As Donald Trump gave his race-baiting speeches over the Fourth of July weekend, hoping to rile his base and jump-start his flagging campaign for re-election, I was forced to recall the ranting of a Columbia University sophomore that caught the nation’s attention in 2018.
In the video, a student named Julian von Abele exclaims, “We built the modern world!” When someone asks who, he responds, “Europeans.”
“We invented science and industry, and you want to tell us to stop because oh my God, we’re so baaad. We invented the modern world. We saved billions of people from starvation. We built modern civilization. White people are the best thing that ever happened to the world. We are so amazing! I love myself! And I love white people!”
He concludes: “I don’t hate other people. I just love white men.”
Von Abele later apologized for “going over the top,” saying, “I emphasize that my reaction was not one of hate” and arguing that his remarks were taken “out of context.” But the sentiments like the one this young man expressed — that white men must be venerated, regardless of their sins, in spite of their sins, because they used maps, Bibles and guns to change the world, and thereby lifted it and saved it — aren’t limited to one college student’s regrettable video. They are at the root of patriarchal white supremacist ideology.
To people who believe in this, white men are the heroes in the history of the world. They conquered those who could be conquered. They enslaved those who could be enslaved. And their religion and philosophy, and sometimes even their pseudoscience, provided the rationale for their actions.
It was hard not to hear the voice of von Abele when Trump stood at the base of Mount Rushmore and said, “Seventeen seventy-six represented the culmination of thousands of years of Western civilization and the triumph not only of spirit, but of wisdom, philosophy and reason.” He continued later, “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.”
To be clear, the “our” in that passage is white people, specifically white men. Trump is telling white men that they are their ancestors, and that they’re now being attacked for that which they should be thanked.
The ingratitude of it all.
How dare historically oppressed minorities in this country recall the transgressions of their oppressors? How dare they demand that the whole truth be told? How dare they withhold their adoration of the abominable?
At another point, Trump said of recent protests:
“This left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. In so doing, they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery and progress.”
In fact, many of the protesters are simply pointing out the hypocrisy of these men, including many of the founders, who fought for freedom and liberty from the British while simultaneously enslaving Africans and slaughtering the Indigenous.
But, Trump, like white supremacy itself, rejects the inclusion of this context. As Trump put it:
“Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but that were villains. The radical view of American history is a web of lies — all perspective is removed, every virtue is obscured, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition.”
In fact, the record is not being disfigured but corrected.
According to Trump: “This movement is openly attacking the legacies of every person on Mount Rushmore. They defile the memory of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt.”
Is it a defilement to point out that George Washington was an enslaver who signed a fugitive slave act and only freed his slaves in his will, after he was dead and no longer had earthly use for them?
Is it a defilement to point out that Thomas Jefferson enslaved over 600 human beings during his life, many when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and that he had sex with a child whom he enslaved — I call it rape — and even enslaved the children she bore for him?
Is it a defilement to recall that during the Lincoln-Douglas debates Abraham Lincoln said:
“I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the Black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position.”
Is it defilement to recall that Theodore Roosevelt was a white supremacist, supporter of eugenics and an imperialist? As Gary Gerstle, a professor of American history at the University of Cambridge, once put it, “He would have had no patience with the Indigenous and original inhabitants of a sacred American space interfering with his conception of the American sublime.”
It is not a defilement, but deprogramming. It is a telling of the truth, and the time for it is long overdue.
As the old folks used to put it, “Tell the truth and shame the devil.”