Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Exceptionally Selective Memory Update

Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru have responded to the many criticisms of their piece on American exceptionalism. Not mine, but those of many other writers. But they do obliquely refer to one point that I made: the complete absence of any mention of slavery in their piece.

"Victor Davis Hanson notes that one reason for American exceptionalism may be that we did not inherit from England 'a large underclass of only quasi-free people attached to barons as serfs.' Sadly, a worse institution took root here, but never became part of the national psyche."

Where to begin with such a historically obtuse statement? Perhaps with the fact that the authors still cannot bring themselves to call the thing by its name: "slavery." They spill another 2,200 words and still never manage to use the word. A "worse institution" is the best they can do. I suppose one should be grateful that they didn't call it a "peculiar institution," which was the preferred euphemism for slavery for so many decades. One might note that one searches in vain to find the word in the Constitution, too. The most benign interpretation of that fact is that the authors of the Constitution were ashamed of slavery and did not want to sully the document with explicit acknowledgement of it. The refusal of Lowry and Ponnuru to call slavery by its name is the best evidence of their awareness that it was shameful and thus a mortal threat to their superficial cheerleading disguised as historical interpretation.

More substantively, anyone who can, with a straight face, assert that slavery never became part of the national psyche has forfeited any claim to be taken seriously. I am writing this piece in a building built by slave labor. Only people suffering from an extreme case of denial could honestly believe slavery never became part of the national psyche.

Even those who fought most valiantly against it, the abolitionists (whom Lowry and Ponnuru seek to claim as their own, without ever saying what they wanted to abolish), had to wrestle with how deeply slavery had embedded itself in the American mind. This is William Lloyd Garrison, writing in 1856, on the effect of slavery on slaveholders: "It has destroyed in them all sense of justice, all perception of right, all knowledge of virtue, all regard for humanity; so that, habitually, they put darkness for light, and light for darkness, and call good evil, and evil good."

When slavery was finally abolished, its advocates sought to reconstitute it in the form of the notorious black codes, which attempted to institute slavery in everything but name. When those efforts were temporarily thwarted by Reconstruction, they tried again, this time under the name Jim Crow, whose "strange career" continued into my own lifetime, and whose legacies live on still.

Even more than their original post, this rebuttal demonstrates the intellectual, historical and moral bankruptcy of their argument. In that, I suppose they have performed some small, albeit inadvertent, service.

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