Journalists should not try to write with historical perspective. Because among all people, journalists uniquely lack it. The present moment looms so huge in what we do that the whole purpose of human history, from the time the first monkey tumbled out of a tree onto the savanna in Pleistocene Ethiopia, was to create THIS WEEK!
Let's take James Carroll as honestly stating of what he thinks, in his column, "A troubling turn in American history." His thinking is hopelessly confused. Among what he thinks is that THE PRESENT MOMENT is "the climax" of American history.
But that's the lesser problem. To the journalist's psychological near-sightedness he adds the neo-progressive's reflexive tendency to paint most of what America is and does in the world in the darkest possible colors. Yes, the two tendencies almost always go together in journalism, but they are not the same thing.
Even that's not his worst problem. His big difficulty here is that he can't decide which qualities are the good ones and which are the bad ones in America -- is our public moralism a fault or a virtue? Is our freedom good or bad? Is our quest for moral ideals a sin or a halo? It changes for him from one historical situation to another and one paragraph to the next. It's like watching someone try to run with his shoelaces tied together.
IF COLUMBUS is the beginning of the story, and, say, Lincoln is the middle, what is the end? Each episode of the American narrative surfaced a problem, which prompted attempts to resolve it, which led in turn to a new problem. This movement from problem to resolution to new problem and ever new efforts to fix things is what makes the American story great.
Well, there's 350 years between Columbus and Lincoln, and less than 150 between Lincoln and us, but there you can see the journalistic near-sightedness kicking in.
It's the peculiarity of the disaffected to see every moment in terms of something wrong that needs to be fixed. I'd be willing to bet that 99 percent of the people who have lived on this continent since Columbus saw their times in terms of how good they had it compared to the people who lived before. And in terms of having fun or making money or finding the path to salvation, or raising their kids right.
Rather, we have to be roused to "fix things." Something has to pick up the bed and shake us out of it and tell us to go get dressed and do it. We get kicked into action by something like Pearl Harbor, or the stock market crash, or losing the first two years of the Civil War. Americans who are fixated with "fixing things" on a daily basis tend to be regarded as tiresome cranks, like the abolitionists or the anti-saloon league.
So Columbus arrived in 1492, but carried the European virus of ideological absolutism - what led Queen Isabella to expel Jews from Spain that same year. Such absolutism sparked Old World religious wars, and Puritan dissenters defied it by coming to America. But they brought their own version of that absolutism.
He's probably confusing the Puritans and the Pilgrims. He's evidently confusing something. The Puritans didn't come to escape persecution. They came to live in the intense purity of community they had tried, and failed, to force on their fellow citizens in England.
John Winthrop's City on a Hill was a religiously gated community (no "pagans" or Quakers), with the magistrate empowered to coerce conformity. Therefore Roger Williams proposed the separation of church and state. By Jefferson's time, though, that distinction justified the separation of private morality from public ethics. Private morality meant he and others could keep the private property called slaves.
There is a world of historical trouble in that paragraph. It's closer to parody than history. Carroll seems to be saying here church and state were separate in Jefferson's day (they weren't; you still could be fined just about everywhere for blasphemy or for playing cards on Sunday), and that private morality was therefore separate from public ethics (it wasn't: just ask Hamilton about Mrs. Reynolds). And that slave-owning was a matter of private morality (it wasn't; it was very much part of both the national social culture and the global economy).
In Jefferson's day, just about everyone in America knew and agreed that slavery was wrong and more or less immoral and would have to end somehow. They question was how, and when. In the Northern states, it was ending then by a process of gradual emancipation, compensated by state governments, and a subsequent reordering of the laws to relegate free blacks to a proscribed and inferior position. That was the North's answer. It seemed likely the South would head in the same direction over time.
No one outside a handful of fanatics considered it proper or moral to have immediate emancipation, accompanied by full social and legal equality between the races. To pretend that was the moral position in that time and place is to impose modern morality on past times. To do that is to forfeit the right to talk seriously about the past.
And here's where Carroll first reverses himself. He seems to be saying here the government ought to have enforced a public morality by forcing Jefferson to free his slaves (into what? to go where? to do what?). Isn't that just another kind of "moral absolutism?" Is that really the kind of America he wants to inhabit? The only difference between that and the Puritans banishing Quakers is that it would be a moral purity he happens to approve as opposed to one he despises.
But who does he think will be determining and enforcing morality in any given generation? In our generation? Modern-day puritans or a neo-progressive minority of cranks? Come to think of it, that's how electoral politics seems to look to a lot of people on his side of the political balance beam.
Abraham Lincoln presided at the altar on which the bloody sacrifice of civil war was justified by "freedom," but no sooner had redemptive violence ("... as He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free") saved the nation's soul than it spawned the Indian genocide, and the Jim Crow betrayal of blacks.
More bad history. Indian genocide only began after the Civil War? Tell that to the Cherokee. Or the Pequods or the Conestogas. As for the Black Codes, they were a northern invention, well established before the war in places as far-flung as Ohio and Oregon.
The bloody sacrifice of the Civil War was justified to "preserve the union" (as it says on the monument in the center of the town where I work). I can assure Carroll that not one man in 20 in the Northern armies would have given "freedom for black people" or Julia Ward Howe's lyric as his reason for leaving the farm and family behind to die of dysentery in an army camp or a Southern prison.
So what does Carroll want? If "redemptive violence" is bad -- and "ideological absolutism" certainly stoked the fires of the abolitionists -- shouldn't the North have let the South depart in peace? And let slavery perhaps continue to this day? After all, think of how many teachers could have been hired with the cost of the Civil War. Yet Lincoln, armed with those two bad things, "saved the nation's soul."
In the name of freedom, the United States conquered a continent, and claimed a hemisphere - a destiny whose virtue was manifest against corrupt European imperialism. In the American Century, the nation born in rejection of ideological absolutism called itself capital of "the free world," but redemptive violence went nuclear, and defense of that freedom required absolute readiness to destroy the world. The chill of Cold War "realism" froze the American conscience.
As though -- again -- Americans sought the Cold War, went lusting for more "redemptive violence" and confrontation once World War II ended. As though the thing we longed for most in 1945 wasn't to get the hell home again and forget about goddamned Europe and all the rest of it. As though there was no aggressive Soviet empire out there except in the imagination of Americans, or it was created by our own actions.
An unexpected thaw (warming Gorbachev and Reagan) ended the Cold War bloodlessly, and America had a chance to redefine national redemption, removing violence from its center.
Note the odd sentence construction. The thaw is something that happens to Reagan and Gorbachev, not because of them. What is the agent? Is it like global warming, something that "just happens?" [I suspect he wants to say it happened "because of me and my friends in the nuclear freeze movement," but even he lacks the temerity to actually do that.] Or is it too disturbing to Carroll's thesis to allow that the scary application of "ideological absolutism" by Reagan helped precipitate the end of the war and the thaw?
That brings us to today. If this nation followed the pattern of its own historic reckoning with the ever unfinished work of public morality, political discourse would be defined by the dual-project of eliminating nuclear weapons and building international structures of peace. Instead, we are paralyzed by a war that no one wants, unable to change what matters most.
One would think that, if put to a democratic vote, modern Americans might take up as "public morality" issues such as abortion, which Carroll might not like. But let it pass.
The sad thing that Carroll won't let himself see is that, in Iraq, America is doing the thing he says he always wanted it to do. It is doing what he said makes America great: Moving from "a problem" [Sept. 11 attacks and rise of jihadism] "to resolution" [change the artificial and Cold War-based dynamic of Middle-Eastern nations to give people there freedom and democracy] "to new problem" [it's a lot harder than many people expected, and takes a lot longer than many of us have patience for] "and ever new efforts to fix things."
Do our sons and daughters lost in Iraq not "die to make men free"? Except he wants to give it up right now and walk away. Which hardly is "what makes the American story great."
And what he advocates -- walking away from it -- is not "fixing the problem" any more than the federal government "fixed" the race problem of the South by abandoning it to local Jim Crow laws. Any more than Jefferson would have purged himself of the moral taint of slave-ownership by simply turning his blacks off the plantation and out into a hostile world.
History just won't stay put in the "this is good, this is bad" narrative favored by people like Carroll. The Indians and the blacks were victims of the Americans? Well, the Indians bought and sold black slaves, and the descendants of the Cherokee took sides with the Confederacy. The Cold War was bad, desegregation was good? Well, the global competition with the Soviets for hearts and minds was what motivated the federal government to finally get aggressive with Southern states over race relations.
"Last week," Carroll writes -- and here we arrive at THE MOST IMPORTANT MOMENT IN HISTORY -- "this story reached a climax of sorts, with developments like these:" and he lists "War Cost" (as though it didn't cost anything till this week), which, he claims, could buy "9 million teachers to public schools for a year. Where would American education be if that happened instead? And where Iraq?" I'd dearly love to know where he thinks Iraq would be if we walked away from it tomorrow. I need a good laugh after reading all this cloying nonsense.
Mercenaries. We learned that the United States government has surrendered to "private contractor" hit squads the primal function of protecting its own diplomats in Iraq. Such unaccountable and profit-driven forces betray the foundational American military ethic. Hessians at last.
"We learned?" You learned, you mean. It's been developing since the Clinton Administration. But when the only attention you pay to the military is to decry the cost of it and to pontificate about how gay people ought to serve in it, you tend to miss these things till they're on top of you. Oh, and the Hessians were not mercenaries. They had no choice but to fight. Oh, and you never would have won your beloved Civil War without the enlistment bounties.
Abolition. Barack Obama made a major speech calling for a return to the long-abandoned goal of nuclear elimination. "We need to change our nuclear policy and our posture, which is still focused on deterring the Soviet Union - a country that doesn't exist." The major news media ignored this important declaration, obsessing instead with horse-race polls and fund-raising totals. Nuclear reform (antidote to proliferation and terrorism both) is not a campaign issue.
But we (or some of us) also learned last week that the U.S. has been dismantling its old Cold War nuclear arsenal even faster than treaties require it to do. How on earth is nuclear disarmament a deterrent to terrorism, anyhow? One thing we have learned -- and not just last week -- is that weakness in the face of an enemy is a spur to terrorism.
Torture. The Bush administration was revealed to have again secretly approved "enhanced" interrogation methods at restored CIA "black sites," where prisoners are once more held without treaty protections - measures that Congress and the Supreme Court have already rejected. Despite scandals, US torture continues.
Bad stuff. Read your history. Bad stuff, but hardly new stuff. What's new is being scandalized by it. But that would be a good development, and surely we can't admit that.
These developments would be disturbing enough, but what they point to is an interruption in this nation's most important public tradition - the movement from recognition of a problem to its attempted resolution.
No, what they point to is your lack of attention.
From ill treatment of native peoples, to enslavement of Africans, to temptations to empire, to a religious embrace of violence, to Red Scare paranoia, to an insane arms race - we Americans have had our failings. But we have faced them.
Sure, sure. We faced our ill treatment of native Americans after all their land had been confiscated. We ended enslavement of Africans only by the accidental good luck of the Southern leadership forcing the crisis. And please don't put McCarthy's hearings in the same scale pan as genocide, unless you really want to be called a fool.
Insane arms race? That was an American failing? Doesn't it take two to race? The nice part about being nothing but a historical whiner is, you never have to say what you would have done differently and explain how that would have led to a better outcome. We now know far more about the thinking of the Soviet leadership than Eisenhower and Kennedy did in their days. And what we know makes us realize that the American vigilance was, if anything, too slight.
The capacity for self-criticism and change has defined our history.
News flash: Change happens whether you criticize or not.
But that is not happening today.
By which you mean this week. Did the Civil War take a week? Did the Cold War?
We are in an arms race with ourselves, and will not stop. Our unjust war is just unending. Our politics and media, meanwhile, form a feedback loop of banality. "Freedom" has become our prison.
He's right about one thing. We need more teachers. If someone can get out of a public high school and still write like that and pass it off as serious thinking, we need lots more teachers.
Does all of this reveal a deeper flaw in our moral narrative itself? After all, we say today that our story began with Columbus. But what about the ones who welcomed him?
In the modern-day Cuba? Why don't you ask them? If you could find any left. But, guess what? It wasn't Americans who wiped them out. That's not part of our "narrative."
Here's what Columbus had to say about those who welcomed him: "It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants ...." And later, "I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased."
That, perhaps, is what Carroll would have the people of the world say about us.