Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review, and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
Identity Politics vs. the Older Goal of a Color-Blind Society
There was a time not too long ago when men and women of good will, both liberals and conservatives, sought to create a genuinely color-blind society. The goal, as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, was to judge individuals on the “content of their character,” not the “color of their skin.”
Now, on the left, we have seen the emergence of four freshman congresswomen, who seem to be embracing a contrary philosophy. One of them, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) recently declared that:
“We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be brown voices. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be black voices.”
In response to Rep. Pressley and her colleagues, including Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), a native of Somalia, President Trump responded that if they were unhappy in America they could go back where they came from, although three of them were born in the U.S. When a crowd at a Trump rally in North Carolina chanted “Send her back,” about Rep. Omar, many saw a different version of identity politics at play. In this case, many argued, it was white identity politics.
Race-based identity politics can be seen in many sectors of our society. The National Association of Scholars has released a study indicating that “at least 75 American colleges have blacks-only graduation ceremonies, and 43 percent of surveyed colleges offer segregated residential halls. The organization refers to this as “ neo-segregation.”
Harvard’s separate commencement for African-Americans first made national news in 2017. The New York Times headline read, “Colleges Celebrate Diversity With Separate Commencements.” Ward Connery, President of the American Civil Rights Institute, and a black critic of such race-based programs, says that separate commencement ceremonies “serve only to amplify racial differences. College is the place where we should be teaching and preaching the view that you’re an individual, and choose your associates based on factors other than skin-color.” Connerly is a former regent of the University of California system of colleges and universities.
The leaders of the civil rights movement, who worked to achieve a genuinely color-blind society, would have been disappointed to see the emergence of identity politics in today’s American society. Thurgood Marshall, who would later become our first black Supreme Court justice, arguing for the NAACP in the case of Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma (1948) declared that, “Classifications and distinctions based on race and color have no moral or legal validity in our society.”
Our racial history, of course, is complex. Black Americans, although they suffered the indignity of slavery and, after slavery came to an end, the legal barriers of segregation, have been committed patriots. Professor Benjamin Quarles, a distinguished black historian, in his book The Negro in the Making of America, points out that from the beginning, black Americans made one important decision: they would remain in America. From the time of the Revolutionary War, blacks had been advised — by many spokesmen, black as well as white — to return to Africa. Instead, the decision to remain in America and be free was pervasive.
At a black church meeting in Rochester, New York in 1853, chaired by the noted orator Frederick Douglass, a statement was adopted which declared: “We ask that in our native land we shall not be treated as strangers.” The delegates officially rejected any move to abandon the United States and supported, instead, a proposal to establish a manual labor school that would teach the skilled trades.
Professor Quarles notes that for most black Americans
“. . . the vision of the Founders of this republic . . . is still a vital force. American to the core, they believe that freedom and equality for all could be achieved in their native land . . . the belief has been one of their significant contributions in the making of America. . . . He (the black American) has been the watchman on the wall. More fully than other Americans, he knew that freedom was hard-won and could be preserved only by continuous effort. The faith and works of the Negro over the years has made it possible for the American creed to retain so much of its appeal, so much of its moving power.”
Identity politics violates every principle of American history, whether in the variety promoted by radicals in the minority community, or the white variety manifested in the cheering crowd in North Carolina. It is time that we return to the goal of a colorblind society, in which men and women are treated as unique individuals — not representatives of one tribal group or another. Any other path leads to a society that doesn’t work — glimpses of which are now on the horizon.
The Continuing Assault Upon American History: A Self-Righteous Display of Narrowness of Vision
In recent days, we have seen an escalation in the assault upon American history. The sports-ware company Nike pulled sneakers displaying the 13-star Betsy Ross flag after former NFL football player Colin Kaepernick, who has a deal with the company, objected because the flag is sometimes displayed by far-right groups. At almost the same time, the city of Charlottesville, Virginia decided that it would no longer celebrate the birthday of Thomas Jefferson — and the city of San Francisco announced that it would spend $600,000 to paint over a mural depicting the life of George Washington.
In the case of the Betsy Ross flag, there is no connection in any way with slavery, Mark Pitcavage, a senior fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said: “We view it as essentially an innocuous historical flag. It’s not a thing in the white supremacist movement.” Lisa Moulder, Director of the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia, says of the flag that, “I’ve always seen it as a representation of early America, a society that was not perfect and is not perfect today.”
In San Francisco, there are plans to paint over a mural painted 83 years ago as part of a New Deal program, which portrays the life of George Washington, at a cost of $600,000. The painter was Victor Arnautoff, a Russian-born radical. He portrayed many aspects of Washington’s life, including the depiction of slavery at Mt. Vernon. The mural consists of 13 panels and occupies 600 square feet on a wall in George Washington High School.
Richard Walker, professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, an outspoken liberal and director of the History Project, argues that the portrait is an important part of history and should be maintained:
“We on the left ought to welcome the honest portrayal. . . . Destroying this work of art is the worst we can do in dealing with history’s evils.”
The growing attacks upon the history of our country reflect a narrowness of vision. America, after all, is a human enterprise, and all human enterprises are deeply flawed. We define things on the basis of how they differ from other things. With its many shortcomings, our country’s history stands out in positive terms. Its critics compare America to perfection — not to other very real places.
In 1987, when we celebrated the bicentennial of the Constitution, Dr. Mark Cannon, Director of the Commission on the Bicentennial, noted that:
“Nearly two-thirds of the world’s national constitutions have been adopted or revised since 1970, and only fourteen predate World War II. . . . Fifty-three point five percent of the independent states of the world have been under more than one constitution since the end of the Second World War. The average nation has had two constitutions since the Second World War. Two states, Syria and Thailand, have each had nine constitutions over the past forty years. . . . The Constitution of the United States has proven remarkably durable.”
The Constitution — and all of our history — is found wanting because of the existence of slavery. Many critics appear to hold the view that slavery was a uniquely American evil — our “original sin.” History, however, tells a far more complex story.
From the beginning of recorded history until the 19th century, slavery was the way of the world. In 1787, slavery was legal every place in the world. What was unique was that in the American colonies there was strenuous objection to slavery and the most prominent Framers of the Constitution wanted to eliminate it at the very start of the nation.
The history of slavery is a long one. In the ancient world, most people regarded slavery as a natural condition of life, one which could befall anyone at any time, it has existed almost universally through history among peoples of every level of material culture — it existed among nomadic pastoralists of Asia, among societies of North American Indians, and sea people such as the Norsemen. The legal codes of Sumer provide documentary evidence that slavery existed there as early as the 4th millennium B.C. The Sumerian symbol for slave in cuneiform writing suggests “foreign.”
When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, not a single nation had made slavery illegal. As they looked back through history, the Framers saw slavery as an acceptable and accepted institution. It was not until 1792 that Denmark became the first Western nation to abolish the slave trade. In 1807, the British Parliament passed a bill outlawing the slave trade — and slavery was abolished in British colonies between 1834 and 1848. Spain ended slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873 and in Cuba in 1886. Brazil abolished slavery in 1888.
What is historically unique is not that slavery was the accepted way of the world in 1787, but that so many of the leading men of the American colonies wanted to eliminate it — and pressed vigorously to do so.
Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were ardent abolitionists. John Jay, who would become the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was president of the New York Anti-Slavery Society. Rufus King and Gouverneur Morris were in the forefront of the opposition to slavery and the slave trade.
One of the great debates at the Constitutional Convention related to the African slave trade. George Mason of Virginia made an eloquent plea for making it illegal. He declared:
“This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British government constantly checked the attempt of Virginia to put a stop to it. . . . Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country.”
The provision finally adopted read:
“The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding Ten dollars for each Person.”
This clause was widely viewed by opponents of slavery as an important first step on the long road to abolition. The delay of twenty years was considered the price ten of the states were willing to pay in order to assure that the original union would include the three states of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Even in these states there was sympathy for an end to slavery, but they wanted additional time to phase out their economic dependence on it.
In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the principal charges made by Thomas Jefferson against King George III and his predecessors was that they would not allow the American colonies to outlaw the importation of slaves.
When Jefferson was first elected to the Virginia legislature at the age of 25, his first political act was to begin the elimination of slavery. Though unsuccessful, he tried to further encourage the emancipation process by writing into the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” In the draft of a constitution for Virginia, he provided that all slaves should be emancipated in that state by 1800, and that any child born in Virginia after 1801 would be born free. This, however, was not adopted.
The Founding Fathers were committed to building a new civilization that would become a model for the rest of mankind. Even before the Declaration of Independence, John Adams saw the human hope that was flowering in America, and wrote:
“I always considered the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, of the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the immigrant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the world.”
Similarly, James Madison declared, “Happily for Americans, happily we trust for the whole human race, they (the Founders) pursued a new and more Noble course.”
To judge the Founders of America in 1787 by the values of 2019 is to engage in the sin of contemporaneity. It is self-righteous in the extreme to find our ancestors wanting, despite their extraordinary achievements. They created a Constitution and a government that have endured until today. They gave it the flexibility to expand the freedoms inherent in its written words. When religious persecution plagued the world, they established freedom of religion and separation of church and state. They limited government power.
Those who would topple statues and paint over murals because those who created our country were not perfect are guilty of a narrowness of vision. Those who have come before us were imperfect human beings, as are we. We celebrate them for their achievements — in spite of their faults and shortcomings. In totalitarian societies, we have seen groups like the Nazis, the Red Guard, and the Taliban burn books, topple statues, and destroy paintings. We should not permit those in our own society, a small but vocal group, to succeed in imitating such destructive behavior.
July 4: A Time not Only to Celebrate, but to Reflect on the Fragility of Free Societies
July 4 is a worthy occasion for celebration. The government established by the Founding Fathers has maintained the free society they created. The Constitution reflected their political philosophy — a fear of excessive government power and the need to limit it through a division of powers and a series of checks and balances. While we view America as a young country, the form of government they established is now the world’s oldest.
While celebration is important, so is serious reflection on the fragility of free societies throughout history. The Founding Fathers hoped that the system of government they established in 1789 would survive into the future. But many were fearful that it might not. When Benjamin Franklin was asked what sort of government had been created, he replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
For too long we have believed that freedom would be taken from us by demagogues at home or tyrants abroad. These dangers do, of course, exist. The more pressing problem, however, may be the willingness of the majority of citizens to give their freedom away for something they want even more.
In his book On Power, the French political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel points out that we frequently say, “Liberty is the most precious of all goods,” without noticing what this concept implies. He writes:
“A good thing which is of great price is not one of the primary necessities. Water costs nothing at all, and bread very little. What costs much is something like a Rembrandt, which though the price is above rubies, is wanted by very few people and by none who have not, as it happens, a sufficiency of bread and water. Precious things, therefore, are really desired by but few human beings, and not even by them until their primary needs have been amply provided. It is from this point of view that liberty needs to be looked at — the will to be free is in time of danger extinguished and revives again when once the need of security has received satisfaction. Liberty is in fact only a secondary need; the primary need is security.”
From the beginning of history, the great philosophers predicted that democratic government would produce this result. Plato, Aristotle and, more recently, de Tocqueville, Lord Bryce and Macaulay predicted that people would give away their freedom voluntarily for what they perceived as greater security. De Jouvenel concludes:
“The state, when once it is made the giver of protection and security, has but to urge the necessities of its protectorate and overlordship to justify its encroachments.”
In a similar vein, Thomas Babington Macaulay, writing to Henry Randall in 1857, lamented:
“I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty or civilization or both. In Europe, where the population is dense, the effect of such institutions would be almost instantaneous. . . . Either the poor would plunder the rich, and civilization would perish, or order and prosperity would be saved by a strong military government and liberty would perish.”
Macaulay, looking to America, declared that:
“Either some Caesar or Napoleon will seize the reigns of government with a strong hand, or your republic will be so fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians . . . as the Roman Empire was . . . with this difference — that your Huns and Vandals will have been engendered within your own country by your institutions.”
More than 200 years ago, the British historian Alexander Tytler wrote that:
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that democracy collapses over a loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by a dictatorship.”
Such prophecies did not foresee other challenges to democratic government — such as the influence of money in politics.
Candidates for public office spend much of their time raising money from special interest groups. In return, they reward these groups when they are elected. Wall Street is a major contributor to political campaigns. When our financial institutions failed, the members of Congress bailed them out with taxpayer money. Washington is home to an army of lobbyists who seek subsidies of various kinds. This is the “swamp” we so often hear discussed. It thrives whichever party is in power. It is alive and well today.
The Founding Fathers created a form of free and limited government which, so far, has survived — defying the predictions of its demise. But the system they created has been altered and constitutional government has been challenged in recent years by both parties.
The Framers of the Constitution gave the power to go to war to the Congress, fearing an all-powerful executive. Yet, since the end of World War II, we have gone to war in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere without a congressional declaration. The executive — whether Democratic or Republican — has expanded his power, and Congress has abdicated its authority. Now, as we hear talk of war with Iran, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are speaking of restoring the role given to them by the Constitution. Yet, late in June, the Senate voted down a proposal that would have required the president to get congressional approval before any attack on Iran. Republicans such as Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Susan Collins (R-Maine) supported this legislation, but a majority of Republicans turned their backs on the Constitution’s mandate for the role of Congress in going to war. The legislation actually received a 50-40 majority vote — but fell short of the 60 votes needed. The Founding Fathers would have been disappointed. But they would not have been surprised. From the very beginning, they feared that limits on executive power would be breached.
I have personally witnessed a dramatic decline in our political life. Many years ago, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I worked for members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives as a legislative aide. In one position, I served as assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference. Those leading this group included two future presidents — George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford.
We met each week to discuss our legislative plans. I do not remember any denunciations of the Democrats — let alone the kind of name-calling we hear today. It was not just a matter of civility, which both parties respected. Our goal was to convince the Democrats of the merits of the proposals we were presenting and show them that they served the best interests of the country. We regularly formed coalitions with members of the other party. No one viewed them as “enemies.” Our two party system can’t work otherwise. Today, it isn’t working. During the years of the Cold War, when I worked in Congress, we all — Republicans and Democrats — knew who our enemies were. Now some in our political life identify our fellow Americans in this way.
Commemorating July 4 requires more than parades and fireworks. It is in need of serious reflection about how rare and fragile free societies are and, despite the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, there is no guarantee that it will endure into the future. Whether it does or not is entirely up to us. Preserving our free society, and not the constant jockeying for partisan advantage, is what should motivate those in public life. There was a time in our early history when it did. Sadly, that time is long gone.
The men who declared independence in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776 — risked their lives and their property to do so. They were challenging the most powerful empire in the world. The likelihood that they would suffer defeat was great. If they did, they faced execution and the loss of everything they had. Mt. Vernon and Monticello would be gone. Contrast what they were willing to sacrifice to establish a free society with what characterizes our political life today. Today, people enter public life, risk nothing, and end up with great wealth as a result. The Founding Fathers were uniquely America’s greatest generation. To honor them and the free society they established — and which still endures — is our privilege and honor. But we should do so with the understanding that our free society is now being challenged — and needs men and women of similar dedication to defend it still today. *