From a longtime liberal reader in response to my social gospel post last night:
You persist in attempting to destroy, through worthy academic explication, commonly held dogma for no good reason.It’s one thing to say that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, but another to say that he could not have been a brilliant political philosopher, inventor, and statesman because he thought Sally Hemings was chattel suitable for sexual exploitation.What, then, of Progressives, who you expose as eugenicists? Or Wilsonian Democrats, who you expose as fascists? What’s your point? The Black Panthers rejected Jeffersonian democracy as a byproduct of perverted slaveholders’ minds. Aren’t you doing the same thing from the other direction?
Me: It’s an interesting question, if I understand it correctly. And the answer is probably best-suited for elsewhere. But let me take a quick stab. If I take the question correctly, I am doing to the progressives what the left did to the founding fathers, overturning myths and pointing out reality in an invidious way so as to demonize them and diminish their authority. Or something like that.
While I’m not sure I get the bit about the Black Panthers, here are a few of my points and responses in no particular order (while reserving my right to revise and extend). Feel free to skip to number 5 if you’re not eager to slog through all this.
1) The progressives weren’t our founding fathers and do not deserve the same reverence, and yet in many quarters the progressives are more revered than the founders.
2) Relatedly, I don’t think the progressives deserve this reverence, nor do I think today’s self-described progressives should be able to invoke their record and legacy as if it were an unalloyed good. If the reader sends snarky e-mail to every liberal who finds it necessary to point out the racism of the founders, he’ll at least have consistency on his side.
3) If you’re going to hold up a historical moment as a guide to today’s politics, surely it is legitimate to point out that your understanding of that moment is in fact shot through with ignorance, lies, and myths.
4) I have no problem pointing out that Jefferson had slaves while still upholding the fact that he was a brilliant political philosopher, inventor, statesman etc. (though he was far from my favorite founding father). Likewise, I have no problem conceding that various progressive intellectuals were brilliant even though they were racists and eugenicists (I don’t think I’ve ever suggested they were stupid). But I do not see why I am under any obligation to believe they were right about much. And while liberals or those to their left are keen to invalidate or diminish large segments of the founders’ project because of racism and slavery the same crowd is eager to claim that the racism etc of the progressives was irrelevant to their project (indeed, if many had their way, progressive racism would simply be airbrushed away). Why should I play that game when I disagree on the merits? Faith in the progressives is not a vital social glue or synonymous with patriotism in my book, no matter how hard people like Todd Gitlin and Joe Klein try to make the case otherwise. Moreover, this stuff is not irrelevant in the slightest. Much of the infrastructure of the modern welfare state is held together by the girders, beams, nuts and bolts of eugenic and racist thought. And, unlike conservatives who look with open eyes at the faults of the founders, today’s liberals — at least in the form of Obama and Clinton — seem to recognize no fault with their heroes.
5) History matters.
Update: From a reader:
Hi, Jonah. Your liberal reader doesn’t really have a point. The America that the founding fathers instituted had been a slave-holding America since the colonies were first founded. If slavery had been a new American innovation, I would agree that such a backward step would delegitimize the whole American project. But it’s ridiculous to argue that because all possible steps forward are not taken simultaneously, that a movement can’t be generally beneficial.
So obviously the parallel to the eugenicist Progressives isn’t a parallel at all. They didn’t start from a race-improving, forced sterilization background. These were all innovations of theirs, and they are correctly judged more harshly for that than the founders are for merely having been born into a colonial society.