To Restore America’s Legacy, We Need To Learn More History, Not Less
Wilfred M. McClay
When we celebrate the Fourth, we’re not only observing our nation’s birthday. We’re also celebrating the things that came into the world along with it.
When we obsess over our faults, we lose perspective and forget that aspect of our past. Never before had a country been built upon the idea that it was not the rule of kings but the dignity of each person that formed the basis of political and social order. We did that.
Our liberty is founded not upon the gift of a favored few, but on the idea that each of us has certain inherent rights, bestowed by God and woven into the fabric of nature itself. The magnificent fireworks we set off on this day every year symbolize one of the most explosive ideas in all human history.
Yet we take it far too much for granted. We assume that these commitments represent the default position of the human race. We’re surrounded today by evidence that too few of us know our history, and too many have been mis-educated to see only its flaws and appreciate none of its grandeur.
After years of teaching American history, I’ve come to the conclusion that to appreciate America properly, we need to know much more than we do about the rest of the world, and about how the American story compares with its real-world alternatives. That’s why I’ve often wished that every course in American history could begin with a reading of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago,” or Robert Conquest’s “The Great Famine,” or Jung Chang’s “Mao,” books that offer a horrifying glimpse into an alternative reality of tyranny, murder, and degradation that even the worst moments in our history cannot rival.
These are large books, so let me suggest a shortcut for this Fourth of July. Before you go out to take in the fireworks and festivities, set aside a couple of hours to watch the recently released movie “Mr. Jones,” directed by Agnieszka Holland, an eminent Polish screenwriter and director.
It is a dark and brooding account of the experiences of an earnest young Welsh journalist named Gareth Jones, who becomes interested in the apparent success of the Soviet Union’s program in collectivized agriculture, and travels to the Soviet Union in 1932, seeking answers to his questions, and hoping to interview Stalin. When he arrives, he discovers that foreign journalists are confined to Moscow, closely surveilled by the government, and that the most important of them, Walter Duranty of the New York Times, is corrupt and committed to echoing Soviet propaganda.
When Jones sneaks out of Moscow and travels to Ukraine, he discovers what Duranty was helping to conceal from the world: scenes of vast and horrifying misery, a frozen, corpse-strewn countryside rendered lifeless by government-directed atrocity, a deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians.
Wandering into a town where men are brawling desperately over bits of bread beneath a mural of Stalin holding up an armful of golden grain, Jones comes upon a haggard woman, and asks her, with astonishment in his voice, “What happened here?” She tells him, “They are killing us, millions gone.” “Why?” Jones asks. And then she utters these words, which are the very core of the movie’s message: “Men came and thought they could replace the natural laws.”
That is how it always is with comprehensive schemes to remake the human condition. They set out to replace God and nature, and erase the old ways. They end in human catastrophe. The Soviet collectivization of agriculture was part of a massive effort to replace the natural laws, and subject economic life to a cruel and corrupting standard of dehumanizing rationality, whose success was vouched for by relentless lying.
We should not imagine that we Americans are ever safe from the temptation to do similar things. But we should rejoice that we have, at our very foundations, something that can stand against it: the concept of unalienable rights, grounded in the natural laws, rights that cannot be given and cannot be taken away.
That is the heart of what we celebrate on the Fourth. May we always do so.
Wilfred M. McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, and author of “Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.”