In order to have a dialogue and frank exchange of ideas, you have to operate from some sort of baseline. In the context of politics in America, that often relies on a common ground of history. This is yet another area in which the modern conservative movement has run smashing into actual facts.
One of the reasons conservatives hate President Obama is the way in which he speaks about American history. Obama often discusses U.S. history from the idea that while founded with high ideals, America is continually in a fight to live up to those ideals.
There is ample factual evidence to back up Obama’s thesis here. America’s founding documents refer to a nation where all men are created equal, but of course for the first century plus of our nation’s existence, this was a hollow promise. All men weren’t equal. Some were property, and some owned other people. Men with land had more of a say than those without. And from 1789 until 1920, America selected its leaders without the input of women, who were disenfranchised.
To many conservatives, pointing out these indisputable facts and the gulf between the American promise and the American reality, is to somehow denigrate the country. They become defensive, acting as if pointing out American faults somehow means the speaker thinks less of the country. And to liberals this can be jarring. For us pointing out American faults and the steps that were taken to fix them is often part of a celebration of the country. To us they say, we screwed up but we had the capacity to fix it. Uniquely American!
But for conservatives, pointing out these flaws is one tug too many on Superman’s cape. You see this in the Tea Party movement, and in the general conservative cult of hagiography that surrounds the Founding Fathers. Rather than the reality of the Founders as visionaries who happened to be flawed human beings, conservatives tend to see them only as godlike figures without serious flaws. When you inevitably point out that the men who declared freedom across the new nation often owned human beings, it just can’t jibe.
This often results in some ass-backwards justification, such as in the case of George Washington. If you visit his home at Mount Vernon – and I recommend you do – you’ll find a film introducing you to the life of Washington that takes great pains to point out that he supposedly disliked slavery, and freed his slaves. Of course, Washington waited until he had died to free his slaves and served the two terms of his presidency without making any move towards emancipating the slaves upon whose backs the new nation was being built.
Yet at the same time Washington was a visionary leader. He set up trailblazing traditions in America, such as the subservience of the military to civilian leadership, and the idea that an elected leader would voluntarily surrender his office and pass it on to another elected leader, peacefully.
Both Washington’s vision and his sin of slave owning are part of his story.
There is even something of a “both sides” case here, as I find the liberal indulgence in the idea that the end of Vietnam War was achieved solely via protest, or that the Civil Righs Movement was protest without specific legislative goals, to be laughable. But in my experience I have not had the violent reaction from the left as with the right when the fairytale version of events is challenged.
For us to have honest, mature dialogue about where America has been and where it is going requires us to accept a baseline of reality going forward. We cannot discard the parts of history that make us squeamish or make our heroes look bad. They happened, and to say otherwise is to deny reality and dispense with the idea that we can go back and forth on the best way to move forward.