Location: Indianapolis, Indiana, United States

I'm just trying to develop an online body of work (even if the work is throwaway nonsense) to advance my writing career.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Defensive Postures

Last month, Michael Medved of penned an audacious column that attempted to mitigate the role of the United States in the sad institution of slavery. As is often the case when someone tries to make the harrowing reality seem less harrowing, Medved made some accurate statements. His overall point was, to simplify, sure it was bad, but it wasn't that bad.

It would have been somewhat like Saddam Hussein declaring, "Yes, I used chemical weapons on the Kurds and oppressed the Shi'ites, but it wasn't as bad as Stalin's purges, Mao's Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge, or the Holocaust, which by the way never happened." (For the record, it was Iran's president who publicly questioned the validity of the Holocaust, something Saddam did not do, as far as I know; remember, this is just an exercise) If Iraq's former dictator had engaged in this sort of moral relativism, most of us, Medved included, would have sneered dismissively. Medved himself wrote an August article attacking the use of "moral equivalency" and "relativism" with respect to the Russian invasion of Georgia. But in his slavery treatise, he practices the same thing he rails against.

What is most mystifying is that no public declaration by any fringe political group seems to have prompted Medved's writing. No high-profile figure appears to have claimed that American slavery was the single most barbarous institution in human history or that the United States is the worst country in the world for once permitting slavery to exist. Of course, some individuals somewhere have probably made this assertion, but "some individuals somewhere" have said almost everything. Medved goes on and on about how slavery had been practiced for centuries by other nations, that "though brutal, slavery wasn't genocidal", that some African groups helped advance the practice of slavery by acting as hired kidnappers for European tradesmen, that there is no guarantee African-Americans would be better off if they had never left Africa, and so on.

Medved's entire piece is a hyper-defensive load of twaddle. One thing he fails to understand when he gripes about "America-bashers", as he dubs them, is that a nation that espouses freedom and justice and is in possession of such astonishing military power and widespread prosperity will likely be held to higher standards than, say, Cambodia, Nazi Germany, or Angola. In fact, we typically hold ourselves to higher standards than those nations, as well we should. Medved seems to desire all the advantages that come with being American, but doesn't want to endure any of the criticism our preeminent position in the world inescapably elicits.

Certainly, it is possible to exaggerate the horrors of American slavery. But it is not possible to come off well when trying to, shall we say, paint slavery in a more favorable light. Most of what's true in Medved's article was already reasonably well-known--comparatively few Americans owned slaves, certain African tribes acted in collusion with European slave traders--and some of his claims are purely speculative and irrelevant. Who knows if current Americans of African descent are "better off"--when he says this, Medved undoubtedly means financially-- than if they had remained in Africa? Nobody can say with any certainty how different life in Africa or America would be if slavery had never occurred, though it would not be absurd to suggest our nation's legacy might be a bit less blemished, but our current culture and society greatly diminished.

Moral relativism is not always wrong. In fact, sometimes it would be hard to do without it in a complex and brutal world. But Medved mocks "liberals" who apply it in global affairs even as he relies on it to explain away our own country's transgressions. We don't need this sort of weak-kneed defense of one of our most appalling national episodes in order to be proud of the United States of America. What nation in history has managed to avoid cruelty and atrocity altogether? It is true we should not spend all our time obsessing over the past, but nor should we shrink from history's ugly realities when reminded of them. To borrow a sports cliche', own it!

Yes, for many years this country sanctioned and condoned slavery. It was a sickening, degrading practice, a source of national shame. But eventually, after a lot of blood and toil, slavery came to an end and, after a great deal more struggle, so did the post-slavery institutions of segregation and voting rights' infringement. No, we have not achieved absolute equality among the races and we may never, but we will never stop striving for that elusive goal. That's why we are great, not because we do no wrong, but because we confront the horrors of our past head on and try to right them.

Would this be "America-bashing", Mr. Medved? There's no denying that some people both here and abroad are overly critical of the United States. But here's the thing: at our best, we can take it! And we don't have to mitigate slavery to do so.


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