“I wake up every morning in a house built by slaves,” Michelle Obama declared at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. The ensuing uproar neatly comprised of censure from the right and adulation from the left, thus demonstrating the deep ideological divide that defines our present politics. Though the speech on Tuesday received the most media attention, it does not represent the first instance in which Obama cited the White House’s slave legacy. The line made an appearance in her commencement address at New York’s City College in June, and her husband also made note of the same in March 2015 at the fiftieth anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama.
In keeping with leftist orthodoxy, Obama imagines American history as a series of transgressions against the dignity and lives of helpless peoples, and reduces the White House to a mere artifact of that ugly past. Not surprisingly, bastions of the left such as The New York Times and Huffington Post lauded the First Lady for using the wide-reaching platform of the DNC to highlight the “imperfections of the nation.” In striking contrast, others who regard the White House as a proud symbol of America’s highest office, and an important monument to freedom and democracy for over two centuries, denounced the Ivy-League educated millionaire’s words as sanctimonious drivel and hypocritical political posturing.
Of those that dared to challenge Obama, Bill O’Reilly incurred the most stinging wrath of the left. Assuming the role of a history teacher (a position he once had), O’Reilly provided historical context on his Fox News show, stating that both white laborers and black slaves built the White House, and that the latter group was “well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.”
Predictably, the mainstream media denounced him for invoking the antebellum notion of the ‘content slave” used to justify slavery, and thus whitewashing history in true Republican fashion. Though O’Reilly’s intention to debate the First Lady’s disputable remark was on point, his approach was not. In fact, he exemplifies how and why conservatives miss important opportunities to debunk the faulty sociopolitical arguments championed by the left.
O’Reilly v Obama: Lessons in the Art of Culture War
O’Reilly has a proven record of instinctually understanding conservative sentiments, but he has not been nearly as successful in effectively countering the left’s narratives. For example, when Jon Stewart pressed him to acknowledge ‘white privilege,’ O’Reilly rightly refused but could not explain why the concept is spurious and ought to be uniformly rejected. In another instance, O’Reilly failed to challenge the media’s frequent conflation of American conservatism with regressive reactionaryism, when Stephen Colbert asserted, “Conservatism is always a losing battle because culture always changes.”
With regards to Obama’s claim, O’Reilly should have unpacked the subtext and questioned the blatantly false premise of her argument: America is a systemically evil and unjust nation that has taken no measures to correct past wrongs. That Obama deliberately reduced the foremost symbol of the American presidency to a mere house built by slaves should form the crux of our contention with her controversial statement.
While it is true that black slaves were employed in the construction, it is equally true that they worked alongside white laborers, free black men, and immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, and other European countries. By intentionally promoting a myopic view of our history, as an epic tale of inhumane oppressions by heteronormative white men on every other demographic group, Obama echoes the revisionist, deconstructionist, and racially divisive tendencies of the American left.
Conservatives today are tasked with confronting the increasingly dominant cultural forces that seek to subvert America’s claim to moral goodness, and ignite societal tensions by shaming certain Americans for supposedly possessing racial privilege while promoting a victim mentality in others. As Sun Tzu famously wrote, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”