Last Refuge of a Scoundrel
On August 3, 2021, Missouri’s U.S. Congressman Jason Smith introduced into legislation a House Bill entitled the Love America Act, a bill similar to one introduced earlier in the Senate by our own Josh Hawley. While the expressed patriotism of these elected representatives seems quite laudatory on first look, one must probe below the surface to see the real meaning and motives behind such proposals. After all, it was Benjamin Franklin who, in his Autobiography, warned future American generations of the dangers of pretense when he stated that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” We, as American citizens, should keep this quote in mind when we evaluate the sincerity of such grand gestures by Mr. Smith and Mr. Hawley. Are they sincere expressions or merely expedient pretenses that pander to an ill-informed public? Let’s take a closer look at those legislative proposals.
Smith’s proposal claims that “radical, left-wing education activists are hijacking school curriculums and injecting poisonous ideology onto our nation’s youth. These Critical Race Theory advocates seek to reframe our founding as racist in an effort to turn America into an unrecognizable socialist country.” How our nation’s founding as racist could, in itself, somehow turn the U.S. into a politically or economically socialist country is beyond me, but I’d remind both Smith and Hawley that virtually any college textbook on economics or American history makes it quite clear that our economic system has been a combination of both capitalistic and socialistic policies, at least since Franklin Roosevelt’s first term in office beginning in 1933. However, there is little understanding of socialism among voters in this nation. Some confuse it with National Socialism, or Naziism, on the extreme Right end of the political spectrum (and therefore diametrically opposite), which would actually align it with Trump’s ideology. Others are obviously ignorant of its economic impact on their very lives. I clearly remember an ironic incident in which I was standing in line at a local bank listening to two men railing against socialism while cashing their Social Security checks. To say that our electorate is misinformed is quite an understatement, and I can’t think of a more revealing example than this one.
What does Smith propose? That school districts “require students to read the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Pledge of Allegiance and recite portions…at certain grade levels.” In particular, “In 8th grade, students read the Declaration of Independence and are able to recite its preamble.” Let’s deal with this one.
As a high school English teacher in the early 1980s, I often taught, as a part of classical American literature, a brief unit on Thomas Jefferson and his first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Here is an interesting quote from that seldom-mentioned first draft:
He [King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. 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 has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has 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.
Though Jefferson focused his blame on King George III, it is clear from this passage that he recognized the essential immorality of the institution of slavery, though he himself was a slave owner. Also, it is now an accepted historical fact that he had sexual relations with his slave named Sally Hemings (one-quarter African, three-quarter white) and thereby sired a long line of descendants from that union. Likely as not, one student or another would bring up that fact—without my mentioning it—and soon I found myself being chastised for withholding relevant information. What I learned from this is twofold: resourceful students will find and remember scandalous or controversial facts, and teachers lose credibility when they try to hide the truth. As they should.
What is also possible but not entirely clear is the speculation that the slavery issue would have been solved then and there, in the summer of 1776 at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, if Jefferson hadn’t felt compelled to remove that passage from the succeeding draft of the Declaration. Why did he do so? To satisfy several delegates representing Northern businessmen with profitable interests in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia, two slave-holding colonies that threatened to withhold support by not signing the declaration, basically a declaration of war against Great Britain. As a result, slavery was not dealt with, and it continued as an institution in the Southern states that later became the Confederacy. That institution ended, of course, when the Union victory in 1865, paid for in hundreds of thousands of lives, insured the nationwide implementation of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
What is clear is that not dealing with “self-evident truths” that are not self-evident at all to a large segment of our nation is a surefire way to bring on the eventual collapse of our democratic republic. Jefferson’s self-evident truth that “all men are created equal” simply wasn’t accepted then by many (as now), which means that, yes, systemic racism was built into the very founding of this nation. Recently many of our nation’s citizens have recoiled at the psychological breakthroughs that occur when one recognizes guilt feelings—whether deserved or not—rising to the surface from one’s own subconscious mind. In an attempt to protect their children from such discomfort, these reactionaries want to ban books, the discussion of controversial issues, the unraveling of an often unpleasant national history—in short, truth-telling of all kinds. Truth-telling is painful, of course, but likely an essential step in the mass healing of this nation. It is time to pull the bandages back and let our wounds heal in the light of day, not stick on some dubious patriotic bandaids that rely on zombie-like recitation of non-understood texts.
While these wounds are healing we, as our country’s citizens, must move on. Instead of promoting the Culture Wars of Smith and Hawley’s extreme Right, we must solve the problems of inflation, environmental pollution and climate change, immigration, the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, the general decline of healthy lifestyles, the increasing power of authoritarianism across the globe. I am pleased when I see people of diverse races, ethnic groups, social classes, religious beliefs, occupations, educational levels, personal interests, etc., all working together to make this nation’s future better for our children. But we must not lie to them.