Works CitedChua, Amy. “How America’s Identity Politics Went from Inclusion to Division.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 1 Mar. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/mar/01/how-americas-identity-politics-went-from-inclusion-to-division. Flanagin, Jake. “Columbus Day, or ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day’?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Oct. 2014, op-talk.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/10/13/columbus-day-or-indigenous-peoples-day/?rref=collection/timestopic/Columbus, Christopher&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=10&pgtype=collection. Hannun, Marya. “’Baby It’s Cold Outside’ Was Once an Anthem for Progressive Women. What Happened?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 19 Dec. 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/12/19/baby-its-cold-outside-was-once-an-anthem-for-progressive-women-what-happened/?utm_term=.0ae445c03604. History.com, A&E Television Networks, http://www.history.com/topics/exploration/columbus-day. Schulten, Katherine. “Should Columbus Day Be Replaced With Indigenous Peoples Day?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Oct. 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/04/learning/should-columbus-day-be-replaced-with-indigenous-peoples-day.html. Yan, Holly. “Across the US, More Cities Ditch Columbus Day to Honor Those Who Really Discovered America.” CNN, Cable News Network, 8 Oct. 2018, http://www.cnn.com/2018/10/08/us/columbus-day-vs-indigenous-peoples-day/index.html. Zipp, Yvonne. “Is ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day’ a Long-Overdue Change, or Political Correctness Run Amok?” The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor, 13 Oct. 2014, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/USA-Update/2014/1013/Is-Indigenous-Peoples-Day-a-long-overdue-change-or-political-correctness-run-amok.
Should You Feel Bad About Being American?
The United States is a miracle of a country. It’s not without its faults, but if you put it up against any other large country in the world, it looks pretty dang good. Every day I’m grateful to live in a place so rich in innovation, culture, diversity, and entertainment. People from all over the world often risk everything just for a chance to immigrate here and start a new life. As incredible as this nation is, however, many Americans struggle with the history of the country. The story of slave-owning Europeans wiping out the native population (disease was a major factor as well) isn’t exactly a founder’s fairytale. That being said, it’s easy to sit in our air-conditioned homes and begin our very own cross-generational moral appraising business under the guise of an anonymous internet username. I understand the sentiment. If we look back into history, it all looks pretty bad. People murdering each other over land is hard to imagine when you’ve lived in the tranquility of modern suburbia your entire life. And that’s exactly where the challenge lies when we attempt to judge morality over time. Morality is not stagnant. Our moral compass is like an iguana, changing to fit the environment around us. We act in a manner that will help us go unnoticed, not to call too much attention in a public setting. What we consider to be “moral” constantly evolves as society evolves. So, when we use the most modern version of morality to evaluate someone or something from a different era, we are using two different things as a reference point and treating them as if they are the same. Say you are trying to evaluate a 1992 desktop computer. In order to fairly judge it as “computer,” it must be judged in the context of early 1990’s computers. To judge it in the context of 2021 computers appears to be a judgement of computer against computer, but it’s not. If someone brought you any computer from the 1990’s, you’d take a look at it and think, “wow, what a piece of junk.” Sure, we can define both under the umbrella term “computer,” but computers have changed so much over time that it wouldn’t be fair to judge early computers and modern computers in a side-by-side comparison. The same goes for morality. Here’s a more personal example. In the past, many people would administer physical punishment to discipline children. Within the last century, this was considered fairly common practice. In modern society, however, this is widely accepted as immoral behavior. So, should we admonish an eighty-five year old person for using a belt to discipline their child 60 years ago? What about the song, “Baby it’s Cold Outside?” Written in the 1940’s, the Christmas classic has only recently come under heavy criticism, being described as a “date rape anthem.” However, to take the lyrics at face value in the context of the 21st century when the song was written almost 70 years prior ignores many factors. In a Washington Post article published in 2014, Marya Hunnan writes “At the time they were written, an unmarried woman staying the night at her beau’s was cause for scandal. It’s this fear we see reflected in the lyrics, more than any aversion on the part of the woman to staying the night. She never expresses any personal distaste at the idea,a (sic) rather pointing out that her “sister will be suspicious,” her “maiden aunt’s mind is vicious.” Really, then, we are hearing a battle between his entreaties and her reputation.” This example highlights just one of the many challenges in cross-generational moral appraising. It’s not only the evolution of morality we have to contend with, but the evolution of language, and often the relationship between the two. The further back we go, the more difficult the evaluation becomes. Take Christopher Columbus Day. Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492. In 1792, there was an event held in New York to celebrate the 300th anniversary of his arrival. One hundred years later, President Benjamin Harrison encouraged a nationwide celebration. In 1937, FDR officially declared “Columbus Day” a national holiday. Recently, however, many have become uncomfortable with the idea of a Columbus Day. In 1992, Berkeley became the first city to rename “Columbus Day,” opting for “Indigenous People’s Day” instead. Yvonne Zipp summarizes the feeling behind the change in a 2014 article published by The Christian Science Monitor, writing that the holiday “has made an increasing number of people wince, given the enslavement and genocide of Native American people that followed in the wake of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.” Considering this, many of us find ourselves at a moral impasse. But if any of us want to evaluate the morality of Columbus Day fairly, we have to consider, well… a lot. How many deaths was he directly responsible for? How do we define what we mean by directly? What did Columbus really mean in his letters? Are they translated precisely? Is Columbus day really about Columbus? What is it we are actually celebrating? Knowing what happened after the Europeans arrived in the Americas, should we celebrate it at all? Finally, knowing everything that happened after the Europeans arrived in the Americas, should we feel okay about being American? These are just a few of many possible questions we could ask, but the last question highlights the ultimate American quandary. It’s a perplexing predicament to wrestle with, and coming to terms with the atrocities of the past in a morally transformed world is difficult. Many times, we find ourselves resorting to uncomplicated tactics like casting of blame on to a single figure. We see this pattern quite often: Columbus is responsible for the deaths of all Native Americans, Hitler for the genocide of the Jews, Stalin and Mao for the murderous Communist dystopias. We think, “well if that guy wasn’t so bad maybe none of this would have happened.” But we forget about everyone else: All of the people who participated in these atrocities, everyone who joined the murdering party, all of the informants and the everyday people who lied to those around them and to themselves. Ultimately, we forget about the evil within all of us. We separate and we distance, convincing ourselves we couldn’t be like those people. But we are. We’re just as capable and just as dangerous. In order to understand morality, it’s imperative we understand the potential within us for both good and evil. We can’t be a fair judge of any human being if we believe ourselves to be levitating on a platform of benevolence. If we look at people from that angle, everyone looks terrible. Coming to terms with this could save us all a lot of trouble. Since most people lack the time and/or energy to conduct a fair cross-generational moral appraisal, it’s common to resort to overgeneralizations and assumptive accusations in what is often described as a “callout culture.” Understandably, these simplistic tactics are often met with resistance, and we find ourselves circling around each other, arguing over the past as if it were the present while delaying progress towards a better future. It’s a frustrating dance for people who feel as if they cannot be forgiven for their past, and many question the motives of the moral appraisers, who are often driven by a political agenda. When these politically motivated patrons treat the past as if it’s the present, they are able to convince us certain issues are more prevalent than they actually are. They can point to examples of remarks that are racist/sexist/etc., attribute those remarks to the entirety of one’s character, and then use the character (from the past) as an exemplar of everything wrong with the present. This kind of tactic damages those making present and legitimate claims about issues like sexism, racism, and xenophobia. In the modern world, sexism, racism, and xenophobia are not the norm, and if you are to support these ideas in public, you will likely be condemned. To use examples of racism/sexism/xenophobia from the past in an attempt to highlight their prevalence in the present is to help normalize rather than ameliorate. People may be less likely to pay attention to or stand up against acts of racism/sexism/xenophobia if they are convinced these things are the norm rather than the exception. Amy Chua highlights this in an article published at The Guardian titled “How America’s Identity Politics Went From Inclusion to Division,” citing “a progressive Mexican American law student” who says “If everything is racist and sexist, nothing is. When Trump, the real wolf, came along, no one listened.” Considering the complicated and ever-changing nature of morality and the dangers of making cross-generational moral appraisals, especially when there’s an ulterior motive, it’s hard to find much use in such an evaluation. When we take something from the past and evaluate it against present-day norms, it will rarely measure up, and we often find ourselves focusing on the comparatively adverse nature of the past over progress. Say we want to express morality numerically, and our goal is to get to an entirely peaceful society, free of violence, poverty, and starvation. The final goal is ten. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll just say we are currently at eight. We can express the beginning of civilization (around 3000 BCE) as zero. Let’s pretend that in the year 1500 we were at five. If we compare five (or anything closely surrounded by it) to eight, it obviously looks pretty bad. If we compare it to ten, (the hypothetical utopia) it looks even worse. If we choose to compare things in this way, it becomes incredibly easy to illustrate humanity’s pernicious disposition. However, if we focus on eight, and we recognize that we’ve been able to move from zero all the way to eight, we can be confident in moving to 8.1, which is where our focus should lie. If we do this, we may find ourselves at ten sooner rather than later. If we give in to the narrative that we should just tear it all down, we’ll find ourselves at zero, and we already know that’s a pretty brutal place to be.
4 thoughts on “Should You Feel Bad About Being American?”
I enjoyed your perspective Jason. A part of me does wonder if we have advanced morally in recent years? A part of me thinks the entire world is becoming just a little dumber. Maybe that’s unfair. The numerical comparison at the end was a great example of the yardsticks we could try and use. Nice blog!
Thanks Kevin! I do think we are becoming dumber as things become more convenient and we become more reliant on technology to solve our problems instead of having to solve them ourselves. I guess it’s hard to know if we’ve become more moral, but I do know that what is considered “moral” is constantly changing. There is a significant decrease in violence over time so I guess that would be one way we’ve become more moral in a sense.
Does the decision to be proud of one country have to depend on one’s moral evaluation of its history? Civilization itself has been built on the theater of wars and human suffering – Everyone alive today comes from a long lineage of rape, subjugation and oppression, should we feel guilty for the sins of our fathers?
I don’t think we should, and I think you’re right. We can be proud of our country while also admitting that terrible things happen all of the time.