Each time a fresh wave of racism or hate speech of one type or another courses its way around the social media world, in response to some awful event (usually of a terroristic nature), some needy celebrity or self-serving politician will tweet or post an update with a quote from some nationally important document or monument reminding us of the better angels of our nature. On the surface, and so long as we don’t become too critical, these platitudes are quite wonderful, and it’s not the intention of this reflection to completely dismiss them – they do serve a function.
Having said this, they invariably imply that people and things were somehow better, more accepting and fair, in the past. Take for example the second paragraph of the United States’ 1776 Constitution: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” or the words on the foot of Lady Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” It’s clear for all to see how these resplendent utterances so easily lend themselves to the rhetoric of people and movements fighting against the tide of rising intolerance and bigotry. They scream of how it was known that, even in the mythical past of our collective memories, all people everywhere own – by virtue of their humanity alone – an inalienable right to dignity and respect.
This is the power of fiction; the drama, the enthusiasm, and the fraud. At no point in its production did the original drafters of the Constitution intend these fine words to include their slaves or the native peoples. When it was first conceived it was intended only for men; white men, Protestant men, wealthy men. A year shy of a century later when construction began on the Statue of Liberty the United States was knee deep in a genocidal campaign against the Sioux and the Cheyenne, and the 1875 Page Act was already limiting immigration. “All men…” “Your huddled masses…” Really?!
As noble as these verbal relics are the truth is that they were lies when they were first written and engraved. History is like that – it plays tricks on us. Read through the critical eyes of the here and now these words and monuments were and are as racist and intolerant as the hateful cyber responses to events today. Yet this doesn’t mean they must be completely poo-pooed; as we have said, they have their purposes. They are not evidence of a golden age of tree-hugging hippy folk. They are more than that. They are evidence that even back then people knew better; the better angels of their nature’s were speaking out on paper and stone – telling them, and us, that a better, richer humanity is possible.