The Politics of Pride and Shame
Integrating 1776 and 1619
This Version is the Author’s Edit. Originally Published in Areo Magazine
American democracy is in trouble. We now hear a steady drumbeat of dread from both sides of the commentariat: Americans hate each other with an intensity not seen since the civil war. And even as the lamentation grows louder, the way forward remains unclear. America’s impending decline seems to be taken as a given, and each side blames the other for the increasing hyperpolarization that is tearing our nation apart. But although we must face these facts, I’m growing tired of all the pessimistic doomsaying accompanying their reporting. While I agree that we’re in trouble, my interpretation of American history gives me much reason for hope.
As the result of rapid cultural evolution over the last sixty years, American society has become “stretched out” to the point that it no longer coheres as a governable entity. Yet, as I argue in this essay, it is this very same course of cultural development that will ultimately bring us back together. Although some version of left and right will always characterize our national polity, there is a strong potential for a new era of relative consensus and cooperation in the time ahead. In short, we’ve become divided as a result of our own growth, and by growing further, we can overcome our bitter national divisions.
Even though there are many causes of the complex problem of hyperpolarization, at its root our contemporary national schism is a cultural problem, the source of which is upstream from politics. As a result of the rise of progressive culture over the past several decades, the American mainstream is now being pulled apart by the clash of two large-scale moral systems: one traditional and religious, and the other progressive and postmodern. The mainstream culture of liberal modernity is caught in the middle of this strident culture war, with half of it persuaded by the logic of the left, and the other half stiffening its resistance to what it sees as the illiberal trajectory of progressivism.
A central focus of both the progressive and traditional moral systems is the interpretation of American history. The progressive left argues that 1619 should be recognized as the true year of America’s founding, while progressivism’s opponents continue to regard 1776 as the authentic date of our origin. These competing American narratives each focus on history for good reason: our collective memory is the foundation of our national identity. For most of our history, patriotic pride served as a powerful binding element that unified our culture and helped define what it meant to be an American. But as our society now begins to better reckon with the sins of its past, a sense of national shame on the left is coming to replace the pride that once helped America cohere as a nation. And in the same way that patriotic pride fosters strong political solidarity, a collective feeling of national shame similarly offers an alternative basis for cultural belonging.
Shame, however, is not all bad. A growing sense of contrition for the crimes of American history—most notably slavery, Jim Crow, and the brutal conquest of Native Americans—can be recognized as a necessary step toward the further evolution of our society. Pride and shame are actually bound together. They are more than simply mirror opposites. The value creating capacity of each emotion depends partially on its polar counterpart. The inherent interdependence of the polarity of pride and shame can be seen in how each of these sentiments relies on the other to mitigate its respective shadow. The shadow of national pride is hubris and the potential for various forms of imperialism. And conversely, the shadow of national shame is demoralization and the potential for cultural suicide. Yet when held together in a mutually correcting relationship, the shadow of pride is countered by humility born of regrettable mistakes, and the shadow of shame is moderated by confidence in our potential to become better.
To grow out of the seemingly intractable polarization that now threatens our democracy, we need to find a new kind of cultural synthesis, one that can integrate our pride and shame and thus help reconcile the competing moral systems of progressivism and traditionalism while preserving the liberal values of modernity at the same time. A key to this needed cultural synthesis can be found through a reinterpretation of American history—an enlarged appreciation of our past that can integrate and harmonize the natural tension between traditional pride and progressive shame. A synthesis of this kind could lead to a more advanced form of national self-love which, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes,“would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”1 Such an enlarged interpretation of American history would not only help reconcile the competing narratives of 1619 and 1776, a more synthetic view of our past could also serve as a cornerstone of our political rehabilitation and renewal. As historian Matthew Karp writes, “historical narratives matter in political struggles: they shape our sense of the terrain under our feet and the horizon in front of us; they frame our vision of what is possible.”2
The substance of this needed new synthesis can be found through a nuanced reconciliation of the historical facts themselves. To build my argument, I’ll start by examining some relevant facts regarding America’s shameful treatment of Native Americans, and then I’ll examine the horrific legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
For the past thirty years, I’ve made my home in Boulder, Colorado, close to some of the most notorious battlegrounds of America’s Indian Wars. As a first-generation American, I’m naturally proud of my country, and over the past few decades I’ve developed a strong sense of loyalty to my adopted state. Boulder is well known as a bastion of progressivism, and I generally share the progressive sentiments of my fellow townsfolk. However, I was rather jarred when my wife and I recently received an official email from our son’s public high school counselor which concluded with the following “land acknowledgment”:
“We acknowledge that New Vista High School sits on land that was brutally taken from the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute tribal nations. While white settlers were originally peacefully welcomed by Chief Niwot into Boulder Valley in the fall of 1858, he and his people were forced off the land, and then attacked by Col. John Chivington and his cavalry in the horrific Sand Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864. As educators dedicated to the work of equity and social justice, we must face this ugly truth before we can begin.”
I’m well familiar with these historical facts and do not dispute the inevitable shame that they cast upon America as a whole and on my state in particular. But I am troubled by the one-sidedness of this statement from my son’s public school. I’m troubled in the same way that I would be if I received an oppositely one-sidedness statement from a public official, such as one that praised “the brave Colorado pioneers who subdued the savages and brought civilization to the wilderness.”
That being said, I don’t really begrudge our high school counselor’s land acknowledgment. She is understandably expressing her solidarity with the progressive reckoning of our historical moment. Besides, my sixteen-year-old son is now sophisticated enough to see through the one-sidedness of her characterization of America’s western expansion. The need to contextualize his high school counselor’s land acknowledgment provided a nice opportunity for he and I to discuss some of the deeper meanings of American history. As we talked it over, I pointed out that American Indians had been brutally conquering each other for 10,000 years before the coming of the Europeans, and I emphasized how Western civilization has massively improved life conditions for everyone in America, including the present-day descendants of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute tribal nations. This, of course, does not excuse the war crimes which accompanied the final conquest that ended all further conquests by establishing the rule of law, but it does help negate the implication that the foundation of our society is rotten to the core.
My aim in contextualizing the Indian Wars is not to avoid the shame that taints my family’s residence on this land. This wrestling with the complexity of the historical narrative is instead an attempt to make our abiding shame more poignant and productive by linking it with the necessary pride that is its natural counterpart.
The relationship between an interdependent polarity such as pride and shame is ideally one of challenge and support. By working together, each pole can challenge and thus moderate the potential pathologies of the other, while at the same time supporting the enduring truth of its polar counterpart. This same dynamic relationship can be seen in the value creating capacity of the similar interdependent polarity of grievance and gratitude. Our political grievances are most persuasive when voiced in a context that acknowledges our identification with the interests of the larger social whole. And conversely, our gratitude is most inclusive when inflected by our acceptance that there is much more work yet to be done.
This wrestling to bring mutually challenging truths into a supportive relationship is the ongoing work of synthesis itself. The point is not to find some static place of false rest that superficially resolves the tension of our historical pride and shame. I’m not recommending a convenient compromise that allows us to avoid the demands of our “ever-present origins.” The work of synthesis entails acknowledging our gratitude for those who came before us, both Indigenous and European, while remaining mindful of the lingering grievances which must be healed through the further passage of time. Rather than seeking to eliminate the tension, a working synthesis allows both our shame and our pride to be acknowledged in full by turns. That is, we can continue to regret the crimes of our forebears deeply, and we can also continue to be unapologetically proud of the fact that the emergence of the United States is among the most positive events in all of human history.
This work of synthesizing the good and bad aspects of America’s western expansion can also be applied to America’s historical crimes against its black population. There is no denying that the institution of slavery, together with the widespread legally-sanctioned racism that continued for another century thereafter, is a permanent stain on America’s record. And the disparities in wealth, health, and education that America’s black population continues to endure provides ongoing testimony to the abiding legacy of these historical crimes. All Americans should not only know about these facts, we should also empathetically feel the suffering that generations of our fellow compatriots had to bear. A deep feeling of national shame accordingly represents the appropriate response to these dreadful features of American history.
Yet to effectively use the shame we rightly feel about America’s racist past to become a better country going forward, we also need to preserve our national pride. There are, of course, many historical facts about which all Americans can feel unambiguously proud. To name a few: we led the way in the establishment of liberal democracy as a form of self-government; we helped defeat fascism and soviet communism, and we’ve been instrumental in preserving global peace and prosperity ever since; America plays a central and ongoing role in the scientific progress of medicine and technology which enhances the lives of people everywhere; American culture has produced many unique forms of art and music that have enriched the world; we’ve welcomed over 100 million immigrants since our founding; and we continue to donate billions annually in foreign aid. I could continue to list the many good reasons to be proud of America’s national achievements. But in the context of reckoning with our collective shame over the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, some of the most relevant points of pride are found in the significant contributions that black Americans themselves have made to our national story. This list includes courageous freedom fighters like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King Jr.; gifted writers like Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison; heroic athletes like Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Serena Williams; and ground-breaking musicians like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, and Jimi Hendrix. The achievements of these distinguished African-Americans are something that every American can be proud of.
As the brilliant writer Albert Murray argued, “the United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multi-colored people.” American culture is a “composite that is part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian, and part Negro.”3 Murray advanced the idea of the Omni-American to emphasize the fact that “black and white Americans are each other’s cultural ancestors.” As he explained in a 1996 interview, “Who has suffered the greatest foul play of the people who came to America? The Negro, right? There’s a richness in the Negro response to adversity. There is resilience, inventiveness, humor, and enviable elegance. We invented the blues [which is] white Americans’ heritage too.”4 Recognizing how we are all “Omni-Americans” allows each of us to identify with all of our ancestors, regardless of their race. As Murray put it, “it lets me identify with John Jay, you with Frederick Douglass.” Omni-Americanism thus helps overcome the divisiveness of identity politics by showing how patriotic pride is the rightful heritage of all Americans.
Again, in the same way that we need to own our shame, we must continue to own our pride as well. Progressives have done well to problematize the one-sided version of sentimentalist patriotic history that once prevailed in our culture. Yet in their attempts to counter this immature view of our past, many progressives now advance an oppositely one-sided characterization that paints American history as something akin to a sinister criminal enterprise. In their efforts to supplant our national pride with a sense of indelible shame, progressives often project past conditions onto the present, claiming for example, that the conditions of Jim Crow still prevail and that America remains a “white supremacist” nation. And in the case of Native Americans, progressives seem to assume that America remains blind to the nobility and victimhood of the Indians, as if we still view them through the lens of 1950s cowboy movies. But American culture has been acknowledging its crimes against its Indigenous populations since the 1970s, as exemplified by popular films such as Little Big Man and Dances with Wolves. It also bears mentioning that Deb Haaland, a tribal member of the Laguna Pueblo, is now secretary of the interior.
While there is certainly more progress to be made in overcoming the heinous legacy of slavery and the conquest of Native Americans, the progress we have made since the 1960s should not be buried under a mountain of shame, it should rather be viewed as something we can all be rightfully proud of. As Glenn Loury writes, “In the years since the civil rights movement … black Americans have entered the ‘grand illuminated temple of liberty’ on their own two feet as full citizens. And it was the constitutional framework established by the founders that enabled us to do so. The liberation of black people in this country is a continuation of the American project and an expression of, yes, its greatness.”5 In light of these facts, we cannot allow the “childhood myth of our innocence” to be replaced by the similarly simplistic myth of unmitigated American villainy. As the French writer Pascal Bruckner warns, “nothing is more Western than hatred of the West.”6 Yet it is this same despised Western culture which has, in an unprecedented effort, invested significant societal resources to help make amends for its racist past, and which is even now redoubling its efforts to achieve greater “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
The key to a synthetic interpretation of American history, one which allows for the fullness of both our pride and our shame, is found in a developmental perspective that views our history as a continuing work in progress. Interpreting the course of our national journey through a developmental perspective involves more than merely acknowledging both the good and bad aspects of our story. Placing America’s narrative in the context of ongoing growth brings our shame and our pride—our grievances and our gratitude—together within a mutually correcting relationship of challenge and support. When the two poles of this interdependent polarity work together, pride in our progress helps counter ideologically motivated assertions that past conditions still prevail, and shame for our nation’s misdeeds helps remind us that our reconciliation is not yet complete. Indeed, adopting such a developmental perspective itself can help deliver the growth we need.
Recognizing how America’s cultural evolution advances through a dialectic of progress and pathology can help us make peace with, and bring justice to, our collective interpretation of American history. The justice comes from owning the shame, and the peace comes from reclaiming the pride necessary for the eventual reunification of our collective national identity. Our pride and shame can accordingly support our further growth by turns, serving as the “two legs” of our national progress. Through such a working synthesis, we can grow beyond our contemporary national schism. And for those who may be reluctant to embrace such an enlarged sense of Omni-American patriotism, I can recommend listening to Ray Charles’ rendition of “America the Beautiful,” which exquisitely synthesizes his own pride and shame in being an American.
1. Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The Case for Reparations” (Atlantic Magazine, June, 2014)
2. Matthew Karp: “History As End: 1619, 1776, and the politics of the past” (Harper’s Magazine, July 2021)
3. Albert Murray: The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy (Library of America, 2020) https://www.amazon.com/Omni-Americans-Alternatives-Folklore-White-Supremacy-ebook/dp/B07RM5J4LR/
4. Albert Murray 1996 interview: “The Omni-American” (American Heritage Magazine, September, 1996, by Tony Scherman) https://www.americanheritage.com/omni-american
5. Glenn Lowery: “Black Patriotism, Then and Now,” The Glenn Show (January 18, 2022) https://glennloury.substack.com/p/black-patriotism-then-and-now
6. Pascal Bruckner: The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism(Princeton University Press, 2010) https://www.amazon.com/Tyranny-Guilt-Essay-Western-Masochism/dp/0691154309/