Friday, March 4, 2022

#63 / An Equivalency Error


The IMDb is the "Internet Movie Data Base," an online repository of information about movies. The IMDb will tell you who starred, who produced, who directed, etc. Of course, you can find out about movies in other places, too, and I usually find out about movies by reading the five newspapers I confront every morning. Or, I might find out about a movie by reading a review in The New Yorker magazine. And there are other ways to find out about movies, too. There are the movie reviews in Bratton Online, for instance, and it remains true that word of mouth is generally a pretty good source of information. 

On February 4, 2022, I heard about a new movie by reading a review in the San Francisco Chronicle. The movie I heard about was Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America. You can click this link if you'd like to read the Chronicle review yourself, but be apprised that non-subscribers may be shut out; my apologies if that includes you. 

From the Chronicle review, and from doing additional reading in the IMDb, and elsewhere, I gather that this new movie should probably be on our "must see" list. Here's a bit of what the Chronicle has to say about the movie:

"Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” — opening in Bay Area theaters Friday, Feb. 4 — grew out of a family tragedy when Jeffery Robinson and his wife took in his 13-year-old nephew, Matthew, after the boy’s mother died.
Becoming a parent to a Black youth made Robinson fearful of what the teen might face out in the world but also spurred the civil rights attorney to study the United States’ long history of racism.
“I was trained as a criminal defense lawyer, as a trial lawyer,” Robinson told The Chronicle during a recent visit to the Bay Area with the Kunstler sisters. “And one of the things I was trained to do is to take a complex set of facts and put it on a timeline just to see what it tells you. When I did that, it was just clear, an unbroken chain of events from 1619 to the present.”
That timeline became the basis for Robinson’s lecture, tracing the history of American racism and white supremacy from colonial days up through our present time. Then a deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union, he started giving the talk in various venues, which brought him to the attention of the Kunstlers.
I majored in history in college, and I think it is vitally important to pay attention to, and to understand history - particularly "our" history, the history of who "we" are, the history of the families, nationalities, and religions with which we identify, or have identified. Americans need to know about the history of racism in America, and I gather that this new movie, Who We Are, is a particularly powerful history lesson. 
I have a hesitation about the movie, though, and it's a hesitation about the title. 
Who We Are, as a title, suggests that the racism we see in so much of American history defines an essential element of what it means to be an American. It seems to suggest that Americans are racist, inevitably and to the core - since using a "being verb" denotes "realities" that are indubitably and inevitably true.
I have talked about this "equivalency error" before. The fact that we can (and do) say that something "is" some noun or adjective, is usually understood to define a "reality" that is "essential," as though that "is" statement defines a "truth" that goes to a fundamental, unchangeable characteristic. 

In fact though, whenever an "is" statement is applied to a human reality, or to a human being, the verb does not denote a fundamental, unalterable truth about the thing, or person, or situation being discussed. Whatever exists in the human world can be changed. Maybe not easily, and maybe not ever, of course - but "possibility" is always the real "truth" about everything that pertains to our human world, and to ourselves. 
I do think people tend to do what is "expected" of them, and a movie that documents the racism of our past and present - but that suggests by its title that this might be some essential reality that will be with us forever - sends a message, on a very subliminal level, that nothing is going to change. 
The movie title could be read (and I fear will be read) as a statement that our historic racism is "baked in" and inevitable - that this is just the way "we are." 
That's not the message that this movie intends to dispatch to America, I am pretty sure, so I'd prefer some alternative formulation. How about this title: "What We Did." Or this one: "What We Have Done." Or, perhaps even better: What Have We Done?"
The racism that has been with us from the start (from 1619, according to one recent telling of the story), must be overcome. But we must not ever stipulate that we "are" racist, inevitably and forever.
In fact, the very opposite is what we need to assert. This is, in fact, what the United States of America has always - since the very beginning - said about its national identity:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Let's not subjugate ourselves to an "equivalency error" that might deflect us from the commitment that brought the United States of America into existence. 

The self-evident truth about who "we are," as articulated with such great power in The Declaration of Independence, is the proper place to seek for self-identity. 

And that is because who "we are," in the end, is who we choose to be. Nothing about any one of us, or about any human reality, is inevitable, and it is way behind time to make this nation into what it proclaimed it was at the inception. 

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