Leading up to the November election, we have seen and will see continued mentioning of an often romanticized view of America. What's that, you ask? It's the return of those traditional American values. In his Saturday vice presidential announcement speech, Mitt Romney uttered the following absurd thing:
Our country was founded on the principle that our rights did not come from the government. They came from the creator.What are these traditional values that Romney wants to restore? And why are people cheering at the mention of this bizarrely backward American vision?
Romney is not the only person in the conservative party touting the virtues of traditional America. In fact, this has long been the calling card of the evangelical agitators. Take alleged casino fraud perpetrator and Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed, who chided Christians with:
If we get down on our faces and our knees before Almighty God, and we beg of him, not because we're pointing fingers at anybody else, but because of what we have allowed to happen... then I believe in November God will have mercy on our land and we will have a Renaissance of the values that made this country great.How must an African-American feel reading this quote? Exactly which "values" of the past made our country great? Are we going back to 1770, when our society saw fit to steal human beings from their home continent in order to work in brutally hot plantations? Or how about 1860, when half of the country was so married to the idea that they chose to fight a bloody civil war to protect their "rights?" How about the good values that covered the next 100 years and change, as we relegated those former slaves to second-hand status based on color alone? If I'm a member of a minority, I want to know exactly what period of history we are trying to jump back into. Just which period in American history did we get it right in God's eyes?
Romney's comments are striking for their cultural insensitivity. If America was truly founded on the principle that God grants people their rights, then is Romney implying that black people and women were just not the big guy's favorite at that time? For those individuals, the assertion that the founding fathers' human rights plan was the right plan must seem callous.
This goes to two problems - one critical to Mitt Romney and another critical to the entire conservative camp. First, Romney shows again that he's so self-absorbed that he can't fathom the idea that someone else might have had a different experience than him. After all, if you were a rich white guy, the founding fathers gave you a pretty good deal. The lack of empathy is striking but not surprising.
The second speaks to a problem seen in all aspects of conservative politics, from Capitol Hill to the recesses of the Supreme Court. That problem is an insulting romanticism of American founding principles.
The American founders shouldn't be vilified. In fact, they got a lot of things right. The Constitution is a beautifully written document that featured an inspiring amount of foresight. The zeal and unflappable bravery shown by the founding fathers is something that all Americans can emulate. But there has to be some balance between a scathing review of the founding fathers and the romantic view often put forth by leaders on the right. America's founding was helped by brutal indifference to human life in the pursuit of capitalistic greed. We chose to actively exterminate American Indians in a dramatic move West, forcing the lucky survivors onto small, unwanted plots of land in places like Oklahoma, South Dakota, and New Mexico.
Why must we lie about the quality of the early American values? Why not simply admit that we got a lot of things right, while missing on quite a few others? Then we can take pride in a real American value - the ability of our society to adapt and evolve. We can celebrate the progress made on a host of civil rights issues, from minority voting to women's employment to the expanding acceptance of LGBT rights. It is those values that we can all be proud of, and it is those values we can use to press into the future. By looking back with uncompassionate appreciation on the often-brutal early years, we alienate many of the people who make this country worth celebrating.