Washington Post: Living the Existential Lie

The Tea Party (remember them?) chose to so name themselves because they aspire to be known as “those who possess a strong belief in the Judeo-Christian values embedded in our great founding documents.” This isn’t much of a description, but by associating themselves with the historical Boston Tea Party  of December 16, 1773, they call to mind an entire narrative of the founding of the United States and a reverence for its founding principles. The problem is, only someone almost entirely ignorant of history could make that association without suspending reliance on historical fact. At the time of the Boston Tea Party, the so-called “Tea Party Patriots” were viewed by most colonists, including George Washington, as trouble-makers. Of course we as Americans do not want to claim the principles of our nation began with vandalism, hooliganism, and destruction of private property, so collectively we have invented a mythology that lionizes the once derided movement.

Most myths have a foundation in truth, and ours is no exception. Mythology is a means of embodying characteristics we wish to manifest. Principles like liberty, justice, courage, and love of country are all admirable, and as a society teaching (as well as emulating) these ideals helps to instill unity and civic responsibility. These are good things and laudable goals.

But when we come to believe that these myths are truths, and that historical facts that undermine the myths are subversive and unpatriotic, we become paralyzed by willful ignorance. We are paralyzed in the sense that we are not able to confront the contemporary consequences of historical acts. If we claim that shining a light on the errors of our forebears promotes disunity and disrespect, we are actually denying one of the greatest of American attributes: the ability and will to advance the cause of liberty and justice.

Imagine that you go to a doctor to seek advice about some nagging condition that has been bothering you. The doctor runs some test and find that you have a serious but treatable disease. Would you feel better if the doctor told you there was nothing wrong? Possibly. But by denying the condition you forego the possibility of treatment and cure. So, is it better to cling to a happy untruth, or to com to grips with an unpleasant one?

There are no explicit “Judeo-Christian values” in any of our founding documents. But if we concede that liberty and justice (not to mention truth) are Judeo-Christian values, then denying the very real presence of oppression and injustice in our past that darkens our public life today, we are renouncing any claim to cherishing those values.

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