Friday, February 13, 2015

Not Good Enough

I recently submitted the following letter for publication in The New York Times; as expected, it was silently rejected. The Times, of course, has very high standards, but This Here Blog® is not so constrained. I therefore reproduce the letter here for the public's kind consideration.


In his Sunday column, Ross Douthat gently picked at President Obama's remarks before the National Prayer Breakfast as both somewhat appropriate and somewhat self-serving. Obama's message—the one he delivered, or the one he should have delivered—is always a tough sell in these United States of America, where we tend to see our system of governance and especially ourselves as particularly virtuous, with almost no hint of irony, incongruity, or self-awareness.

I recall comments long ago by the late Tony Blankley, sitting as panelist on The McLaughlin Group, that America, at least, had never engaged in "ethnic cleansing." The claim was made at a time when the Bosnian conflict was still a fresh memory. I gaped in stunned wonderment at those remarks as I contemplated the wholesale destruction and relocation of native Americans in the nineteenth century.

Thomas Jefferson, an enlightened man and a slaveholder, wrote with eloquence about how all men are created equal. He understood the contradiction personally (as did George Washington), and was not happy about it. But Monticello would not have been possible without slave labor. Our slaves were freed almost a century after Jefferson's Declaration, but were still restricted to their own water fountains, toilets, and lodging for yet another century after that. All the while we worked mightily to exclude them from the ballot box. In twelve southern states there were thousands of lynchings of black people between the 1870s and the 1950s. If there is innate virtue to be found here, it reveals itself slowly and painfully.

America the righteous stole most of its non-Louisiana western territory from Mexico, in warfare that was waged for that very purpose, to fulfill a "manifest destiny" supposedly ordained by God. I am not proposing that we give it back, but a clear-eyed understanding of how we got it is essential.

Ross Douthat surely understands there's no need to reach back to the Crusades, or to the Inquisition, to find the God of Christianity dabbling in distasteful activities. Northern Ireland in the late 20th century will do just fine.

It seems Obama was, or should have been, suggesting that our making moral comparisons with other nations and other religions is a fatal conceit. That doesn't mean there are no moral judgments to be made, or no moral actions to be taken—just that they should be approached with a humility commensurate with an honest understanding (too often obscured by flags, ribbons, lapel pins, and smug self-righteousness) of ourselves. Amen to that.


Copyright (C) 2015 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

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