Truth, Justice and the American Way
By Brantley Thompson Elkins
There was an unfortunate dust-up about a month ago at the Aurora Universe Readers Group, occasioned by word that DC Comics was dropping Superman’s commitment to the “American Way,” if not to truth and justice.
It does seem silly, in this day and age, to expect a “strange visitor from another planet, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men” to adopt or be adopted by one country. But the dustup wasn’t really about that; it was about American Exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is singularly blessed in liberty and civic virtue and even has a manifest destiny to lead the world.
American Exceptionalism has taken a beating in recent decades from revisionist historians, especially since the Vietnam War and the current war on terror. Cultural critics have embraced an obnoxious sort of reverse exceptionalism – America not only isn’t the best country in the world, but it’s the worst: a bastion of racism at home and imperialism abroad, the country solely responsible for global warming, poverty in the Africa and every evil on the face of the Earth.
It doesn’t help that some of our nation’s would-be defenders betray their ignorance of American history. The latest was Republican presidential contender Michelle Bachmann, who claimed that the founding fathers “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States," and that one of these was John Quincy Adams – just about to turn nine years old when the country declared its independence and all of 20 during the Constitutional Convention. It was at the convention that Gouverneur Morris, who had served in the Continental Congress from New York, ranted against the Southern states’ demand that their slaves be counted in the census to determine representation in the House of Representatives:
Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is no other property included? The houses in [Philadelphia] are worth more than all the wretched slaves that cover the rice swamps of South Carolina....The admission of slaves into the representation when fairly explained comes to this: that the inhabitant of Georgia and South Carolina who goes to the coast of Africa and, in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity, tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a government instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with laudable horror so nefarious a practice.
Alas, the better known founding fathers – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – all owned slaves, and did little or nothing to end slavery. Bachmann has been roundly ridiculed for making abolitionist activists of them. But what her critics fail to mention is that Jefferson and other founding fathers were conflicted about slavery. In the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson condemned slavery and the slave trade in no uncertain terms, even if he was playing fast and loose with the truth by laying them solely at the door of King George:
he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemispere, or to incure miserable death in their transportation hither. this piratical warfare, the opprobium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. [determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold,] he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce [determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold]: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
That condemnation was deleted from the final draft at the behest of slaveholding colonies. Yet the fact that it could be presented at all speaks to something that was noble in the American spirit from the very beginning. In spite of being a slaveholder, Jefferson knew that slavery was evil. Five years later, in Notes on the State of Virginia, he addressed the issue again:
And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.
Jefferson, who was poor at business and chronically in debt, never freed his own slaves while he lived. It is also almost certain that he had an affair with a slave, Sally Hemmings, and fathered six children by her. And so he was a hypocrite. But that brings to mind Franćois de La Rochefoucauld’s famous maxim: "Hypocrisie est un hommage que la vice rend ą la vertu" – "Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue." The hypocrite, while choosing vice, recognizes that virtue is in fact better, and assumes its protective coloration. When we call a hypocrite dishonest, we mean that he is dishonest, not about good and evil, but only about himself. That is reflected even in the wording of the Constitution, which never mentions “slavery” but uses euphemisms and circumlocutions.
Stephen Decatur is often quoted as saying, “My country, right or wrong.” What he actually said, in a toast in 1816 to America’s recent victory over the Barbary pirates, was “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.” Carl Schurz later came up with a variation, “"My country, when right to be kept right, when wrong to be set right.” What few realize is, that in ancient times, nobody would have said, “My country, right or wrong,” because the very idea that one’s country could be wrong was inconceivable. The founding fathers knew better, even if failure of nerve stood in the way of their setting right things that should have been set right.
Regardless of whether one believes in God, Jefferson was prescient when he wrote that justice could not “sleep forever.” Slavery continued to expand in our country, thanks in part to the cotton gin, which energized the cotton industry. But there were still Americans who fought against slavery. They loved their country, and it was out of that love that they wanted to set it right. They held meetings, penned manifestoes, petitioned Congress, thundered from the pulpits, organized the underground railroad and even took violent measures – notably John Brown. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin electrified the country and helped set the stage for the election of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Legend has it that when she visited the White House, Lincoln greeted her with, "so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."
Stowe’s reputation has suffered over the past century, her novel having been condemned as condescending towards blacks. But she has her defenders, most recently David S. Reynolds in a June 13 op-ed for The New York Times, who argues that Uncle Tom was anything but an “Uncle Tom;” rather a man of courage and dignity who is killed because he refuses to betray two runaway slaves. Lincoln’s own reputation, thanks to revisionist historians, has also suffered; he is widely believed to have insisted to the end that blacks and whites could never live together here in freedom and equality, and that the only solution was transportation back to Africa. Yet in his last speech, made outside the White House, April 11, 1865, after the surrender of General Lee, his thinking had changed:
Some twelve thousand voters in the heretofore slave-state of Louisiana have sworn allegiance to the Union, assumed to be the rightful political power of the State, held elections, organized a State government, adopted a free-state constitution, giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man. Their Legislature has already voted to ratify the constitutional amendment recently passed by Congress, abolishing slavery throughout the nation. These twelve thousand persons are thus fully committed to the Union, and to perpetual freedom in the state--committed to the very things, and nearly all the things the nation wants--and they ask the nations recognition and it's assistance to make good their committal. Now, if we reject, and spurn them, we do our utmost to disorganize and disperse them. We in effect say to the white men "You are worthless, or worse--we will neither help you, nor be helped by you." To the blacks we say "This cup of liberty which these, your old masters, hold to your lips, we will dash from you, and leave you to the chances of gathering the spilled and scattered contents in some vague and undefined when, where, and how." If this course, discouraging and paralyzing both white and black, has any tendency to bring Louisiana into proper practical relations with the Union, I have, so far, been unable to perceive it.
For the first time in a public setting, Lincoln expressed his support for black suffrage. That incensed a down-on-his-luck actor, John Wilkes Booth, a member of the audience, who vowed, "That is the last speech he will make." A white supremacist and Confederate activist, he made good on his threat three days later. Then followed radical Reconstruction, which was supposed to bring the South into line and assure a better future for blacks but may have only exacerbated racism – and left the former slaves and their descendants waiting more than a century for that “vague and undefined when, where and how.”
There are die-hard Southerners to this day who assert that their forefathers were fighting for the principle of state’s rights rather than the preservation of slavery. Mitchel Olszak, in a column published in the Richmond Register April 10, 2010, took one of them to task:
And then we have Virginia’s governor, Bob McDonnell, who issued a proclamation declaring April as Confederate History Month. The document was a largely innocuous attempt to promote state tourism, but somehow left out any mention of the elephant in the room — slavery.
When challenged on that point, McDonnell first attempted to dismiss objections by claiming that slavery wasn’t a key issue in the state. Rather, the governor said, “I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.”
Not surprisingly, that comment put McDonnell even deeper into the ideological muck, and he was obliged to both apologize and revise his proclamation to make note of the evils of slavery.
So how would a Virginia governor, in this day and age, even attempt to suggest slavery wasn’t a key aspect of the Civil War and his state’s involvement in it?
The answer has to do with a game that’s been played for generations: Those who seek to rationalize secession claim the Civil War was a matter of “state’s rights,” and the effort by Southerners to resist the dictates of Washington.
But the central “right” in question was slave ownership. The Southern elite feared the growing political opposition to slavery and the economic consequences of abolition.
Peter Sicher ticked off some of the details in the April 22, 2010 Johns Hopkins Newsletter:
“Those ideas," he said, "were fundamentally wrong . . . Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination of the superior race is his natural and normal condition."
Some incorrectly believe that middle-south states like Virginia that seceded after the attack on Fort Sumter did so more to resist invasion than to protect slavery.
Most Virginians had hoped to preserve both slavery and the Union by convincing the North to agree to new protections for slavery.
Virginia Governor John Letcher, a truly reluctant secessionist, told the North that secession could be avoided if they agreed to (among other actions) remove their laws that attempted to circumvent the Fugitive Slave Act, to protect slavery in the territories, to allow masters to pass unmolested with their slaves through free states, to refrain from interfering with the interstate slave trade, and to ban the central government from appointing antislavery officials to southern posts.
Yet there are also those on the Left who won’t let the past rest, arguing that the U.S. owes reparations to the descendants of slaves because enslaved blacks had supposedly built the entire foundation of our country’s economy. Even Margaret Mitchell, apologist for the South and what used to be called the Southern Way of Life (segregation) wasn’t that stupid. Early on in Gone with the Wind, she has Rhett Butler rub his fellow Southerners’ noses in the truth:
“I have seen many things that you all have not seen. The thousands of immigrants who’d be glad to fight for the Yankees for food and a few dollars, the factories, the foundries, the shipyards, the iron and coal mines—all the things we haven’t got. Why all we have is cotton and slaves and arrogance.”
It wasn’t slaves who built those factories and foundries and shipyards and mines. They were the product of free enterprise and free labor. Slavery only turned the South into an economic backwater. That wasn’t the fault of the blacks, of course, and the die-hard whites who worked to rob them of the fruits of emancipation through terrorism (the Ku Klux Klan and an epidemic of lynchings) and segregation continued to retard their region’s economic development. But blacks who moved north to work in the construction trades found obstacles there, according to Henry C. Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce:
Due to the Jim Crow laws of the South, there were many Black southern craftsmen who would travel to perform their skills. Many would go to places like New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, etc. and would out compete local white contractors who could not perform as well as they did and could not settle for their affordable pricing. It was because of this, that construction unions in the North were formed to block out Black crews from coming into communities and providing a better service for a cheaper price. Soon after the unions were formed they set in motion the Davis-Bacon Act (named for two New York congressmen). This act set up arbitrary labor wage scales so that Black craftsmen could no longer under price their white counter parts. They all had to pay a certain price, prevailing wage, at a minimum and competition became no more. With the price competition out of the way, the whites moved in through political favor and blatant racism. This would be followed with Project Labor Agreements which meant some projects would be declared “Union Only”. With the construction unions discriminating against Blacks, PLA’s would also mean “Whites Only”.
Liberals… er, progressives, like conservatives, like to have all their ducks in a row. You’d never guess that northern progressives or radicals as well as Southern conservatives were racists. Jack London, known today mostly for adventure stories like The Call of the Wild, was a socialist zealot whose The Iron Heel forecast a socialist revolution and fascist counter-revolution, but also a racist zealot, whose “The Unparalleled Invasion” dreamed of the extermination of the Chinese people through germ warfare. Woodrow Wilson, the liberal idealist who promoted progresssive legislation like the Federal Reserve Act and conceived the League of Nations, also imposed segregation on the nation’s capital and in federal agencies as president. It would be going too far to condemn the labor movement or progressives wholesale. Their motives were often righteous, but a sense of righteousness can blind those carried away by it.
Few today remember the Spanish-American war, still less the suppression of the Philippine rebellion followed. That suppression was pursued by President Theodore Roosevelt, who was a progressive in domestic policy (The Pure Food and Drug Act) and won the Nobel peace prize for his role in settling the Russo-Japanese war. No doubt he really believed he was bringing the blessings of civilization to the Philippine people – this was about the time Rudyard Kipling was waxing poetic about the White Man’s Burden. In 1906, General Leonard Wood massacred six hundred Moro men, women and children who were trapped in the crater of an extinct volcano. They were considered “hostiles” because they objected to the occupation of their homeland and the denial of their liberties. On March 10, Roosevelt congratulated General Wood and his men for a “brilliant feat of arms wherein you and they so well upheld the honor of the American flag.” Here is how Mark Twain reacted two days later:
His whole utterance is merely a convention. Not a word of what he said came out of his heart. He knew perfectly well that to pen six hundred helpless and weaponless savages in a hole like rats in a trap and massacre them in detail during a stretch of a day and a half, from a safe position on the heights above, was no brilliant feat of arms – and would not have been a brilliant feat of arms even if Christian America, represented by its salaried soldiers, had shot them down with Bibles and the Golden Rule instead of bullets. He knew perfectly well that our uniformed assassins had not upheld the honor of the American flag, but had done as they have been doing continuously for eight years in the Philippines – that is to say, they had dishonored it.
Who was the true American patriot in this sorry episode, Roosevelt or Twain? Beyond that, the Moro massacre and its aftermath offer a stern lesson in how thin the line can be between patriotism and jingoism. There is also a thin line between moral outrage and fanaticism. The fervor behind the Prohibition movement, for example, was very much like that behind the Abolition movement. But Prohibition was not only a denial rather than an affirmation of human liberty, but unleashed a plague of organized crime that troubles us to this day. The War on Booze lasted barely 15 years, but we still have the War on Drugs, which has cost us billions and billions of dollars – and filled our prisons with people who have done nothing worse than smoke pot. Rival drug cartels shoot it out indiscriminately in the streets of Mexico, and then conservatives wonder why so many Mexicans seek refuge here. Former President Jimmy Carter acknowledged the ugly truth in an Op Ed piece for the New York Times June 16:
Drug policies here are more punitive and counterproductive than in other democracies, and have brought about an explosion in prison populations. At the end of 1980, just before I left office, 500,000 people were incarcerated in America; at the end of 2009 the number was nearly 2.3 million. There are 743 people in prison for every 100,000 Americans, a higher portion than in any other country and seven times as great as in Europe. Some 7.2 million people are either in prison or on probation or parole — more than 3 percent of all American adults!
Some of this increase has been caused by mandatory minimum sentencing and “three strikes you’re out” laws. But about three-quarters of new admissions to state prisons are for nonviolent crimes. And the single greatest cause of prison population growth has been the war on drugs, with the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses increasing more than twelvefold since 1980.
Not only has this excessive punishment destroyed the lives of millions of young people and their families (disproportionately minorities), but it is wreaking havoc on state and local budgets. Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pointed out that, in 1980, 10 percent of his state’s budget went to higher education and 3 percent to prisons; in 2010, almost 11 percent went to prisons and only 7.5 percent to higher education.
As Carter said, perhaps the budget crisis will accomplish what common sense and a regard for human dignity have failed to, and put an end to this travesty of justice. And yet, on balance, the past century has been a century of progress for America. We have been through two world wars and a number of smaller wars. They have been brutal wars, and yet no president would dare issue an official letter of commendation to the perpetrators of My Lai or Abu Ghraib. We have been through the Great Depression, and a series of other crises, and yet we recovered from them. Women got the vote and, a few generations later, found a new voice in the women’s liberation movement that radically changed society and their role in it. We can find women in board rooms instead of just the secretarial pool. Black Americans finally got the right to vote in the South, and segregation was swept away; today we have a black president – and even if he has been a disappointment, the fact that he could be elected in the first place speaks volumes. And would anybody have believed a generation ago that Oprah Winfrey would be the queen of daytime TV? Ordinary working people are now part of the middle class, owning homes and sending their kids to college instead of slaving away as the working poor. Gays, once treated as criminals, have been liberated, and New York recently became the sixth and largest state to approve gay marriage. These changes have all come about because there were Americans who were determined to set things right for their country. Martin Luther King is the most celebrated example, but there are many others, sung and unsung. They are the kind of people who are the true defenders of truth, justice and the American way, and their labors, often at great personal cost, have shaped an America we can be proud of. You’d think that we have a lot to celebrate this Fourth of July, and we do.
But you’d never guess that from the diatribes of America’s most vocal critics. In their eyes, things not only haven’t gotten better, they’ve gotten worse. In fact, worse than ever. It isn’t just because we’re in another deep recession, either, because the alienation of critics on the Right and Left alike goes back a lot further. On the Right, it began as a lunatic fringe thing, with groups like the John Birch Society convinced that Eisenhower was a Communist and fluoridating water was a Communist plot. But it later went mainstream with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Evil Empire, they see our country in greater peril than ever from devil-worshipping secular humanists, gays, Mexican immigrants and especially, after 9/11, Muslims. I've seen Muslim women in head scarves working the checkout lines at Target – something they'd never be allowed to do in many if not most Muslim countries. They have to know they're better off here than there. But that sort of insight is lost on those who see them as so dire a menace that only draconian internal security laws, unlimited surveillance of the entire U.S. population and military courts can save the country – although we never needed such extreme measures against Nazi agents during World War II, Soviet spies during the Cold War or, for that matter, the Oklahoma City bombers and the perpetrators of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. But the Right can at least claim that it’s only responding to current events; for the Left, nothing in the United States has changed for the better since World War I or maybe even the Civil War.
In Costa-Gravas’ movie Betrayal (1988), for example, typical Midwesterners are depicted as hunting down black people for sport. Costa-Gravas is Greek, which we are evidently supposed to think gives him greater insight into the evils of Amerika than any American could have. But there are Americans who parrot his line. Here, for example, is science fiction writer John Sladek, also on the American Midwest:
What’s wrong with the Midwest is not flatness or greyness but people. It was just as flat when it was a home for the Sioux, a pasture for their buffalo. It did not become boring until a peculiar breed of genocidal people took over. Their lives were flat and rectilinear, as the straight and narrow path to the heaven they believed in. Accordingly they cut the Great Plains into squares, setting rectilinear boundaries for states, counties, farms and fields.
So “rectilinear boundaries” are the essence of a “genocidal people?” Such boundaries were never the rule in Europe, and by that logic Germans under the Nazis could never have become “genocidal.” For that matter, what does the rectilinear pattern of streets in New York City say about the possibly genocidal nature of New Yorkers? Sladek’s argument is every bit as specious as those of the 19th Century racists who invoked phrenology in their cause. An aspiring writer named Dave Auerbach quotes Sladek approvingly in an essay about another sf writer, Thomas M. Disch, who, like Sladek, was born in Iowa – and made it clear in his fiction that if the world needed an enema, they’d have to put the tube in his native state:
George Wallace and Adolf Eichmann are two figures who recur in Disch’s work, early and late, and they symbolize the two halves of America that now appear in far sharper relief than they did at the time Disch started writing: town and city, one rural, populist, and xenophobic, the other liberal, technocratic, and heartless. Disch frequently treated them in isolation, but they reinforce one another, antagonists that form a unified system. Together, they constitute the American success story, by which Disch means its inhumanity.
An odd thing here is that Auerbach never mentions Alabama; you’d think that Wallace, too, must have been a Midwesterner. As for Eichmann, Auerbach – surely unintentionally – reminds us of Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado professor who famously proclaimed that all the people in the Twin Towers on 9/11 were “Little Eichmanns” who got what was coming to them. Churchill later lost his job for having allegedly falsified research papers, he was also accused of faking Native American ancestry. Years before that, he published a screed arguing that pacifism was racist.
For the likes of Auerbach and Churchill, all America is like Mississippi at its worst during the era of segregation. Yet even in Mississippi, you could find decent white people. I know this because of the oral history testimony of Henry Peacock of Grenada, who may well owe his life to the woman who ran a local restaurant where he and other black youth staged a sit-in 1966:
Peacock: We went around to the front. And this lady that owned that place was named Ms. Tony. I never will forget her. She wasn't no prejudiced lady. She just was going along with what was going on in [those] days. You could tell that because she didn't mind serving us. It wasn't her; it was the guy that owned the service station across the street over there, from her. And if I'm not making no [mistake], I don't want to call this guy no wrong name, but I believe that guy was a Worshen[?]. And anyhow, we went in that Chicken Inn, and we ordered all those hamburgers, and she was there. She went back there. She said, "You want ten? Sure." You know. We ordered ten hamburgers. It wasn't but seven or us, but we were going to take some of [the hamburgers] with us.
Anyhow, this white guy walked up to me, and he say, "What are you doing in here?"
And we said, "Well, we just come in to buy burgers." You know.
He said, "Well, didn't you know niggers wasn't allowed in here?"
And we said, "Yeah, that's why we're in here. We're integrating the place." You know.
And this guy said--. He takes a gun out of his pocket, and he cocked it.
Interviewer: What was it?
Peacock: A thirty-eight. I didn't know what it was then, but when I got back to the church and explained to Leon and told [him] what the gun looked like, he said that sounded like a thirty-eight because it was a short gun.
And he takes this gun, and he put it up to my nose right there and say, "You believe I'll blow your brains out?"
And I'm just naive. I'm steady turning away from the man, like, you know, "This ain't nothing." You know. "Just a water gun." You know. I mean, that's the way it was. You know. Because you didn't think about it. You really didn't think about it. And I told him, "Naw."
And he said, "Well, y'all some smart niggers." I think that's the way he put it.
And Ms. Tony finally told him, say, whatever his name was, "Why don't you leave, Doc?" I believe that's what she called him. "Why don't you just leave, and let me go on and serve these people, and get it over with?" And he did. He left. And we finished up. We went on back to the church because we had to go back and tell what we experienced.
It is people like Ms. Tony that the likes of Churchill and Auerbach want to erase from our memories, and yet it is people like her who are the real bedrock of America – people willing to give up their old ways in favor of new and better ways. One recent bit of headline news suggests that Americans are ahead of their supposed betters in Europe in their sense of civic virtue. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, as I’m sure you all know, was the French head of the International Monetary Fund, who had to resign after he was accused of attempting to rape a housekeeper at a New York hotel.
In recent days, the case against Strauss-Kahn has fallen apart, because it turned out that the maid has serious credibility problems. Only, before that, a French woman had come forward to accuse him of having tried to rape her in 2002; her mother had pressured her to keep silent about it. Yet Strauss-Kahn’s political allies – socialists, mind you, not right-wing misogynists – defended him from the start. Chances are now that he’ll be the toast of the town in the “enlightened” land of Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Derrida. But in America, he’d be toast, period – just like John Edwards and Mark Sanford and Arnold Schwarzenegger and other prominent politicians who have cheated on their wives. We’ve come along way since John F. Kennedy could have affairs without the press getting wise, or perhaps keeping silent even if it did. But it isn’t a matter of renascent Puritanism; Americans aren’t against sex – they’re against public dishonesty and private betrayal.
All this really does relate to that dust-up at the AURG. But let me back into it, through the movie Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944), an account of Lt. Col. James Doolittle’s raid on war industries in the Japanese capital in 1942. The movie was obviously intended as a morale builder and it was filmed during the height of anti-Japanese propaganda. Yet there is surprisingly little venom in it. In the screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, Doolittle makes it clear that attacking military factories will mean civilian casualties, and tells his men that if any of them have a problem with that, they can drop out of the mission without any penalty. That seems astounding for a wartime movie, and even more astounding given the fact that Trumbo was a hard-core Communist who ended up being blacklisted by Hollywood after the war. I don’t know whether Doolittle actually said what Trumbo had him saying, but I’m sure it was the message the government wanted the American people to hear – and that the American people wanted to hear: that we were supposed be morally superior to our enemies. Imagine the reaction if Spencer Tracy as Doolittle in the movie had yelled, “Burn those Japs alive!”
Yet that is exactly what our Army Air Force did. Indiscriminate fire-bombing of Tokyo was the rule later in the war, and then came Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Europe, American planes fire-bombed Hamburg and Dresden; if the war there had lasted a few months longer, they would doubtless have nuked Berlin. Historians are familiar with this, even if the general public isn’t, and that has led a number of them to argue the case for “moral equivalence” – that America behaved just as badly as its enemies, and not just in combat. What about internment of Japanese residents including citizens, in the United States during the war? Wasn’t that just the same as the Germans putting Jews in concentration camps?
Only, the Japanese were never consigned to the gas chambers. Some of them even joined the U.S. Army and fought in Europe – the 1951 movie Go for Broke! celebrated their heroism. Our government finally apologized for their internment in 1988. Would Nazi Germany, had it won the war, ever have apologized to the Jews – assuming any survived? Japan didn’t get around to apologizing to China for the 1937 Nanking massacre, in which hundreds of thousands of civilians were slaughtered, until 1995 – and in 2007 100 deputies of the Japanese parliament denounced their government for doing so, claiming that the massacre was a fabrication. Would even the most conservative congressmen here ever dare to pretend that Tokyo and Hiroshima and Hamburg never happened? America is a country where the truth will out, where attempted cover-ups have always failed, where, sooner or later, our leaders are called to account.
America is a country that still makes mistakes, but can still learn from its mistakes. We can freely debate everything from the war on terror to Obamacare. It may be significant that its most virulent critics hate that about our country. The far Right has admired right-wing dictators from Rafael Trujillo to Ferdinand Marcos to Anwar Sadat. The far Left embraced Josef Stalin back in the 1930’s, and today fawns on Hugo Chavez and even Muslim autocracies. In Jane Haddam’s mystery novel, Cheating at Solitaire (2008), Stewart Gordon (loosely based on Patrick Stewart), himself a “Man of the Left” who favors a welfare state, can’t understand the sort of people who think “having to live in a world with Fox News was much more oppressive than living under a government that would execute you for sleeping with your boyfriend, especially if you also happened to be a boy.”
America is a country that is continually reinventing itself. It is a nation that has become multi-cultural in fact as well as in name – even during the era of racism at its worst, it embraced ragtime and jazz. It has been enriched by the cultures as well as the labors of its immigrants, and those immigrants keep coming – from Europe, Asia and even Africa. They come here to change their lives, to reinvent themselves. The New York Times today featured one example: a young woman from India who developed an online networking service for helping students with their homework:
When Pooja Nath was an undergraduate at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, an elite engineering school in India, she felt isolated. She was one of the few women on campus. While her male classmates collaborated on problem sets, Ms. Nath toiled in the computer lab alone.
“Back then, no one owned a laptop, there was no Internet in the dorm rooms. So everyone in my class would be working in the computer lab together,” she said. “But all the guys would be communicating with each other, getting help so fast, and I would be on the sidelines just watching.”
The experience as a young woman in that culture formed the foundation of her start-up in Silicon Valley, Piazza. Ms. Nath, who was the first woman from her hometown to attend the prestigious engineering school and later escaped an arranged marriage to become an entrepreneur, conceived of the site for homework help in 2009 during her first year at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Pooja Nath is a new American. But she is a true American. She probably doesn’t care a hoot about DC Comics, and would care still less about our little sandpile if she ever came across it. But she surely believes in Truth, Justice and the American Way. And doubtless also in civility. We would do well to honor that in our own discussions and debates, and in our daily lives.
July 4, 2011