After decades spent trying to get Americans to confront the country's crimes, Wallace Shawn find that the results of greater honesty are not what he hoped for:
Now that I’m seventy-six, when I remember the way I used to feel—when I think about how important it once seemed to me to tell people the truth about the crimes in which we all were implicated—well, that all seems quaint and sad. It turns out that by the time the American public learned the sorts of things I’d felt they needed to learn, by the time they came to look in the mirror, what they saw there didn’t look so bad to them. And so, yes, an awful lot of people don’t get upset when they hear Trump talk.
On the contrary, they seem to feel a great sense of relief. Trump has liberated a lot of people from the last vestiges of the Sermon on the Mount. A lot of people turn out to have been sick and tired of pretending to be good. The fact that the leader of one of our two parties—the party, in fact, that has for many decades represented what was normal, acceptable, and respectable—was not ashamed to reveal his own selfishness, was not ashamed to reveal his own indifference to the suffering of others, was not even ashamed to reveal his own cheerful enjoyment of cruelty…all of this helped people to feel that they no longer needed to be ashamed of those qualities in themselves either. They didn’t need to feel bad because they didn’t care about other people. Maybe they didn’t want to be forbearing toward enemies. Maybe they didn’t want to be gentle or kind.
I worry about this, too. If you convince people that their ancestors were not the noble heroes they imagine, but were in fact guilty of violence, racism, and sundry other barbarities, some of them will not turn against their ancestors. Instead, they will decide that violence, racism and barbarity are good things.
In general, attacking people is a terrible way to change them. It almost always makes them double down in defense of themselves and their kind. I firmly believe that nothing helps Trump and his ilk more than constant criticism of "white people."
Inspiring people to do better is the only way, if possible by pointing out their ancestors' virtues and calling on them to build on that past. That's what FDR did, and Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama. It's how the leader's of Swedish socialism and the British Labour Party created the modern welfare state in the 1940s and 1950s. Not by criticizing people, but by appealing to the best in people, and the best in their past.