How Horrible is America's History, Really? | Opinion

How horrible is our history, really?

Do America's past 400 years resemble the brutal and tragic legacy of Nazi Germany, and demand that we accept comparable burdens of guilt and shame? Should we adopt "regularized rituals of repentance" for our own past wrongs?

Michele L. Norris, a veteran contributor to National Public Radio, insists that's exactly what we must do. She argues that Americans' ongoing reluctance to confront our own wickedness makes us even more culpable than our Teutonic counterparts. "Germany faced its horrible past. Can we do the same?" asks the headline for Norris' explosive piece in The Washington Post at the beginning of June. Its central assertion is that "the United States does not yet have the stomach to look over its shoulder and stare directly at the evil on which this great country stands. That is why slavery is not well taught in our schools."

Yes, many Americans would readily agree that history in general "is not well taught in our schools," but that doesn't mean that slavery's impact has been utterly ignored or minimized over the last 50 years. Consider the unrivaled success of the TV miniseries Roots in 1977, which drew "the largest viewership ever attracted by any type of television series in US history" according to Nielsen Media Research. An astonishing 100 million viewers watched the final episode—nearly half the national population at the time.

No one would suggest that a single television broadcast, no matter how influential, could atone for the monstrous cruelty of slavery, but the national embrace of this sympathetic account of centuries of Black suffering hardly indicates a refusal to examine racist elements in our past. Beyond popular culture, by the end of the 1970's the overwhelming majority of American universities, public and private, offered Black Studies courses that became popular with students of all races.

Other than demented fringe groups of white supremacists and neo-Confederates, no segment of the population persists in denying or justifying the evils of slavery. What Americans do continue to resist, however, is the currently fashionable notion that this brutal institution represents the essence of our history and the oppressive basis of the nation's power and prosperity.

That accusation marks the central message of the New York Times' "1619 Project," which insists that the true founding of the republic came not in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence and its affirmations of liberty and equality, but 157 years earlier with the arrival of the first 20 enslaved Africans in the British colony of Virginia. The 1619 Project baldly proclaimed: "Out of slavery – and the anti-Black racism it required – grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional."

In other words, from its origins this nation has been blighted, rather than blessed; America's only distinctive elements connect to the brutalities of shameful enslavement.

In her essay, Norris expands on this case for national guilt, equating America's experience with that of the Germans, very much to the disfavor of the United States. "Comparing these two countries' paths forward from a dark past is instructive because it sheds light not on comparative evil but instead contrasting redemption," she writes. "The Germans decided that discomfort could make them stronger by creating guardrails against a returning evil. We instead have reached for blinders."

The real blindness is an inability to discern the dramatically different trajectories of America and Germany throughout their modern histories, not to mention the profound contrasts in the present politics of the two nations.

No rational observer would identify slavery—or Jim Crow, for that matter—as a potential "returning evil" in the United States. Meanwhile, the largest opposition party in the German Bundestag today is the AfD (Alternatives for Deutschland), strongly identified with xenophobic, neo-Nazi and antisemitic elements, despite the "guardrails" that Norris so fervently admires.

Charlottesville, Confederate statue, Black Lives Matter
A Virginia Supreme Court decision will allow the city of Charlottesville to remove two statues of Confederate generals. Above, a statue of Robert E. Lee is photographed at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, with a banner that reads "Black Lives Matter" on August 12, 2020. Eze Amos/Getty Images

Moreover, the genocide of the Nazi era followed a long series of German catastrophes that had begun centuries before. Take the 1619 date that receives such abundant attention from those who seek to portray America's past as cruel and dysfunctional; the year before, 1618, marked the beginning of the devastating Thirty Years' War, a faith-based conflict that ravaged the German states. With both Catholic and Protestant participation, the three decades of ruthless struggle inflicted civilian and military casualties that amounted at least one-fourth of the total German population—most historians estimate one-third.

This carnage provides perspective for one of the undeniably distinctive characteristics of the American experience: the ability of religious believers with fundamentally conflicting theologies to share the same space, with an unprecedented absence of violent conflict or civic strife.

American exceptionalism isn't American perfectionism. The long-standing sense that the United States has enjoyed an unusually benign history, attracting admiration—and immigration—from around the world, doesn't mean our record is blameless. But recent demands that we confront an overwhelmingly "dark past" contradict the positive lived experience of multiple generations that journeyed to this continent to build better lives.

Not every arriving family achieved its goals, but nearly all benefited from the republic's unique opportunities and advantages. Few Americans would look back on decisions made by their grandparents, or great grandparents, and wish that they had chosen to remain behind in Europe, Asia, Latin America or, for that matter, Africa.

For the great majority of Black people, of course, ancestors came here in chains, not by choice. But though the enslaved never decided on their American destinations, the vast majority chose to stay, even after liberation. The colonization movement of the early 19th century—a well-meaning but misguided attempt to unshackle slaves and resettle them on the African continent, failed in large part because of the impassioned opposition of masses of free Black people who rallied in northern cities against the scheme.

A hundred years later, the Back to Africa Movement, associated with the Jamaican Black nationalist Marcus Garvey, failed to mobilize more than a handful who were willing to sacrifice the dream of equality and opportunity in the land that had once enslaved their forebears. Garvey himself never even visited the continent that he meant to lead, even after proclaiming himself "Provisional President of Africa."

Dr. Martin Luther King, by contrast, never dismissed his American heritage and identity. He summoned his nation to honor its highest ideals, rather than disparaging its claims to greatness and goodness. His example stressed American possibilities and promises, not guilt or accusations concerning its multiple shortcomings.

As Brown University's eminent historian Gordon Wood recently observed: "The history of the United States can never be understood, even by the victims of slavery and racism, as merely a tragic tale. Its significance both transcends and thwarts much of the brutality, bigotry and injustice of its people."

The greatest of all German poets agreed with Professor Wood, and would have scoffed at the prospect of our fortunate nation adopting a Germanic obsession with regret and remembrance. Shortly before his death in 1832, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, an unabashed admirer of the rising colossus across the sea, wrote:

America, you have it better
Than our old continent.
You have no tumbledown castles
And no basalt deposits.
Your present is not disturbed deep down by
Useless remembrance and vain strife.

Use the present with good fortune!

May 21st-century Americans of all races make the most of the old German's best wishes to seize their country's positive potential.

Michael Medved hosts a daily radio talk show and is author, most recently, of God's Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.