- - Tuesday, May 31, 2016

I’ve had it with ignorant college students and their professors and academic administrators denigrating the heritage of America and so many great figures of our history. I’ve had it with the assault on “dead white males” and the effort to destroy the political legitimacy of their descendants of today because of perceived misdeeds of the past. And I’ve had it with people strutting around campuses with the view that their politics is somehow more pristine than that of whites because their ancestors were “victims” in the mists of yesteryear.

Those dead white males built this country. Sure, they had help from others, but the credit belongs largely to them. They ventured onto a forbidding continent, with their wives and children, and braved ferocious winters, scarce food, dense forests, and the understandable but dangerous hostility of native populations.

They broke away from the mother country in a revolution of immense bravery and then crafted a civic compact that may well be the greatest achievement of governmental genesis in the history of mankind. In that compact, they addressed the twin challenges of civilized society — governmental legitimacy and succession of rulers — so successfully that even today we enjoy the fruits of their brilliance, though those fruits are under severe challenge from people who don’t begin to understand the genius behind them or their delicacy.

They built towns and cities and commerce and churches and states and a philosophy of government and citizenship that surpassed anything seen for centuries anywhere in the world. They conquered the North American midsection through hardship, toil, sacrifice, war, cultivation of the soil, and propagation of themselves. They both developed and exploited new technologies to eradicate much of the limitation of space and time that had constrained earlier generations. They built companies and created jobs and increased human comfort. And they invited others to come in and share the largesse and tranquility and security they had created.

And, yes, they were flawed human beings — precisely because they were human beings. Every human is flawed, as is every group of humans, every nation, every race, every era of history. Some of those flaws of America yielded actions and institutions with tragic consequences for other peoples (as well as for themselves), most notably slavery and the inexorable westward push of American Indians.

Those actions and institutions deserve recognition today as lessons of history and civic rectitude.

But should those things cancel out all the achievements of the heritage? Slavery was practiced in large parts of West Africa for centuries — by Africans — before Westerners transferred the sordid institution to their own lands. Does that justify our denigrating or dismissing the greatest achievements of the African story? Should we cancel Black History Month? The greatest and most civilized of the pre-Columbian Mexicans practiced slavery, as well as human sacrifice and cannibalism, before Westerners arrived. Should the whole of the Mexican heritage be denigrated now as a result?

Of course not, and nobody suggests such a thing. It is only with the white Europeans that it somehow seems appropriate and necessary to snipe at and attack and degrade the heritage. And yet it is precisely that heritage that has made us what we are as a nation.

Shouldn’t we at least ponder the implications of ripping Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill because he was a slave owner and pushed Indian removal policies? He also was a giant of our heritage who developed one of the most persistent strains of American political thinking that still enlivens our politics today — that of small-government populism. Do any of these strutting campus nihilists even know about this?

Perhaps we can take solace in Yale’s decision to keep John C. Calhoun’s name on a residence college even after campus protesters demanded its removal. True, Calhoun was a defender of slavery, states’ rights and “nullification” of federal laws by state governments. (Nullification, by the way, was utterly crushed by Jackson.) Calhoun harbored wrong ideas that were considered mainstream in his time. But he served his country as congressman, senator, vice president under two presidents, secretary of war and secretary of state. Do we want to know what he did with that power and leverage? How he may have contributed to the American story over that long period of time? Is it not worth noting that, in response to James Polk’s efforts to maneuver the country into war with Mexico, he unfurled one of the most eloquent and passionate antiwar speeches in the history of the U.S. Senate?

What kind of nation seeks to devour its own heritage? And what kind of future can such a nation have?

It’s worth remembering Santayana’s admonition that those who can’t remember the past will be condemned to repeat it. So, yes, let’s take note of the warts upon the history of America. But let’s put them in perspective. The late Samuel Huntington of Harvard noted in his last book that America once was united by four adhesive forces — our racial identity, our ethnic identity, our cultural identity, and what he called “the American creed,” meaning our system of governing ourselves and the civic philosophy and principles behind it.

In the course of our history, we dropped the racial identity, then the ethnic identity. The cultural identity is under severe strain. That leaves the American creed, defined through our history. When that’s gone, what will be left of America?

• Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author of books on American history and foreign policy.

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