Reassessing America's Founders is Completely Patriotic

by Neil H. Buchanan

U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, has upset some people lately.  She was asked whether statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and so on should be brought down, and she replied that it was legitimate to have a "national dialogue" about that question.  She did not say that she agreed with those who would change the national deification of those (slave-owning) men, only that discussing it is legitimate.

Naturally, she was quickly excoriated by those on the right who are constantly looking for wedge issues, including (of course) Donald Trump.  Duckworth responded with a pointed and moving op-ed in The New York Times, in which she stated emphatically:
"I don’t want George Washington’s statue to be pulled down any more than I want the Purple Heart that he established to be ripped off my chest. I never said that I did.

"But while I would risk my own safety to protect a statue of his from harm, I’ll fight to my last breath to defend every American’s freedom to have his or her own opinion about Washington’s flawed history. What some on the other side don’t seem to understand is that we can honor our founders while acknowledging their serious faults, including the undeniable fact that many of them enslaved Black Americans."
Duckworth's military service resulted in her losing both legs on a battlefield in Iraq (hence the Purple Heart), and she acidly added this about Trump and his culture warriors:
"They should know, though, that attacks from self-serving, insecure men who can’t tell the difference between true patriotism and hateful nationalism will never diminish my love for this country — or my willingness to sacrifice for it so they don’t have to. These titanium legs don’t buckle."
Well played.  I happen to disagree with Duckworth on the merits of Washington and Jefferson, but as she points out, that is not the larger issue here.  She knows that such discussions are not only appropriate and natural but that they are nothing to be afraid of.  They are certainly patriotic.

The problem is that Republicans are not the only ones who get it wrong about this issue.  Some who claim to be centrists smugly assert that Duckworth is wrong both politically and morally.  What the heck are they talking about?

In two recent columns here on Dorf on Law (here and here), I explained why I find the reassessment of Washington, Jefferson, and others to be long overdue.  Path dependence and transition costs are formidable obstacles to change, of course, but on the merits, it is hardly a stretch to say that we might not want to honor those men who wrote and did important things but who also engaged in the systematic enslavement and serial rape of other human beings.  Even in the 1700's, enlightened people -- and we certainly have always liked to think of Washington, Jefferson, and the others as enlightened -- understood that this abomination must not stand.

As I wrote, however, each person can and should do their own balancing test to determine whether these and other historical figures should continue to be honored.  I was thus pleased to see Senator Duckworth make precisely the same point.  Leaving aside the founding generation, I wrote that I think of Christopher Columbus and Andrew Jackson as easy calls against public honor, but I conceded that Washington and Jefferson have much more on the plus side of their balance sheets.  That is why we should have a dialogue.

So far, so good.  Is this good politics, though?  Again, I have been clear all along that I understand why this is dangerous ground for Joe Biden and the Democrats, so the deliberate mangling of Duckworth's words by the Trumpists was completely predictable.  I have likened Biden's stated approach -- the founders are off limits, but of course Confederate iconography must go -- to the creation of civil unions as a compromise in the same-sex marriage debate, but that does not mean that it is not smart politics.  In fact, for a few years, the civil unions dodge was the best that we could hope for, given the (rapidly evolving) politics of that moment.

As it happens, the usual defenses of the regrettable choices of the founding generation regarding slavery -- not banning slavery in the new nation, agreeing to the three-fifths compromise, and so on -- take as a given that the more progressive founders had no choice but to give in to the pro-slave colonies, where the presumption is that if they had had their druthers, the better men among the founders would have ended slavery entirely.  That idea has even made it into popular culture, with the Broadway play and film "1776" depicting the history in exactly that way.

That does not absolve the slaveholding founders themselves, of course, because no one was forcing them to enslave or brutalize other human beings.  Washington, Jefferson, and the others could and should have said, "Well, we lost that political battle, but we can still do what's right," but they instead chose to continue to own humans as property.

In any event, if I were advising Democrats -- a prospect that both they and I would find equally unpleasant, I suspect -- I would be fully on board in telling Biden and others to try not to engage with a debate about the founders' place in the American political firmament.  Better to steer clear, given the fundamental threat to American constitutional democracy that Trump poses.

As I noted above, however, there is a slice of the centrist punditocracy that cannot simply leave it at that simple statement: "This is politically explosive, so leave it alone."  Instead, the guardians of the conventional wisdom are using this as an opportunity once again to bash progressives for daring to be progressive.  And there is no more self-satisfied centrist than Matt Bai, formerly of The Times and now with The Washington Post.  Because he is an anti-conservative, I have frequently agreed with Bai's writings over the years.  Even so, he is most in his element when he can go after people to his left, especially by engaging in false equivalence.

Two days ago, Bai penned an op-ed in which he could have made the simple case that Democrats would be wise to tamp down the debate over the founding generation.  And he sort of wrote that column, saying that Duckworth's position left him "wondering why a party with a strong chance of winning back the White House in November would want to play such a reckless game when it comes to the nation’s history."

Okay, fine, but this is Matt Bai, so he could not leave it at that.  His opening paragraph is absurdly (but all too typically) overwrought:
"I watched with a kind of horrified fascination last weekend as Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) pointedly refused — twice — to answer a direct question from CNN’s Dana Bash about whether statues of George Washington around the country should be torn down and replaced."
Duckworth's op-ed had not yet been published when Bai attacked her, but he did link (via the word "refused" in the quote above) to the CNN transcript of the interview that incensed him so much.  Here are those two supposedly pointed refusals:

Bash: "Senator, I know that you support change in the name of military bases named after Confederate leaders.  But there are leaders like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who were slave owners, and some people are demanding that their monuments come down, too. So, in your view, where does it end? Should statues, for example, of George Washington come down?"

Duckworth:  "Well, let me just say that we should start off by having a national dialogue on it at some point."
Duckworth, obviously aware that it would be a bad idea for the interview to become sidetracked on that issue, then tried to pivot the conversation back to Trump's criminal mishandling of the pandemic, the Russian bounties on American soldiers, and so on.  Bash responded:
BASH: "So, that might be -- be true, but George Washington, I don't think anybody would call him a traitor. And there are..."


BASH: "... moves by some to remove statues of him. Is that a good idea?"

DUCKWORTH: "I think we should listen to everybody. I think we should listen to the argument there.  But remember that the president at Mount Rushmore was standing on ground that was stolen from Native Americans who had actually been given that land during a treaty."
Duckworth then returned to coronavirus and the other issues.

For Bai, this was a cause of "horrified fascination."  Rather than trying to focus on Trump's failures, Duckworth "pointedly refused — twice — to answer a direct question."  She answered not by offering her own opinion but by saying that she respects other people's right to have opinions.  Bai did not like that answer, obviously, apparently because she did not say, "No, Washington and Jefferson were gods among men and should never be reconsidered," or something.

Indeed, the telling aspect of Bai's attack on Duckworth was that he did not leave it at saying that she left herself open politically.  He twisted his response into an attack on the left, saying that political calculations are "not something my progressive friends want to hear right now. (I hesitate to use that word — 'progressive' — since the father of progressivism, Theodore Roosevelt, is among those whose statues are under assault.)"

If that was not snarky and disingenuous enough, Bai then lets this fly: "I’ve been thinking lately about the Taliban. (No, I’m not comparing liberals to Afghanistan’s radical mullahs. Stay with me here.)". Unsurprisingly, he does in fact compare liberals to the Taliban.  He begins by saying that the world ignored the Taliban until they started destroying cultural artifacts, at which point "[t]he world responded with revulsion and outrage, a kind of global gag reflex."

If we are not comparing liberals to the Taliban, what is his point?  "[T]he destruction of cultural artifacts often has a resonance that human tragedy, with its faceless statistics, does not. These historical symbols connect us to the flow of human history; erasing that history leaves us diminished and unmoored from any larger purpose."

And there we have it.  Bai engages in exactly the diversion that Trump and other Confederate sympathizers love so much, saying that taking down statues means "erasing" history.  Worse, we will lose any connection to a larger purpose.  Any change in statues or names is not a different way to understand and depict history in the public square.  It is complete erasure.

Let me repeat that Bai is not merely saying that Democrats would be politically wise not to seem open to a discussion about whether the founders' public recognition should be changed.  He is saying that it is affirmatively a horrible thing to remove statues or update place names.  Once something is there, it must stay there, or we do violence to history just as the Taliban did by blowing up the two Buddhas of Bamiyan.

"In the United States, we don’t raise up statues as shrines to be worshiped, or as instruments of oppression. We tend to erect them as markers of our progress, reminders that even flawed men and women can leave the nation less flawed than they found it. Memorials are sedimentary layers of the American bedrock, there to be excavated and reexamined by every succeeding generation."
This is classic pundit-speak, mixing utter falsehoods ("we don’t raise up statues as shrines to be worshiped") with pseudo-intellectual pronouncements that inadvertently concede the writer's own lack of conviction.  After all, what are we doing now if not "exavat[ing] and reexamin[ing]" the "layers of the American bedrock"?  We are asking how and where we will remind ourselves of our flawed former leaders.  Bai cannot get himself to say that such reexamining is a bad idea, so he concedes that it is a good thing even as he condemns those who have the temerity to do so.

Bai concludes: "Indiscriminately attacking the nation’s memorials is chilling. Letting Trump have a debate about it is just plain dumb."  The latter point is arguably accurate, but even that is not obviously so.  But even if it is, the former claim is frankly idiotic.

Neither Duckworth nor anyone with my views would indiscriminately attack the nation's memorials.  Are there some people who would?  Maybe, but even the people who would take down the largest number of statues and change the largest number of names are not being indiscriminate.  Saying that "indiscriminate attacks" are "chilling" is merely a tautology, and a pompous one at that.  I can say of Bai that "baselessly criticizing one's opponents is closed-minded," and if Bai objects that his criticisms are not baseless, I can then say, "Oh, I was only criticizing people who have no basis for their claims."  That is a waste of everyone's time.

This is, then, yet another example of the hippie-punching default among those who view themselves as defining the sensible center.  Do we have the freedom to debate important questions?  Yes, of course, people like Bai say, but if you should ever be tempted to do so, I'll attack you for being politically stupid and for attacking our "markers of progress."  How dare you!

Senator Duckworth, interestingly, quoted George Washington himself, noting that he "urged Americans to 'guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.'"  Who was Washington warning us to worry about?  The pseudo-centrists like Bai no less than the buffoons of the Trump cult, all of whom feel no remorse in attacking the patriotism of those with whom they disagree.