My father sent me an article from the illustrious New York Times the other day, which posed the question “Who Are We?“. Like so much of what the New York Times publishes, it is steeped in the sort of thinking that left everyone shell shocked on Election Day. If you found yourself saying things like, “I can’t believe it”, “I live in a bubble”, or “I was wrong about human nature after all”, then you also live in this bubble. The view from inside the bubble looks very much like this classic New Yorker illustration:
The essay explores why Obama was dead wrong when he claimed that electing Trump is not “Who We Are.” The core thesis is that the “liberals” do not have a strong narrative about who we are as Americans. “Liberals” are too obsessed with political correctness and lack respect for “the white-male-Protestant-European protagonists to whom, for all their sins, we owe so much of our inheritance.” They have been pressured by the “left-wing” (I thought that was the same thing as liberals?) to be too “anxious about (their) political and cultural progenitors.” The right, even with its “steadily more exclusionary” narrative is still more powerful because it continues to celebrate “Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett and Laura Ingalls Wilder… (and) the Iliadic mythos that grew up around the Civil War.”
Maybe the problem with “liberals” is that we write essays that contain words like “progenitors” and “Iliadic”?
Anyway, this essay is just more evidence that an elite intellectual class on the left still has no idea what normal Americans want on either side of the aisle. Obama’s failure was not that he hadn’t found a magic screenplay that would “correct the story while honoring its full sweep” (whatever that means). The problem was that Obama thought he could tell Americans who they should be. He didn’t inspire them to rise up and become active participants in the making of their own history. Obama never called on the people who voted him into the White House to stand up for his policies, to hold protests or to call their senators.
Noam Chompsky in “Requiem for An American Dream” talked about how FDR told unions to take to the streets and demand his economic reforms. He said, “force me to do it.” As Bernie Sanders likes to put it, “When millions and millions of people rise up and say enough is enough, that is when change will occur.” In fact, Bernie Sanders told the media many times that Obama’s mistake was to try and negotiate on his own once in the White House, rather than capitalizing on his broad base of support to strengthen local and state governments and to support federal legislators on the left and in the middle.
History is not dependent on the relative merits or failings of an elite class of flawed white men. It is not now nor ever has been progressed by “protagonists.” We just think it is because that is the way history is taught. What if, instead, we taught history as a series of movements propelled by a ground swell of vibrant political activism? FDR needed the unions to pass economic reform; women stood outside the White House for 2 1/2 YEARS to get the vote; Lincoln was a third party candidate elected by thousands of citizens united across party lines in their hatred of slavery.
An education like that would send high school students into adulthood with a clear-eyed understanding that political activism is necessary in order for the democracy we celebrate to endure. They would understand that there is no knight in shining armor. They would know that the presidents who eventually signed reform into law were “forced” into it a by a powerful and active citizen class. And, they would know that every freedom gained since the founding of this nation has been bought with the literal blood, sweat, and tears, not of a powerful military, but of brave and humble civilians.
That, my friends, is who we are.