How much shame are we obliged to feel about our nation's racist past? And how much pride do we have a right to enjoy about how we became a nation?
These two questions are actually positive and negative expressions of the same question, and they both have the same answer, which we'll consider in due course.
In the meantime, both questions were evoked by President Donald Trump's speech at the National Archives last Thursday, Constitution Day. The occasion was, as Trump put it, the "very first White House Conference on American history ... so important."
Mostly Trump addressed the second question, asserting that our pride in our country is insufficient.
Our nation's founding led to the creation of "the most exceptional nation in the history of the world," "the most fair, equal and prosperous in human history." Unfortunately, the political left is attempting "to demolish this treasured and precious inheritance. We can't let that happen."
Trump continued: "The left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools." His solution: "We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classroom."
He announced the creation of the 1776 Commission, which will "promote patriotic education" and support a "pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation's great history."
That's the carrot. If it doesn't work, the stick follows: "If you demolish a statue without permission you immediately get 10 years in prison." (Presumably after due process and a trial; Trump didn't say what he means by the ominous term "immediately.")
Certainly there's nothing wrong with being more or less proud of the land into which we were accidentally born. But Trump's overwrought rhetoric should make us wary, lest we replace left-wing indoctrination with right-wing indoctrination, which, if we're not careful, is separated only by degrees from the coercive super-nationalism of totalitarian states.
The question of shame vs. pride is both communal and personal. All of us have our own history with race. Here's my example: Some of my ancestors were white supremacists and slaveholders. In fact, on March 6, 1860, my great-great uncle attended a "Negro sale," reporting that "Negroes did not sell so high as they did the first of January."
He bragged to his brother: "I bought one little boy about 10 years old for $1151.00, about as good a bargain as was sold on that day."
Am I personally embarrassed by this shameful episode? Not in the least. It embodies a 19th century America that, North and South, largely accepted the lie of Black inferiority and depended on it for part of our national prosperity. White Americans shouldn't be unduly obliged to feel shame for a shameful history. But they should also be cautious about taking an indiscriminate and uncritical pride in it.
All Americans would be better served by a more informed and realistic understanding of our history, at its worst and at its best. Trump's 1776 Commission begins with an agenda that has nothing to do with understanding history: "Our youth will be taught to love America, with all of their heart and all of their soul."
The danger lies in producing a cohort of students who can recite the Gettysburg Address but have no idea what the Civil War was about.
I'd rather understand America in its full spectrum, from my slaveholding ancestor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. As Trump likes to say, "It is what it is."
But I agree with Trump about one thing: We are an exceptional nation. I'm not sure that we're "the most exceptional nation in the history of the world," but our American experiment in democracy is indeed remarkable.
But exceptionality means more if other nations see us as exceptional rather than if we constantly assert it ourselves. The more we brag about it, the less exceptional we are. And we'd be a better nation if we had the strength and courage to accept our own history, without undue shame or pride.