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. 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, 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 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 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.
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. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.