On National Narratives
“Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.” — John Adams
What our national narrative is and what it should be is currently the subject of profound and explicit debate in America. I feel compelled to articulate my version and offer my reasons for rejecting a competing narrative. I do this because, as I get ready to take my place as a member of the legal profession, the nature of the system to which I will devote my professional life is under well-meaning, but tragically misguided attack.
Objectivity requires the right subjective frame. Facts have no purpose absent narrative. We cannot derive meaning from a naked reality, because we imbue meaning into everyday objects and events. We have forgotten how to appreciate the meaning of our national heritage and have become a culture unmoored for it. Reason and critique are essential, but we must first have gratitude and amazement for the improbable circumstances in which we find ourselves. We must have faith that we are participants in a just experiment. When we think of our country, we must first feel affection, not resentment.
“Morals were too essential to the happiness of man to be risked on the uncertain combinations of the head. [Nature] laid their foundation therefore in sentiment, not in science.” — Thomas Jefferson
Lately, I have been reading histories of the American Revolution and the early 19th century. The intellectual climate of the age was optimistic and visionary. Man had an obligation and responsibility to use his faculties of reason to understand both the natural world and our place within it. I have been simultaneously inspired and intimidated by the examples of George Washington and John Adams; of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. They were, intellectually speaking, qualitatively better than us. They had a deeper understanding of human nature and history. They were revolutionaries, but they based their revolution on knowledge of the past, understanding what had worked and what had not. They were not merely politicians; they were political philosophers.
These men were, like all men are and have always been, deeply flawed. They could not help having been born in a world wilder and more ancient than our own. But if we look back across the short distance of time to their era, we will see that it was not all that long ago. We are still walking through the door they opened. To understand what they accomplished is to properly contextualize our own story. The form the American government would take was refined, developed, and debated by men whose average understanding of human nature, history, and government so surpassed our own that our culture’s only defense is to haughtily dismiss great historical figures for universally human flaws. If we acknowledge the historical magnitude of their accomplishments, it demands greatness of ourselves. We are like insects scurrying from the light of their example.
“The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.” — John Adams
The narrative I have chosen to present is under attack from a slippery and pernicious illiberalism that has crawled out of a decaying academy and infected the minds of young Americans, robbing them of their intellectual and historical inheritance by surreptitiously supplanting it. Every academic is now a general and every student, wittingly or not, a foot soldier in the Great War to Remake Society. America is not a place where people have enjoyed more freedom and material comfort than anywhere else in human history; it is an oppressive structure, imposed from the top down by an old, white, slave-owning aristocracy, and the fruits of its tree are irreparably poisoned. The only path forward is to rebalance the power structures in society and liberate the oppressed.
I am unimpressed by these insights and frustrated by the emotional hold they have taken over the American intelligentsia. Obviously, factional, class, and racial struggles have permeated the development of civilization at every step. We have always been fighting against nature, our own included. Great thinkers throughout history have understood that power plays a central role in human affairs — but it is not the only force at play. Instead of thinking that human history is merely a series of inter-group power struggles, I choose to believe the narrative that humanity has waged a brutal and noble struggle against the oppressive natural world, of which we are a part and product. I choose to be consistently amazed by the improbable miracles of our political and legal systems. America is the most culturally and ethnically diverse representative political system in human history. Never before recent American history had such a diverse group of people, at so large a scale, enjoyed such liberal legal protections and political freedoms, while simultaneously enjoying unprecedented material comfort.
I can recognize and appreciate these miracles without denying the constant need for refinement and, sometimes, radical change. Changing circumstances always present threats unknown to previous generations. We must confront them creatively and flexibly. But we must do so from a place of genuine understanding of our inheritance of political, social, and legal economic systems which, without hyperbole, are the most well-functioning and inclusive in human history. They share the unfortunate characteristic with all reality of being imperfect. But we should not start the world anew simply to give ourselves a subjective feeling of moral superiority in the present, at the likely expense of future generations. Instead, we must accept the discomfort inherent in self-government and good-faith public discourse. For us to move forward, we must believe that we already have. If we instead dwell too long on the injustices of the past, we will come to believe that we are capable only of injustice in the present.
“Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightenment.” — Thomas Jefferson
It is a tragedy that we have forgotten how to be reverent of our national origins. We ignore, at our peril, the heroic example of our flawed founders. We can instead choose to conceptualize their imperfect attempt at fashioning from scratch a new constitutional system of government as a giant leap for mankind. We can choose to frame the Civil War as the inevitably violent correction to the injustice and contradiction of slavery in America. We can decide to understand Jim Crow and segregation as testaments to the stubborn vitality of hatred and prejudice endemic to the human condition. We can view modern political, racial, and class strife as predictable consequences of self-government in a country of 330 million souls, spanning an entire continent. But, most importantly, we can choose to have optimism in how far we have come.
I do not want to abrogate the responsibility that we owe the next generation by resting on the laurels of past accomplishments. However, we can only fulfill that responsibility if we love, appreciate, and understand what our ancestors built for us. Of course, we have great work to do in leaving our country better than we found it. No serious adult thinks otherwise. But I am disheartened by the growing tendency of young Americans to take an entirely cynical view of our past; to believe that no good has been or can be done here until the living atone for the sins of the dead. I long for a shared appreciation of what we have and the common project of improving it. I wonder whether a political system can long endure independently of a citizenry that does not bother to sincerely understand the foundations they so desperately want to change, but rather pit themselves blindly against the status quo to imbue their own lives with a sense of moral and social purpose.
I choose to reject the story that I am merely complicit in an unjust system unless I dedicate myself to revolutionizing it. Rather, I choose to believe that I am a participant in a system which, though not without severe flaws, represents the best we have done, so far, at replacing the whims of the powerful with the protection of the law. I choose to have immense, abiding gratitude for the good fortune of my birth in a nation with a proud history of liberty and self-government. I choose to tell the same story as Martin Luther King, Jr., when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, and righteously proclaimed:
“When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”