Last night on Real Time with Bill Maher, we discussed whether removing Middle Eastern dictators was a good idea. I had this exchange with MSNBC’s Joy Reid:
Charles Cooke: I think Americans have a problem thinking about this sometimes because — and I include myself, with British people — because the revolution that happened here was great, and very rarely is that the case in the world. You have this revolution in America in which the British fight the British, and then they codify classical liberal values into a constitution — and it’s great. But that’s not how it goes down normally. Normally, there is bloodshed and its horrible. And especially in the Middle East what they want to replace their dictatorships with — if you look at the polling — is Sharia law.
Joy Reid: But the revolution in the US was great unless you were a slave and then there was a war where 600,000 Americans had to die to make it better. Revolution isn’t always great. In the French Revolution there were beheadings. Revolutions are messy. You want people to have democracy it can be messy.
Charles Cooke: The slavery point I think is cheap.
Joy Reid: You mean the revolution in the United States that produced a government that included slaves that included enslaved Africans; it’s a cheap shot to include that in the narrative? I mean, that is part of the narrative.
Charles Cooke: No. The point is that if you are looking for perfection in the 18th century you are not going to find it. What the Americans did was a massive step forward. It wasn’t perfect — it was resolved in a Civil War that was bloody and awful — but if we are going to write off the greatest revolution and the greatest constitution in the world because it was imperfect and it was flawed then we should all go home.
Joy Reid: In the Middle East we are also saying these are imperfect revolutions. Whenever the US goes in and try to impose our vision of democracy in that region we fail.
This exchange prompted Salon’s Joan “What’s the Matter with White People” Walsh — and her many Twitter acolytes — loudly to pretend that I was dismissing slavery as unimportant or claiming that it didn’t matter. This is utterly silly. I was doing no such thing, and Walsh should be ashamed of herself for so recklessly leveling such a serious charge.
Given that the topic was what people in the Arabic world tend do when they are given a chance to overthrow the existing order, Joy Reid’s interruption said made little sense. As I said on air, it was a cheap point contrived for cheap applause. The American revolution didn’t create slavery. Slavery existed before all of America’s founding documents, and it had stained almost the entirety of human history before that. (It continues to do so in many parts of the world.) In truth, the American revolution had next to nothing to with slavery. The British allowed slavery at home and in the Empire in 1776, as did many of the colonies that teamed up to fight the Empire. In other words, slavery was a tragic constant, which ran alongside a panoply of other issues.
Now, it was a terrible, terrible thing that slavery was allowed to continue for as long as it did in America, and I object to Walsh’s insinuation that I would think otherwise. Nonetheless, it was better to have the Constitution and slavery than have no constitution and slavery. As I have long argued, the newly free Americans did something quite astonishing in Philadelphia: they abolished monarchy, abolished titles, and formed a republic in which the People were sovereign and could assert unalienable rights against the state. The flaw was to deprive certain people of those rights. Obviously, nobody thinks that was remotely acceptable. But the key point remains that they instituted great values that would eventually be made universal. It was, as I said on the show, a “huge step forward.” By contrast, societies in which the people clamor for Sharia do not institute good values when they get the chance; and, more widely, most revolutions do not yield the codification of good values. (I’m looking at you Russia, China, Cuba, Iran etc.) America’s did. Further, the famous language of the Declaration — an integral if wildly hypocritical part of the founding — helped to bring an end to slavery by setting down philosophical principles by which America might be judged — and would eventually be judged. “American scripture,” George Will calls it.
To expect other insurrections to yield similar charters to the one with which America has been gifted is naïve at best and downright ignorant at worst. To underestimate what happened in Philadelphia in 1787 similarly so. Joan Walsh’s willful silliness be damned. My point stands.