The Ungracious — And Their Demonization of the Past

Victor Davis Hanson
American Greatness

The last two years have seen an unprecedented escalation in a decades-long war on the American past.

But there are lots of logical flaws in attacking prior generations in U.S. history.

Critics assume their own judgmental generation is morally superior to those of the past. So, they use their own standards to condemn the mute dead who supposedly do not measure up to them.

Yet 21st century critics rarely acknowledge their own present affluence and leisure owe much to history’s prior generations whose toil helped create their current comfort.

And what may future scolds say of the modern generation that saw over 60 million abortions since Roe v. Wade, even as fetal viability outside the womb continued to progress to ever earlier ages?

What will our grandchildren say of us who dumped on them over $30 trillion in national debt—much of it as borrowing for entitlements for ourselves?

What sort of society snoozes as record numbers of murders continue in 12 of its major cities? What is so civilized about defunding the police, endemic smash-and-grab thefts, and car-jackings?

Was our media more responsible, professional, and learned in 1965 or 2021? Did Hollywood make more sophisticated and enjoyable films in 1954 or 2021? Was there less or more sportsmanship among professional athletes in 1990 or 2021?

Was it actually moral to discard the “content of our character” and “equal opportunity” principles of the prior Civil Rights movement of 60 years ago? Are their replacement fixations on the “color of our skin” and “equality of result” superior?

Would America have won World War II with the current labor participation rate of only six Americans in 10 working? Would our generation have brought all American troops home and quit World War I, in fear of the deadly 1918 Spanish flu pandemic?

Are we proud that most standardized tests of student knowledge and achievement continue to decline, despite record investments in education? 

Do we ever pause to consider that we enjoy our modern standard of living, and security because we were once a meritocracy that quit judging our workforce by tribal affinities and ancient prejudices?

Our generation talks of infrastructure nonstop. But when was the last time it built anything comparable to Hoover Dam, the interstate highway system, or the California Water Project—much less sent a man back to the moon or beyond?

If prior generations were so toxic, why do we continue to take for granted the moral and material world they bequeathed to us, from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to our airports, freeways, and power plants? Did we ever defeat anything comparable to the Axis powers or Soviet communism?

We know the symptoms of the current epidemic of hating the past.

One is Orwellian renaming and statue-toppling. Historical revision often responds to puritanical mob frenzies rather than to democratic discussion and votes of relevant elected officials.

Where is the pantheon of woke heroes who will replace the toppled or defaced Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt?

Whose morality and achievement should instead be immortalized? Were the public and private lives of Che Guevara, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Margaret Sanger, and Franklin D. Roosevelt without sin?

Racial fixations tend predictably in one direction. In good Confederate fashion, we lump all individuals who look alike into inexact collectives of “white,” “black,” or “brown”—often to stereotype the supposed evils of so-called white supremacy.

But if we go down that tribalist and simplistic road of caricatured oppressors and oppressed, will future generations tally up each group’s merits and demerits, to adjudicate the roles of millions of individuals in making America worse or better?

What standard would they use to judge our ignorant world of racial stereotyping—proportional representation in Nobel Prizes, philanthropy, scientific breakthroughs, or lasting art, music, and literature versus statistics on homicides, assault, divorce, and illegitimacy? 

Immigration—when legal, diverse, measured, and often meritocratic—has been the great strength of America, as typified by industrious arrivals who chose to abandon their own homeland to risk new lives in a foreign United States.

But if America is so flawed and so irredeemable, why in fiscal year 2021 are nearly 2 million foreigners now crashing its borders—illegally, en masse, and intent on reaching a supposedly racist nation that is purportedly inferior to those they abandon?

According to the ancient brutal bargain, assimilation and integration grant the immigrant as much claim to America’s present and past as the native born. But then shouldn’t the antithesis also be true? Shouldn’t immigrants at least respect those of the past who created the very country they now so eagerly desire, and died in awful places from Valley Forge to Bastogne to preserve?

Never in history has such a mediocre, but self-important and ungracious generation owed so much, and yet expressed so little gratitude, to its now dead forebears.

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13 thoughts on “The Ungracious -- And Their Demonization of the Past”

  1. Mediocre is right. Maybe the right is too fixated on the past at times, but we know most of us could not duplicate the achievements of our ancestors, so we do the right thing and bow the hell down.
    The left, on the other hand, probably chafes at the realization that their achievements, when actually useful, were built on the foundation laid down by more talented and hardworking others.
    Imagine an alternate timeline where 55 of 2021’s smartest people were sent back to the Constitutional Convention to design the new government of the United States?
    At best, they would probably just plagiarize the current US Constitution and call it a day. More likely, they would create a document 20000 words long that no intelligent person of the day could decipher, would probably not see enactment, and maybe worse, would result in interstate warfare thanks to slavery or tariffs.
    And I think they know it.
    I wonder if anyone has made a simulation where something like that could be worked through.


    A followup observation-it’s no wonder that these people are so miserable, either. Gratitude is a prerequisite for happiness.

  3. “A nation is born stoic and dies epicurean. At its cradle (to repeat a thoughtful adage) religion stands, and philosophy accompanies it to the grave. . . Achilles is at the beginning, Epicurus at the end. After David comes Job, and after Job, Ecclesiastes.” Will Durant

  4. Professor Hanson;
    I’ve heard it described as ‘retrospective morality.’ You can not judge the past by the standards of the present.

  5. The good news is that the polls show that the Left’s Histrionics have played out with the general population that is becoming Woke- Fatigued. Those who study Politics are reassured because political movements have a pendulum cycle and as all social movements tend to go too far we can expect true schadenfreude (the German word for shameful joy) as 2022 will likely see Republicans win back both houses.

    If that does happen we will likely further enjoy watching the left being held responsible for the loss of power by the centrist liberals in the Democrats Party. What is key this year is blocking BBB, Stoping the Voter by mail and no ID bills, and stopping the expansion packing of the Supreme Court….. If things go our way in Nov of 22 get some good buttered popcorn and enjoy it.

  6. Victor > Thank you for your intelligence / Insight /Educator

    The history will never be erased just as the spoken word
    As a sculptor I feel for these sculptures so I recreated some to become collectors items
    In NC the sculpture FAME was removed after many years / You can see my tributes to Trump I added to my Hall of Presidents Page on my site and see him on my Face Book Page > Robert Richard Toth

    Your Fan

  7. Deconstructing an entire intellectual, national,, international,, and cultural history to implant group agendas has become the tenor of our times, but it is a process. Part of that process I experienced as an educator was fighting to be allowed to teach a unit on Shakespeare because my students in rural California could not identify with a long dead “Englishman.” As a high school counselor, I had to push to allow students to explore aptitude strengths via the ASVAB, because it was a military-designed testing system. I could not possibly understand the children of farmworkers because I was a “rich blonde,” albeit, one who grew up working the central valley fields and packing sheds. All of this push came from an immigrant who rose through the California educational system to become an administrator, but who considered that same system needed total revamping to alleviate systemic inequity. While I admired his intelligence and success. I just could not find value in denying Shakespeare his due.

  8. David Tambornino

    Bam! With Blunt Force Trauma Mr. Hanson directly hits the staple head here on the issues that are tearing apart the fabric of our Country.

  9. David E. Baker Jr.

    Such is the modern thirst for moral or political outrage, which is the tool of the mediocre to bring about their revenge upon the gifted, that words are now taken in the most literal sense and given thereby the worst possible interpretation. The mediocre wait to take offense as a spider awaits its prey in a web; the spider needs its prey to live, the mediocre their offendedness to feel a sense of purpose to their lives.
    — Theodore Dalrymple

  10. Dear Dr. Hanson,

    Thank you for this incisive article. It is hard to disagree with the points you make, with one exception: FDR clearly does not belong on the same list with Che Guevara, Angela Davis, Malcolm X and Margaret Sanger. I do not believe this inclusion reflects you view of him as an historian. Think what you like of his economic policy in the 30s, he was a truly towering figure who rallied the country and saw it through to victory in World War II, what with the lend-lease, the unprecedented mobilization of industry and the Manhattan project. “My great friend” is how another giant of the time, Winston Churchill, refers to him.

  11. Could it be that we are living in a kind of Malthusian correction? The original Malthusian Theory being agricultural/rural and this one post-industrial, post-consumerist and post-urban? This would help explain the collapse of Western Christendom and possibly Capitalist Expansion. Or maybe I have to stop reading stuff by David Attenborough and Nouriel Roubini. But if Hanson, Roubini and Attenborough are all hinting at the same thing then we are headed for big global cultural, political and economic changes within then next decade.

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