“We the People”

Harold W. Anderson, Ph.D., LMFT, M.Div.

In a recent article, I read about a South Carolina school board that was considering banning a book taught in an AP Language course last February (The Daily Beast, “Ta-Nehisi Coats Crashes School Board…”).  Apparently, Ta-Nehisi Coates book, Between the World and Me—an essay originally written for his son who was fifteen at the time—has “caused political literary mayhem among reactionary right-wing communities and has been placed on book ban lists.”  What was so offensive about Coates’ book?  Well, reportedly it made

some of the students feel guilty for being white.  Whaa!  How terrible.  If one studies the history of Western civilization in general and the United States in particular, these histories are crammed full of horrible events and practices that should make all of us who are now called “white,” feel not just guilty, but down-right ashamed.  White people, as we are now called, have a villainous history of treating those who are not “white” as if they were second-class citizens at best and beasts of burden at worst, people whose value is determined not by their humanity but by the work they are being forced to do.  For a dark-skinned person, they too often feel as if they are always on the outside looking in, no matter how educated they are or successful they have become.  Coates’ letter to his son is a first-hand account of his experiences in the United States, and the dangers of being one who, because of the color of their skin, is treated as an outsider.  Interestingly, in the midst of controversy caused by apparently pathetic white kids, Coates attended the school board meeting to support the AP teacher who was now under attack for teaching from his book.

Having read the brief article, I was hooked.  I had to buy Coates’ book.  What is all the hubbub over this rather brief account of one person’s experiences?  Why censor (oh, I mean “ban”) this book?  Are its words misleading?  Is the content filled with lies that seek to mislead and trick its readers into believing something that isn’t true?  As I read through the first pages of the book, it became clear to me why “right-wing radicals,” as the report called them, would not want their children, or anyone for that matter, to read this book.  It is about them, and it does not paint a pleasant picture.  Here is a brief excerpt from the first pages of his work:

Americans deify democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God.  But democracy is a forgiving God and America’s heresies—torture, theft, enslavement—are so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune.  In fact, Americans, in a real sense, have never betrayed their god.  When Abraham Lincoln declared, in 1863, that the battle of Gettysburg must ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” he was not merely being aspirational; at the onset of the Civil War, the United States of America had one of the highest rates of suffrage in the world.  The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant “government of the people” but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean.  In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me.  Thus, America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people” but the means by which “the people” acquire their names (Between the World and Me, p. 6).

This brief paragraph is pregnant with meaning.  As a therapist, I noticed something about many of my clients.  They were rationalizers.  Keep in mind, I did not say they were “rational,” even though they thought that is what their rationalizing ways made them.  I would explain to them, however, that being “rational” was not the same as “rationalizing.”  The former is a systematic way of thinking about and supporting the claims and beliefs we think are true by utilizing verifiable and well-substantiated evidence (reasons).  Rationalizing, on the other hand, is defined as “a defense mechanism in which people justify difficult or unacceptable feelings with seemingly logical reasons and explanations.”  Human beings have an uncanny ability to make just about anything sound reasonable by appealing to emotionally ladened ideas as if they were substantial evidence of the “truth.”  To this end, Coates asserts that most of “the people,” as Lincoln called them, are rationalizers.  Drawing upon bandwagon fallacies that justify or dismiss the severity of certain acts with the rationalization that “everyone does it,” even the morally repugnant practice of chattel slavery seems justified because, as I have been told, “even the aboriginal peoples of Africa owned slaves,” as if that somehow justified the atrocities of chattel slavery and its aftermath in this country.  When government is “by the people” and “the people” set themselves apart from those they wish to enslave by the abstract and artificial concept of “race,” then race becomes a rationalizing principle that seems to justify reprehensible behaviors on the part of “the people” and rationalizes the policies and laws that uphold them. 

The United States is supposed to be great, but it can never be “great again” by basing its histories upon imaginary narratives created by bullies who complain that they are not being treated fairly when brought to task for the evils they or their progenitors have done.

The willingness of “the people” to rationalize past atrocities indicates that the idea of democracy is more than just a good idea.  Democracy has become the God of “the people,” and their proclivity for rationalization is paramount to a cheap form of forgiveness meaning that it is acceptable to just “forget” the sins of the past.  There need be no accountability and people today are freed of responsibility for the ill treatment of those who are not “the people,” even if such treatment persists.  The God of democracy is a God that justifies the present by cleansing people from the sins of the past even though such justification brings little reform.  There is no need to remember because forgiveness has erased past sins.  What is important, it seems, is what people do today and because slavery no longer exists, it is unnecessary to be reminded of it and hence, the offence of Coates book.  It casts dispersions upon the God of democracy by appealing to a higher form of morality rooted in the God of the oppressed, a God with whom persons of color are well acquainted. 

Finally, Coates’ words about those living in 1863 are instructive.  “In 1863,” he writes, “the government of the people did not mean your mother nor your grandmother.”  His words are a double entendre.  On the one hand, Coates’ mother and grandmother were not part of the “government of the people” because of the color of their skin, but on the other hand, they were not a part of the “government of the people” because they were women. This indicates the fickle and fleeting nature of “the people,” which as Coates rightly points out, is a “political” term.  Its meaning is endowed with the ideas, prejudices, and values of those who are in power.  For most of U.S. history, those white people were men.  “The people” did not include women until 1920; it did not include Black people until 1964, and if one is sensitive to reports such as the one given by Coates, one wonders if Black people and increasingly women are a part of “the people’ today.

Even though I have yet to read Coates book from cover to cover, the little I have read does create a considerable bit of discomfort for white people such as me.  It should.  The sins of “the people,” while rationalized as being a thing of the past, confront us with a moral turpitude on the part of those in power, people who created political structures that have yet to be freed of the prejudice and hatreds of the past.  Although the seeds of hope that “the people” can be expanded to include all people have been planted, if the seeds are to take root and grow, white people must feel the sting of guilt that comes from a hateful and prejudiced past, confess their complacency towards those who continue the trajectory of prejudice and narrowness, and repent of their unwillingness to confront and oppose the voices of hatred that once again threaten our country with laws predicated upon deeply engrained and systematically construed structures of hatred.  There are those who once again wish to limit “the people” not only to those who look like them, but now to those who think like them and pledge their loyalty to small-minded and exclusionary ideals.  Efforts to define “the people” in this way have been long in the making and can be traced to the Confederacy itself and the impact that the Reconstruction period had upon the “making of America.”

By chipping away at rights embedded in the Constitution itself and formulated in legal precedence established by the courts for more than a century, some wish to redefine “the people” not in terms of freedom and independence, but in terms of dependency and fear.  The tools of these people are not critical thinking and academic freedom that encourages one to entertain differing ideas and come up with their own conclusions through spirited debate.  No, the tools of these people are grounded in totalizing discourse and the implementation of laws that 

reinforce them.  They want people to comply with their ideology; they do not want them to think independently.  Their understanding of education is propaganda that supports the party line; they oppose academic freedom.  Their understanding of democracy is a one-party system overseen by a demagogic autocrat; they oppose two or more party systems where competing worldviews might trump their own.  They write revisionist histories where evils such as slavery are sanitized by teaching that it was helpful to Black people rather than critical histories that entertain many points of view including those who actually suffered and still suffer the sting of slavery.  They embrace a “we the people” who are loyal to their political ideology; they oppose a “we the people” that is comprised of all citizens of this country regardless their beliefs, looks and differing orientations.  They want a monologue, and they condemn those who embrace open discussions.

I can imagine that Coates’ book caused a great deal of offense to those soft white children who have been raised on the pablum of a self-indulgent “it’s ok.”  It matters little what the consequences of their behaviors might be.  This type of indulgent parenting and the way it impacts our educational system helps sow the seeds of tyranny.  It will never be the path to greatness.  Our country is supposed to be exceptional.  It is not supposed to be like other less morally stable countries.  It is supposed to be great, but it can never be “great again” by basing its histories upon imaginary narratives created by bullies who complain that they are not being treated fairly when brought to task for the evils they or their progenitors have done.  It can never be “great again” when rationalization rather than the difficult, critical scrutiny of reason is the basis of its beliefs, actions, and political structures.  Such self-indulgence is the way of bullies whose persuasion is brutality and whose morality is hopelessly undermined by an end-justifies-the-means mentality.  Greatness is not measured by the ends achieved; it is measured by the just ways by which they are realized.  The end for “the people” defined by right-wing radicals is uniformity through forced conformity.  It is never just. Their embrace of an end-justifies-the-means ideology is morally flawed, and their efforts at censorship are feeble attempts to hide the truth of history.  Such methods amount to an act of tyranny that seeks to make children into mindless conformists instead of independent thinkers upon which greatness is founded.

I am happy to live in a place where for now censorship is looked upon with disdain.  However, throughout the United States, the move to ban books and force conformity by bullying others is rampant.  It grows like a cancer and threatens the power of the people to create a just and welcoming society.  If more and more people succumb to this cancer, our democracy will surely die.  Perhaps this is the value of Coates’ book.  It is chemotherapy for the cancer that threatens our country and for that reason it is a work that all students should study and openly discuss even if it makes them feel guilty.

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