|Pictured: an incorrect assumption|
I try to put things into context, as to what the underlying error here is in America writ large today. Racism, obviously, but the question I have is why is this persisting, over four centuries after the first slave ship made its way to the New World in 1619?
To answer this, I need to interrogate the story of Phinehas.We must understand precisely the manner in which he was in error, in which he was, actually, a failure, to understand our present moment. To review, the story (certainly mythological, but still instructive, no less than the story by Aesop of the Tortoise and the Hare is instructive in other ways), is that of Phinehas, who was the grandson of Aaron, the Hebrew High Priest, and thus grand-nephew (or something to that effect) to Moses, the leader of the Hebrew people in Torah. Rabbinical scholarship suggests that Phinehas was an heir-apparent to Moses, until, as one might recall from Hebrew or Sunday school, he was not, and actually Joshua became the leader of the people following the death of Moses. What happened? Well, Phinehas is famous (infamous) for basically one thing - there was an episode of idol worship, apparently, in which some young men in the tribes carried on with some women from foreign cultures, and adopted their foreign religions which was contrary to the admonition against idol worship handed down by Moses - Phinehas, without consulting anyone, certainly not Moses, took the law in his own hands, and murdered one of the young men who was carrying on with one of the foreign women, along with the woman herself. (I should note the "issue" here was not so much regarding sexual relations with these foreign women or something to that effect, the issue rather that Phinehas was concerned with was idolatry, which ran contrary to the laws and customs of the day.) In any case, it is an interesting question to pose, why or how was Phinehas in error in this action? So fully in error, in fact, that though it is not stated outright in the text of the Torah, Rabbis in the years since feel it was because of this if you like "hot-headed" act of vigilantism that cost him his place as the heir-apparent to Moses? Well, on the face of it, it was precisely because he Was in this action being "hot-headed" and not consulting with others, but rather taking the law into his own hands, whereas Joshua by contrast always was consulting others (consulting with his friend Caleb, for example, who some consider actually to have been a convert to the Hebrew people from Canaan and so was helpful as he knew the territory they were about to enter, which is another story). Phinehas, while perhaps being correct in the letter of the law in terms of his concern with stopping idol worship, was more deeply incorrect because he did not seek justice but rather acted out of his own self-righteous emotions. He was acting for his own interests, ultimately, not the interests of the people. A deeper failure, one might say, is that he never questioned his own assumptions - he just acted without thought and thus became a minor footnote in the text, rather than a major character like Joshua, as a result. So the error - failure - of Phinehas, ultimately, was a failure to think twice, and question what assumptions he was making. (Nerd joke alert: we can thank goodness Phinehas was no mathematician, for if he had been, he may well have made the same mistake Euclid was purported to have made regarding not questioning his own axioms, in particular his infamous Fifth Axionm, ha! :) )
Carrying foward into history this theme of not questioning one's own assumptions, I am reminded of the great historical novel by Leon Uris called Armageddon: A Novel of Berlin about the partitioning of the city of Berlin by Allied forces at the end of World War II. There is an interesting side plot early in this story, about an African-American U.S. Lieutenant assigned to "reconstruct" a small German town following the war's end, and though the details of the novel are hazy to my recollection now, there is a fascinating passage where this Lieutenant is questioning a leader of that town who is a member of old German nobility, and basically asking this old Baron, WTF. That is, how could the people of the town not have seen what was going on? How did they somehow miss or purposely ignore the Holocaust which happened in a sense under their noses? The old Baron naturally dodges and weaves, playing the "I didn't know anything" and the Neuremberg "I was following orders" cards, and essentially follows the familiar post-atrocity theme of nobody taking responsbility for anything. At one point the old Baron says to the young American officer, "This could have happened anywhere", to which the officer replies, "But it never has." It was certainly a powerful scene, and provided much food for thought. One answer the novel speculates on is that the old Nordic mythology of races of gods fighting against "lesser" races of gods, fed into the subconscious pysche of the people. When a people grow up with mythology that glorifies bloodshed and death in battle (as evidenced in such concepts as Valhalla, a sort of heaven for Nordic heroes killed in battle), and when this mythology not only glorifies violence, but also mixes it in with false notions of belonging to some sort of superior bloodline and so on, it primes people on a subconscious level to accept false and evil ideas about racial superiority and wars against "lesser races", such that when a demogogue arises, they don't have the normal critical thinking skills or psychological defenses against it. There will always I think be an eternal paradox of how a country that could produce a Beethovan, a Schopenhauer, a Noether, an Einstein, could also have allowed the Nazis to take root. I think at least part of the answer - surely not a complete answer - but part of the answer, may well lie with how the mythology primed the pump so to speak for horrendously false and nihilistic ideology to gain a foothold. The people in Uris' story of post-war Germany had not questioned their assumptions. That was ultimately the start of the problems. Just as Phinehas never stopped to think, maybe I should ask Moses about this idol worship problem, never questioned his assumptions, so too is history sadly littered with episodes of individuals - or in the case of Germany - an entire people - not questioning their subconscious assumptions they had grown up holding.
But America has this same problem. We look in rightful horror at the murder of George Floyd, and hope his killer will be brought to justice. But we don't question the assumptions given to us by our own mythology. The basic American myth is that of the rugged (white) individual single-handedly taming the wilderness filled with "savages" (be those "savages" Native Americans, or African-Americans, or pretty much anyone who is not Anglo-Saxon). We grow up on stories of Col. David Crockett who won fame for fighting against Native Americans in Florida under the command of General (future President) Andrew Jackson, and who of course died at the Alamo (a conlict parenthetically started by white Texas slave-owners unhappy with Mexico, a largely religiously-influenced culture, banning slavery on moral grounds). In American mythology, the pro-slavery Crockett is the hero, and the deeply religiously devout General Santa Anna, Crockett's opponent in the Alamo, who saw it as his moral duty to root out slavery, is portrayed as the villian who was against "freedom" (namely, the "freedom" of the ranchers to own slaves). To be fair Crockett himself was more nuanced than his portrayals in American lore at times is, and in fact as a Congressman worked to establish more peaceful relations with Native Americans (he still supported slavery, but was, I suppose, like most of us, a mixture of good and bad, neither hero nor total villian).
The point is, I think, Americans (speaking as one myself) make tragically the same mistake that the Germans made, that of not questioning our assumptions, or seeking council from others. We need to develop a new "story", a new cultural consciousness, a new meta-narrative. No, America has not always been on the wrong side of history. After all, it was America who helped defeat the Nazis and Imperial Japan, and also fought a bloody Civil War to end the evil of slavery. America has had highlights and lowlights, like any other culture, but the problem we now face, more than four centuries after the dawn of the slaving era, is a continued failure to examine our own axioms, and find where they are wanting. I would like, for example, to remember the Congressman Crockett, who tried to make peace with the Native Americans, not the opportunist former-Congressman Crockett, who joined the slavery-defenders at the Alamo in order to revive a sagging political career. It is not that American history is "bad", it is that we need to focus on those aspects of it that serve to ennoble the national soul, and de-emphasize those aspects that do not speak to the better angels of our nature. I would like, as another example, to remember abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who led scores of people to freedom on the underground railway. I would even like to remember former Confederate Lt. General James Longstreet, who, following the Civil War, became a police officer in New Orleans and fought to destroy the Ku Klux Klan, proving in his own life that uniquely-emphasized American quality, the perpetual ability to re-invent and reform onself - it is Longstreet who should be remembered, not his commanding (and consistently overrated in terms of strategic ability) officer, the unrepentant racist General Robert E. Lee. If, in short, America cannot learn from the mistake of the German people in the years leading up to and including the Weimar Republic, where assumptions about national (read: racial) identity were never questioned, but rather festered in the background like a cancer on the national psyche, leaving the nation vulnerable to the worst, cartoonishly evil but frighteningly real demogogues ever produced by history, then I am afraid there will be many more George Floyds in the future.
The lesson of the wise, then, is that it is not enough to take a set of assumptions or axioms and base your behaviour upon them, but rather one must also question those assumptions and axioms, and seek council where needed, to ensure those assumptions contribute to the bending of Dr. King's "arc of history" towards justice. Moses, by the way, knew this. Another lesser-known vignette in Torah is the case of inheritance rules, which, originally, dictated that inheritance go to sons, not daughters. But then a man who had only daughters died, and Moses was faced with a decision, to change the rules to allow the daughters to inherit the property, and thus keep intact that particular allotment of tribal property, or let those rules go unquestioned, and face the oblideration of the tribal property lines that were at stake. Moses let the daughters inherit the property. He changed the rules. Because he had the wisdom to question assumptions. Wisdom which Phinehas did not have. Wisdom which would still seem to elude the broader American psyche even to this day. I would say to America, learn to re-evaluate your subconscious assumptions about your national identity. Have the wisdom of a Moses, not the folly of a Phinehas. The murder of the innocent like George Floyd demands no less.