the world’s less powerful, but to make them free.
Yet, as writers like John McWhorter, Douglas Murray and Andrew Sullivan have observed, growing numbers of Americans have begun to reinterpret our nation’s history of progress and problem solving, perverting our legacy of optimism, while attacking the very institutions that have fueled our progress.
This now fashionable pessimistic conception of American history mirrors the Christian conception of original sin in several key ways. First, it emphasizes the wickedness of America’s earliest crimes and injustices, and, second, it argues that these crimes and injustices have never been resolved: America is fallen. (See, for example, the 1619 Project). Moreover, just as Christianity holds that humanity can escape from its fallen state only by entering the kingdom of heaven, this view suggests that we must overthrow our irredeemably corrupt system in order to establish a brand new kind of society—often called a genuine democracy—which, like heaven, is only ever envisaged vaguely.
The slews of penitent Americans who adhere to this program have embraced what we might call implicit utopianism. They rail against the continued existence of racial and economic injustices and they portray these injustices as sordid continuations of America’s original sins: a framing that suggests that racial and economic injustices are the country’s defining attributes. Those who hold these views may never consciously seek a utopia, but they have effectively abdicated the quest for justice in America, preferring instead to strive for an imagined post-American world cleansed of injustice.
These views are misguided—but they contain important and substantive truths. Modern American injustices are inextricably linked to, and in many ways derivative of, America’s specific historical injustices. And all such injustices urgently need to be resolved.
But, as mainstream discussions have become centered around ideas of original sin, they have become increasingly irrational. For they proceed not in the rational mode of problem solving, but in the confessional and condemnatory tones of absolution seeking.
Walter Johnson’s new book, entitled The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States, for example, portrays the US as a bastion of “racial capitalism”—a mixture of “white supremacist ideology and the practices of empire, extraction and exploitation.” Johnson catalogs historical crimes and injustices that would make your skin crawl. But he intends not merely to inform us about historical injustices. He clearly implies that the historical injustices he catalogs expose the racism “built into the very fabric” of America. Indeed, according to the New Yorker, Johnson portrays American history as “a set of variations on racial hierarchy and economic exploitation.” He positions slavery as “the foundational institution of American capitalism” and depicts America’s subsequent history as “an extension of this basic dynamic.” From Johnson’s perspective, slavery is not so much something that America overcame, but was, and shall forever remain, something quintessentially American. He implies that the United States, as both an idea and a reality, was founded upon, and continues to typify, racial and economic injustice.
Many Americans hold similarly gloomy and reproachful views. This past Fourth of July, Colin Kaepernick declared:
Black ppl have been dehumanized, brutalized, criminalized + terrorized by America for centuries, & are expected to join your commemoration of “independence”, while you enslaved our ancestors. We reject your celebration of white supremacy & look forward to liberation for all. ✊🏾 pic.twitter.com/YCD2SYlgv4
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) July 4, 2020
Such glum, one-sided views of America have also infiltrated government. Seattle city councilwoman Kshama Sawant recently directed the following message at Jeff Bezos and “his class”: “We are coming for you and your rotten system. We are coming to dismantle this deeply oppressive, racist, sexist, violent, utterly bankrupt system of capitalism, this police state. We cannot and will not stop until we overthrow it and replace it with a world based instead on solidarity, genuine democracy and equality: a socialist world.” Her sentiments illustrate how interpreting American society as a deeply oppressive system can activate utopian dreams of overthrowing and replacing it with a new kind of society.
All this implies that America cannot solve its problems because America is the problem. Naturally, Americans who hold these views cannot be satisfied by rational or technical efforts to address our society’s injustices, for—from their perspective—America does not need solutions to problems: it needs absolution from original sins. The utopian logic of original sin implies that such absolution—what Kaepernick calls “liberation for all”—can only be achieved by dismantling America’s sinful foundations and institutions.
The notion that modern America is built upon sinful foundations not only denies America’s history of progress, but denies the moral significance of that progress. For it depicts all modern injustices as thinly veiled manifestations of America’s original sins, rather than as genuinely new problems that are descended from past problems. This failure to distinguish between past and present problems is tantamount to denying that America has made any substantive moral progress at all: a denial which represents a failure to make basic moral distinctions, for example between slavery and segregation.
People like Johnson, Kaepernick and Sawant are telling us—sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly—that the only conceivable way to address America’s ingrained racial and economic injustices is to abolish America.
If we choose to view modern America mainly through the lens of its past crimes, and if as a result we seek to abolish America, then we may feel tempted to turn against or ally ourselves with those who turn against the political and cultural institutions that past Americans have used to correct their errors, solve their problems and discontinue their crimes: institutions such as free inquiry, critical discussion and belief in truth.
Those who turn against these institutions presume that their envisioned solution could not produce injustices far worse than any we now face—despite the fact that many of the injustices that most worry these same people arose, at least in part, as consequences of solutions to previous injustices.
For example, the Industrial Revolution, which increased the availability of food and energy and thereby solved many of the worst injustices that had plagued preindustrial societies for centuries, simultaneously enabled new forms of labor exploitation and political corruption and caused climate change: an unforeseeable new problem that activist groups such as 350.org and the Sierra Club have portrayed as an injustice intimately related to white supremacy.
This cycle illustrates how progress generally happens: solving existing problems creates new problems, which must be solved in turn.
But it is also possible for us to regress: to solve a problem in such a way that our solution creates a problem far worse than the one we began with.
And we in America should be very careful here: for this nation was created to solve some very grave problems—tyranny, irrationality and cultural stagnation. Many of America’s foundational institutions, such as rule of law, separation of powers, fair elections and freedom of speech, have played key roles in solving many of America’s past racial and economic injustices.
Many of these institutions even established rule-based procedures (e.g. to amend the Constitution) by means of which the institutions can themselves be peacefully improved through critical discussion and consensus. So, although the United States faces serious problems, dismantling its foundational problem-solving institutions because we believe that these institutions were somehow contaminated by America’s original sins—in other words, by its past problems—is deeply misguided.
America’s problem-solving institutions and the liberal and optimistic culture that created those institutions are among the most valuable things in the world: for they are needed to solve problems, and we will always have problems to solve.
Human fallibility means that we can never attain ultimate knowledge or solve all of our problems: and it thereby dictates that all utopianism is irrational. Yet it implies that problems are solvable. America’s founders understood these Enlightenment insights, which led to their rational optimism, their rejection of utopia and their expectation of progress. Because of their rational optimism, they understood that the survival and flourishing of an open society depends not on its ability to solve any particular problem, but instead on its general problem-solving capacity.
Hence, the United States of America, despite all its demons, inherited a spark of rational optimism. That spark manifests in our general tendency to look inward, criticize ourselves, detect and correct our mistakes and strive to solve our problems.
But America’s healthy and rational traditions of self-criticism have been perverted into the now ubiquitous meme of American original sin. This meme threatens to dismantle America’s rational institutions, to kill its optimistic culture and to arrest its progress: all possibilities that would be not only irrational, but immoral, for they would destroy our means of error correction.
America without its many rational traditions and institutions would resemble the static societies of the past, chronically failing to solve its problems. This hypothetical portrayal of a static America closely resembles the now widespread vision of an America trapped by its original sins, having made no real progress to celebrate. Although this doleful vision clashes with reality, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy unless we can resuscitate American optimism.
But thankfully, we in America still have great cause for optimism. For we remain free to make our own choices, and optimism is a choice. We just need to choose it.