We Live in an Impure World
By Joshua Mitchell
Among so many Americans today, there is a palpable longing for purity. Many want “clean” energy, and wish to purge the economy of “dirty” fossil fuels. In public buildings, hand-sanitizing stations stand upright everywhere. In our homes, many fear — and some with justification — that their municipal tap water is not clean enough, and so drink their water from plastic bottles. Then there are those among us who insist on eating organic foods, who shun GMO foods, or who crave “superfoods.”
Is concern about hygiene and purity alone the cause, or is something more ephemeral than physical cleanliness involved?
The story often told about Americans in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is that they have succumbed to relativism. A more accurate account would be that quasi-religious categories of purity and stain have taken hold of the American imagination.
The material world is not the only place where this longing for purity now urgently appears. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declares that “Congress shall [make no law] abridging the freedom of speech.” The longing for purity in America recently has become so acute that some Americans believe citizens no longer should be subject to the unappealing ideas around them that the First Amendment protects, but rather should be protected from them, because they are “hateful.” Citizens of a bustling republic cannot think this way, because they must build a world together with their fellow citizens, whether they like them or not, and whether they have impure, hateful thoughts or not. Yet many American citizens who see the world through the lens of purity and stain, and who have no real need to depend on their fellow citizens, can and do think along these lines today.
What of our nation? Is it pure or is it stained — and if it turns out to be stained, even in small measure, what then? Although generalizations never do justice to the details, those who talk about America as a “color-blind” society that endured the “accident of slavery” tend to think our nation is pure. On the other hand, others see the world through the lens of purity and stain tend to think our nation is stained.
The “1619 Project” of the New York Times takes this latter position. America is stained, its authors argue — and stained from its very founding. Because founding events are constitutive events, the stain cannot be removed. America’s stain, therefore, is “systemic”; America is guilty of “systemic racism.”
In the factional world of politics, it might be expected that those of us who offer a different vision than the one provided by the the 1619 Project would propose that America is pure, rather than stained. But our project, “1776,” offers no such counter-narrative. None of us asserts that America is pure. Our disagreements are not partisan counter-claims. Rather than assert that America is pure, we begin from the belief that impurity and stain are not the final word about America, as so many of our fellow citizens who are disappointed idealists of the political left infer.
Our defense of “1776” begins from the recognition that the stain of slavery has its deeper origin in the darkened recesses of the human heart. We are neither idealists nor disappointed idealists. Rather, we have both hope and confidence that the political arrangements stipulated by the Constitution and its associated documents were and are adequate to the challenges immediately before us and our forebears, and to those that lie ahead.
More importantly, we have hope and confidence in what we dare call the redemptive story of America, which is chronicled in the lives of black Americans — but not only of black Americans — who, in word and deed, confirm that although the fires of suffering can hobble and destroy, they also can purify and make stronger. The recollection of, and reverence for, what these Americans accomplished is our most urgent task today, not only because they point the way beyond the partisan divide over the matter of stain and purity that now incapacitates us, but because they provide precious exemplars that all Americans now so urgently need in their own lives, regardless of their standing.
Let us leave aside the immensely difficult task before us, of learning — or perhaps of relearning — how to live in an impure world. Who benefits and who is harmed by the narrative of America’s irredeemable stain? Why, moreover, does this narrative, so amply laid out in the “1619 Project,” appear just now in our political cycle?
Since the 1960s, the Democratic Party has championed the cause of civil rights. What began as a noble, necessary intervention by the federal government into state and local affairs has mutated, as so many government programs do, into an enterprise that would be unrecognizable to its originators. Where once government intervention supplemented family, church, and other mediating institutions in black America, over the past five decades government intervention increasingly has substituted for them. This has generated a vicious cycle, in which federal government intervention is both the cause and the consequence of the breakdown of those mediating institutions — a problem Alexis de Tocqueville, author of “Democracy in America,” predicted in 1835 would plague the whole of America in the distant future.
Today, a permanent proportion of black America is the object of government intervention, the current justification for which is that it is composed of pure and innocent victims, corrupted by external forces, and incapable of caring for itself without government assistance. For government intervention to continue on its now massive scale, that permanent portion must persist, held fast by the claim that “systemic racism” is so grave, so entrenched, that only government intervention can save it. The irredeemably stained world in which this portion lives is not something its members can negotiate. The government — or rather, the tens of thousands of employees arrayed across dozens of agencies, who are the unacknowledged beneficiaries — must instead “help” them.
Eric Hoffer famously wrote, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” Government programs are necessary when the mediating institutions of society are broken. They serve the “great cause,” when their aim is to help rebuild those institutions; but government programs become “a racket” when their real, if unstated, aim is to substitute for the mediating institutions that are so necessary for citizens to build lives of competence and joy.
The political implication of the claim that America has, since 1619, suffered from “systemic racism,” is that the federal government must intervene in every domain of life to save innocent victims from a world that is irredeemably impure and which corrupts them. Is this the world in which we really want to live? An infantilized world, without adult perseverance and responsibility? A world without hope, a world without reverence for those whose achievements belie the suffering they have endured and overcome?
The disservice done by the need our federal government agencies have for a portion of black America to be a class of permanent innocent victims long has been observed, not least by noteworthy participants in “1776.” There is an additional matter, which has not been adequately addressed, and which brings us to the current political moment: The number of groups whose members count as innocent victims has expanded exponentially since the 1960s. First women, then gays, lesbians and bisexuals, and now the transgendered are counted among them. On what authority would these causes rest in America if the agonizing struggle to heal the wound of slavery during the civil rights era were not their backdrop?
The language we have all used to comprehend this extraordinary expansion is instructive. When black America was our concern, we spoke of government “affirmative action” programs. As more groups donned the crown of thorns that black America wore during the civil rights era, we began to hear the word “diversity.” As we have pushed the conventional boundaries of sexuality to their breaking point, we now talk of “inclusion” and concern for “the marginalized.” With each expansion of the number of groups of innocent victims, and with each modification of our language, we have shifted the boundary line that separates the pure from the stained. Today in America, if you wish to be “inclusive” and if you are concerned with “the marginalized,” you will do well not to defend the conventional generative family containing a biological male and female, who together go to a traditional Christian church on Sunday morning. That family is “hetero-normative” and that church is “homophobic.” Both are stained.
I do not wish to cast aspersions on the sufferings of others. The industrial age has brought us problems unforeseen before it arrived. We must address them thoughtfully and humanely. Can it really be the case, however, that the conventional generative black family that attends church each Sunday — the very family that was the social cornerstone on which Martin Luther King Jr. relied to awaken America from its long cultivated slumber — no longer passes the purity test? By the logic of “inclusion,” it does not. The church-going black family, once the cornerstone, has been cast off. In the New Testament, Jesus declares that the stone rejected shall become the cornerstone. More than five decades after the civil rights movements began, that cornerstone itself has been rejected by the partisans of purity.
Therein lies the reason for the 1619 Project just now. The partisans of purity no longer will defend the church-going conventional generative black family (or their white, Hispanic, Asian, or Indian counterparts). This category of citizens is the unfortunate but necessary collateral damage in the never-ending project of routing out, humiliating, and silencing impure Americans who are insufficiently “inclusive.” To keep the vast swath of black Americans who do not pass the “inclusivity” test in the Democratic Party tent, the 1619 Project wishes to assure them that the political party that once had their back in the 1960s still does. Its underlying message is this: Pay no attention to the fact that partisans of purity now condemn the conventional generative family and traditional Christianity, without which slavery could not have been overcome, and without which “the least among us” today have the slimmest of chances of escaping their penury. You are alone, and face a vast systemic threat against which your impure and impotent families and churches are powerless. Only the agencies of the federal government can help you.
“1776” rejects this view. Americans are not alone, facing a systemic problem that the federal government alone can solve. The relatively modest federal government established by our Founders supposed that citizens had competence enough to build a world together, relying on mediating institutions that sometimes can lead us horribly astray but without which we cannot live well.
We live in an impure world and must labor in hope, together.