Americans’ sense of national identity is in trouble. There is now a steady drumbeat of dread from the commentariat across the political spectrum, lamenting that we Americans are more politically polarised than at any time since the Civil War, and predicting that our country’s decline is inevitable. While I agree that the current hyperpolarization poses real challenges, I believe the doomsaying is overblown. Based on my understanding of American history, I think there is much reason to hope that our country will survive the current political moment intact.
Although many factors have contributed to our current national schism, the most influential of these has been the ongoing adoption, beginning in the early 1960s, of new, progressive cultural norms, which have brought about rapid cultural change. Mainstream American culture, which might be called liberal modernity, is being pulled apart by the opposing forces of two historically significant worldviews or moral systems—one progressive and postmodern, the other traditional and religious. The polarization only increases as many liberals become persuaded by the arguments of the left, and many conservatives move further to the right in reaction to what they see as the illiberal trajectory of progressivism.
A central focus of both the progressive and traditional moral systems is the interpretation of American history. The progressive left claims that 1619, the year in which the first enslaved people were brought to America, should be recognized as the true year of our country’s founding, while progressivism’s opponents continue to regard 1776, the year in which America declared its independence from Britain, as the authentic date of our country’s origin. This focus on history is important because a shared narrative about a country’s history is the foundation for a unified sense of national identity. As the historian Matthew Karp writes, “[H]istorical narratives matter in political struggles: they shape our sense of the terrain under our feet and the horizon in front of us; they frame our vision of what is possible.”
For most of our history, patriotic pride in the narrative of our country’s founding in 1776 unified our culture and helped define what it means to be an American. But as progressives increasingly insist that our society reckon more fully with the sins of its past, that sense of national pride is being replaced. For many, a feeling of shame is not necessarily destructive or divisive: it can be as strong a basis for cultural unity as a collective sense of national pride. Moreover, developing this sense—most notably in relation to our country’s history of slavery, Jim Crow racial segregation laws, and the slaughter of Native Americans—may be a necessary step in the evolution of our society. Shame can be a corrective to overweening pride in one’s country—the kind of hubris that can, for example, lead citizens to support imperialistic ventures. On the other hand, too much national shame can be demoralizing and lead to cultural disintegration. But when pride and shame are correctly balanced, they can each counteract the excesses of the other: realistic shame over one’s country’s regrettable mistakes can engender a healthy humility, and realistic pride in its positive accomplishments can engender the confidence and energy to grow and thrive.
Thus, to help reconcile progressivism and traditionalism, and to preserve liberal values, we need to embrace an enlarged and balanced narrative about American history—one that encompasses both the pride symbolized by 1776 and the shame symbolized by 1619. A narrative of this kind would support us in developing a more mature love of country—one that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.” This new narrative would comprise a nuanced integration of the historical facts that would give both the noble and the shameful aspects of our country’s history their due weight.
I began thinking about the need for a balanced, realistic narrative after an experience I had recently as the parent of a high school student. As a first-generation American, I’m naturally proud of my country, and over the past few decades I’ve developed a strong sense of loyalty to my adopted state of Colorado. I’ve long made my home in Boulder, which is close to some of the most notorious battlegrounds of America’s Indian Wars. Today, Boulder is well known as a bastion of progressivism, and I generally share the progressive sentiments of my fellow townsfolk. However, I was rather jarred recently when my wife and I received an email from our son’s high school counsellor that concluded with a land acknowledgment:
We acknowledge that New Vista High School sits on land that was brutally taken from the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute tribal nations. While white settlers were originally peacefully welcomed by Chief Niwot into Boulder Valley in the fall of 1858, he and his people were forced off the land, and then attacked by Col. John Chivington and his cavalry in the horrific Sand Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864. As educators dedicated to the work of equity and social justice, we must face this ugly truth before we can begin.
I’m familiar with these historical facts and do not dispute the shame that they cast upon America and on my state in particular. But I am as troubled by the one-sidedness of this statement as I would be if I received a statement from a public official that praised “the brave Colorado pioneers who subdued the stone-age savages and brought civilization to the wilderness.”
I don’t begrudge our high school counsellor her land acknowledgment. She is understandably expressing her belief that this is an appropriate moment in history for a reckoning. Besides, my son is sixteen years old, so he’s sophisticated enough to recognise the one-sidedness of her characterisation of America’s western expansion. And my feeling that this land acknowledgment needs to be put in a larger context provided a nice opportunity for the two of us to discuss some historical events in more depth. I pointed out that Native American tribes had been brutally conquering each other for 10,000 years before the coming of the Europeans, and that bringing western civilization to this continent ultimately resulted in massively improved life conditions for everyone, including the descendants of the Arapaho, Cheyenne and Ute tribal nations. This, of course, does not excuse the war crimes that accompanied the final conquest that ended all further conquests by establishing the rule of law, but it does help negate the implication that our country’s history is rotten to the core.
My aim is not to avoid the shame that taints this land, but to make that shame both more poignant and more productive, by interweaving it with our justified pride in other historical events. It is easier to persuade others to be responsive to our political grievances when we express them in a way that also acknowledges the political accomplishments we can be grateful for. And it is easier for others to empathise with our gratitude for this country when we also acknowledge its history’s dark aspects and own that there is much more work to be done.
I am not recommending that we minimize what is shameful in our country’s history. A well-balanced narrative should enable both our shame and our pride to be acknowledged in full. We can continue to deeply regret America’s historical crimes and unapologetically take pride in the emergence of the United States’ political system as one of the most positive events in history.
The approach I am advocating—creating a narrative that highlights both the good and bad aspects of America’s history—can equally be applied to America’s relationship with its black population. Our country’s historical crimes against black people, including slavery and the widespread, legally sanctioned racism that continued for more than a century after slavery was abolished, are permanent stains on its record. And the fact that a disproportionate share of America’s black population lives in poverty today reminds us of the abiding legacy of these historical crimes.
Yet to use this awareness of shame to become a better country, we also need to preserve our national pride. And there are many historical facts about which all Americans can feel unambiguously proud. For example, this country led the way in the establishment of liberal democracy; it has welcomed over 100 million immigrants since its founding; and it helped defeat fascism and soviet communism. Especially in recent decades, it has played a central role in the global progress of medicine and technology; it has done much to preserve global peace and increase global prosperity; it has donated billions of dollars annually in foreign aid; and it has produced art and music that have enriched the world. Moreover, every American, regardless of ethnicity, can be proud of the achievements of its many distinguished citizens, among whom are many African Americans: courageous freedom fighters like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr; gifted writers like Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison; heroic athletes like Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Serena Williams; and ground-breaking musicians like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin and Jimi Hendrix.
Indeed, as the brilliant African American novelist and critic Albert Murray (1916–2013) has written, “the United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multi-colored people.” American culture is a “composite that is part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian, and part Negro.” Murray proposed that we adopt the descriptor “Omni-American” to emphasize that “black and white Americans are each other’s cultural ancestors.” As he put it in a 1996 interview, “Who has suffered the greatest foul play of the people who came to America? The Negro, right? There’s a richness in the Negro response to adversify [adversity]. There is resilience, inventiveness, humor, and enviable elegance. We invented the blues, [which is] white Americans’ heritage too.” Recognizing how we are all “Omni-Americans” allows each of us to identify with all our ancestors, regardless of their race. As Murray put it in speaking to his (white) interviewer, “It lets me identify with John Jay [a white man], you with Frederick Douglass.” Omni-Americanism thus helps overcome the divisiveness of identity politics by showing that patriotic pride is the rightful heritage of all Americans.
Today’s progressives have done well to place more emphasis on the dark events in our history. Yet in their attempts to counter an unrealistically rosy view, many of them now advance a view that is unrealistically dark, painting American history as something akin to a sinister criminal enterprise.
And many of them tend to project past conditions onto the present, claiming for example that the conditions created by Jim Crow laws still prevail and that today’s America is a white supremacist nation. Similarly, progressives seem to assume that today’s Americans have remained blind to both the nobility and the historical victimization of Native Americans—as if we still viewed them through the lens of 1950s cowboy movies. But American culture has been acknowledging this country’s crimes against its indigenous populations since at least the 1970s, as exemplified by popular films such as Little Big Man (1970) and Dances with Wolves (1990). Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was a national bestseller when it was published in 1970; it has never gone out of print and has been translated into 17 languages. And today, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, Deb Haaland, is the US secretary of the interior.
While there is certainly more progress to be made in overcoming the legacies of slavery and conquest, the progress we have made since the 1960s should not be buried under a mountain of shame; it should be viewed as something we can all be rightfully proud of. As Glenn Loury writes,
In the years since the civil rights movement … black Americans have entered the ‘grand illuminated temple of liberty’ on their own two feet as full citizens. And it was the constitutional framework established by the founders that enabled us to do so. The liberation of black people in this country is a continuation of the American project and an expression of, yes, its greatness.
In light of these facts, we cannot allow the “childhood myth of our innocence” to be replaced by the similarly simplistic myth of unmitigated American villainy. As Pascal Bruckner has warned, “Nothing is more Western than hatred of the West.” Yet this same western culture has, in an unprecedented effort, invested significant societal resources to help make amends for its racist past—and is even now redoubling its efforts to achieve greater “diversity, equity and inclusion.”
The key to a more balanced interpretation of American history is to take a developmental perspective and view our history as a work in progress. Placing America’s narrative in the context of its ongoing growth enables our shame and our pride—our grievances and our gratitude—to correct each other’s excesses: pride in our progress helps counter assertions that past conditions still prevail, and shame at our nation’s misdeeds helps remind us that our reconciliation is not yet complete. Adopting this perspective can itself help further our nation’s growth. Recognizing how America’s cultural evolution advances through a “dialectic of progress and pathology” can help us develop a collective interpretation of American history that we can all feel is fair and accurate, and that can help us heal our current national schism.