The teaching of American history often amounts to one long argument for deference to the white men who designed the founding documents and systems of the United States – those we call the Founding Fathers. We are told that we should admire these men for their actions, choices, and sacrifices. From traditional history textbooks to the text of Hamilton the musical, we are presented with their admirable qualities. More recently, we have been shown some of their foibles and mistakes as well, but usually as a counterpoint to their strengths – as a way to balance the positives we have been presented over the years.
Many nations – even local communities and organizations – celebrate their founders. Perhaps this is even a typically human trait, and there is nothing wrong with it when it is engaged in moderation. But American culture thrives on black-and-white distinctions. We find it difficult to look at the fact that our celebrated founders enslaved human beings, and a number of Americans don’t want to deal with it at all. These are the people who label any discussion of race as “Critical Race Theory” and seek to ban it from schools. These are the people who object to teaching and discussion about the true history of slavery, immigration bans, and racial prejudice, arguing that any criticism of the founders will cause negative feelings and low self-esteem in (white) youth. Conservative jurists present this deference to the founders and their beliefs in formal legal arguments. Conservative Supreme Court justices try to parse the intentions of these men because they say that those intentions should guide our interpretation of the Constitution today.
This deification of the founders may come from a fear of American history being presented truthfully. Sadly, for many of us, a truthful telling of history may feel like something to fear because we learned a sanitized version. But this deification also serves a deeper purpose for many of those who engage in it – it functions as an excuse for rolling back our rights. Over the past 250 years of this country’s history, Americans have wrestled more and more rights for themselves from the ultra-wealthy and -powerful. This outcome was not a foregone conclusion – regular people fought and sacrificed to achieve increases in rights for Americans of all races, genders, and backgrounds.
But the ultra-wealthy want us to hold the founders so high that they provide shade for the retraction of our legal frameworks and rights. These ultra-wealthy who deify the founders use them as a shield to pull our rights back to before the Civil Rights era, before the New Deal, even before the Progressive Era. Taking away Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Taking away protections for voting rights. Taking away protections for workers from abuse by their employers. And the reason the ultra-wealthy want to roll back rights for the rest of us is to amass as much wealth and power as they can for themselves.
This is the dirty secret of this veneration – that it exists as cover for the theft of our sustenance, our rights, and our democracy. And ultra-wealthy individuals like Charles Koch, Peter Thiel, Rebekah Mercer and those who do their bidding will stop at nothing to get what they want. In truth, they are fascists who would mortgage everyone else’s wealth, health, education, and self-determination to achieve their goals. Even the destruction of our planetary environment on which we all depend for life does not faze them.
And all the time, they hold up the talismans of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison to justify their greed. They fan the flames of the culture wars to divide regular people from one another – using lines of race, gender, and ideology to make the rest of us believe that we are enemies of one another. Instead, we must recognize and fight back against those who truly want to do us ill: these same ultra-wealthy people who do not hesitate to trample all that we have and are under their feet. We must combat them with every means at our disposal: at the voting box, with protest marches, with our public speech and writing, via strikes and civil disobedience.
True love of country is not measured by the degree to which we bow down to those white men who created the country long ago. They made their impact and deserve both their due and our criticism. Instead, true love of our country and our people is about how we stand up for one another so that we can thrive together. And this often means criticizing this country, its institutions, and its founders. As James Baldwin famously said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
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