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America, the Good
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America, the Good

Yes, sometimes we fall short of our own standards. But our commitment to those standards is what sets us apart.

Greetings from out West,

I’ll save the travelogue stuff for the solo Remnant on Friday. Let’s just get started. 

In my column today, I pondered whether Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, was unwilling or unable to more manfully (can I say that?) defend America’s honor and decency in a confrontation with his Chinese interlocutors, because to do so would get him crosswise with the base of his party. 

In case you missed it, the Chinese accused America of being racist—they doubled down on the claim today—and insinuated that our democracy is so flawed that we have no right to condemn China’s actions. In response, Blinken didn’t directly rebut the claims. Instead, he said we never claimed to be perfect, but at least we confront our problems openly. 

Here’s the thing: If I call you a racist thug and your response is, “Well, I never claimed to be perfect, but at least I’m honest about my shortcomings and I’m dealing with them,” I would not read that as a forceful denial. 

Hence my question: Why couldn’t or wouldn’t Blinken go further in defending America’s honor? By all accounts he’s a decent fellow with politically centrist views and patriotic sentiments. So I speculated why he didn’t put those qualities on display might have had something to do with the fact that more forcefully championing the goodness of America would create political problems. 

I think the response from many, including in the comments at The Dispatch, reflected a misreading of my position. But it’s always possible I was unclear. So, let me clarify in a broader way.

I’m not saying that everyone to the left of me is unpatriotic or doesn’t love America. I don’t believe that in the slightest. I think there are huge reservoirs of patriotism on both sides of the political aisle in this country. (Though it’s worth noting that despite all the rah-rah patriotism blather of the last four years, intense patriotic sentiment hit new lows during the Trump years—among Republicans.)

My point—or at least the point that I think sparked so much protest—is that it is very difficult for many in both parties to speak clearly, accurately, comprehensively, credibly and most of all, patriotically, about why this is indeed a very good country, worthy of our love and gratitude.  

Our race problem—and theirs.

Let’s start with the issue of racism, which seems to drive a lot of this on the left. Yes, America has a racism problem. It once had a huge racism problem (you can look it up), and we dealt with the largest and most objectionable aspects of it a long time ago. But you know what other countries have racism problems? All of them. Bigotry against others is a problem in every human society because it is a human problem. The amazing thing about the last few centuries, particularly in Enlightenment-based societies, is how much progress we’ve made. 

But let me stay on point. By many measures, America is among the least racist countries in the world. For instance, we are in the very top rung of societies in which people say they are fine with having neighbors of a different race. 

Americans approve of interracial marriage by vast majorities. About 1 in 6 marriages are interracial. Just think about that for a moment: However you define racism, it seems to me that it’s at least very difficult to argue that someone who is not just willing, but eager, to spend the rest of their life with someone of a different race and, in many instances, to make babies with them, is a racist. I know there are people who try to make that case—with rhetorical light shows about supporting “racist policies” and whatnot—but I find these arguments pretty unpersuasive and often quite bigoted in and of themselves.  

Now Blinken could have said, “Look here mister. Don’t believe all the stuff you read in American newspapers and magazines, never mind everything you hear from Democratic activists and politicians, about how racist America is. We are in fact one of the least racist countries in the world. And while it is true we had, in some parts of our country, slavery, Jim Crow and apartheid-like policies, we no longer do—unlike your country.”

Do you seriously think this messaging wouldn’t have been at least somewhat problematic for the Biden administration? 

America, the good.

Blinken could have also pushed back on the insinuation that America is an imperial power. Yes, we invaded Iraq. Yes, it’s fair to criticize that decision. But we haven’t colonized Iraq. Nor did we colonize Japan or Germany. Those two countries declared total war on America, and in response we defeated them and then helped them rebuild, standing up flourishing democracies and economies. Puerto Rico could vote for independence tomorrow and not a single soldier would be deployed to stop it. Can you say the same for Tibet, Hong Kong, or the residents of Xianjing?

Similarly, America is a just country that takes the safeguarding of our liberties seriously. Say what you will about “Big Tech” “censoring” people, or feel free to pound the table about the inequities of our legal system. There are many fine or fair points to be made on these issues. But by any reasonable and factual accounting, our system is superior to China’s not merely by orders of magnitude, but categorically. As I wrote, our shortcomings are real, but those shortcomings are in relation to our principles and our ideals. Even on our worst days, we are better by our own standards. And whatever China’s standards are, it’s worth remembering they are trying to claim they are on equal footing with us when it comes to our standards. That is preposterous. 

My point is that our politics prevent our elites from telling plain truths plainly, because they either don’t see the truth or are constrained by political forces. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is the profound arrogance, self-absorption, and myopia of our political combatants. We take ourselves so seriously, we forget that we’re playing in a different league than most other countries, and literally all other non-democratic countries. 

When my wife was in graduate school, Leon Wieseltier—then a widely revered liberal intellectual—spoke to her class. A student went on a tear about how America’s uniquely abhorrent racism and bigotry made it difficult for it to be a moral leader around the globe. Wieseltier responded (I’m paraphrasing from her recollection): “You know, there are times when people say certain things that make it possible for me to know that, if I looked at their passport, I would learn that they’ve never been to another country.”

Indeed, I have a general rule that when someone begins an indictment of America with, “In this country …” odds are they have no clue how they do things in other countries. A lot of people seem to think that because we fall short of our own ideals here, there must be some wonderful countries “out there” where people live up to them fully. It’s a negative form of American exceptionalism. 

The coalition instinct, again.

Now, let me turn rightward for a moment. One of the reasons I despise so much of the nationalism blather out there is that it pulls two rhetorical tricks. First, it transmogrifies patriotism into a form of populist identity politics: We’re the only ones who really love this country. The second problem flows from the first. If one party claims a monopoly on love-of-country, it makes it easier for the other party to say, “You can have it.”

Take the Pledge of Allegiance: There is nothing inherent in American liberalism that should make it anathema to liberals. But if you turn it into a signifier of Republican identity, it will make opposition to it a signifier of Democratic identity. And that’s exactly what’s been happening. By no means is the right wholly to blame—it takes two to tango and all that. But regardless of how you score the “who started it” game, I think we’d have a healthier country if the Pledge of Allegiance was institutionally removed from partisan squabbles. 

The same goes for much more important, non-symbolic issues. When Democrats claim that Democrats alone care about racial justice, they make it more difficult for Republicans to make it a priority. When Republicans claim that Republicans alone care about national security, it makes it more difficult for Democrats to sign on. 

This is how the coalition instinct works: Tribes look for reasons, cues, signifiers, talismans, and causes to distinguish their team from the other. One of the key tools of this process is framing things in the most extreme way so as to cast the other as immoral. Evolutionary psychologist John Tooby calls this “moral wrong-footing”—i.e. trying to trip up the other side so as to make it easier to demonize them. He writes:

Indeed, morally wrong-footing rivals is one point of ideology, and once everyone agrees on something (slavery is wrong) it ceases to be a significant moral issue because it no longer shows local rivals in a bad light. Many argue that there are more slaves in the world today than in the 19th century. Yet because one’s political rivals cannot be delegitimized by being on the wrong side of slavery, few care to be active abolitionists anymore, compared to being, say, speech police. 

The reference to slavery is apt. We haven’t had slavery in this country for more than 150 years, and even when we had it, much of the country didn’t have slaves and opposed it. And yet according to some activists on the left, slavery or the legacy of slavery (amorphously defined) is still a live issue in American life. According to the 1619 Project crowd, it actively defines America.

The filibuster, for example, must go because it is tied to slavery—in some incredibly tangential and literary ways if you ask me. The GOP, founded as an abolitionist party, is somehow now complicit in slavery or the legacy of slavery or whatever. 

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of modern slavery in the world outside our borders, including in China. How often do you hear about that? It’s almost as if slavery itself isn’t actually the issue. Rather, our collective guilt over slavery is used as a tool to morally wrong-foot conservatives or masochistically denigrate America. (Some conservatives in recent years have attempted in earnest to play the same game in reverse by pointing to the Democratic Party’s historic complicity in slavery and Jim Crow. To date, the only people this argument works with are the people trying to morally wrong-foot Democrats.)

I’m not saying it isn’t important or worthwhile for Americans of all parties to concern themselves with the legacy of slavery. But if slavery were the real issue, we’d be seeing more of an abolitionist spirit in our foreign policy, particularly among Democrats and we’d see less self-flagellation and more celebration about how far we’ve come.  

But that would require American foreign policy elites, and elites generally, to think more seriously about the issue itself rather than the issue’s utility as a cudgel against domestic opponents. It would also require American elites to recalibrate their orientation toward America. They’d have to accept that it’s okay to acknowledge our shortcomings while taking deep pride in how much progress we’ve made in remedying them. We’d have to admit that even though we’ve fallen short of our standards in the past, and will do so again in the future, these standards—and our commitment to them—are what actually make us better than what many of our adversaries abroad, and domestic critics at home, claim. 

This is a good country, and it’s a good country because of the contributions of people across the political spectrum. 

Saying so shouldn’t be hard. 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.