Grievance and Forgiveness or Civil Strife

Joe Biden gave a speech on June 2 commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, an infamous incident in which Southern Democrats took vengeance on a very prosperous African American community in Oklahoma. Instead of echoing (or even noting) the path that President Warren G. Harding took at the time to condemn the atrocity and stand for our common citizenship as Americans, Biden emphasized how the event was merely one of the many endless examples of injustice and crime that “White America” has committed against their fellow African American citizens. 

The sum and substance of Biden’s speech were that white Americans need to be constantly reminded of what they have done and are doing wrong and that they need continually to atone for the wrongs that were done. The logic of Biden’s speech falls in line with the whole set of policies pushed by his administration. 

This speech is representative of the larger phenomenon whereby the Biden Administration, the vast majority of the leadership of the Democratic Party, and the ruling political, economic, financial, and cultural elites of the country are pushing critical race theory and the need for America to relearn its history. This relearning of American history focuses on and highlights every flaw, wrong, or crime of America’s past and insists that these are not deviations and exceptions from the norm, but rather the very norm that shapes our American past. 

To deal with this unjust past, the American people must embrace and admit their complicity. They now must bear the collective guilt for what was done. All Americans, especially all white Americans are to blame and therefore must constantly admit, make atonement for, and provide full and total restitution for all the injustices committed by America. 

The strategy here is to re-found the American regime. We must move it away from the traditional understanding (which most Americans and much of the world believe and admire) and replace it with one shaped by the view advanced in the 1619 Project and critical race theory. From this delegitimization of the founding they hope to recreate the American regime in which “equity” (shorthand for redistributive justice) is embraced over the traditional concept of equality. 

Making and Remaking the Regime

To say the American regime was founded on the principles of white supremacy is laughable to anyone with an accurate understanding of American history (something almost impossible to find in the vast majority of American schools and universities). But in today’s clown world such nonsense is understood as learned wisdom taught and propagated by elite institutions. Most serious scholars of the American past and its constitutional order will admit that America was never intended to be an ethno-nationalist regime. It was always understood to be a political and civic union. 

Civic and political communities often are formed by homogeneous stock, but sometimes they are formed, as both the cities of Athens and Rome were formed, of heterogeneous stock. Polities shaped by homogenous stock can more easily rely on the common traits and characteristics of those who inherit said community to hold it together in harmony. Whereas those communities composed of diverse stock have a more difficult time forging the common bonds that unite these dissimilar peoples together as a community. Yes, such dissimilarity brings with it difficulties, but it is also true that the shared good or benefit of such unions bringing together different people can point to the greatness that Athens, Rome, and the United States can attest. Yet securing this potential greatness requires political skill (or what we in our modern statecraft language would call statesmanship).

The threat to such a heterogeneous community is what Aristotle in Book 5 of his Politics warns about as the forces of strife and civil discord (stasis). Aristotle argues that “dissimilarity of stock” was one of the engines of factional conflict (stasis), one that sets into motion civic division that, at the minimum, puts into play factional interests and, at worse, lets loose the forces of civil strife and civil war, which can result either in regime change or dissolution of the body politic. Yet Aristotle does not argue that communities of diverse stock (or if you like population) are condemned to be torn apart by their differences. 

Aristotle argues that a blended community can thrive if the different groups are living together productively and harmoniously toward some shared end. It requires that they see each other as at best the same people or at least a cooperative unit. When he says this, he literally says that “until they draw breath together,” this cooperative spirit would not be present. To understand the metaphor of them “drawing breath together,” we need to think of each group as a team of horses in harness. Until they breathe as one they will not be operating together and the cart will be torn apart by the horses each going his own way. When instead they “breathe together” they come to operate as a team, or rather as a community

But the problem we now face is with forces at large in America engaged in fostering not “breathing together” but resentment and demands for retribution and revenge for harms done by the larger majority community on the African-American citizens of the republic. Slavery and racial discrimination are re-remembered and emphasized so that the old wound is not only recalled but reopened. 

Many Democratic politicians and members of our political, economic, and cultural elites think that until the “white” community (whatever that means) confesses and accepts their guilt, the aggrieved black community will never achieve the needed level of catharsis. They also see in this catharsis an opportunity for a reordering of our political form that offers restorative justice and permits the political community to move forward. 

“Progress” is what most of those who accept and promote critical race theory believe will be achieved by white submission and contrition. But these people are, at best, fools or cynical hypocrites who see a strategy that will help them keep their power and allow themselves to be enriched in the process. At worst those who peddle this strategy seek the overthrow of the regime—in other words, revolution—and creation of a new regime that they will rule (or so they believe).

Not Reconciliation, But Vengeance

Yet how would fostering grievance and a desire for revenge—which is clearly what critical race theory and other varieties of the new woke Left embrace—be understood as producing an environment that leads to civic harmony or common life together? How does it lead to that “cooperative spirit” needed to avoid the forces of faction and division tearing a political community apart? 

Clearly, critical race theory and other forms of identity politics that promote grievance and fuel resentment only exacerbate factional strife (stasis). They fuel a desire to punish and seek vengeance, rather than a striving to live together in a community with those who are different in some ways.

Resolving this conundrum does not require continual and eternal contrition by the supposed guilty party but rather a forgiveness by the aggrieved. Until the aggrieved have forgiven and chosen to share a life together, there can only be continual strife and hostility that will move the political community toward violence and civil war. 

Let us have no foolishness about this: those who peddle “white fragility” and “overcoming whiteness” are only selling hate and resentment. It is only a recipe for civil war and the dissolution of the republic.

Some argue that forgetfulness is the more reasonable strategy. They think that over time the parties will forget their grievances. But without embracing forgiveness, the old wound only remains hidden, awaiting rediscovery and reinvigoration. Old harms and old injuries hidden and lost in the past can be reborn and re-energized and take on a new cast and power that sets in motion levels of stasis and strife that are sure to tear the political and social system apart.

In the context of the American racial question, the problem with forgetfulness is that the naked facts of racial traits (that is, color) make forgetting nearly impossible. Thus, the difference that is inherent in race does not permit the forgetting thereof and this, then, points to the injury anew, and injustice and resentment returns. Thus, the very fact of “color” makes forgetfulness near impossible. In this case, the only way forward is forgiveness. 

Others will argue that some new shared common struggle or difficulty to overcome will be more effective than forgiveness in uniting us. They believe that this new shared act of sacrifice and struggle will build bonds to form a common community. But here the very same forgetfulness that we just looked at is at play again. Over time, the joint endeavor and common struggle is forgotten and the old wound reappears along with the resentment and the desire for revenge, which wipes away all the good work that a common endeavor temporarily brought about.

Just think how short-lived was the common spirit that arose in America following the horrific events of September 11, 2001. By 2004 America mostly returned to the divided state it was in throughout 2000 up to September 10, 2001. One recalls the popular 2003 country song by Darryl Worley, “Have You Forgotten?” in which he bemoans the fact that America is once again divided and that all too many people have forgotten what brought them together and why they are doing what they are doing. One can disagree with the arguments for doing what the song suggests be done, but the song itself points to why common struggles are at best patches over divisions and civic divides. Those divides will return when the common struggle that brings them together is no longer as compelling or when most people have forgotten or no longer care.

Until those who inhabit the body politic “draw breath together” and see each other as something other than foes stuck together in a condition of mortal combat and constant resentment, the possibility of a healthy political order remains unlikely. Here the only solution to secure the long-term survival of the republic is for the aggrieved parties to forgive those they believe harmed them and accept each other. Let us have no foolishness that such can happen if the actual harm is ongoing, but if for the most part and for the wider part of the majority community, no harm or infliction of humiliation is sought, then the formerly harmed and aggrieved can find reason to forgive. But if they cannot bring themselves to it, the possibility of grievance and resentment will always remain present, ready for any political actor(s) (internal/domestic or external/foreign) to exploit.

Until the African American community embraces forgiveness over slavery and other past harm, then the engine of strife and civil conflict will tear the republic apart. The rub is that this will have to be their choice, as the question of whether they are willing to live together in communion in a shared civic order or not is on them. 

And let us have no foolishness that whites America’s begging for forgiveness or bending their knees will actually do anything to help overcome (or satiate) the black community’s sense of grievance and harm. They need to get over it and forgive or let us part and go our separate ways. Otherwise, the political forecast will be nothing but ever-increasing civil strife and violence towards one another.


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About Clifford Angell Bates, Jr.

Clifford Angell Bates, Jr. since 2002 has been University Professor in the American Studies Center at Warsaw University in Warsaw Poland. Since 2004 he has been an Instructor in the MA Diplomacy and International Relations program at Norwich University, Northfield Vermont. Bates holds Ph.D in Political Science from Northern Illinois University. He is author of Aristotle's Best Regime (LSU 2003) and The Centrality of the Regime for Political Science (WUW 2016).

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