I recently had the good fortune to travel to Washington, D.C., for the first time in decades. It was great to see the nation’s capital again and to come into direct contact with so much of the history of the country. Though I’m no history buff myself, that history was part of why I was so excited to get to take the trip and, while there, to set aside time to take a leisurely tour of the National Archives, which I haven’t had a chance to visit since I was a kid.
In that building, we house the original drafts of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, and not only was I happy to see them myself for the first time that I can clearly remember, I was happy to see a school tour trip there as well. While I was there, the room was absolutely full of children who excitedly ran from one exhibit to another while their exasperated teachers tried to corral them in the center of the circular room to talk to them.
In that room—in those documents—are contained the first and perhaps greatest attempt by humanity to put the philosophical tenets of liberalism into practice. They are the promises our nation was built upon and has always worked to live up to, and they have been a promise other nations can see, have looked to, and have learned from as they also build themselves throughout the liberal world. So far, humanity’s great experiment with liberalism has mostly worked. Say what you will about American Exceptionalism, the American implementation of liberalism has genuinely been exceptional, and where others have borrowed from it and sought to adapt it to their own contexts, those experiments have largely been successful as well. As such, it was good to visit the National Archives to get to see the physical documents that framed those fundamentally liberal principles as we bridged the gap from philosophy to successful implementation.
As I haven’t been to the National Archives since I was a child, I only very dimly remember this, but I’ve been told that it used to be that the entrance to the building was on the opposite side from where it is now, at the top of a long staircase that leads straight into the gallery containing the foundational documents of the United States. That may have been, but it is no more. The entrance now is tucked around on the other side of the building and enters into the floor below. It stood out to me, in fact, that it was almost a little bit difficult to find my way into the room where the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights are kept.
Not nearly as hard to find, just across from the security at the new entrance is an interesting exhibit—the David M. Rubenstein Exhibit. Now, when I say it’s just across from the entrance, let me help you understand how centrally positioned it is: when you go in, you literally look straight into it. It’s very apparent that it’s intended to be the first room you enter and spend time in, so much so, that it wasn’t at all clear where else someone might go in the building without having thought about it a little. So, in I went, and I’m glad I took the time. This exhibit really made me realize a few things about our country and the philosophy it is founded upon and has spread around the world. It’s a message of hope, frankly. That is, it made me understand something about humanity and history that I wanted to share.
For those who haven’t seen it, the Rubenstein Exhibit in the National Archives is designed to be a testament to the challenges of growing and securing rights and civil liberties for all American citizens. Befitting its location, it is a nicely done and well-organized exhibit that communicates its core message fairly well: we, as Americans, had to work long and hard through many battles and even a devastating war to ensure the universally liberal promises of our foundational documents could be met and upheld for everyone. Rightly understood, it’s a wonderful exhibit to include in that setting because this part of the American story is genuinely worth knowing and understanding. It is, in fact, maybe the most interesting, important, and compelling part of that story, which is a story of the triumph of a successful sociopolitical philosophy and its application in a system of governance over many of the worst and most illiberal tendencies of humanity.
There is some odd imagery in the exhibit, though. Scattered around the first room one enters in the Rubenstein Exhibit, off to either side from the copy of the Magna Carta that’s positioned front and center, are a number of two-image pictures, like those special baseball cards a lot of us had as kids that might show the player fielding a ball when looked at from one angle and batting when seen from another. These, from one perspective, depicted portions of the famous painting of the Founders and Framers from the room above, and, from another, showed something else: an image of women riveters, particular racially-relevant military units from World War I, immigratns, and the likes. I think that’s fine, and the message is good as it relates to the room and the history of the country. One of these really stood out as odd to me, though. From one angle, it showed a section of the painting from above, and from the other, what could only possibly be described as the kind of image a company might put out on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion page on its website. Where the others told a story, this one looked like advertising.
Though I don’t intend to linger on the specifics of the room, throughout the exhibit were various images, documents, and placards telling the various stories of various groups gaining rights and having been denied them at earlier portions in this great American Experiment. They’re tastefully done and informative, and looking at them and some of the points they specifically raise—well-versed in the Theory of Critical Social Justice as I have unfortunately become—made me realize their likely intention, which dampened my experience of the room. It is very possible to walk through the David M. Rubenstein Exhibit in the U.S. National Archives and come away thinking the message one needs to understand most before getting to the foundational documents upstairs is “this country—those promises—were never meant to be for everyone,” or, unless you are a straight, white, native-born man, “…for you.”
The thing is, that pessimistic, even cynical message can be read in the room, but it isn’t egregiously present. It’s subtle in a way that means you more have to read it into the room than merely read it from the room. No particular message is overtly derivable from the Rubeinstein Exhibit, perhaps beyond that the American effort has historically been one where rights were once denied and eventually ensured, which is true enough. That means that in these peculiar times, this room set just across from the entrance of the U.S. National Archives tells (at least) two American tales: a liberal one and a critical one. Realizing the liberal one genuinely fills me with the kind of hope and pride critical approaches work to destroy, so I want to make sure it can be heard.
We hear a lot about “diversity” from Critical Social Justice, but we don’t usually hear from them the truth that the American Experiment has been the greatest and most successful diversity project in human history. It’s worth remembering that E Pluribus Unum means “from many, one,” and it is genuinely true that ours, as it has developed has been an immigrants’ nation. The ideal of America, as captured in the documents housed in the National Archives is specifically that we come from all over, represent every background on the Earth, and yet we’re one.
From this perspective, the Rubenstein Exhibit doesn’t tell us that the United States—or, more importantly, any nation, system, or institution committed to liberalism—isn’t for anyone. It tells us that even under the sometimes-horrible contingencies of human nature and history, this great liberal experiment in diversity can and will grind its way to securing rights, freedoms, and opportunities for everyone. It may be unconscionably slow given what’s at stake (there’s the ever-present spectre of how we handled the issue of slavery, then black equality, up until pitifully recently, not to mention the equality movements for women and LGBT); it may do horrible things along the way (the Japanese internment camps during the Second World War are featured in the exhibit, for example); it may only get there through a nasty fight that embarrasses us later; but it will get there. This experiment in diversity and freedom—this liberalism—can and does work.
That liberal story stands in direct opposition to the critical one, and of course it does: the critical method is designed to be ruthlessly critical of liberalism. It is, in fact, openly and explicitly anti-liberal by design in addition to tending to present illiberally. For contrast, where the liberal story I just told is one worthy of hope and pride in what we’ve accomplished (and in under merely two hundred and fifty years after millennia of failing to do so before now), the critical story is one of pessimism and cynicism. It points to those failures in history and says that the American Experiment never worked, and it tells us that those failures tell us something more about ourselves than having found a way to escape them. It is, of course, ironic that it does this uniquely from a position that exists only because up to this point that Experiment has succeeded.
It also stands in direct opposition to the specifically Critical Social Justice story, which is the critical story of the day. That story has the gall to stand there in the success of liberalism and tell us that liberalism can’t work because the system itself was built in a corrupted state by the bigotries and biases of those who established it. The American Experiment is “from many, one,” and the Critical Social Justice interpretation of this is that “oneness” is how dominant groups in society erase and ignore the lived experiences and realities of the oppressed (or, more often, once-oppressed) and thus keep them down. In place of this message of universalism amongst individuals, it posits something like group-based social feudalism and does so on the basis of the worst possible groups we could choose for such a situation, if fragmenting as such is something we absolutely must do: markers of identity like race, sex, gender, and sexuality.
It isn’t my intention to guess at the intention behind the David M. Rubenstein Exhibit in the National Archives of the United States because I don’t know what it was. I don’t know which American tale that room exists to tell, and it may be that it doesn’t exist to tell either specifically but to let people who visit bring their own worldview to bear on the question (or to teach it to groups of children they bring with them). I do know, however, that for me—and this is specifically because I’ve learned to understand how seductive and poisonous the critical story is—the room was a source of profound hope and pride. Even now, almost a week later, I’m still brimming with it, moved by it.
This is why I think it’s so important to learn what the critical method looks like and to understand how it goes wrong, so that we can avoid its seduction and its venom. The thing with critical methods—with coming to see only how we’ve failed and how everything is problematic—is that once you pick them up, even a little, it’s very hard to get away from them. The stink and the stain they constantly look for in everything gets in your own eyes, and you start to see it, even if just a little, in everything you look at. It’s a miserable way to live, and it’s defeating, the kind of thing that can really break the spirit of a person or a people.
Learning to see the critical approach and to understand how it works, though, lets you see through it. While the critical story besmirches everything while claiming to be “real” about history and society, taking on a view that understands and rejects this cynical pessimism and its indefatigable wont to complain lets us reckon with what is really real instead. It lets us look at our history not through critical stain or some kind of rose-white-and-blue glasses that ignore where we’ve gone wrong but through clear lenses that let us accept our past failures, learn from them, and yet see having overcome them as successes and triumphs not only that we managed to achieve but also that we can keep achieving. It’s pride and hope, man, I tell ya.
If you find yourself in D.C. and get the chance, I really encourage you to stop by the National Archives and go on that journey for yourself. It’s free, and it’s pretty small, so the excursion doesn’t cost much in either time or money. See if you can walk through the Rubenstein Exhibit (and the others like it) and come away seeing the proud and hopeful story that it can tell about us, our history, and liberalism. I really hope you can.