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American Passover

Juneteenth is a great American holiday.

Dear Reader (Including the sleeper FBI agents waiting for their moment to storm The Dispatch),

Happy Juneteenth (Observed)!

If you asked me in the abstract whether America needed another federal holiday, I’d have said, “No.” After the pandemic, America doesn’t need more time off, it needs to get back to work. But, if you asked me if Juneteenth should be a federal holiday, I’d have said, “Sure.” Juneteenth is a good thing for all Americans, not just black Americans, to celebrate.

Apparently some people disagree.

I think they have one good point; the official name was poorly crafted. They shouldn’t have called it the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. This was Chip Roy’s stated reason for voting against the legislation:

Juneteenth should be commemorated as the expression of the realization of the end of slavery in the United States – and I commend those who worked for its passage. I could not vote for this bill, however, because the holiday should not be called “Juneteenth National Independence Day” but rather, “Juneteenth National Emancipation [or Freedom or otherwise] Day.”  This name needlessly divides our nation on a matter that should instead bring us together by creating a separate Independence Day based on the color of one’s skin. 

He’s right, even though I can’t quite see why this is a reason to vote against a bill he agrees with in principle. But yes, calling it one of those other things would have been better for several reasons. First, “emancipation” or “freedom” are better words because they are more accurate. Second, using the word so close to the actual Independence Day of this country seems unnecessary. And third, it gives trolls a stupid talking point.

So let’s clear something up: No one is going to confuse Juneteenth for the Fourth of July—except people who want to deliberately confuse things. Labor Day is officially Labor’s Holiday. How often do you call it that? Or take Thanksgiving: It was a religious and cultural custom long before George Washington’s 1789 proclamation. When Abraham Lincoln formally made Thanksgiving a federal holiday, he announced it would be a day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” I travel in somewhat limited circles, but I don’t think I’ve heard anybody call it that. I mean, it’s not called A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and Praise to our Beneficent Father Who Dwelleth in the Heavens, nor is it the Macy’s Thanksgiving and Praise to Our Beneficent Father Who Dwelleth in the Heavens Day Parade.

If you honestly think that Juneteenth will supplant the Fourth of July as “Independence Day,” I have good news: You’re wrong. People will call Juneteenth … “Juneteenth.”

With that out of the way, here’s why Juneteenth is a great American holiday: Slavery was very bad.

It’s a common argument among conservatives to point out that the remarkable thing about slavery in America is not that we had it, but that we got rid of it. Slavery was a nigh-upon universal institution after the Agricultural Revolution.

Prior to the first city states, slavery was fairly rare. Taking enemies—or at least enemy men—as slaves was dangerous. It was better to simply murder them, which is what they did. Women and children were taken as slaves of a sort. But again, prior to agriculture and, later, the sort of manual labor associated with building walls, pyramids, or other superstructures, there wasn’t much need for slaves.

But after that time arrived, slavery was common in virtually every civilization on every continent. In Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Thomas Sowell notes that “from 1500 to 1800, more than a million Europeans were enslaved by North African pirates.” He goes on:

During the Middle Ages, Slavs were so widely used as slaves in both Europe and the Islamic world that the very word “slave” derived from the word for Slav—not only in English, but also in other European languages, as well as in Arabic. Nor have Asians or Polynesians been exempt from either being enslaved or enslaving others. China in centuries past has been described as “one of the largest and most comprehensive markets for the exchange of human beings in the world” Slavery was also common in India, where it has been estimated that there were more slaves than in the entire Western Hemisphere—and where the original Thugs kidnapped children for the purpose of enslavement. In some of the cities of Southeast Asia, slaves were a majority of the population. Slavery was also an established institution in the Western Hemisphere before Columbus’ ships ever appeared on the horizon. The Ottoman Empire regularly enslaved a percentage of the young boys from the Balkans, converted them to Islam and assigned them to various duties in the civil or military establishment.

Some take these facts and then imply that the American obsession with slavery is excessive. I think that’s sometimes true. But it also misses a hugely important point: America is different. Slavery in America was different because America is different.

America was founded on principles of universal human equality and dignity. China wasn’t. Germany wasn’t. No other country was. On this, Joe Biden is spectacularly correct (I’ll return to this in a moment).

Charlie Kirk writes:

This is an interesting argument to make against Juneteenth for two reasons. First, it illustrates what a partisan opportunist and hack Kirk is. He certainly seemed to favor making Junetenth a holiday when Republicans under Trump would get the credit:

Now that Biden is president, making Juneteenth a holiday is some horrific race-based crime against the soul of America. Weird how that works.

More importantly, Kirk doesn’t seem to understand Lincoln’s point. What Lincoln did at Gettysburg was essentially rewrite the story of America and make the preamble to the Declaration of Independence the new national mission statement. From Suicide of the West:

As Gordon S. Wood has observed, when the Declaration was issued, the important part was the conclusion: the break with England. Only later did the beginning “all men are created equal” take on philosophical and metaphysical significance. “Certainly no one initially saw the Declaration as a classic statement of political principles,” Wood writes. “Only in the 1790s, with the emergence of the bitter partisan politics between the Federalists and the Jefferson-led Republicans, did the Declaration begin to be celebrated as a great founding document.”  And that celebration evolved into sacredness.

There was nothing hypocritical about slavery in Asia, the Middle East, or Europe. To the extent those civilizations had charters, creeds, or some other form of fleshed-out ideals, slavery was consistent with them. In America, slavery was a grotesque hypocrisy whose horror was eclipsed only by the actual horror of the institution as practiced. Since long before critical race theory became a bogeyman, I’ve argued that schools should teach the evils of that hypocrisy—not to dwell in guilt and self-flagellation, but to both acknowledge the facts of history and to celebrate America’s story of overcoming it. Acknowledging this hypocrisy is valuable and important because it illuminates the very ideals being violated. Without principles, you can’t be a hypocrite. You would have nothing to fall short of or betray.

I’m at a loss to understand why celebrating the end of slavery is anything but good. In particular, I’m at a loss to understand why seeing white Americans celebrate the end of slavery is anything but good.

I can see why some black ideologues of a certain stripe might come to grumble about this, because it undermines what was in many respects a black American Passover. All federal holidays end up getting a bit washed out as they become just another reason for vacations, barbecues, or sporting events. The people whom the holidays are meant to honor lose some of their ownership of the events that sparked the holiday in the first place. Too few Americans spend Memorial Day honoring the fallen, or think seriously about the founding on July Fourth. For some, Thanksgiving is more about football than about giving thanks and praise to “our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

But that’s not just an American problem—it’s a human one, and there’s not much you can do about it. 

Moreover, making Juneteenth an American holiday and not just a black holiday underscores that Americans—all Americans—are (or should be) rightly proud that we did away with an institution existentially at war with the best version of ourselves. For those who talk about slavery as if it never shrinks in the rearview window no matter how far behind us it gets, that could be an awkward talking point to work around. It’s harder to claim that “white America” hasn’t acknowledged the evil of slavery when all Americans celebrate the end of slavery and the liberation of our fellow Americans.

Joe Biden, American exceptionalist.

In 2009, then-President Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

I hated that. I wrote a lot about how much I hated it. I hated it for too many reasons to revisit here. But I’ll mention two. First, the term American exceptionalism was never a boastful term, but a descriptive one. America was different in both good ways and bad. America was more religious than other advanced democracies, but it was also more violent. Lacking a feudal past, it was both less class conscious and more hostile to socialism—which emerged in Europe as a class revolt. Indeed, some argue that the term was originally of communist coinage. Jay Lovestone had argued that America was largely immune to Marxist “laws” of history “thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions.”

Alas, those trying to keep this point alive have largely lost the battle.

Which brings me to the second reason I hated Obama’s formulation. American exceptionalism came to mean that America wasn’t just different, but that it was special because of its ideals and commitments to things like individualism, limited government, natural rights, etc. Obama had well-developed views on this score, and when he reduced American exceptionalism to mere national pride, he was also reducing those ideals to mere cultural norms that could be left behind as he pursued a “fundamental transformation” of America.

Virtually every prominent conservative agreed with me to one extent or another on this score.

Then Donald Trump came along. Trump didn’t believe in American exceptionalism either (as Yuval Levin demonstrated here), even if speechwriters figured out how to arm him with slogans that suggested otherwise. For Trump, adhering to principles made us suckers if they got in the way of America’s self-aggrandizement (or his own). His version of “America First” was an argument for beating the worst nations at their own game. 

Sadly, many of the same conservatives who loved dunking on Obama’s alleged “cultural Marxist” animosity to American exceptionalism had no problem with Trump’s pernicious rejection of it.

Well, Joe Biden disagrees with both of his predecessors. Last week, again and again, Biden said that America really is exceptional. Here he is addressing American troops stationed in Europe:

If our British friends will excuse me quoting the Declaration of Independence, America is unique in all the world in that we are not formed based on geography, or ethnicity, or religion, but on an idea—an idea. The only nation in the world founded on the notion of an idea. 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We mean it. No nation can defeat us as long as we stick to our values.

And here is after his meeting with Putin:

I told him that, unlike other countries, including Russia, we’re uniquely a product of an idea. You’ve heard me say this before, again and again, but I’m going to keep saying it. What’s that idea? We don’t derive our rights from the government; we possess them because we’re born—period. And we yield them to a government.

Now, I don’t like the phrase “we yield them to a government,” but it’ll pass as a mangling of Lockeanism.

In these statements, and countless statements like them, Biden has rhetorically committed himself to the patriotic version of American exceptionalism. With the exception of John Podhoretz, I haven’t heard any conservatives celebrate this fact. I’m sure I missed someone, but the point remains. This is a victory for conservatives. You can be sure that if Biden had gone around repeating Obama’s version of American exceptionalism, the Charlie Kirks would go around shrieking about it. (And it’s remarkable how many progressives who in the past heaped praise on Obama or scorn on American exceptionalism have no problem with Biden’s remarks.)

I don’t want to overstate the significance of this. I have plenty of disagreements with Biden over how he translates this rhetoric into policy. But my point is that not every victory for conservatives is a victory for Republicans. Scoring politics as a zero-sum game between two parties is corrupting and dangerous because it drives us to abandon the principles the party is supposed to serve, or transmogrifies them into mere weapons of opportunity rather than points of American consensus.

It is—or was—a staple belief of conservatism (and of the ideals we are supposed to be conserving) that we don’t get our rights from government, but from our creator. Biden deserves praise for saying so. And Juneteenth is worthy of celebrating because it acknowledges this sacred American ideal.

Various & Sundry

Today is Nicholas Pompella’s last day as my research assistant at AEI. He’s done yeoman work during difficult times and I want to thank him for his diligence and for always being of good cheer. He will have a bright future ahead of him. I’ve been asked to post the job opening for his replacement. I won’t say that sending me a bottle of sherry cask finished single malt scotch will lubricate the gears of the process because it really won’t. But I can’t swear it wouldn’t hurt.

Canine update: So a few months ago, Zoë started doing something very strange. Every night, she would go to a Meyer lemon tree in the house that my wife was trying to grow and get one leaf. She wouldn’t chew it. She wouldn’t lick it, at least not very much. She just watched over it like it was under her protection. And then she stopped, with as little explanation as why she started. Well, she has a new object of her affection: An old, filthy rubber squeaky toy frog. When she comes home she races into the house to find it. She needs to sleep near it. We don’t know why. If she gets too protective, we pick it up and put it on the mantle of the fireplace. And she will then stare at it, lest Pippa or Gracie somehow figure out how to rig some ropes and get to it. To reiterate: We don’t know why.

In other news, Pippa went to the surgeon for a consultation about her ankle joint issues. The good news is that she seems to be doing well enough that surgery is unnecessary (they’d have to fuse the joints, which we’d obviously like to avoid or at least put off). The bad news is she’s lost some of her bouncy spanielness. Also, watch for new pics on Twitter. She’s going to the beauty parlor today. People often ask why Zoë never gets to go. Two reasons: 1) We don’t want to pay for the mauling of the groomer; 2) There’s just not much you can do with Dingo fur. Anyway, the girls are otherwise good. Even Gracie has reached a new détente with Chester because she’s learned that when the Fair Jessica gives Chester treats, she gets a transaction fee.


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Jonah Goldberg

Editor in chief & co-founder of The Dispatch and Remnant podcast host. A scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, an L.A. Times columnist, CNN commentator, and author of three NYT bestsellers. Goldberg worked at National Review for two decades.