“The deliberate national penance that most Germans take for granted offers a striking contrast with the ways American have confronted their own national crimes.”
That’s a line from an article last month in The Atlantic. The article focuses on a supposedly sad divergence: while Germans have fully acknowledged their responsibility for the Holocaust and accepted their guilt, Americans have failed to do the same with their history of slavery and Jim Crow.
The comparison is the kind of stretch that only a pampered, liberal, Ivy-League educated professor who has spent lots of time in Europe could make. In truth, there is little evidence in the Atlantic essay that the author knows more about the antebellum and post-Reconstruction periods than one would acquire in a freshman U.S. history course. (She is a philosophy professor who now heads a center in Potsdam.) Nor does she acknowledge the relentless focus on African American history in high schools and colleges, among national book award winners, and by Hollywood. She seems to regard American slavery, too, as a perverse and unique condition, even though in 1800 slavery existed on every continent and had existed forever before, and that the Arab and South American slave trades dwarfed the North American market.
But when you’re voicing common liberal wisdom, you needn’t bother with historical particulars. Generalizations pass without scrutiny. Among the professors, you see, American guilt is a bien pensant basic. People have built successful careers rehearsing it over and over. It’s also a way for those thoroughly bourgeois professionals to pretend that they form an adversarial culture. If you were to spend two days at an American Studies conference, nothing in the article will surprise you.
American guilt, in fact, has become standard dogma through a long process of institutionalization, 50 years of professors and schoolteachers concocting a revisionist American history designed to blunt patriotism. And it’s still going strong. Every month dozens of articles and reviews appear that work on the same premise of culpability. The Atlantic essay is just one more specimen of the effort, this one going so far as to equate slaveholders with Nazi executioners.
So why bother with it? Because something new has happened; it’s not just an academic set piece anymore. Democratic politicians speaking to an American public, not to an accredited professional audience, have joined in the denunciations, avidly and solemnly. The scholarly deformation of American has left the campus and settled into the core of the Democratic Party.
In September, Joe Biden said, “In a centuries long campaign of violence, fear, trauma, brought upon black people in this country, the domestic terrorism of white supremacy has been the antagonist of our highest ideals since before the founding of this country.”
A month before, Kamala Harris wrote in Essence magazine, “As Black women, we have an intimate understanding of the fact that violence motivated by hatred and bigotry has always been present in our history.”
Earlier that month, Mayor Pete Buttigieg chimed in with this: “We are by no means even halfway done dealing with systemic racism in this country.”
We could also cite Beto, Booker, AOC . . .
It is a bizarre situation. These Democrats don’t take the old Civil Rights line that the core of America is just and fair, but has been distorted by past and present bigotries. No, they say that American from the beginning and in essence is racist, from 1619 to the Founders to the KKK to the current president. Has any politician in history, any prime minister or king or emperor, built his power base by trashing his country or nation, empire or tribe?
It has to be the strangest platform ever conceived. Human beings want to believe that their country is good; they want to feel proud of their homeland, not ashamed; guilt is not a happy condition, especially a guilt whose source is so far from their experience. But these aspiring leaders won’t let them enjoy their citizenship. They are scolds and chastizers, but still expect the recipients of their rebuke to love them.
When Rep. Alexandria Occasio Cortez (D.-N.Y.) says, “The idea that a woman can be as powerful as a man is something that our society can’t deal with,” she must think that men, or at least a good portion of them, will nod and agree and pledge to support her party in bigger numbers. When Elizabeth Warren tells a crowd in Washington Square, “We’re not here today because of famous arches or famous men. In fact, we’re not here because of men at all,” she must expect the male half of the electorate to hang their heads and go along.
It’s stupid, politically stupid. Academics can play the blame game because public policies aren’t at stake in the seminar room. They don’t have to garner voters, either. It’s a fun game for them, too, and for anybody else who has a few stored up resentments—and who doesn’t? Let’s be honest: it’s exhilarating to pick a target and vent, to take down a “privileged” one who has enjoyed his superiority long enough.
But this time, Democrats aren’t aiming at a king and his court, or at the oil companies, the big banks, or any other small population that took heat in the past. They are targeting white people (still two-thirds of the country), men (49 percent), and the nation itself. The Trump campaign is smiling.