We Are the Times – A New Blog by Charles Mathewes

Charles Mathewes, co-director of the Religion and Its Publics project, has recently started a blog entitled “We Are the Times,” offering running commentary on news stories, think pieces, and books related to religion, politics, and culture. Below is one of his recent pieces. Moving forward, in partnership with “We Are the Times,” we will regularly feature Prof. Mathewes work here on The Square

Conservativism, Racism and the “1619 Project”

An interesting idea is voiced in this piece by Michael Gerson, though I do not think he fully names it.

Because I think I know better (forgive me), I will name it; I will call it “aspirational patriotism.” It’s not quite Habermas’s “constitutional patriotism,” which is a kind of abstract commitment to an abstract law. Instead, what I mean by “aspirational patriotism” is one that begins in the affections, with hope and an immediate swerve into ambivalence.

I like this effort. I think I want to support it. But I worry that my aspirations to aspirational patriotism may allow me to get away with something that I shouldn’t get away with. I’m not convinced of this worry—but it worries me. Let me explain.

Gerson’s depiction of patriotism is, it seems to me, seizing a vast expanse of middle ground. There don’t seem to me (I haven’t done a rigorous search) to be many people trying to articulate this kind of patriotism. And an aspirational patriotism of this sort seems good. It seems like something of the sort that Orwell asked, that Baldwin claimed, that Niebuhr professed. These are good names for me, so you know that I like this.

However, I worry that Gerson’s account may well undersell the depth of the evil, and the centrality of our collective complicity in it, to the constitution (if not the Constitution) of the United States. He may give us a footstool from which to aspire, when we need to realize we’re actually in a pit. He frames his account in these terms:

“The height of their ambitions is also the measure of their hypocrisy. It should unsettle us that the author of the Declaration of Independence built a way of life entirely dependent on human bondage.”

It’s possible I think to reply: it’s not simply that individuals were hypocritical, but rather that large parts of the community as a whole were built on the terrible sincerity of white supremacy. (In a way, the distinction is between being a “society with slaves” and a “slave society,” which I’ll talk about in another post; though I want to focus on the proper center of gravity and it’s not the slaves but the masters who make this distinctive–more on that below.) Now, there are two things here to say: one about the particular shape of the problem–which is not “racism” per se–and the other about the constitutional nature of the problem. Let me take them in turn.

First. I think—stay with me here—that the problem is not “racism” but white supremacy. The distinction may sound, well, academic to you. But I think it captures something important. As I understand it, America’s white supremacy certainly manifests itself primarily to us in terms of slavery and slavery’s racist legacies to our world, which include not just racial disparity but our ongoing racism. To borrow and modify Ta-Nehisi Coates, it’s not just that “race is a child of racism,” it’s also that “racism is a child of slavery.” People did not begin from a racist ideology and then go out to enslave people already targeted in their racism; rather, racism developed as a justification of the slavery itself, as Barbara Fields pointed out in a fine piece many years ago.

But the functioning of white supremacy was not only to enslave some people; it was to ethnically cleanse others. The native peoples whose land was conquered, and whom we killed or drove off or imprisoned on “Reservations,” were victims of this. (I use “we” here after some consideration; the “we” who are here now, of all races, might not have participated actively in this, but we certainly benefit from the violence, and so we are collectively responsible, even if we are not (to borrow a post-World War II distinction) collectively guilty.) The idea of America was from the beginning a “settler colonialist” idea, and there is not a single square foot of this land that was not land that someone else thought of as – perhaps not their property, for such conceptions of territoriality came with the white settlers, at least to a degree, at least part of the time – just as much theirs as anyone else’s. The “United States” is in part constituted by the act of explaining to those people that they are mistaken, and that that land is the territory of the United States, before it is their own. And this was not done regretfully, or shamefacedly, or as an accident, or in a fit of absence of mind; this was, more or less, the plan all along. The continent was effectively uninhabited, and to be settled. We would settle it. Those who were here—very few, very primitive, we told ourselves—were just to be brushed aside. We did not destroy the natives in order to save them; we destroyed them in order to settle their land. This was not incidental; this was the whole point of “our” coming.

Second. If I am right that this eliminationist colonialism is not incidental to the settler endeavor, is this incidental to the United States’s own existence? It seems harder to make that case when you reframe the issue as so fundamental, and the United States as so essentially a “settler colonialist” endeavor. What if these sins are not simply superficial or accidental facts about us, but in some deep way part of the DNA of the United States? I am not sure. I am not sure what to say about this.

I do know that I am attracted—perhaps dangerously charmed—by Lincoln’s understanding of what the American Civil War was about in his Second Inaugural Address. There he framed the problem as “American Slavery,” and thus implicated all in the collective responsibility for its coming; and there he framed the Civil War as God’s judgment on the nation as a whole.

I am not trying to be hard on Gerson. I think this project is a worthy one. It is worthy in itself, if we are to find a way to believe in the United States (and I think there are good reasons to want to find such a way, though I won’t offer those reasons here), and it is worthy for conservatives today, because eventually there will have to be a decent conservativism in this country, and there isn’t really much of one now. Nor is there anyone else, it seems to me, though again I can easily be wrong, trying very hard to elaborate one.

(As an example of this, see the other recent attempt to imagine one, which I’ve found in Ross Douthat’s recent proposal.  Douthat doesn’t even seem to realize, or even articulate, the depth of the problem he faces. He tries to imagine a non-racist right, but the most ambitious thing he asks is that there be “a recovery of influence and moral ambition by the Republican Party’s religious conservatives”what’s sad about this is that is just what Gerson (and his erstwhile colleague Pete Wehner) are proposing—and, from all the polling data we have, getting nowhere at achieving. In the end Douthat just sort of throws up his hands, allowing that “[t]his list of requirements is not small, and there are plenty of reasons to doubt they will be met.” Yes; yes, I think that’s true. Then he goes on to say, as his clinching argument (sic!), that “meeting the requirements doesn’t seem obviously less plausible than the world imagined by some fervent Trumpists.” The problem he has is visible right there. In arguing for your view, if you say it’s more plausible than that of “fervent Trumpists,” I think you’re setting the bar a little too low for yourself.)

Anyway, my point wasn’t to beat up on Douthat. I think his talents are misspent in direct political writing—I think he’s got a lot more to say on the cultural side, and maybe on religion. (Or maybe I just find him more thought-provoking there.) My main point was to suggest that Gerson is trying to get at something deep.

What I guess I fear is that he’s only about to crest one range of mountains, to find another range behind that. Mountains beyond mountains. It is a good journey, a worthwhile journey. I want to travel it with him, in my own Democrat, progressive, but no less American way. But as nation, we are only setting out, I fear.

Photo credit: slack12 via Flickr