Saturday, March 20, 2021

#79 / That's Not Who We Are


Andrew Marantz, who writes for The New Yorker, has authored a thoughtful video essay, reflecting on the storming of the United States Capitol by an angry mob on January 6th. You can watch this short, four-minute video on YouTube, which I do recommend. Just click on the link above. You can also access the video and Marantz' commentary by clicking on the link below, which will take you to The New Yorker website. Marantz' essay is titled: “'That’s Not Who We Are' Is the Wrong Reaction to the Attack on the Capitol." 

When something horrible happens - as in this case - casting doubt on us collectively, politicians almost always say that what happened was not a fair reflection of who we (the American people) are. "This is not who we are" is the phrase to which Marantz takes exception. It is a well-used phrase, and President Biden provides the contemporary example, to which Marantz is reacting.

In fact, as Marantz points out, an angry mob did, most certainly, invade the Capitol, spurred on by our then president, absolutely intending to disrupt the operations of our democratic government. On what possible basis can we claim that "this is not who we are?" Impliedly, although Marantz never actually says this, Marantz is inviting us to "check the video." It's pretty clear about what happened, and who did it.

Marantz thinks it would be helpful actually to confront "who we are," as the video portrays us, so we might change that reality. Denying the reality is an effort to let us off the hook. As Marantz puts it at the very end of his presentation: 

The long arc of history doesn't just bend itself.

We have to do the work of bending it.

I don't disagree with Marantz. He is right, of course, about our immediate wish, when we have done something wrong, to try to find an excuse that puts us in a better light. We do that individually, quite frequently, and our leaders do it on our behalf when there is some collective failure to behave properly. 

That said, I want to add two thoughts. 

First, let's always be careful when we use words like "is," or "are," as a way to define essential realities - to say what things are true, or are not true. Usually, what we claim to be true, or untrue, is only part of the story. When the president says "that's not who we are," he is both wrong - and right. This principle operates at the individual and the collective level. We are both good, and evil, ingeniously combined. 

Which brings me to my second point. When we judge a person or an event, and issue a pronouncement about what "is" the case, we are acting as though we were scientists taking measurements. We are asserting that our role is life is to act as observers of what we see. But when we, ourselves, are what we are looking at, when other human beings are what we are looking at, we must never forget that we are not things, or objects to be classified and categorized. We are more than observers. We are actors.

When, then, either individually or collectively, we claim that "this is not who we are," we are actually stating our intention not to be that way, now or in the future. Of course, this charitable view of what can be seen as an excuse, is only properly deployed if, truly, the statement is a statement of intention, aimed towards the future.

"That's not who we are" can be more than an "excuse." It can represent our pledge to bend that arc!

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