The French philosopher Simone Weil once wrote a bit cryptically that “[w]ithout history there can be no sense of patriotism. We have only to look at the United States to see what it is to have a people deprived of the time-dimension.” Though her remark contains a soupcon of French condescension, I think she was making a deeper point. Without a true reckoning with one’s history, genuine patriotism (as opposed to uncritical jingoism) is impossible. Americans, mostly but not exclusively white Americans, have generally been abysmal at confronting the past, as observers of America, from Alexis de Tocqueville to William Faulkner to Joan Didion to James Baldwin, all agree.
From the very beginning of the American experiment, Americans have been uniquely unwilling to acknowledge the fundamental truth that history shapes and constrains us. Instead, we’ve chosen to indulge in Gatsby’s fiction that self-creation is possible out of nothing, that we can achieve the physically impossible and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.
Why is this? The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work offers some answers. Bourdieu thought that all societies are founded on acts of inaugural violence which have to be veiled, repressed, sublimated, or otherwise forgotten if they’re to function smoothly. So, to erase memories of the blood and violence that stain its foundations, the liberal-democratic state uses what Bourdieu calls “origin myths,” like the sanitized, unapologetically oversimplified version of American history we’re fed in elementary school.
In our case, it’s clear how Bourdieu’s ideas apply. Many Americans’ relationship to our history is basically “an individual and collective self-deception.” The hysteria with which Trumpists chant “Make America Great Again,” the way the idea of “American exceptionalism” is ritualistically asserted in the media as if repetition somehow makes it truer…it seems that many Americans feel quite insecure about our country and are perhaps semi-conscious of their self-deception. A nation sure of its place in the world and proud of its history wouldn’t need chest-beating displays of bravado and quasi-religious incantations about its greatness. Only a nation haunted by insecurity needs to constantly assert its dominance, like an alpha male unsure of his control over his troop.
The United States was founded on twin acts of staggering inaugural violence: the mass genocide of Native American peoples and the enslavement of millions of African-Americans. As if these two horrors weren’t enough, in addition to the exterminations and torture of Native Americans and African-Americans, the totalitarian nature of slavery, the violence of the Civil War, and Jim Crow, American history features ongoing violence that persists to the present day. Take your pick: there’s child labor and the squandering of lives in sweatshops and dangerous factories, repeated assaults on immigrants, the exploitation of undocumented workers, continual racism, the oppression of LGBTQ people, the abandonment of poor whites, and the bloodshed and death America is responsible for abroad.
To put it bluntly: American history is horrific. Any clear-eyed look at our history must confront the nearly incomprehensible scale of its injustice. One look is enough to destroy all the myths of progress and tremendous pretenses about American exceptionalism, greatness, or democracy. Our past is so ugly that to fully acknowledge the poison that contaminates it risks exploding one’s faith in the whole American project.
But if we take the past seriously and want a decent future, that’s exactly what we have to do: confront the horror head-on, because the past is never truly past. To pretend otherwise is futile. Progressives try to have their cake and eat it too. On the one hand, they postulate progress and continuity. On the other, they claim that, because history is linear and progressive, the present moment is entirely different from every moment that came before it. They may be well-meaning when they construct tidy narratives of “two steps forward, one step back” to inspire political activism, and they’re not entirely wrong. To a certain extent, things have gotten better. But the beating heart of progressive history – the hypothesis of historical continuity – cuts both ways. If the present is directly connected to the past, then the past’s massive and unresolved problems are still with us today. Their effects persist.
The brutal truth is that, from a future historian’s cool remove, our present moment isn’t unique. It’s easy to connect slavery; sharecropping; Jim Crow; and modern-day mass incarceration, criminal injustice, and prison labor abuse; voter disenfranchisement; and massive police violence against people of color. It’s easy to connect George Wallace and Donald Trump. It’s easy to connect the failure of Reconstruction and the failure of the civil rights movement to achieve radical economic change. It’s easy to connect the first Gilded Age and the second one in which we are now trapped. Patterns recur. The presentism that underpins a lot of modern thought hides this truth.
Racialized capitalism is the cross Americans have borne since before America came into being. Poor whites have been pitted against even more oppressed African-Americans since Europeans first stepped foot onto North America. Throughout American history, all movements for democratic control over our economic and political life have foundered on the shoals of racism. Racism is our national tragedy, and the failure of Reconstruction to remake the South might have been that tragedy’s turning point. The Populists’ efforts to realize a cooperative commonwealth collapsed because of racism. New Deal programs were compromised by racist Southern Democrats. Labor organizing was plagued by racism. The civil rights movement hit its limits because of racism. Healthcare reform was stymied in large part because of racism. And opposition to the Great Society and the social welfare state, the reason that social democracy and democratic socialism have never taken root in the US, has been fueled by virulent racism. Reactionaries have used dog-whistle rhetoric to justify conservative economics since the turn of the twentieth century, and Republicans have expertly played the white middle- and working-classes against people of color since the late 1960s. Most recently, Republicans’ paranoid and recalcitrant opposition to Barack Obama and Donald Trump’s election on a neo-fascist platform are the result of racism and our national incapacity to deal, at long last, with the demons of our past.
As long as many Americans are mired in blindness, willed or otherwise, to the darkness of American history and the undeniable continuities between our past and our present, our prospects aren’t bright. Plunging into our history’s darkest depths, painful though it will be, might just be the first step towards escaping our national dark night of the soul and moving towards the light.
 Simone Weil, The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952), p. 221.