Originally published at Rubin Reports.
One of the highlights of the 1961 inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, 52 years ago, was a poem by the beloved Robert Frost. That morning I had watched the new vice-president, Lyndon Johnson, leave his home down the street and a bit later watched Frost read the poem on television that snowy day, looking at the same snow outside my window a few miles away.
The poem was entitled, “The Gift Outright,” and it began:
The land was ours before we were the land’s. She was our land more than a hundred years Before we were her people. She was ours In Massachusetts, in Virginia, But we were England’s, still colonials…. That poem could not be read today and if it were the result would be attacks, condemnation, and derision.
Why? Let’s count the reasons:
–The poem defines the birth of America as based on a gift. Today it would be said to be based on theft.
–A gift from whom? The implication is from God. To claim such a thing would be seen as hubris and dangerous non-atheism.
–It claims the land during the colonial period belonged to the colonialists whereas it is assumed now that it belonged to the “Native Americans” and thus such a statement is racist.
–It identifies America with people from England which would be the kind of racist, chauvinist thinking that could not be more derided. After all, what about the slaves as well as the Native Americans?
The fact that Frost was basically correct, that America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries arose from English settlers, that it belonged at the national level to those who became Americans, that it shaped those people in a positive way, and that the founders (who Frost is echoing in the poem) saw things in a similar way, are all deemed irrelevant.
But how can America exist as a legitimate nation if Frost’s view is condemned, even if one takes into account the country’s later direction and development?
This discussion reminds us that the hegemonic elite in the United States today has largely achieved something never done elsewhere: it has convinced itself and a large portion of the country’s youth that America’s whole history is evil. There is one other country (I’ll mention below) that has far more logically convinced most of its people to believe just one part of its history is evil. See if you can guess.
I don’t want to exaggerate here. Obviously not everyone feels that way and equally this sentiment is not applied to all things. In his second inaugural speech, President Barack Obama put forward contradictory ideas. On one hand, he tried to bridge the gap by saying that the founders were merely outdated and that he had now assumed their mantle. On the other hand, he played subtly on the evil rich white male heterosexual slaveholder theme.
So they succeed in having it both ways: America was a great idea but the way it was organized is obsolete; America has a terrible bloodstained history because it is so innately corrupted. Either way it has to be fundamentally transformed.
The patriotic trimmings when invoked by those in charge nowadays seem cynical afterthoughts for political advantage rather than sincere sentiments. This is especially true in many classrooms which are shaping the next generation. It is no accident that one of the main textbooks used was written by a genuine Communist. The left-wing fringe rhetoric of the 1960s has now become the new normal.
The main theme is that America has been unfair, racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, a bully in the world, an oppressor of its own working class, etc. And of course it stole the land from the original inhabitants.
That country certainly sounds like a disaster. Why did its people even bother to continue such a failed experiment? Clearly it must be fundamentally transformed, no doubt.
And yet the French don’t say: How terrible is our country based on a thousand years of feudalism—nobility grinding the peasants’ faces in the mud, the bloody revolution, 25 years of aggressive war by Napoleon, decades of revolution and repression, the collapse of four republics, humiliating defeats in war, collaboration with the Nazis in World War Two, a colonial empire, and imperialist wars in Algeria and Indochina. They don’t say we are evil; our system is rotten; our souls deeply corrupted; we need fundamental transformation.