The myth of Essential Goodness

One of the things that would amuse me if it did not have such serious consequences is that white people in America are always shocked, just shocked, when they get even a glimpse of the anger and resentment that exists among many black people about they way they have been treated and still continue to be treated in this country.

The reason for this perpetual state of surprise is that many white people tend to unquestioningly accept a powerful myth: that America is the one country in the world possessed of an Essential Goodness, bestowed by god. They believe that not only do Americans as individuals possess this quality (that they mysteriously acquire simply by being born within its geographical boundaries), but that the nation as a whole, this political entity, collectively possesses this same quality. The possession of this Essential Goodness is believed to make America morally superior to every other country.

Of course we committed genocide against the Native Americans, we institutionalized and perpetuated a long and brutal slavery, along with lynchings and murders, we have killed millions and millions of people in many small countries under the pretence of defending and spreading democracy, but it is held that all that is in the past and anyway were done by a few misguided individuals a long time ago and is not a reflection on the people as a whole. Despite all that history, the myth persists that we are and always have been, Essentially Good, and that anyone who challenges that myth in any way is spreading a vicious and hateful lie that is borderline treasonous. People who adhere to that myth cannot seem to wrap their minds around the idea that other ethnic groups, with a history of being oppressed, might not find it so compelling.

This powerful myth serves as the basis of a sense of self-identity that is thought to be uplifting but is actually dangerous because it can lead to arrogance, blindness, hubris, and an unwillingness to learn from the harsh lessons of history. A paper in Psychological Review showed that individuals, groups, and even nations that think highly of themselves without any real basis for doing so, resort to violence when they do not receive the inflated respect they feel they are entitled to. High self-esteem that is unsupported by actual achievements or abilities turns out to be harmful. (Roy F. Baumeister, Laura Smart, Joseph M. Boden, Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem, Psychological Review, 1996, vol. 103, No. 1, 5-33.)

America’s politicians pander to this powerful and corrosive myth since it conveniently enables them to always get the benefit of the doubt of the public when they do something obviously wrong. Since America is Essentially Good, people think that there must be a benevolent reason for any action taken by its government and are eager to seize on any excuse to believe in its good intent. The public acceptance of the weak, almost non-existent, and obviously fraudulent case made for the invasion of Iraq is a case in point.

The brutal fact that history reveals, and which so many of us seem unwilling to accept, is that no people are special, no people are possessed of an Essential Goodness. Not the Germans who were passive in the face of the murder of Jews during World War II, not the Americans who were passive during the murder an estimated half million Vietnamese, not the Ethiopians who were passive during the destruction of Eritrea, not the Hutus who were passive during the murder of the Tutsis, with the list being continued almost indefinitely.

The hardest lesson for us to accept is that we are just like other people.

The commonly heard opening phrase “Only in America can . . .” is a symptom of this belief in American exceptionalism. That preamble is usually followed by a boast that can almost always easily shown to be false, but the truth is immaterial to the speaker of such sentiments. He is appealing to the myth about our Essential Goodness and thus cannot be challenged. Even Barack Obama appealed to this myth in his otherwise exemplary speech on race. He did this to distinguish himself from his former pastor Jeremiah Wright because Wright had committed the one unforgivable sin in American political discourse, a sin even worse than blasphemy, even worse than denying the Holy Spirit, which the Bible tells us is the only unforgivable sin. By listing all the crimes that he felt America had committed and then saying “Not God bless America, God damn America”, Wright had denied the Essential Goodness of America, denied that god had a special place in his heart for America and would always take its side.

For these words, he has been vilified by those who were looking for a reason, any reason, to fan racist flames and discredit Obama as a candidate. I think that a commenter at Talking Points Memo said it best

What drives me crazy is how this could have been avoided so easily if Wright was the slightest bit media-savvy. Had he merely controlled his tongue and limited himself to advocating an attack on Iran to encourage massive worldwide Muslim attacks leading to a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of end-times and bringing about Armageddon and the summary slaughter of every Jew, Muslim, Catholic, and non-believer on the planet while rapturing him and his flock up to heaven, then followed it up by denouncing Catholics as cult members and blaming Hurricane Katrina on gay people, this story wouldn’t be metastasizing like this. One five minute milquetoast repudiation by Obama and it would all be behind him.

But what does Wright do instead? He spews this vile “God damn America” bile. What a psycho.

In the next post, I will look at the prophetic tradition in which Wright’s sermon is embedded.

Next: Capitalist Christianity versus prophetic Christianity

POST SCRIPT: Hilarious story

I wrote before that the intelligent design creationists were going to release a documentary called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed where they continue their whining about how these mean scientists are saying nasty things about their nice theory.

Biologist and blogger P.Z. Myers, who has been a fierce critic of intelligent design creationism and was interviewed for the film, has an absolutely hilarious story about what happened to him when he went to see a prescreening of the film. I don’t want to spoil it for you. Just read his post.

Also, don’t forget today’s screening of The God Delusion Debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox in Strosacker Auditorium at 7:00 pm.

UPDATE: After the screening, Richard Dawkins and P. Z. Myers share a good laugh at what happened.


  1. says

    Whitey here. I can’t say I’m shocked at black anger or resentment. Maybe I’ve just seen enough Chris Rock standup to be conditioned to it :p The whites with cushy media jobs do seem to always be astonished at an outburst, but I think a case needs to be made for exactly how far that extends beyond them. Certainly I’ve known enough white “homemaker” types who aren’t exposed to this resentment, so they could probably be included. But everyone else?

    I’ve spent a little bit of time at local high schools. While perhaps not shocking, it is quite unsettling in some cases how *rough* the black urban culture can be, and how prevalent behavioral problems are. I’ve not seen anything conclusive as to what degree these are purely social ills, and how much they are linked to poverty. Do you go into that in your book “The Achievement Gap”?

    As far as the “essential goodness” myth, I’m guessing it goes back to some assumptions about our nation’s founding. Most Americans would likely agree that the Constitution and Bill of Rights encompass fundamentally “good” ideas — the closest thing we have to US consensus. We assume that in our dealings and moral exploits, we can “fall back” on that bedrock, as a safe retreat when things go wrong. So when leaders choose to carpet-bomb a small country or force Japanese people into internment camps, we look back and say “oh, that strayed too far” and “that wasn’t very American” as if it doesn’t reflect on the full populace. It’s classic in-group out-group thinking, since no one wants the blame for such atrocities. Can you separate that “essential good” which is supposed to represent core values, from the blame game? I’m sure I’m oversimplifying.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disagreeing that it’s awful to hold some warped sense of infallability for Americans.

  2. says

    “Also, don’t forget today’s screening of The God Delusion Debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox in Strosacker Auditorium at 7:00 pm.”

    Man, I always find out about this stuff when it’s already happening. The exact same thing happened with the recent Expelled screening in our area: I only found about it the very same night it happened.

    But it’s good to know that there is an active freethinker group on campus. Do they allow non-Case enrolled folks? I used to hang out with NYU’s freethinker crew, even after I ceased to be a grad student, but all I am now is just plain unemployed, and missing the heck out of school.

  3. says

    Very good that these are open for the public! I will come to Case for my exchange (1 semester) but will be there earlier and longer then just 1 semester.

    Freethinking is a highly appreciated good here in Europe, so great this is being stretched now more and more in Case.

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