The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

Sam Pollak

August 7, 2010

American history shows we are far from infallible

As is so woefully frequent in columns that incorporate any number of quotations, one is reminded of what has been (probably erroneously) attributed to the oft-quoted Dr. Samuel Johnson.

"Your manuscript," the renowned 18th century author, editor and critic is said to have opined to a writer, "is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good."

So shall it almost certainly be the case in the bilge you are reading now.

Undaunted, we start with the wisdom of a gentleman named Stevie Wonder:

"When you believe in things that you don't understand," asserted Mr. Wonder in the song, "Superstition," "then you suffer."

Several recent communications to this newspaper and other media outlets describe an infallible America (at least until the current administration) created by ardent Christians who by mere oversight neglected to mention a deity in the Constitution.

Clearly, by Stevie Wonder's definition, there is great suffering abounding in the land.

While the "love it or leave it" crowd likes to claim sole ownership of patriotism, I prefer to feel about America the way Winston Churchill felt about democracy.

"Indeed," he said, "it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

To truly love America, you have to do it while being mindful of its flaws, like being married to a wonderful spouse who snores every once in a while.

Take, for instance, the case of one of the early European explorers to the Americas. While searching for gold in Hispaniola _ now the Dominican Republic and Haiti _ this guy would punish native workers who failed to meet their quotas by cutting off their hands or having them crucified in rows of 13 _ one for Jesus and the rest for the 12 Apostles.

How do we regard this explorer today?

We throw him a parade every October and call it Columbus Day.

For all their admirable qualities and their vital contributions to this country _ and there are so many _ George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, among other Founding Fathers, owned slaves and kept them until they died.

By any fair definition, what was done to the native population of this continent amounts to genocide and ethnic cleansing. In our headlong desire to fulfill our "manifest destiny," we fought a war with Mexico to unapologetically steal its land.

A young lieutenant named Ulysses S. Grant who fought for the United States in that conflict later called it "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation."

The United States Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision in 1857 established slaves not as people but as property, like a mule or a horse.

Blacks, wrote Chief Justice Roger Taney, "are so inferior that they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect."

And what would we think of someone who said something like this:

"I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; ... there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

What do we think of this obvious racist? Well, we built him a huge memorial in Washington, D.C., carved his image on Mount Rushmore and put his face on pennies and the $5 bill.

His name was Abraham Lincoln, and his remarks were made in 1858 during the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate.

The real strength of America _ and its valid claim to moral leadership in a world teeming with despots and tyrants _ is that it has, like no other nation, genuinely tried to address its faults.

"You can always count on Americans to do the right thing," said Churchill, "after they've tried everything else."

Somehow through the years, we have taken a Constitution that originally granted no real rights to women, blacks and people who did not own land, and have made an honest effort to "do the right thing."

Jefferson, in Paris when it was going on, derisively referred to the Constitutional Convention as "an assembly of demigods."

Or were the authors of the Constitution _ as believed by the Mormon Church and a local letter writer or two _ divinely inspired? Perhaps, but only in the same way as the anonymous genius who decided that baseball's bases should be set 90 feet apart and home plate 60 feet, six inches, from the pitching rubber.

"The truth is incontrovertible," Churchill said. "Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end; there it is."

The truth is, America isn't perfect. It never was, ever will be or was ever really intended to be.

But it is what critics often refer to as our political correctness that continues to power this wonderful country in its inevitable drive toward a welcome tolerance and what the Preamble to the Constitution calls "a more perfect union."

And you can quote me on that.

Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at or at 432-1000, ext. 208.

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