I am presently reading a 1993 piece by Rogers M. Smith titled Beyond Tocqueville, Myrdal, and Hartz: The Multiple Traditions in America. The standard narrative of American society, says Smith, is that it was founded on democratic liberalism; and even when America fails to live up to its principles, as during the slavery years for example, the principles themselves continue to guide national behavior and gradually eradicate all of the illiberal hypocrisies of society.
Smith argues that Tocqueville and his adherents failed to account for the various illiberal elements such as racism or sexism, that actually coexisted and competed with liberalism within the American psyche. Therefore, the standard narrative of American society is flawed and does not capture the truth of the matter, and should be expunged from the hallowed halls of learning (more or less).
This seems to be a trend in academia, where some scholar will examine an ideal, enumerate all the ways in which the ideal was not lived up to, sweepingly declare the ideal to be hypocritical, and smugly demolish yet another pillar of the national consciousness. As much as this sort of work contributes to a deeper understanding of the past, in some fashion, at the same time it is undermining society's best mechanisms for producing a better future.
Jefferson owned slaves. Should we then declare the Declaration of Independence to be a work of hypocrisy and banish it from the schools? What sacrilege! Jefferson's words would live on to inspire generations of noble men and women to fight for justice and freedom, not least among them Dr. Martin Luther King and his comrades. The same is true of all the other liberal ideas that such reckless academics as Smith would so casually condemn. What these people don't seem to understand is that the purpose of an ideal is to guide future behavior, so that it conforms more and more closely to that ideal.
What would have the more beneficial outcome for America? That we believe our nation to be founded on undying principles of liberty and justice? Or that we believe our nation to be constructed based on the narrow racial or sexist concerns of a few men? One belief would present all Americans with the torch of justice, passed down from our Founding Fathers with the sacred duty that we continue to guard its flame and have it burn ever higher. The other belief would provoke disgust and scorn for America as being the warped child of bitter seed.
And through this shadowy valley tromp the postmodernists, neo-feminists, neo-Marxists, race-relations specialists, and all of their ilk, blissfully unconcerned with the damage that they do to America and the entire world. And I find it particularly abhorrent that they should do so now, when most of the injustices that they rail against have already been rectified. Never forget that scientific theories of race and gender were continually promoted in the universities, at the same time as the struggle for equality under the law was being waged in society. Now that the fighting has died down, the lizards creep out from under their rocks waving deconstructionist histories of America, as if to say, "Sorry we missed the show, lads, but take comfort in the fact that everyone is really just as immoral as we are."
As for me, I shall continue to look up to an ideal of American virtue, even if I should fall short of it at one time or another. For I cannot hope to hit a target unless I aim for it; and it is the function of American idealism to provide a target at which all peoples can aim. Nobody should dare to deny us that chance; nobody should dare to wantonly destroy the inspiration for our goodness.