The horrific, racially motivated murder spree by Dylann Roof also served as a call to action for those who see the awful events of Wednesday night as corroboration of their core beliefs about the poisonous nature of American culture.
Briefly, two key tenets of modern progressivism are that, one, racism is virtually ubiquitous. Even when it isn’t apparent, it is so ingrained by the evils of our past as to be systemic. Although blatant racists only occasionally lash out openly, there are quiet racists everywhere.
Two, the United States is a wildly violent, gun-crazy culture that must be reigned in with tougher firearms laws. These laws will—naturally—be entirely effective.
Dozens of commentaries began to pop up within 24 hours of the shootings underscoring both points, as well as being solemnly fawned over by many of my left-leaning Facebook friends. The overall tenor of most of the articles was “of course this happened, because our society is racist and gun-crazy.”
One oft-repeated element was the idea that our history is rife with evil, we can never escape it, and that there’s a self-evident straight line from the sins of the past to the violence of today. The reader gets a taste of that in pieces like this one from Esquire‘s Charles Pierce, who wrote on Thursday:
We should speak of it as an assault on the idea of a political commonwealth, which is what it was. And we should speak of it as one more example of all of these, another link in a bloody chain of events that reaches all the way back to African wharves and Southern docks. It is not an isolated incident, not if you consider history as something alive that can live and breathe and bleed.
There is a ferocious underground fire running through American history. It rages unseen until it flares again from the warm earth. It has raged from the death of Denmark Vesey in 1822 to the death of the Reverend and state senator Clementa Pinckney on Wednesday night.
The Los Angeles Times’ Scott Martelle, not quite as skilled a writer as Pierce, offered a less-subtle summation. After also referencing the country’s past, and making a more direct pitch for gun control, he concluded:
Our national self-image is America, the land of the free and the brave. But a clear-eyed look at the mirror shows something else. At times of these tragedies — and there are way too many of them — people lament that we are better than this. But we are not. We are this.
Re-read that passage.
Especially the last sentence.
Unpacking it, what Martelle is saying is that Roof, who has been unequivocally condemned by people occupying every position on the political spectrum and in every corner of our society, does not represent an aberration.
Pierce likewise said that “this is not an isolated incident,” but Martelle is going even a half-step further by flatly saying that “We are this.”
We are racist mass-murder. We are not better than racist mass-murder. And, Martelle says, we certainly aren’t “the land of the free” or “the home of the brave.”
Just a few hours ago, Jon Stewart touched on similar themes, noting that Americans are willing to spend trillions to stop foreign threats, but seemingly won’t lift a finger to try to stop threats at home. We simply ignore them or make excuses for them.
To varying degrees, this despicable crime meshes with their ideas about what America represents.
Racist. Violent. Primitive.
I am absolutely not in any way suggesting that these commentators take even a modicum of pleasure in these events. Of course they don’t. Like all of us, they’re sickened. Like all of us, they want to see Roof receive swift justice. Like all of us, their hearts break for the victims, their families, and the community.
I do believe, though, that they see this disgusting incident as sad confirmation of their worldview.
The same people who strain to downplay the “Islamist” part of “Islamist terror,” or who take great pains to insist that pit bulls just get a bad rap, are now telling us “this is who we are” when a lone gunman commits a crime—because it fits their narrative.
To them, “who we are” is a nation whose greatness is simply a lie—a lie endorsed only by the stupid and the naive, or those who wish to take advantage of the stupid and the naive. That is their “truth.”
I reject this “truth” with every fiber of my being.
If someone thinks that we are a fundamentally (pick your adjective – damaged, troubled, evil, disgusting, etc) society, I pity them. If someone thinks that this racist criminal’s actions are not an aberration, but, rather, a demonstration of our essential character, then that says more about them that it does the country.
Recognizing evil is important. This act was evil. And, yes, it was terrorism.
But a recognition that pockets of evil exist in a society of well over 300 million people does not lead one to a conclusion that the society writ large is evil.
Unless, of course, one believed that at the outset.
Increasingly, ideas that would have been considered innocuous or even desirable just a couple of decades ago have now become anathema to those who want to conceptualize American history as simply a collection of group-based power struggles, grievances, and examples of oppression.
A few days ago, the Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy blog reported that the UC system in California had informed faculty that certain phrases should be avoided, as they could be classified as “microaggressions.”
Some of the offending notions included referring to the United States as a “melting pot,” saying that “America is the land of opportunity,” criticizing race-based affirmative action, characterizing the United States as a meritocracy, or connecting success to hard work.
This is the logical conclusion of the worldview I referenced above: To erode old concepts related to American exceptionalism in favor of perpetual guilt and grievance disguised as “introspection.” Sweeping away the old, flawed ways and replacing them with more progressive ideas and rules is seen as a necessary, noble pursuit.
We talk about political opportunism at times like these in terms of, say, someone making the case for tougher gun laws. The real opportunism might be the recasting of a heinous criminal as an exemplar of our society, rather than as an outlier.
For people who see the history of our nation as wrought with shame, and an unbreakable connection from that history into the present, Dylann Roof represents more than a vile criminal.
Rather, to them, his existence and actions are dispositive proof that only a fundamental shift in our identity as a nation—necessarily including a repudiation of our past and the old, flawed values that went with it—can extricate us from our hopelessly sinful character.
For my part, I’ll continue to condemn evil when I see it. And I surely saw it this week.
But America is not a mass murderer. America is the place where, a day after a race-based slaughter in a church, people of all ethnicities and faiths gathered in a show of support. America is the place where the much-maligned Confederate flag flies at the state capitol of a state that has, in recent years, elected a female governor of Indian descent and a black U. S. Senator. America is an exceptional country populated by people—free and brave people—who are mostly decent and kind to one-another.
America is a complex, beautiful, sometimes contradictory, amazing, unprecedented place.
I will be unapologetic and steadfast in these beliefs, even as I am vigilant in playing my very small role in trying to make my wonderful, imperfect country even better.