Alex Rosenberg, New York Times, JULY 3, 2017
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Best to start with a small boy, preferably an immigrant, a stateless refugee from a
war-torn continent. Place the child in an environment that makes it obvious he owes
his family’s prosperity, freedom and even its survival to the generosity of the
Eager to assimilate completely, the child will embrace the patriotic symbols —
the flag, the president, the military, the national pastime. Develop in the child a
sustained and sincere interest in the triumphal progress of the nation’s history, from
Valley Forge to the Halls of Montezuma, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the
Progressive Era, from the War to End All Wars through V.E. and V.J. days, to what
President John F. Kennedy called “the long twilight struggle” of Cold War
containment. Encourage the teenager to see Vietnam as a military stalemate but a
vindication of our democracy.
Instill a reverence for the Declaration of Independence, but only the good parts.
Suppress, for instance, its chilling description of “the inhabitants of our frontiers,
the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished
destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” The words go well with the iconic
narrative of cowboys and Indians and with John Wayne movies of the 1950s, like
John Ford’s “The Searchers” (movies are an especially effective way to foster
devotion in the young; they should appear frequently through this process). Don’t let
the child learn how Oklahoma went from “Indian Territory”— an arid Bantustan in
which Native Americans were herded for the better part of a century — to being the
46th state in 1907, owing to the discovery of vast petroleum deposits under its
Raise the child’s sights from his model trains to the spectacular construction of
the Transcontinental Railway, completed in 1869. (Cecil B. DeMille’s “Union
Pacific,” with Joel McCrea, will help do the trick.) Omit any mention of the roughly
30,000 Chinese “coolies” who actually built the western half of the railway and then,
no longer needed for the killing work, were denied citizenship by the Chinese
Exclusion Act of 1882. Make sure to extol Teddy Roosevelt, the Bull Moose
president, who built the Panama Canal. Do not mention that much of the heavy
lifting was done by some 50,000 black men from the Caribbean islands, also
disposed of when they were no longer needed.
Paint a vivid picture of Woodrow Wilson as the great progressive precursor to
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president whose dream of a League of Nations was
destroyed by a narrow-minded vindictive senator from Massachusetts. (The Oscar-winning
1944 film “Wilson” should work well here.) Don’t tell the boy the real story
of Wilson’s egotism and intransigence. It would spoil the way the narrative
culminates a quarter century later in the United Nations. And never, never let on
that Wilson endorsed D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” with a White House
screening that personally invited the defunct Ku Klux Klan back into American life.
Don’t remind him that Wilson resegregated the federal Civil Service — the only
domain in which African-Americans hadn’t been forced to abide by “separate and
While you’re at it, when raising F.D.R. to demigod status (“Sunrise at
Campobello,” 1960, is a start), be silent about how his administration excluded
African-Americans from the two most important progressive victories of the New
Deal — Social Security and the Wagner Act, the latter of which protected
unionization from strikebreakers. It wasn’t hard, once the Dixiecrat senators in
Roosevelt’s coalition showed him how: just drop “domestics” and “farm labor” from
the coverage of the two laws, as 60 percent of these workers were black, more like 95
percent in the South. “ Domestics” were excluded from Social Security for the next
20 years. Along with agricultural workers, they’re still excluded from the (now
toothless) Wagner Act that used to protect union rights.
Remember also to hide the tricks used to keep black soldiers out of World War
II. Do not tell him that the convoy system used to supply United States forces in
Europe, dramatized in the postwar movie “Red Ball Express,” with a mainly white
cast and a cameo by Sidney Poitier, was roughly 75 percent African-American.
Trumpet to the child the Warren Court’s overthrow of “separate but equal” in
1954. But don’t mention that this was the same Earl Warren who demanded the
Supreme Court endorse concentration camps for Japanese-American citizens in the
Korematsu decision of 1944, never overturned to this day. As your patriot grows to
adulthood he will read about how, the very next year after Brown v. Board of
Education (1954), the same court let Southern state governments off the hook with
the requirement that desegregation be completed “with all deliberate speed.” He will
find that 20 years after Brown, school segregation was even worse.
The most effective tools in the making of a non-patriot are time, honesty and a
truthful self-education. Allow the boy, as he becomes an adult, to learn about the
injustice and unfairness glossed over before. The process of increasing historical
consciousness will make American exceptionalism untenable.
After extolling for years the genius of the United States Constitution, begin to
point out the impediments to democratic government that it has imposed upon the
American nation itself, and the other countries on whom we have forced it.
Be clear that the Constitution is soiled with the stain of slavery — the three-fifths
clause, the requirement that fugitive slaves be returned, the clause allowing the
international slave trade to persist for a generation after its ratification. The
hypocrisy of our Constitution’s wording, in which euphemisms must be found every
time the institution of slavery is protected, reveals the founding fathers’ chagrin.
Once the student of American history discovers what the euphemisms mean, he
cannot help reading the Constitution as an inexact copy of George III’s regime, not a
set of truths requiring centuries of fealty.
Of course, watching Henry Fonda in “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939) and Raymond
Massey in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (1940) will have resulted in the boy’s “increased
devotion” to the American ideal, but disillusion will eventually set it. By the time he’s
seen Steven Spielberg’s’ “Lincoln” (2012) it will be evident that, given our
Constitution, the only way the country could have abolished slavery was by a civil
war that took a million lives from both sides. Every other nation — even the
autocratic Tsarist Russia and the Empire of Brazil — managed to abolish slavery
without a war. How were they able to do it? Because they were not blessed with a
constitution intentionally designed, as the Federalist Papers reveal, to make effective
The youthful patriot has been raised to admire the United States Senate as “the
world’s greatest deliberative body” by watching “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”
(1939) or “Advise & Consent” (1962). By the turn of the 21st century he’ll realize that
the Constitution condemned the nation to a Senate in which 10 percent of the
population of his country controls 40 percent of seats. It’s an arrangement that does
exactly what Madison designed the Senate to do: “protect the minority of the opulent
against the majority.”
The child may not notice that the Constitution explicitly made the equal
representation of each state uniquely unamendable. He will, however, grow up to
discover that, as its irremediable result, one citizen of Wyoming has about 65 times
the representation in the Senate as every Californian.
When he digs into history, the boy will learn of the aberration that, just twice in
American history, way back in 1824 and 1876, the popular vote for president was
thwarted by the Constitution’s Electoral College (the second time “incidentally”
ushering in the reign of Jim Crow). But that was ancient history, wasn’t it? Alas, no.
By the time he’s grown, our child patriot will have found the Electoral College
flouting the will of the majority in two of the first five elections of the 21st century.
Eventually the adult will appreciate why all fully developed nations have given
up on the American Constitution as model. They know what we should have learned:
that history long ago revealed its defects, anachronisms, hostility to democracy and
unsuitability to life after the 18th century. Abroad, no one wants the United States
Constitution any more. But we’re stuck with it, Second Amendment and all.
It’s not as though other countries are better than ours. Every nation bears the
healed scars and the still-open wounds of its history. The lesson our refugee boy will
learn as he grows up and old is that American exceptionalism is at best an innocent
mistake that uninformed patriotism makes difficult to surrender.
Once the process of disillusionment is completed, so is the making of the non-patriot.
Alex Rosenberg is the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. He is
the author several books, including “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality,” and two historical
novels, “The Girl From Krakow” and “Autumn in Oxford.”