“It was we, the people, not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union.” – Susan B. Anthony.
In an earlier blog entry, I wrote the following:
“A pundit, the former United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, Barbara McQuade, said on MSNBC tonight, 3/29/19, that A.G. Barr works for the people, not the administration. What is missing is just what I am getting at in the beginning of this essay: just who are the people? What did Jefferson mean by “the people?” If he didn’t mean the slaves or the propertyless or women, then why should Barr think “the people” means anything other than old Republican White men like himself?”
I write this entry on the weekend that we had 2 mass shootings with 29 dead……………… No, no. That’s not right. I googled mass shootings THIS WEEK and found more going back no more than four months equaling so many deaths I lost count. So who is doing this? Enough of them have political motives that we need to look at the current political climate.
This is Monday now. Just cast yourself back ten years, fifteen years, twenty years, and imagine how you would have responded to someone telling you what America would be like only three years after our first Black president had left office. Three years! And it is not Trump; it is the demons, the deplorables, the fearful, the haters, the bigots, the ignorant, who have been loosed by Trump upon this country. As seen in the first paragraph above, the notion of just who “the people” are has been up for grabs since the first settlers arrived in New England and the central, Chesapeake colonies and later in the Deep South. Several books have been written about who these people were and what they brought with them. One thing we have to get straight here, take away from the rhetorical hyperbole: racism was not one of the things they brought with them. More on that……….. because if we do not get away from essentialism in our discussions of people and their cultures, we might as well just throw our hands up and grab for our guns.
Any perusal of substantial history books will show that in the earliest days of this country, the 1600s, towns and cities were being established along with governments. In all of that can be found records of the interactions among “the people.” Most of “the people” were poor and uneducated and lived under oppressive laws and ordinances designed to aid the wealthy and extract labor from the rest. Some were slaves and some were quasi slaves, indentured servants and the like. But our high school history books not only smooth over the intricacies of all that in the interest of space (have you recently looked at your children’s or grandchildren’s high school history texts, the size and heft of them, I mean?), they gloss over anything that would put the U.S. in a bad light; witness the backlash to the 1619 Project. I have the urge to put all these phrases in quotes because they are all freighted with social and political meanings that go beyond their nominal meaning, their dictionary meaning (note the recent spate of warnings about looking up “concentration camp” in the dictionary and calling “case closed” as if this were all a game of Scrabble). But “bad light” means anything that either disagrees with your politics or reminds you of unpleasantness. Often it is said that both the left and the right (more quote marks) commit equal offenses but in this case it is true; everyone politically active person wants his viewpoint highlighted.
So our early history must be made to fit current events, the act of “presentism.” The truth is that the colonies were a stew and in some ways a melting pot. Presentism, in which we value the melting pot, projects the pot back only to our founding as a nation, but in the early colonial period, in fact, nobody cared much who drank with who or fornicated with who, as long as the family estate in the broadest sense went unaffected. As you can find in this blog in a number of entries, segregation was not the rule until the later 1600s, primarily after Bacon’s Rebellion showed how greatly mixed the rebels were: servants and even one aristocrat, slaves and freed slaves, Africans and Europeans and Native Americans, just a scary mix that needed to be separated so they could be neutralized. One way was to pit them against each other. The course and success of that effort has been described in several places including on this blog e.g. Lillian Smith’s depiction of a “conversation” among three people: a Southern White landowner, a poor Southern White and a poor Southern Black.
Back to who “the people” are. Clearly, the people are those persons who can be counted on to uphold the status quo, protect wealth and property (note that despite claims that the nation was irretrievably founded on slavery, the Founders embraced some anti-slavery sentiments and refused to use the word “property” because at that time it brought within its scope slaves and to protect property meant to protect slavery), and defend property and its owners. Enter the militias and patrolers aka “pattyrollers.” Anyone who sees no connection between current policing practices and the patrollers is willfully blind.
Now, to Mitch McConnell. Moscow Mitch, as he has been dubbed recently, cares deeply about keeping power in the hands of the elites. Any attempt to attribute racist views to him might be difficult considering his long marriage to a Chinese woman. But that is because of the way we frame racism, finding any fissure in the complaints about racism as evidence of absence of racism or, as Haney-Lopez informs us, absence of malice equates to absence of racism. That would mean that the store manager who won’t hire Blacks because his employees would object and assures us he would be glad to hire Blacks if it weren’t for that, is not practicing racism. Nonsense.
The last couple of sentences were written today, March 23, 2020, the year of the Corona Virus. Struggling with my views on who “the people” are, I run into what I guess I set up as two categories: Basics and Pat’s World View, the former arguing for little change and the latter for lots of change. The way of humans seems to be to turn to leaders and there is always someone who wants to be leader, else why would “line leader” be a sought after position in elementary school? Yet the immediate context in which this jockeying for position, status, prestige, power, takes places changes constantly. My wife’s cousin remarked the other day on how the villas in Italy he so loved had very plain, even junky and run-down exteriors to throw the tax man off. I remarked that that goes back to Roman times. It is pretty universal because the taxes did not go to serve the tax payers but to enhance the prestige, status, and power of the king. If you could get next to the king, you not only shared in his largesse squeezed out of the lower orders but escaped the tax man yourself. It is, then, a kind of dance, pirouetting around the center of power, trying not to get too near so as to avoid being singed but not too far so as to lose out on opportunity.
Must it always be so? Democracy seems to be a way to break that cycle: the mass of people pays taxes but has a voice in how they are spent. This reduces the need to hide assets, to hide one’s light under a bushel to avoid detection, or to suck up to the Big Man. Yet currently in the U.S. we see formerly respected people crawling to Trump, contorting themselves to avoid his displeasure, all the while promoting the explosive concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. One author opined that the real battle may yet be between the wealthiest 1% and the top sliver of that 1%, the wealthiest 0.1%, something like the King John and the barons. We the people make up the wreckage, the collateral damage of that power struggle.
Sadly, it seems the old cycle is coming around and our vaunted democracy may be just a passing phase as so many forms of government have been in China’s long history. Read China’s history and you will see the parade of fascism, feudalism, federalism, democracy, communism, anarchy, legalism, and many other forms, all which devolved into what may be the default state of the human race: autocracy. Ji is now president for life. Which, of course, calls into question just how long his life will be. Some autocrats seem to have managed quite well, others finding themselves dangling at the end of a rope.
This 21st century plague (my granddaughter just texted me that confirmed cases here in Arizona just doubled overnight) may push us back to recovering our values, lost in the era of Trump, but that only begs the question that we want to recover them and brings us back to the original question here, just who are “we the people?”
Currently I’m reading a variety of books simultaneously and several deal with religion in one way or the other (early Christianity, New England Puritans, Buddhism, syncretic Afro-Caribbean religions). Very often, religion plays a major role in government and the state, providing sanctions for the state’s authority. Recall that you need a state, which is territory over which the state’s writ applies, and then authority, and then accountability with means for holding members of society, including its leadership, accountable. That is why an upstart religion is viewed as a threat to the state and why Christianity reached an accommodation with the state, including the state religion. The Puritans had a hard time doing that and so quite a few left England and put their stamp on the U.S.
July 10, 2020 I started this back in August of 2019, almost a year ago. Now the virus and Trump, working closely together, have revealed a lot of what I was saying about who “the People” is.
July 21 Let’s reverse the telescope and start with ME. The saying in campaigns is you have to make the voters believe you “care about people like me.” Well, who is me? That is, who is that grainy dot whose multitudinous numbers make up “We the People”? Who counts? The Census says everybody but clearly the issue of identity politics claims to speak up for people who see themselves as members of a group. The group might be workers, plutocrats, Greek-Americans, women, educators, military families…….
July 30, 2020 To continue……….. It is so hard to keep up. Do we follow Trump or Barr? As we imagine what it took John Lewis to offer himself on the altar of justice and love, compassion and patriotism, over and over, to get beaten, reviled, cursed, arrested, beaten some more and to just keep on loving his enemies, we have to look at ourselves. Hard. Painful. Who am I? I am sure not John Lewis and I sure as hell am not Bill Barr. But what makes any of us tick? How does the same country, the same culture kind of, pump out such different people? One a humble man so deeply religious he surpasses the most spiritual of people, the other an arrogant authoritarian with a swagger?
How have people become people in this country? Since Jefferson did not recognize women, Native Americans, Africans, and various Others as “people” but they are now, how did that happen? Mainly, economic and political power. That is why laws prohibiting discrimination in housing, travel, marriage, schooling, etc. and mainly the Voting Rights Act launched African-Americans and Others along with them into the ranks of “people” not too long after women had advanced into that realm through the franchise.
Once basic rights are secured economic power comes. First you get the freedom of movement and residence to secure jobs and property; then you get the vote so politicians have to take you seriously; then you make money so everybody takes you seriously. That is how you become people. But what about, even after middle class status has been achieved, those who maintain old paradigms or, as we used to say in my counseling days, old tapes? Those tapes keep playing a message about Black people based on caste (I’m in the middle of Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste now, a must-read for anyone trying to sort this all out).
Nevertheless, demagoguery still permits the demonizing of some groups, some Others. Nothing brings down the veil of reality more than a good old-fashioned plague. Everybody dies! Immigrants may be dirty, smelly foreigners, but suggest they be sent back and smart people begin ticking off all the workers in their lives who treat them, advise them, shelter them, feed them, and rethink that. Send back the Mexicans and starve. Send back the nurses and doctors and die. Send back the lawyers and accountants and figure out your own finances. How many of our health aides and childcare workers are immigrants, how many teachers are, especially in higher education? Send them back and we wilt.
So they are people, too. In the final analysis the definition of people comes down not to a perception or point of view but to self-assertion. To Jefferson a good many of us would not be people in the sense of We the People, but we have not let that get in our way. No one says, “Well, Jefferson did not mean you.”
Aug. 28, 2020 Kamala Harris, nominated for the Vice-Presidency of the U.S., invokes her opening statement identifying herself in court: Kamala Harris for the people. That is why this question is so important. On another blog post (Twilight of Democracy) I quote Anne Applebaum’s statement about the questions at the heart of her book, Twilight of Democracy, how do we define a nation, who gets to define it, who are we? Exactly my point.
From The Bulwark: “Ronald Brownstein noted the deeper reveal. Her [Kelly Ann Conway] comments, he wrote, were a “incredibly explicit acknowledgement that Trump views himself as the president of red America, w/blue America more like a foreign adversary to be contained and defeated than as residents of the same country.”
Further: “This is the context of our current moment. We are not in this together, because in the eyes of this president more than half the country is either invisible or disposable.” Kind of like Blacks and Whites, huh?
October 17, 2020 Further thoughts on ‘the people.’ The anti-immigration, if not outright anti-immigrant, stance of the GOP comes in a cluster of moves to restrict the ‘people.’ Early in our constitutional history, we did restrict the franchise not only to property owners and free people, but to White people and males. Once we included Black people, Black women still had to wait alongside White women for the vote. So this is nothing new but it is a backward step. Between voter suppression, immigration suppression, disenfranchising felons, refusal to admit D.C. or PR as states, and numerous other maneuvers by Republican dominated legislatures and city councils, the whole point of the GOP effort is to reduce the number of citizens voting, hoping that the residue will be elderly White Christians. The ideal would be to keep states outside the South from voting, something like having to prove your great-great-grandfather voted as a citizen of the Confederacy. Take it further and just say only Republicans can vote.
What brought this on in part was a comment from, I believe, Chris Hayes, that the agenda of conservative judges is to restrict the vote. I never thought of that but the Federalist Society might be a place to look for that. I have their “about us” bookmarked. Furthermore, the dramatic flailing by the GOP to intimidate voters in this election. I will bet anything that there are families discouraging members from voting for fear of violence at the polls. We are being reassured there is nothing to fear even as the president tells the Proud Boys to stand by. Whose head is in the sand?
Today, Jan. 25, 2021, I paraphrase Joy Reid’s statement that the rioters on Jan. 6 believe that the country belongs to them, not to the rest of us. Only to them. They ARE the We, they are THE PEOPLE. It goes back to Sarah Palin’s “real Americans.” It is so fucking obvious who they mean and who they mean to exclude.
Feb. 11, 2020 Eddie Glaude said on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show tonight that one America is dying and one is struggling to be born. That sounds like an accurate statement except we have to ask ourselves just how that old generation has managed to pass down their values to their offspring. My last paragraph goes to that: Sarah Palin’s real Americans. The definition is filled with exceptions and qualifications, all sorts of anomalies, yet there they are, the basics: White and Christian with a firm value of authoritarianism at odds with the idea of America. When confronted with the moral putrescence of their values, they get a sickly smile on their faces and proclaim, “That’s just the way I was raised.” So much for personal responsibility.
Feb. 21, 2020 Fintan O’Toole wrote in the latest New York Review of Books, “The concern is not, at heart, that there are bogus votes, but that there are bogus voters, that much of the US is inhabited by people who are, politically speaking, counterfeit citizens. Unlike us, they do not belong, they cannot be among the “we” who get to choose the king.”
Eddie Glaude wrote in his book on James Baldwin, an author I read a lot of when I was very young, “At the core of this ugly period in our history is the idea that who “we” are as a country is changing for the worse – that “we” are becoming unrecognizable to ourselves.” (p. xx) Here he means the Trumpers who revere a nostalgic vision of America but it applies as well to us liberals to whom the country is becoming unrecognizable. Later he says a writer described to him the shift in Baldwin’s “we” disturbed and settled those who had previously celebrated his genius. To them he had embraced the “prattle” of Black Power.
Which brings us back to Me. I’ve been thinking how so many years ago, three decades at least because Stokely Carmichael’s call for Black Power in the 60s struck me as quite reasonable. I asked my John Bircher employers to tell me which statement of Malcolm X printed in Life magazine was wrong. They could not. Eventually, living in the “Black part of town” (South Phoenix) out of necessity, I saw and heard a lot that convinced me the move into White society was not a workable goal for African-Americans. It took me many years to formulate that position and it has still not jelled, but like my employers, those who are “shocked” at my pessimism are unable to point to positive directions that are not actively being blocked.
Trump was a god-send. He pulled back the bandage so we could see the puss. How much infection is there? More and more, people in ……………… are raising the same issues.
July 3, 2021 Adam Laats, professor at Binghamton U., explains how the culture wars over Critical Race Theory seems to revolve around the fear of White parents that their children will not think about the “We” of We the People means White people and the “they” i.e. not us, are those who are not catalogued as White.