‘We are all only rats trapped in Madison’s maze,” the late scholar of the American founding, Walter Berns, was known to say. But it turns out he was wrong — James Madison is only of secondary importance. “Whiteness,” subsequent generations have discovered, was our true founding father and the real framer of the American system of government.
For decades, the academic Left has been constructing the concept of “whiteness.” In African-American-studies departments, whiteness has become a buzzword — sprinkled into term papers, it is sure to earn high marks. Pulling the strings of history, it is that immutable force which inflicts and sustains inequity. It keeps the white rich on top and everyone else poor on the bottom. It is “the establishment” and “the system.” It is everywhere.
Academics, students, and increasingly the mainstream Left can see the nefarious influence of “whiteness” in everything from the election of Donald Trump (of course) to those who oppose abortion.
To the adherents of this worldview, the real root of our evil reaches back into the history of Western civilization itself. In its whiteness, instantiated in America as “white supremacy,” the Left found our Original Sin.
Of course, there is always plenty of historical evidence for left-wingers to cite. As one writer put it: “Gen. George Washington and his subordinate, ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, were slave owners, as was Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and Andrew Jackson. Five of our first seven presidents owned slaves, as did James K. Polk, who invaded and annexed the northern half of Mexico, including California.” Moreover, it is often added, the slaveholding Framers created a constitution that enshrined slavery, counting each slave as three-fifths of a person.
This is no coincidence, the argument continues, but rather the result of America’s inheritance from the West: “Looking back over the history of a Western Civilization, which we call great, were not the explorers who came out of Spain, Portugal, France, Holland and England all white supremacists? They conquered in the name of the mother countries all the lands they discovered, imposed their rule upon the indigenous peoples, and vanquished and eradicated the native-born who stood in their way.” That’s what the West believed, apparently, while the Great Books justified its racism and chauvinism.
That is the Left’s story of America and the West: All brutality, all corruption, and all of it white.
Except those two quotes above did not come from the left, though they surely could have; they came from a Pat Buchanan column written just a few weeks ago.
In other words, the arch-right winger of Nixon White House fame, the arch-defender of Western Civilization from foreign goods and foreign peoples, the man who took paleocons farther than anyone else in American politics, has essentially accepted the Left’s reading of Western history, with white supremacy at its center. Only, aging brute that he is, Buchanan thinks that white supremacy was a good thing, and worries about the prospects of a nation without it. “‘All men are created equal’ is an ideological statement,” he concludes. “Where is the scientific or historic proof for it? Are we building our utopia on a sandpile of ideology and hope?”
If Western civilization were fundamentally and irredeemably racist, the Left would be right to deplore it. But it isn’t, and they aren’t.
We don’t think so. Rod Dreher got it exactly right: “Buchanan asks for evidence, as if this were an empirical question. It’s not. It’s a moral one.” And our shared belief in basic moral equality is not a bold break from the Western tradition. Americans fulfilled, rather than abandoned, Western principles in working to overthrow white supremacy. Though it has never been straight, there is a line from Genesis 1:27 (“And God created man in His own image . . . ”) to the hospitals of the medieval Church to Enlightenment liberalism, the Declaration of Independence, and the subsequent efforts to ensure Americans made good on their “promissory note,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it.
If Western civilization were fundamentally and irredeemably racist, the Left would be right to deplore it. But it isn’t, and they aren’t. The West is unique not for practicing slavery, which had been a constant in human history, but for ultimately deciding to eradicate it. That Buchanan thinks the West is fundamentally racist and praises it anyway is doubly condemnable.
“The old view,” according to Professor Allan Bloom, “was that, by recognizing and accepting man’s natural rights, men found a fundamental basis of unity and sameness. Class, race, religion, national origin or culture all disappear or become dim when bathed in the light of natural rights, which give men common interests and make them truly brothers.”
The Left, however, rejected that vision as a charade, a mere cover for white, capitalist subjugation. Led by Charles Beard, the Left endeavored to prove that the Constitution was really organized to defend the class interests of the wealthy Framers. Worse, they claimed, the country was, is, and will always be racist. Consider Ta-Nehisi Coates:
Plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.
On this reading, racism and whiteness come alive, acting through Western and American history as transcendent, irrepressible forces with wills of their own. Like God, whiteness can be found in everything, all the time, though often only the elect can see it.
These elect formed departments of African-American studies to detail their findings. Their discipline, however, was not like the others, which represent branches of knowledge. “Political knowledge,” “historical knowledge,” “philosophical knowledge,” and “scientific knowledge” are all distinct, recognizable quantities. “Racial knowledge” is not. Races of people have no unique method. Race itself is a topic worthy of multifarious study, but it is not a discipline.
Instead, it offers a therapeutic education, marshalling students into racial silos in which no claim of grievance is too fantastic to level, so long as the target is whiteness. After all, there are few alternative opinions inside of these departments. With no time for noetic heterogeneity, they favor a reductionist model, fixating on one part of one thing, through one lens. It is from this method that their diagnosis of “whiteness” as the consummate cause of every evil is contrived. Instead of understanding the common humanity that binds us all, students now devote their college years to understanding what divides us: contrived opinion.
Whiteness is made into a power unto itself, leaving its victims — blacks, and whites too — utterly helpless and frustrated. All that we are left to do, it seems, is despise our American regime. That has been the effect of the Left’s revisionism, which presents the Founders as racists and the great Western philosophers as stooges of white supremacy.
This education is devastating to the young, who are left stranded, having rejected their own nation and intellectual tradition. But it doesn’t only strike at the young; it even got to old Pat Buchanan.
Walter Berns knew that James Madison, along with the Constitution he shaped, was so much more than a reflection of his skin color. So too with America, Berns understood; it cannot be reduced to the prejudices of its Founders. Teachers like Berns, unfortunately, have been losing ground in the academy for decades. Everywhere one looks, the results of that shift are obvious.
— Elliot Kaufman is a former editorial intern at National Review. Adam Rubenstein was most recently a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at the Wall Street Journal.