Yesterday, I was shocked to read the following from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in releasing the Fifth Annual Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report, "Trafficking in human beings is nothing less than a modern form of slavery. . . . The United States has a particular duty to fight this scourge because trafficking in persons is an affront to the principles of human dignity and liberty, upon which this nation was founded."
Secretary Rice is an intelligent and well educated woman who has experienced the continuing effects of the legacy of slavery growing up as an African-American in a heartbed of bigotry. It's not really credible to believe she is ignorant that the United States of America was founded as a slave society.
However, she was apparently unable in her own mind to see the parallel between the brutal form of slavery which was part of this country upon its foundation and modern day slavery. Instead, she repeated the false myth that the country was founded on the principles of human dignity and liberty.
This kind of disassociation between what a person knows and the myth they carry within them, and which seems far more powerful than the facts they know in their lives, is far from unique with Secretary Rice. It is a widespread human phenomenon. In the particular form of the false myth of U.S. history as one of freedom and living out of great ideals, one can hear it from politicians of most every stripe and many others.
The consequences of a pervasive false myth such as this one are profound for a society. It results in the society feeling morally superior to other societies when there is no rational basis for that feeling. Consequently there is an arrogance to the society's behavior that, in the case of the U.S., is evident to almost all knowledgeable people in other societies. It also results in a failure to adequately address needs for change in the society.
There is much that is horrible in American history. There is the awful legacy of chattel slavery and the record of horrible abuses against African-Americans continuing long after slavery itself was abolished in law. There is the attempt at genocide against populations of people living here before Europeans settled here. There are two centuries of aggressive and imperialist wars. Less than 65 years ago, thousands of people were interned - by a liberal Democratic Administration - solely due to their national origin, and this gross abuse of basic civil liberties was upheld by the Supreme Court. These are only a few of the most gross examples.
If, as a country, we are to become a moral society that humbly and respectfully interfaces with other societies in the global environment, we must throw off false myths about our society. We need to confront the reality of our own history, repent and turn to better ways. This is extremely difficult, but I believe it is possible. It is my fervent prayer that the desire to do this will grow and spread throughout American society.
P.S. (June 21, 2005)
In my own country, the progress of democracy has been long and difficult. And given our history, the United States has no cause for false pride and we have every reason for humility.
I was encouraged to see this in remrks Secretary Rice made in Cairo yesterday. I have no reason to believe that she read the e-mail I sent her after her earlier remarks advising her to change her tune, but this language is along the lines I was suggesting.