Take a recent controversy. Last week, Gwen Berry finished third in a U.S. Olympic trials event and turned away in protest as the national anthem was played. In explaining her behavior, she said, “If you know your history, you’d know the full song of the national anthem. The third paragraph speaks to slaves in America — our blood . . . all over the floor. It’s disrespectful, and it does not speak for black Americans.” Wherever you come out on this issue, I will confess it forced me to learn more about “The Star-Spangled Banner” (which was adopted as the national anthem only in 1931). Its third verse does indeed make harsh reference to enslaved people who dared to try to escape their captivity, and the person who wrote it, Francis Scott Key, was a nasty racist.
Americans care about history because the stakes are high. This is a country founded not on blood-and-soil nationalism but ideas. That’s why we have the concept of something being “un-American” — that is, contrary to American ideals. It is rare to hear a position described as “un-Italian” or “un-Russian.” You can espouse any ideas and still be Russian because your nationalism is unrelated to ideology. The United States, however, is a nation dedicated to a proposition, to use Abraham Lincoln’s famous phrase.
When we debate the past, we are debating the meaning of America. As the historian Henry Steele Commager once observed, even though European states often came into being more recently — Italy and Germany became nation-states about 100 years after the United States — they still had millennia of history, tradition and myths behind them. “Of them it can be said that the nation was a product of history,” Commager wrote. “But with the United States, history was rather a creation of the nation.” For Americans, the country’s history is not the accumulation of past events, but rather the product of active choices that highlight the country’s meaning and message.
There was no golden age when Americans lived in happy agreement. After all, the country began with deep discord. The Constitution itself was so bitterly opposed by powerful voices that it could only be adopted along with 10 amendments to the document. For almost 2½ centuries since then, Americans have debated fiercely over everything from national expansion to economics to wars to, above all, slavery. Slavery and its consequences are the greatest disgrace in U.S. history, so naturally this is the issue that produces the biggest and most wrenching debates.
I realize that people sometimes hear outlandish assertions or see symbolic protests that make them wince or feel that a point is being taken too far. But the airing of ideas, thoughts and passions is all part of life in a free society. It is a much better indication of a society’s vitality than some imposed heroic history that glosses over failures, mistakes and misdeeds. If that means we have to grapple with the reality that men such as Thomas Jefferson or Woodrow Wilson were complicated characters, with great achievements and great flaws, that happens to be the truth. We should have faith that in a free society we can honor people for what they did right and hold them to account for what they did wrong.
Many are concerned that in this raucous intellectual atmosphere bad ideas — even dangerous ideas — might be let loose. So fight against them, with your own better ideas. Cancel culture on the left is a worrying and profoundly illiberal trend. But perhaps more worrying are the many laws being passed by Republican state legislatures that ban the teaching of certain ideas and theories. The right’s version of cancel culture is fast becoming legal censorship and state propaganda.