It seems like this is the summer of America’s discontent. No one is happy about the prospect of being locked down again by the coronavirus. All are dismayed by the indefensible killings of unarmed citizens at the hands of law enforcement officers. And everyone is horrified by the endless, senseless killings of young men, women and children of color in many of our cities, not by police, but by one another. If Black lives matter, then all Black lives must matter.
So where does America go from here? Do we stew in our own discontent, lash out at one another and generally make ourselves more unhappy? Or instead, do we commit ourselves to making things better? Or maybe at least not making things worse?
One thing that won’t heal our nation is flailing away blindly to erase its past. Some historically challenged young people seem to have discovered that our founders — like all of us — were deeply flawed human beings who failed to live up to the virtues and ideals they espoused and should have followed.
The founders’ ideal of liberty for all clashed starkly with the horrible reality of their support for the slavery of many. But if the good they did and the good we do can be swept away by the sins they committed and the sins we commit, then there is little hope for redemption.
If every American leader up to the present day is judged too flawed to honor, if all of American history before today is judged irredeemable, then we are doomed, for those who erase history will surely find themselves bound to replaying it.
The intolerance of today’s mobs toward everything and everyone who went before us will eventually turn on all of us and those who come after us. History shows it’s just a few short steps from the French Revolution’s cry for fraternity and equality to the Reign of Terror, the Star Chamber and the guillotine; from the heady days of the Russian Revolution to the horror of the Soviet purge, the gulag prisons and the Berlin Wall.
So the next time a former president’s monument is defaced or his statue is torn down, let’s think for a moment who will be next. Can’t we all agree that taking down statues of Confederate generals who betrayed the nation and fought for slavery isn’t the same as taking down statues of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant just because they don’t meet our 21st century sensibilities about race? Wasn’t winning the Civil War and ending slavery enough to redeem them?
Is Teddy Roosevelt — the most progressive president of his era, the “trust-buster” who won both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional Medal of Honor — to be exiled from history because he too was racially biased and “imperialist”? Wasn’t his brave charge up San Juan Hill enough to help save his historic site at Sagamore Hill?
Is FDR, who led America out of the Great Depression, created the New Deal and defeated Hitler and Nazism, to be dumped in the ashbin of history because he interred Japanese and failed to end Jim Crow laws and stem racial segregation?
Do Presidents Kennedy, Clinton and even Obama get pilloried because they failed to do enough to end racial injustice? Where do recrimination and historical revisionism end? Was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s devotion to nonviolence too timid to be honored? Does anyone not newly “woke” to prejudice, privilege and injustice fail to meet the left fringe’s impossible standards?
If so, we’re all lost. We all come up way short. But there is another path. We can revisit history, but let’s not revile it.
We can and should take a hard, clear-eyed look at racism and economic deprivation in our own time. We should invest in our poorest neighborhoods, improve our poorest-performing schools, and help create better economic opportunities for minority communities. I’d like to see us fight hard to right the wrongs of America’s past. But we can only succeed if we build on the solid foundations of that past.
In a few weeks, Congress will return to Washington to consider another historic round of support for America’s struggling economy. This year, a pandemic has forced our leaders to drop partisan differences to pass legislation to keep our economy afloat. Let’s hope and pray they build on this cooperative spirit to earn a place of honor in our nation’s history.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.