Against the Demolition of the American Spirit

The sun sets behind the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images.)

I’m going to start with a “both sides” trigger warning. This newsletter is going to describe a profound problem that is emanating from both left and right—the demolition of the American spirit. It’s a phenomenon that combines the accurate diagnosis of real problems with the fabrication or exaggeration of additional crises to create a profound loss of confidence in (or even contempt for) this nation we love. 

I’ll never forget the first time I encountered Americans who hated America. It was in law school, and when I talked to my more radical classmates I heard their case. America was a racist, colonial power. It began as a slave empire, expanded through conquest and genocide, and then—even as it cast itself as a liberator in the world wars and Cold War—propped up vicious tyrants in the name of liberty. 

In this telling, all of the bad aspects of American history were highlighted, amplified, sometimes exaggerated or even fabricated, and then repeated endlessly to create a picture of a nation in whose DNA racism and conquest was inescapably imprinted. The solution to the crisis of America’s past and present was nothing less than revolution—a dismantling of America’s classical liberal founding and its replacement with illiberal structures that used the force of law and government to uproot entrenched power structures and re-order society from the top down.

Do aspects of this story sound familiar? They should. Not long ago the New York Times mainstreamed much of this story with its 1619 Project, a collection of essays that together presented a devastating indictment of American history. Originally, the digital copy of the 1619 project contained the claim that 1619—when African slaves were first brought to American shores—represented the “true founding” of the American nation. That phrase has since been deleted.

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