Grow Up

“It’s alright, you want to fight, you’ve got a hunger.  I was just like you when I was younger.  Head full of fantasies of dying like a martyr?  Dying is easy, young man.  Living is harder.”

So says George Washington to a feisty Alexander Hamilton early into Hamilton.  Oddly enough, after a week of figuring out what to make of the “Bernie or Bust” crowd hanging around the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, I think I’m gonna go with that.

To explain:  The “Bernie or Bust” contingent is a group of left-wing voters who supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries with such fervor—and opposed Hillary Clinton with such white-hot disdain—that they refuse to vote for Clinton in the November election against Donald Trump, either by voting for a third party candidate like Jill Stein or Gary Johnson, or simply by not voting at all.

While it’s futile to make sweeping characterizations about this or any gaggle of unhappy Americans, the Bernie Bros do have one big thing in common:  They’re all acting like children.

Now, I don’t mean that in an entirely negative way.  After all, when children aren’t throwing tantrums, hurling food across the kitchen and generally making a mess of everything, they can be quite charming.

Indeed, the most singular and endearing component of childhood is innocence.  To be a kid in America is to bask in that one, glorious moment of bliss before reality sets in—before all the disappointments and compromises of daily life materialize for the first time, slowly but steadily crushing your spirit and forcing you to confront the fact that nothing is ever quite as wonderful as you imagine it to be.

The complexities of life will always induce grownups to secretly crave the simplicity of childhood.  It’s just that some people take that temptation a little too literally and never quite grow up at all.

Enter Bernie Sanders and his “political revolution,” which promised to temper America’s class divisions and force the crooks on Wall Street to play by the same rules as everyone else.

Morally, it was a presidential platform that was darn near impossible to resist—not least among liberals, who tend to value social justice and economic equality above all other considerations.

I certainly fell for it, and I’m glad I did.  In Sanders, I found a man whose vision for a more perfect America aligned almost perfectly with my own and whose character and integrity ranked him just a shade below Atticus Finch.

So I voted for him in the Massachusetts primary on March 1 and hoped that his trajectory as a candidate would mirror that of Barack Obama in 2008.

But then something funny happened:  It didn’t.  From one end of the primary calendar to the other, Sanders accumulated an impressive number of delegates, but Clinton accumulated even more.  In the end, Clinton’s lead proved commanding and ultimately insurmountable, leading reasonable people like me to accept the verdict of the electorate and move on with our lives.

However, this feeling was not mutual among all Sanders enthusiasts, as a small—but extremely loud—faction announced that their support for the Vermont senator was non-transferable in the fall campaign.

Their argument, in short, is that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are equally repulsive candidates—or nearly so—and that a vote for either would be a betrayal of everything that Sanders represents.  Specifically, they claim that Clinton is a corrupt establishment stooge who stole the nomination through an inherently unfair Democratic Party system, thereby removing any legitimacy to her claim as the Democratic nominee for president.

As anyone with two eyes and a brain can see, this interpretation of the Democratic primary process is not entirely without merit.  As the recently-leaked e-mails from the Democratic National Committee demonstrate, the party establishment really, really didn’t want Sanders to prevail and did everything it could to ensure that he didn’t.  Anyone who thinks Clinton and Sanders were competing on a level playing field is living in a fantasy world.

However, all fantasy worlds are not created equal, and Bernie loyalists—caught up in their furious indignation toward the DNC—are now living in one of their own:  A world of nihilism, wish-thinking, self-righteousness and pointless wrath.  Not content with the reality in which they actually live, they have opted to invent a new reality out of whole cloth.

In this alternate universe, there is no such thing as defeat.  If your candidate doesn’t lose fair and square, then the results are null and void and all subsequent events have no true significance.  Rather than acknowledging that one battle has ended and another, quite different battle has begun, you—like certain Japanese soldiers in 1945—continue to fight the first battle long after the enemy—and, indeed, your own goddamned candidate—has packed up and gone home.  Most crucially:  Because you didn’t get what you wanted in the end, you make it your mission to ensure that no one else gets what they want, either.  You’d rather the whole world burn than admit that life isn’t always fair.

It’s an attitude that is positively Trumpian in its disregard for nuance, its contempt for established rules and procedures, its abdication of all personal responsibility and—again—its utter childishness in the face of unattractive choices.

The essence of “Bernie or Bust” is that if America cannot have a saint like Bernie, it might as well have a lunatic like Trump.  Those who genuinely believe such a thing reveal themselves to know absolutely nothing about either candidate—and even less about Hillary Clinton—while those who don’t believe it—i.e. people who want Trump to win just so they can say “I told you so”—possess a level of narcissism and selfishness that would be embarrassing to anyone with even a modicum of self-awareness.

And yet, I cannot completely disown this unruly rabble of Sanders holdouts, since—like Washington in his first encounter with Hamilton—I know exactly how they feel and have felt that way myself in the past.

Following the kerfuffle in Florida in 2000, for instance, I basically shared the view of half of America that George W. Bush did not win that election fair and square and that the system was rigged against Al Gore.  In 2008, when Hillary Clinton claimed delegates from Florida and Michigan even after the results of those primaries had been invalidated, I similarly felt that an electoral injustice had occurred—one that, under slightly different circumstances, could easily have tipped the entire nomination in her favor.

And by the way, I can’t say I was wrong in thinking those things at the time, since the preponderance of the evidence suggested they were—and still are—objectively true.

However, amidst all my griping about how the system is corrupt, broken, sinister and frustrating, I eventually—and reluctantly—learned a critical lesson:  There is more to life than just being right.

Returning again to the Hamilton quote:  At this moment, you Bernie Bros could choose to martyr yourselves at the altar of democratic socialism, refusing to compromise a centimeter of its (and Sanders’s) ideals, dismissing anyone who falls short of those ideals as a sellout or a crook, and patting yourselves on the back for your moral superiority and ideological purity.

Or, conversely, you could recognize—as socialists generally do—that we live in a society in which all members must make a good faith effort to participate and contribute, lest we cede the entire enterprise to the worst elements of our culture.  We are all familiar with the axiom about what happens when good men do nothing (look it up, if you must); it’s as true now as it was then.

Here’s the deal:  Barring that much-longed-for meteor strike, either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is going to be president on January 20.  This is true whether we want it to be true or not.  Accordingly, each of us has exactly two choices:  Either we can acknowledge the twin realities that are staring us directly in the face and pick the least-imperfect option—as responsible American citizens have done every four years since 1789—or we can retreat into our magical fantasy world where difficult choices aren’t necessary because we’ve already figured everything out and nobody disagrees with any of it.

Look, I’m sorry if this is the first time that America has broken your heart, but you’d better prepare yourself, because it just might happen again.

Dreaming is easy, young man.  Waking up is harder.


Donald Trump has a Klan problem, and its name is David Duke.

Within hours of Trump’s shrieking, hysterical acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last Thursday, Duke—America’s leading white supremacist—tweeted his unconditional approval for the GOP nominee while announcing his own candidacy for the U.S. Senate from his home state of Louisiana.

Duke’s tweet read, “Great Trump Speech, America First! Stop Wars! Defeat the Corrupt elites! Protect our Borders!, Fair Trade! Couldn’t have said it better!”

In a separate statement about his Senate bid, Duke added, “Thousands of special-interest groups stand up for African Americans, Mexican Americans, Jewish Americans, et cetera, et cetera.  The fact is that European Americans need at least one man in the United States Senate—one man in the Congress—who will defend their rights and heritage.”

Duke—for those with short memories—is a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who served three years in the Louisiana House of Representatives and 15 months in prison for tax fraud.  In the meantime, he has run unsuccessfully for just about every public office you could imagine, including two previous bids for the Senate.  In the popular imagination, he is a perennial candidate for America’s racist-in-chief.

Here in 2016, Duke is such a flamboyantly toxic and antiquated character that he would hardly be worth our time, except that—for those with even shorter memories—he has demonstrated a real knack for tethering himself to Donald Trump in a way that Trump cannot quite shake.

Back in February on a radio program, Duke implored white listeners that “voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage”—suggesting, in effect, that Trump is the candidate of and for white supremacists in America.

To the surprise of possibly no one, Trump’s response to this problematic endorsement was pointedly—and tellingly—incoherent.

Initially, Trump appeared to be caught off-guard by Duke’s unsolicited support, reflexively telling a roomful of reporters, “I disavow, OK?”  However, two days later in a satellite interview with Jake Tapper, Trump performed a 180 by claiming not to know anything about Duke and his background and taking umbrage at being put on the spot “to condemn a group that I know nothing about.”  (That group was the KKK.)

Finally, the next morning on The Today Show, Trump asserted—incredibly—that his earpiece hadn’t worked properly and he couldn’t really understand what Tapper was asking him.  From there, he reverted to his original disavowal of Duke’s support, insisting his view on the matter had never wavered—a claim proved demonstrably false by a cursory review of Trump’s own words.

All of which is to say that it took Donald Trump the better part of a week and a series of elaborate linguistic back flips to distance himself from a man who used to burn crosses for a living—a feat that any normal candidate could’ve performed in a matter of seconds.  Then and now, the whole episode begs the question:  What in holy heck in this cretin up to?

In previous iterations of this Trumpian game of rhetorical rope-a-dope on explosive social topics, we have been compelled to wonder whether the Donald is a supreme cynic or a supreme dolt.  Whether a) he is attempting to dupe the American public about the inner workings of his mind, or b) he is a dead ringer for the old Groucho line, “He may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you.  He really is an idiot.”

At this point, let’s say it doesn’t matter.  Let’s assume—as John Oliver has posited—that there is no functional difference between feigned bigotry and actual bigotry, and thereby conclude that, for all intents and purposes, Donald Trump means what he says.

Which would mean, in short, that he is a bigot.  That by wanting to prohibit all Muslims from entering the United States, he believes Christian lives matter more than Muslim lives.  That by denouncing brutality against police without even mentioning brutality by police, he believes white lives matter more than black lives.  And that by attempting to deport all illegal Mexican immigrants and building a big, stupid wall between our country and theirs, he believes…well, that most Mexicans are murderers and rapists, apparently.

The extraordinary ugliness of these positions seems entirely self-evident to most sentient beings—including most Republicans—but the Republican National Committee cannot abide the full implications of Trump’s consistently outrageous remarks about every religious and ethnic minority under the sun.

Why not?  Because if they did, it would mean that David Duke is right, and that Trump has adopted white supremacy as his party’s central cultural identity.

Shortly after Duke announced his Senate run, RNC chair Reince Priebus tweeted, “David Duke & his hateful bigotry have no place in the Republican Party & the RNC will never support his candidacy under any circumstance.”

Wise and noble words, but how exactly does Priebus account for them?  What standard of decency has Duke violated that the party’s presidential nominee has upheld?  What racist, prejudicial statement has Duke made lately that Donald Trump, in his own way, has not?  If Duke’s hateful bigotry is anathema to Republican Party values, why did that party’s voters anoint a candidate for commander-in-chief whose entire appeal is rooted in hateful bigotry?

By supporting Trump’s candidacy while simultaneously denouncing Duke’s, Priebus and the RNC are practically begging us to call BS, and we are duty-bound to oblige them.  They might (and do) argue that Trump doesn’t really represent Republican values and that their formal support for him is purely in deference to the will of Republican primary voters, but then again, what else could define the true values of a party than the values of its electorate?

Nope.  So long as Trump continues to exist in his present form—so long as he doubles and triples down on a platform of purging America of every type of human species that white men like him don’t approve of—he and David Duke will be a two-for-one deal in American politics, and the GOP itself will grow more fanatically prejudiced by the day.

We should note that yesterday—48 hours after the fact—Trump himself told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that he disavows Duke’s support “as quick as you can say it.”  In case that makes you feel any better, realize that Trump didn’t trouble himself explaining just what it is about Duke that he finds so objectionable—possibly because if he did, he would be making a rod for his own back.

When the System Fails

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite pastimes in his movies was to get his protagonist into as much trouble as possible, then watch with sadistic glee as he tries to explain himself to the authorities.

In Strangers on a Train, for instance, you had Farley Granger becoming complicit in the killing of his wife, thanks to a murder-swapping plot that he never quite agreed to in the first place.

In I Confess, Montgomery Clift played a priest who comes upon evidence of extreme wrongdoing but can’t cooperate with police because he obtained his information in the sanctity of the confessional.

Most spectacularly, of course, was North by Northwest, with Cary Grant as an ad executive who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and is compelled to flee 2,000 miles across the United States, proclaiming his innocence for a murder that he appeared to commit in broad daylight, in plain view of dozens of eyewitnesses.

For those who watched North by Northwest and thought, “This is great, but I wish there were even more obstacles preventing Cary Grant from clearing his name,” boy do I have a TV show for you.

It’s a limited-run miniseries called The Night Of, airing Sundays at 9pm on HBO.  Critics who have seen the whole thing have characterized it as a minutely detailed, David Simon-esque examination of America’s criminal justice system, with all its flaws and prejudices on full display.

As a mere mortal with access only to last Sunday’s series premiere, I would characterize The Night Of as the sort of project Alfred Hitchcock might’ve burst out of his grave to direct—a suspense thriller that, in certain ways, manages to out-Hitchcock Hitchcock.  While Hitch never involved himself in anything quite this weighty or ambitious while he was alive—he considered himself an entertainer more than a social commentator—the sly, brooding style of this new series would make The Master very envious, indeed.

(Warning:  Massive spoilers ahead.)

To describe the plot of the first episode of The Night Of is to observe how deliciously the show’s creators have stacked the deck against their hero.  When we first meet Naz (Riz Ahmed)—a mild-mannered Pakistani-American college student from Queens—he is “borrowing” his Dad’s taxi to a party across the river that he never quite crashes.  Instead, he picks up a female passenger, Andrea, who is at once impossibly alluring and dangerously unhinged.  They go uptown to her place, indulge in every Schedule 1 narcotic at their disposal, make torrential love to each other and eventually pass out.

Cut to the next morning, when Naz wakes up mysteriously in the kitchen, ascends the stairs to retrieve his possessions, and finds his mysterious femme fatale lying in a river of her own blood, stab wounds stretching from one end of her body to the other.

And that, as they say, is where things start to get out of control.

Strictly speaking, we don’t yet know what the hell happened that night and the degree to which Naz is complicit in Andrea’s death.  However, we, the audience, are clearly meant to view Naz with sympathy—as a good-natured kid whose curiosity allowed him to unwittingly blunder his way into a cataclysm—and, indeed, the tenderness of Riz Ahmed’s performance makes it almost impossible not to take him at face value.

As such, we are presented with the quintessentially Hitchcockian motif of an innocent man falsely accused of a capital crime—a dynamic made even more unbearable by the guilt this man feels for having committed other, lesser offenses—leading to an inevitable clash with a legal system that might not be able to differentiate one transgression from another and will have no compunction about locking him up and throwing away the key.

Herein lies the series’ central tragedy:  That a mountain of circumstantial evidence—damning in every respect—could lead an utterly reasonable jury to find an innocent man guilty of murder.

The genius of The Night Of in these early sequences is to show—purely through action—the ways in which Naz is neither fully innocent nor fully guilty.  By following his every step, we are able to intuit—even empathize with—exactly what he’s thinking at all times, while also realizing—nay, dreading—how damaging each new decision will look in the impartial universe of a courtroom.

For a solid hour or two after discovering Andrea’s body, Naz manages to do absolutely everything wrong—making a run for it, not calling the cops, lying to them when they finally show up—and although behaving suspiciously is not proof of one’s guilt, behaving suspiciously with your DNA all over a dead girl and the murder weapon sitting in your pocket—well, that’s pretty darned close to a confession.

With seven episodes still to come, no doubt the deeper implications of Naz’s incriminating conduct will reveal themselves in due course—as will all the institutional biases that have enabled the American ideal of racial and economic justice to remain elusive for those who are not rich and/or not white.  (Naz is neither.)

However, even setting all of those inequalities aside, The Night Of has already unsettled us with an equally disturbing prospect:  What happens when a miscarriage of justice occurs that can’t simply be blamed on institutional racism?  What happens when the system works exactly as it’s supposed to work and still produces the wrong result?  What happens when a jury infers guilt beyond a reasonable doubt when, in fact, the defendant is not guilty at all?  What happens—as may happen here—when the evidence is more persuasive than the truth?

That’s the essence of great drama:  When nothing can be easily resolved or explained.  When decent people behave rationally but are swept up by forces beyond their control, which then lead them to behave foolishly, ironically, tragically.  When innocence turns into guilt and our heroes find themselves digging graves that were never meant for them in the first place.

Hitchcock understood the tremendous dramatic potential in placing his leading men and ladies into impossible situations—particularly when it involved the cops, of whom Hitchcock nursed a lifelong fear.  In our own time—when trust in our authority figures and the system they work within is at record lows and justice itself is seen as a highly selective phenomenon—The Night Of presents itself as the perfect show at the perfect moment:  Compelling as social commentary, magnificent as drama.


If the continued existence of Donald Trump has produced any redeeming value for the American culture—and “if” is definitely the correct word—it has been the opportunity for us to argue about Donald Trump.  And for all the millions of words that have been expended on who Trump is and what he represents, we have yet to reach any real consensus on either score—a fact so improbable and bizarre that many of us have failed to even notice it.

Obviously, we’re not talking about whether the Republican presidential nominee is an infantile, boorish windbag.  On that we can all agree.

The more interesting argument—interesting because of its apparent insolubility—is the one that invariably takes the form of, “Is Trump really an X, or does he just play one on TV?”  While the identity of X changes from day to day, it has generally been some variation of “racist,” “misogynist,” “fascist,” “anti-Semite,” “Islamophobe” or some similarly charming personal quirk.

If the list of incidents that have inspired this debate is too enormous to tackle all at once, they have all conveniently followed the same basic pattern.  First, Trump will say (or tweet) something objectively repugnant about some racial, ethnic or social group.  Second, the press will roundly call him out for trafficking in racism, sexism, etc.  Third, Trump will express bewilderment that anyone could possibly infer sinister undertones in the offending remark, since everyone knows he is the least racist/sexist/whatever-ist person in the whole wide world.  Fourth, the press will present him with incontrovertible proof that his comment—by, in extension, he—represents the very definition of rank bigotry of the most obvious and odious form.  And fifth (as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi has put it), Trump will retort with some variation of, “I know you are, but what am I?”

Certainly, Trump is neither the first nor last presidential candidate to be caught red-handed saying something appalling.  What sets him apart, however, is his fanatical insistence on doubling down, playing innocent and never giving an inch.  No matter how far beyond the pale he has trotted, never once has he apologized for the substance of anything he has said (or endorsed others for saying), always and forever projecting his prejudices onto those accusing him of the same.

Hence the aforementioned mystery:  Is he for real, or is this all a big elaborate performance?

Back in February, HBO’s John Oliver—addressing Trump directly—probably spoke for most of us in asserting, “You are either racist or you are pretending to be, and at some point there is no difference.”  Fair enough, except that Oliver’s formulation makes an implicit assumption that isn’t necessarily warranted—namely, that Trump consciously knows what he’s doing.  By framing the debate as, “Is he a bona fide bigot or is he merely pandering to bigots?” we are granting him a level of guile that he might not actually possess.

To be on the safe side, then, I would pose the $64,000 question as follows:  Deep down, is Trump as ignorant and prejudiced as he appears, or is he wholly oblivious to the consequences of his ugly behavior—i.e. ignorant of his own ignorance?  In other words, when he says, “I don’t think X is sexist” or “I don’t think Y is anti-immigrant,” could he be telling his own version of the truth?  When—to take the most recent example—he retweets an anti-Semitic graphic culled from an anti-Semitic website, is it possible that he is so thick—so utterly lacking in self-awareness and the cultural history of America—that he authentically, in his heart of hearts, doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about?

Given what we know that we know about this wretched excuse for a human being, I think it’s entirely reasonable to conclude that Trump is simply a dolt whose narcissism and gall preludes him from seeing what’s directly in front of his nose.  That he is such a profound sociopath that the very notion of causing someone offense—and needing to make amends for it—is totally alien to his way of seeing the world.

On the other hand, because we also know of his bald cynicism and general low regard for the American public—paired with his undeniable ability to tap into his supporters’ most violent passions and fears—it would require a massive leap of faith to take Trump at his word that he doesn’t perceive any racial or ethnic dimension to what is driving Republican voters so crazy in the first place.

The conventional wisdom is that Trump is trying to have it both ways:  He panders to the GOP base by speaking their own hateful language, then proceeds to placate everyone else by denying he did any such thing.  That—much like on his reality TV shows—he is playing out his fantasy as a devious puppet master who thinks he’s the cleverest person in the room.

But if that’s really what he’s up to, then why has he done such a lousy job of hiding it?  If the idea is to blow racial “dog whistles” that only his supporters can hear, why is it so easy for the rest of us to hear them as well?  Does he truly think the general public is that naïve?  Who’s fooling who?

In 1996, historian Joseph Ellis wrote a momentous biography of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx, which argued that our country’s most brazenly duplicitous founding father was able to reside comfortably on both sides of innumerable issues thanks to an elaborate, lifelong game of self-deception—as Ellis put it, by “essentially playing hide-and-seek within himself.”  That is, Jefferson could say or write something one day, then totally deny having done so the next day, and deem himself to be telling the truth both times.  That he was, in effect, an early adopter of the George Costanza maxim, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

Having just recently discovered Ellis’s book, I now wonder if Trump’s mind operates in much the same way.  Whether it’s likely that, through his many decades as an amoral businessman, he has trained himself to lie in a manner that manages to deceive even himself.  That when he says “believe me”—as he does every time he says something completely unbelievable—his boundless self-confidence comes not from flagrant dishonesty so much as from having drunk his own Kool-Aid.

Accepting this appraisal of Trump’s character—this odd combination of obliviousness and compartmentalization—it becomes plausible that he would see a Star of David superimposed over a pile of money, not realize its anti-Semitic connotations and, when confronted with them, work backwards from “I’m a wonderful person who would never do anything anti-Semitic” to “Therefore, this graphic can’t be anti-Semitic, either.”  It goes without saying that this approach to reality does not permit the introduction of contradictory evidence, and that is where all conflict begins.

As for the John Oliver question—Does it really matter if Trump’s bigotry is genuine or inadvertent?—I would argue it would certainly make a difference if he became president.  Deliberate, open prejudice—for all the misery it wreaks on society—has the one advantage of being, well, deliberate.  If Trump is fully cognizant of how offensive his antics are, it means he is capable—at least in theory—of reining himself in.

However, if he is so blind to basic social etiquette that he can’t even recognize racism when he sees it, then he couldn’t possibly be expected to become a less awful person, since—in his own mind—he would have no reason to do so.

Based on the events of the last year, I think we may finally have found the secret to what makes Donald Trump tick.

The Price of Independence

Monday is the Fourth of July—that most joyous, triumphant day in which Americans gather ’round the barbecue grill and celebrate the moment 240 years ago when our Founding Fathers—the most brilliant men of their generation—summoned all of their creative energies in the singular cause of perpetuating slavery for 89 more years.

OK, so that wasn’t the only thing the men in the Continental Congress accomplished in the summer of 1776.  In ratifying the Declaration of Independence, the Congress established—against all historical precedent—that nations ought to be governed by laws, not men, and that the men writing and enforcing those laws ought to be representative of—and accountable to—the common, everyday folk.  And, of course, this was all rooted in the radical idea that all men are created equal and are endowed with certain unalienable rights, etc, etc.

So they did that—renouncing the most ancient, repressive form of government on Earth while proposing an alternative that had scarcely ever been tried before, thereby laying the foundation for what would eventually become the most prosperous republic that has ever existed.  In effect, this group of extraordinary men seized an extraordinary opportunity, realizing that, in the words of Thomas Paine, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

Which begs the question:  Why did this new world include chattel slavery?

It’s a contradiction that has grown more inexplicable with each passing July 4—namely, that these rabble-rousers could ground their entire revolutionary argument on the principle of universal equality while simultaneously preserving an institution that was a negation of that principle in every possible respect.

Many Americans today seem to think the founders were simply oblivious to it all—that they didn’t realize that owning human beings was a direct violation of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that this magic document promised to establish and uphold.

While there is a certain perverse appeal in assuming the men who created America were a bunch of idiots who couldn’t see what was staring them directly in the face, the truth is at once more nuanced, more tragic and more shameful.

In point of fact, the signers of the Declaration were entirely cognizant of the moral pretzel they were contorting themselves into, and the proof is the following paragraph from Thomas Jefferson’s original—and, he believed, superior—draft:

“[The king] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.”

As far as the morality of slavery is concerned, it doesn’t get any clearer than that.  Here, as in so many other places, we find that Jefferson in 1776 understood instinctively that slavery was an evil economic engine that, in making people into property, robbed them of their dignity and betrayed their most basic rights as human beings.  As a Virginia planter who eventually owned upwards of 200 slaves himself—four of whom were his biological children—Jefferson knew these self-evident truths more deeply than most, although he was hardly the only one.

That’s the nuance.  The tragedy and the shame is that Jefferson’s full-throated condemnation of the slave trade never made it into the final draft of the Declaration, thereby taking emancipation off the table as a subject for debate anytime in the near-future.

And why was that, ladies and gentlemen?  Why did the Continental Congress neglect to confront a massive, obvious problem at the very moment when it might have done everyone the most good?

In short:  Because they could only solve one massive, obvious problem at a time.

The choice was mutually exclusive:  Either they could declare independence or they could try to get rid of slavery.  Given the intractable realities of the day, there was no plausible way to free their slaves under any circumstances; meanwhile, the challenge of separating from Great Britain—an objective that several colonies resisted until the very last moment—would only come about on the condition that slavery be totally ignored until some unspecified future date.

As any viewer of 1776 will know, the Declaration of Independence needed to be ratified without a single dissenting vote, and it was as clear as the bright, blue sky that the delegates from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia would’ve never, ever voted “yes” if it meant giving up an institution that constituted their entire way of life.  In 1776—as in 1861 and all the years in between—the continuance of slavery was, for the American South, utterly non-negotiable.

(We should also note—before we give him too much credit—that Jefferson went to his grave believing blacks were biologically inferior to whites, that a biracial society was impossible and that the only way to free the slaves was to ship them overseas and never deal with them again.)

And so—considering the world as it actually was, rather than as we wish it had been—we are left to ask:  Did the Founding Fathers do the right thing in July of 1776?

While counterfactuals are inherently unknowable and somewhat useless, it’s worth noting that Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833—a full 32 years before we did.  Is it possible that, by simply staying in the empire, the United States would have been cleansed of its original stain at least one generation ahead of schedule?  Are we entirely sure that life for the average American—let alone the average black American—was improved by breaking off from the empire when (and as) we did?  In retrospect, could the entire American Revolution have been one big terrible mistake?

In the end, we’re stuck with the history that actually happened and must deal with the facts that were known at the time.  In that context, the best we can do is to reclaim the truth of America’s founding by observing how morally ambiguous it truly was.  We cannot proclaim July 4 as a wholly virtuous moment without making racist spectacles of ourselves, but nor can we dismiss the whole episode as the source of all white supremacy in America, since the very words of Jefferson’s declaration would, in time, come to embody the strongest argument for the racial equality that we have been stumbling our way towards for the past century and a half.

That Jefferson’s generation couldn’t live up to its own standard is a singular tragedy; their calculated inaction on slavery is directly responsible for many millions of deaths and more misery than any of us could ever fully appreciate.  That these same men can simultaneously be held up as national heroes and beacons of liberty is the sort of grand irony that perhaps only a place like the United States is at once sturdy and deluded enough to withstand.

As ever, America is a land of contradiction and hypocrisy, and if we don’t spent a good deal of July 4 reflecting on this, then we are not treating our country with the integrity it deserves.

Further, by acknowledging the impossibly compromised choice with which our founders were confronted, we are reminded that there is no such thing as an easy solution to a seismic problem.  Every major political decision involves a trade-off of one sort or another, and if you enter a negotiation expecting to get everything you want, you just may wind up with nothing at all.

The Founding Fathers sought independence, and the price turned out to be the life of every black person born between 1700 and 1865.  In that moment—not knowing how bad things would get—they believed it was worth it.  Today—with all the benefit of hindsight—are we yet prepared to say they were right?