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The Hypocrisy and Tyranny of ‘Who We Are’

Listening to Fox News Democratic contributor Jessica Tarlov condemn Trump for what he might or might not have said about certain Third World countries, I began to gag when a now-familiar phrase was uttered: “This is not who we are as a people.” Tarlov had already reeled off all the bad things we were not, such as homophobic and drawers of distinctions between ethnicities and genders, all of which apparently run counter to our heritage and are un-American. Indeed any time we deviate from the positions that our national media and public educators associate with being “who we are,” we become un-American. Perhaps anyone who violates these standards should be dragged before the modern equivalent of the House Un-American Activities Committee, although being destroyed by the media socially and professionally may do just as well for our anti-patriotic lowlifes.

It seems statements can only contradict “who we are” if they’re expressed past the point in time that the media decided they were no longer allowed. So President Clinton was not being homophobic when he pushed successfully for the Defense of Marriage Act. [1] That’s because he did that in 1996, before gay marriage became an integral part of “who we are.” And Richard Durbin was not being un-American when he called for ending “chain migration” on the floor of the Senate in 2010 [2], since the Left had not yet made the term and the policy it refers to incompatible with “who we are.” Durbin would later go after President Trump for using that exact same expression because it offends black citizens whose ancestors “were brought here in chains.” Ditto when the very liberal Senator Edward Kennedy assured critics [3] of the 1965 immigration reform bill that the legislation would not “upset the ethnic mix” in the United States and would “not inundate America with immigrants from…the most populated and economically deprived nations of Africa and Asia.” Back then, the left could say such things without being in violation of “who we are.” That’s because it was not yet going after Donald Trump.

I would also note that those who define “who we are” invariably throw out large chunks of American history in order to make their concept fit reality. Yet those same people also rage nonstop against all the bad things that used to go on in this country before they and their friends took charge. In the bad old days, that is, before the day before yesterday, this country had anti-sodomy and anti-miscegenation laws and treated women socially and even legally differently from men. We’re also reminded that there used to be slavery in the United States, and that the Left wants us to atone incessantly for our original sin of racial oppression. We’re required to pull down the monuments erected to Confederate heroes because these once-widely celebrated figures, we’re told, betrayed whatever we are as a nation.

Never mind that Robert E. Lee was praised as a great American by post-Civil War presidents up to and including Bill Clinton. Like Columbus, Teddy Roosevelt, and some of our founders, Lee, it is now claimed, was not loyal to “who we are,” presumably in contrast to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton who supposedly model the American heritage. We might ask if Bill Clinton was in line with “who we are” when as governor of Arkansas he signed bills [4] declaring Lee’s birthday a state holiday and honoring Confederate Flag Day. It must have been okay when he supported those measures, since Tarlov and her colleagues had still not devised their latest version of our eternal American identity.

change_me

Sometimes the sticky question of how this recently invented heritage was turned into historic reality is addressed with another rhetorical phrase: “We all agreed as a people” to do this or that. When I first heard George Will utter that phrase with some regularity on a Sunday morning NBC discussion program, I shouted back at my TV: “I didn’t agree to anything! Nobody asked my opinion!” Will’s haughtily delivered fiction smacked of Soviet-style manipulation. In former communist countries councils of the working class were often called and the attendees required to affirm the decisions reached by party elites. Even though consensus had been reached in advance, the masses were expected to think of the elites’ opinion as something they had arrived at on their own.

What Tarlov and Will really mean to tell us is that certain elites, who know what is best for all of us, have decided what our heritage should be and which social reforms we should unanimously endorse. Perhaps they’re right in believing that the populace can’t be trusted to deal with these matters. But then they should openly say so. Don’t invent popular affirmations for what elites decide for us, and don’t create a constantly changing narrative about “who we are.”

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents [5]. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.

40 Comments (Open | Close)

40 Comments To "The Hypocrisy and Tyranny of ‘Who We Are’"

#1 Comment By Vvictor On January 23, 2018 @ 2:17 am

I pity your students at Elizabethtown College.

#2 Comment By who we aren’t On January 23, 2018 @ 4:43 am

Your fault for listening to Fox News, Professor. I’d add that Fox News isn’t “who we are” either, being an outpost of global Murdochland. Neither is CNN nor the New York Times, nor the Washington Post, and it seems pretty unlikely that anyone named “Jessica Tarlov” is “who we are” either. The problem with the media being in the hands of alien globalists, neocons, and foreigners of various description is that it’s almost impossible to tell “who we are” anymore.

But of course if you say maybe we ought to kick these people out of the country, so that we could go back to being Americans again, I guess they’d tell you that’s not “who we are” …

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 23, 2018 @ 6:04 am

Laugh. I thought if I slept on it, my consternation over the idea that “same sex relational marriage” is integral to our way of life. I can’t. I won’t. It’s not. There’s a difference in silence for fear of ridicule and accepting for granted that such practice is integral.

– the entire notion remains a tad off kilt for me.

#4 Comment By tz On January 23, 2018 @ 7:29 am

This is like one of those click-through EULAs or credit card “agreements”.

The Social Contract can be modified at any time at our (the elites in the Swamp’s) discretion, and you agree to abide by it no matter what.

And that is why we have a cold civil war. Hillary’s version of the social contract is utterly different than Trump’s.

And from aliens to LGBTQ, it has gone from
We want to be tolerated.
We want to be accepted.
We want to make it illegal for you not to accept us, but we don’t have to accept or tolerate you.

So now it is who is going to force the other into the closet, and I personally as a Christian have no trouble shoving Gays back there if the alternative is to have public parades with floats where they are engaging in bizarre sex acts in front of children, and because I object are trying to shove me into a closet.

#5 Comment By William K. On January 23, 2018 @ 8:08 am

That was a lot of words to say you support the traitorous Confederacy. When you lose you don’t get to put up monuments. Especially when you start a civil war because you are scared you won’t have African-Americans to beat, rape, and kill.

#6 Comment By connecticut farmer On January 23, 2018 @ 8:29 am

Dr. Gottfried hit a home run in that last paragraph, particularly with “Perhaps they’re right in believing that the populace can’t be trusted to deal with these matters. But then they should openly say so”, the operative phrase being “they should openly say so.” The problem is that if they do, they would be charged with being–elitist.

There is nothing phonier than an elitist who feigns solidarity with the masses.

#7 Comment By Mike Garrett On January 23, 2018 @ 8:46 am

Because the boys were thrown off a cliff if not perfect at birth, the women in Sparta were more numerous and ultimately more powerful. They shamed men on the street and not out in the field with their military unit, fanned the aggressiveness of the state. Over time the number of men became less and less until they were overwhelmed by the people that had enslaved.

Women and homosexuals ordinarily make up more than a majority of the society, so naturally in a perfect democracy they eventually take control. The Athenians were awful toward their own allies, murdering the men and enslaving all the women and children on Melos, for example. The whole Athenian democracy experiment was totally gone in under 200 years, and the Spartan farce lasted for an even shorter time. The real shame is that they were never taken over and civilised by the far more literate and sophisticated Persians, you know, the people of the Magi.

#8 Comment By Professor Nerd On January 23, 2018 @ 10:07 am

So you’re saying we should take constant polls on “who we are” so we can get your opinion on everything?

But I agree this is an overused phrase that could use more historical context. We are a confused, messy, violent, irascible country. The Sons of Liberty were a rough bunch….and so are “we.”

#9 Comment By andy On January 23, 2018 @ 10:23 am

We can thank Trump for reminding us “who we are.”
The author makes a valid point in reminding us that “Who we are” changes decade by decade, but anyone who thought that “we” are kind, merciful, and forbearing has now been saved from that misconception and thoroughly reminded that “We” as a nation are also brutal, rude, and selfish.
Good to remember- we’re exceptional, indeed, but we have no monopoly on the better qualities of a nation.

#10 Comment By Michael Kenny On January 23, 2018 @ 10:52 am

Small point of historical accuracy. “Like Columbus … Lee, it is now claimed, was not loyal to “who we are”.” Columbus wasn’t an American and died long before the US was ever created. Indeed, he died not even knowing that he had discovered a new continent! It’s hard to see therefore how he could be regarded as either loyal or disloyal to any American value or identity.

#11 Comment By John C. On January 23, 2018 @ 10:52 am

I don’t think the root of the problem we face is public commentators taking license with concepts of national identity.

But it’s a great way to raise the ire of the “party faithful”. To what end? There is no stated alternative here, just frustrated criticism.

I’m sorry if this seems harsh, because I think the piece is somewhat thought provoking and well written, but I can get fired up about this kind of thing reading anything from CCN or Fox news or (gulp, really sorry for saying this) Breitbart.

Policy solutions, reference to thought leaders that can extract us from this morass, those are what I come to TAC for.

#12 Comment By b. On January 23, 2018 @ 11:39 am

We certainly do not need more manufactured narratives about “who we are” courtesy of one elite or interested group or the other.

I fully support the notion that this nation needs a hard-eyed look and an honest accounting of Who We Really Are.

Traditionally, this is done as Truth&Reconciliation, or, in cases of exceptional body counts, as Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung.

The last two years have been a wonderfully clarifying intermission in the bipartisan, self-congratulatory theater of the absurd that makes for the histories this nation tells itself. We need more of this.

#13 Comment By b. On January 23, 2018 @ 11:43 am

“Perhaps anyone who violates these standards should be dragged before the modern equivalent of the House Un-American Activities Committee..”

… to kneel right next to Kaepernick.

Nicely done, Rove would be proud. Right on!

#14 Comment By Youknowho On January 23, 2018 @ 12:16 pm

Alas “Who we are” is tied up inexorably with American exceptionalism. We are the best country in the world. We are the bulkwark of Freedom, the beacon of Democracy, and are schocked that the people we want to impress as to how wonderful we are, call us on our hypocrisy. Thus in the nineteenth century crowned heads laughed at our pretensions of freedom while maintaining slavery – and many pointed out that Russia abolished slavery before we did and did not need a civil war to do it.

It is just a case of “what will the neighbors thing” elevated to international relations.

If you want to impress others, you have to live, or at least appear to live

#15 Comment By collin On January 23, 2018 @ 12:44 pm

Never mind that Robert E. Lee was praised as a great American by post-Civil War presidents up to and including Bill Clinton.

Maybe the definition of ‘Who we are’ started changing in 1965 when the Civil Rights Voting Act was signed or in 1954 with the Birmingham Bus Strike. No longer did the US look upon the Civil War as a battle against brothers but it was a battle that included the African-American slaves as part of Who we are. (And wasn’t Shelley Foote biggest complaint about Burns Civil War how much the war was about slavery?) And it is taking several generations to adjust to this new definition to where a former governor of Arkansas born in 1947 might modify his views of Who We Are 70 years later after being President and living another 18 years. I tend not be against the Confederacy but I find weird how popular the Confederacy and the Confederate Flag for some people.

#16 Comment By connecticut farmer On January 23, 2018 @ 1:48 pm

@Youknowwho

The debate over so-called “American exceptionalism is actually an old one.No less than John Adams thought that it was nonsense on stilts. His fencing partner, Jefferson, would take exception (no pun intended) to that sentiment.

#17 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 23, 2018 @ 5:56 pm

I know who I am, and I suspect I know who those who spount this contradictory inanity are, too. As an American Indian, with apologies to Jay Silverheels, I can also ask,what do you mean, “we?”

Indeed, they don’t ask, but they tell.

#18 Comment By Thrice A Viking On January 23, 2018 @ 6:23 pm

William K., this country was started as treason to the British crown and Parliament. The American “patriots” may have had better motives than the their Confederate counterparts, but their cause was nonetheless traitorous.
You’re right that the losers don’t get to put up monuments to their side. To put that into historical perspective, that was the reason the Czarist regime had no such privilege in Russia, nor Weimar in Nazi Germany. That is, victors’ justice can be good, bad, or indifferent.

And one thing that could be stressed more: the South was correct that the North was not abiding by its constitutional duties. There was a passage in it that demanded the return of escaped slaves, and Northern states were negligent in enforcing it on operators of the Underground Railroad. I’m very happy that it was superseded by the post-Civil War amendments, but it still was a thorn in the side of the Southerners. They apparently felt that the North was the one who had betrayed, and continued to betray, the Constitution under which we are all bound. Again, the passage shouldn’t have been there, nor should slavery have ever existed, IMO. But from their perspective, it made a lot of sense to blame the North for their flouting of the Constitution.

#19 Comment By TG On January 23, 2018 @ 7:24 pm

“It may appear to be the interest of the rulers, and the rich of a state, to force population [editor: that is, cause it to increase too rapidly, as by importing massive numbers of third-world refugees], and thereby lower the price of labour, and consequently the expense of fleets and armies, and the cost of manufactures for foreign sale; but every attempt of the kind should be carefully watched and strenuously resisted by the friends of the poor, particularly when it comes under the deceitful guise of benevolence…”
T.R. Malthus, “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, 1798

Bottom line: it’s all about cheap labor. Follow the money. Truly massive profits can be made by replacing people making $30/hour with people making $5/hour. And the rich will scream anything at maximum volume in order to silence or cow any opposition.

#20 Comment By prdoucette On January 23, 2018 @ 8:00 pm

The media simply reflects who we are. No media has the ability to tell us who we are. Each of us choose our preferred media source based on our own perceptions of how that chosen media source reflects how we perceive ourselves to be.

#21 Comment By Forrestry On January 24, 2018 @ 2:47 am

@William K – “That was a lot of words to say you support the traitorous Confederacy. “

“Traitorous Confederacy”, eh? So what do we call the northern government that put foreigners in uniform and ordered them to kill native born Americans? Seems like the purest form of treason to me, hiring tens of thousands of foreigners, many of whom couldn’t even speak English, to kill your own people.

“When you lose you don’t get to put up monuments. “

Except that we did get to put them up, didn’t we? Lots of them. Indeed, most of them are still up, and they’ll likely still be there long after you’re dead and forgotten. There’s a reason for that, you know.

“Especially when you start a civil war because you are scared you won’t have African-Americans to beat, rape, and kill.”

Wow. You know even more about the causes of the war than you know about who gets to put up monuments.

#22 Comment By we aren’t the world On January 24, 2018 @ 4:16 am

@prdoucette wrote “The media simply reflects who we are.”

The media do not “reflect” us, instead they project what they want us to be, or to become. The media generally strike me as contemptuous and impatient with what we actually are, in part because they themselves are increasingly alien and foreign.

#23 Comment By The Scientist 880 On January 24, 2018 @ 5:10 am

A professor with a PhD from Yale is railing against “media elites” you and Pat Buchanan must be good friends. This faux populist thing is real popular on the right.

#24 Comment By midcan5 On January 24, 2018 @ 7:23 am

The comments made so much more sense than the OP. ‘Elite media’ is just another dog whistle meme used to counter thinking.

#25 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 24, 2018 @ 9:27 am

““Traitorous Confederacy”, eh? So what do we call the northern government that put foreigners in uniform and ordered them to kill native born Americans? Seems like the purest form of treason to me, hiring tens of thousands of foreigners, many of whom couldn’t even speak English, to kill your own people.”

I see this fence toy are trying to straddle. and it just can’t be done. Native Americans were not considered citizens, hence the use of reservations and rhetoric of nations. While I think it a shameful history – it just not the same. The nations fought against the US, I think it’s fair to say with good reason, but they did not fight as US citizens against their own country. There were exceptions, but in general —

No. The events of the civil war pitted citizens turning on their own country with violence.
_______________________

And they were not traitors by some new standard — Major Ulysses s. Grant thought they were traitors and initially thought they should be treated as such.

#26 Comment By The Scientist 880 On January 24, 2018 @ 10:42 am

The easy answer to why views have changed about who we are has an very simply answer which I’m sure the author already knows. The political consensus as far civil war mamorials and don’t ask don’t tell and all the rest was set by white people, more specifically white men and the opinions of everyone else didn’t matter. Times have changed Today. Black people certainly didn’t enjoy civil war mamorials at any point in American history.

#27 Comment By Rob G On January 24, 2018 @ 11:23 am

“was set by white people, more specifically white men and the opinions of everyone else didn’t matter. Times have changed Today”

I pray God you’re better at science than you are at historical analysis.

#28 Comment By The Scientist 880 On January 24, 2018 @ 12:26 pm

“I pray God you’re better at science than you are at historical analysis.”

Why don’t you provide some data that proves me wrong Rob? I know for a fact that blacks didn’t like the confederacy. There’s a reason why no Republican has won 20% of the black vote since Nixon’s first run for office and every non-white group not only votes against republicans but does so by massive margins regardless of how educated they are (Indians are the wealthiest and most educated demographic with a median income of $100k and are the most democratic Asian demographic) or how long they have been in America.

#29 Comment By One Guy On January 24, 2018 @ 3:10 pm

I thought only neo-conservatives could tell us what “Real Americans” are.

#30 Comment By Marching Home On January 24, 2018 @ 7:37 pm

@EliteCommInc – I think “Forrestry” was referring to Irish and German immigrants, some of whom were taken right off the boats in New York, put in Federal uniforms, and sent down to VA or TN. Not Native Americans, who in any case fought on both sides.

#31 Comment By Michael Powe On January 24, 2018 @ 7:45 pm

A lecture on “who we are” from a guy who brags about writing 2 dozen books and hasn’t held a real job in his entire adult life. What’s next, a lecture on the virtue of private enterprise and capitalism?

“Who we are” is a nation bent on restoring a racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and sexist past. I myself think this effort will fail, and am glad it’s so.

Those longing for that golden age of whites first & women out of sight are advised to start shopping for their private islands.

#32 Comment By Rob G On January 24, 2018 @ 7:49 pm

“There’s a reason why no Republican has won 20% of the black vote since Nixon’s first run for office and every non-white group not only votes against republicans but does so by massive margins regardless of how educated they are (Indians are the wealthiest and most educated demographic with a median income of $100k and are the most democratic Asian demographic) or how long they have been in America.”

Same with lots of white immigrants and their descendants. So what? Hate to break it to you but conservatism and the GOP are not coterminous. There are considerable numbers of conservatives that couldn’t care less about the Republican party, myself among them.

#33 Comment By VikingLS On January 24, 2018 @ 8:38 pm

The Union is who we are, but, since the Union conquered and retook the south, so is the Confederacy. if you don’t like that, well the answer would have been to simply let the south go. Reabsorbing the south means getting their baggage in the bargain.

Native Americans are who we are, as is THEIR legacy of abducting people into slavery, genocide (ask the Crow or the Pawnee), and torture.

The penniless immigrant is who we are, but so are the Know-Nothings.

History is not a morality tale, and no country’s identity is just the part of that story you like. (Or, and this is often done to other countries, not just the parts you despise.)

We had plenty of this “so and so don’t believe in America” BS coming from the right during the Bush years. Many of the people now claiming that Trump isn’t really America now were the same ones targeted then.

What is hateful unto you, do not do unto others, all else is commentary.

#34 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 25, 2018 @ 2:44 am

“I think “Forrestry” was referring to Irish and German immigrants, some of whom were taken right off the boats in New York . . .”

Hmmmm, I am certainly open to have misunderstood. I will defer to the initial commenters’ intent if willing to correct my understanding.

appreciate it your observation.

#35 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 25, 2018 @ 2:53 am

“since the Union conquered and retook the south, so is the Confederacy. if you don’t like that, well the answer would have been to simply let the south go. Reabsorbing the south means getting their baggage in the bargain.”

History can in fact be a morality tale. While history is certainly a telling of who we were and are becoming in the process, the idea of embracing as traitors those who started a war that cost nearly one million lives, as heroes only would be unique. History is also about a correct accounting of events. And those heroes to the south were traitors to the US to a one male and female. So while one might want to merely embrace those traitors as heroes, it’s fair to remember them as traitors. After all, history should not be bound merely by what one likes —-

#36 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 25, 2018 @ 3:06 am

“And they were not traitors by some new standard — Major Ulysses s. Grant thought they were traitors and initially thought they should be treated as such.”

Pres Grant was a Col. when the Civil war broke out not Maj — excuse me. He did consider his former colleagues from West Point as well as the southern rebellion — traitors and traitorous to the country.

Keenly aware that eventually Col. Grant became five star General Grant and Ultimately Commander and Chief.

#37 Comment By The Scientist 880 On January 26, 2018 @ 7:41 am

To Rob,

“Same with lots of white immigrants and their descendants. So what? Hate to break it to you but conservatism and the GOP are not coterminous. There are considerable numbers of conservatives that couldn’t care less about the Republican party, myself among them.”

Most whites vote republican. The exception are Jews. Why does it matter? Because the republicans have already lost millenials and the generation after them that’s why. Whites vote republican 60/40 and constitute 55ish% of millenials (doing this off the top of my head) the generation after millenials is the last majority white generation. Republicans lose non-white voters in this demographic by 4/1 margins at MINIMUM depending on the group. Getting 60% of 55% of the electorate puts you at only 1/3 of the overall vote assuming representative turnout (I know that’s not realistic, just trying to keep it simple). Most kids under 18 will be non-white by 2020 and they won’t be voting republican when they come of age. They will know republicans as the party of Trump only.

#38 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 26, 2018 @ 6:32 pm

“Most kids under 18 will be non-white by 2020 and they won’t be voting republican when they come of age. They will know republicans as the party of Trump only.”

This and the other demographic references are why the party has all but crumbled as to having any serious conservative foundations. They are pandering to demographic assumptions as opposed to trusting that people aren’t completely ignorant of realities.

#39 Comment By Rob G On January 27, 2018 @ 1:22 pm

“They will know republicans as the party of Trump only.”

Sad, but this is a problem why, exactly? The party sidelined the few real conservative instincts it did have a long time ago. It’s now just a broadcaster of a lot of lip service. At any rate contemporary conservatism has no historical memory whatsoever that extends back before Reagan.

#40 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 28, 2018 @ 1:59 pm

“The party sidelined the few real conservative instincts it did have a long time ago.”

Sadly, I think this is so.