American Nationhood Had a Top-Down Start

The human mind seems to be very comfortable with dichotomies, and we are very good at telling ourselves stories to make dichotomies work. We really prefer ‘either-or’ situations and ‘this-or-that’ decisions over settings that are more ambiguous and require decisions between multiple options and interpretations. The way we understand and view history, and how our history has shaped our present moment, is one area where our dichotomous though preferences can arise.

 

In his book, The Quartet, Joseph Ellis looks at the founding of the nation and offers some insight regarding the creation of the Constitution which runs against the vision of our founding that we as a democracy like to believe.  In our country, we like to believe that American democracy was inevitable, a clear preference advocated by our citizenry, and pushed for by all. We look back at the revolutionary war and our founding and picture masses of people choosing freedom and making the right choices to lead our country to prosperity.

 

The reality however, is that our nation was much more fractious at its founding than the stories we live with, and our history is as full of top down decisions as much as it is full of bottom up preferences. From the very beginning, with the idea of a national government, our actual history has run against what we like to believe as a democracy has been the defining principle of America. Ellis writes, “There was no popular insurgency for a national government because such a thing was not popular.” And he explains that our national government was built because, “a small group of prominent leaders, in disregard of popular opinion, carried the American story in a new direction.” It is interesting to look back at our nation and see the role that popular support played relative to the decisions of an elite. When we think about what our nation stands for and how our government should operate and direct our path, we should remember that in the past we have made more decisions based on more options than the often dichotomous choices we try to chose from today.

 

Continuing on the focus of top down versus bottom up support for a national government, Ellis writes, “The obvious alternative explanation is top-down. All democratic cultures find such explanations offensive because they violate the hallowed conviction that, at least in the long run, popular majorities can best decide the direction that history should take.”

 

To me this is a reminder that if I am not personally involved in studying an issue, and only understand it ephemerally from news and short stories, I probably should not consider my ideas or the popular ideas of citizens to be more valid than the views of experts. It is likely that we are not considering the full range of possibilities, and it is possible that what is popular and desired is not truly the best course of action. I don’t think this means I should remove myself from debate, but that I should spend more energy thinking deeply about the perspectives of competing interests. I may never fully understand the choice in the end, but I should not decide, based on popular opinion, that a decision was either right or wrong.

Remembering Black History in the Face of White History

Throughout his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats is critical of Western History and America’s backstory, particularly because of the way that black people are remembered. The history we know and understand as white people looking back at Western democracy is focused on ourselves, which is to say, white people. The story of black people is viewed through our white cultural lens, and other cultures, Asian, Asian Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, Indian, Native American, and others are only included as short side notes to our own experiences. The result of this is a sense that there is only one culture that matters and has driven the progress of humanity throughout time, the white culture. Writing specifically on how this shapes our current thinking, and providing a black perspective, Coats writes the following in a passage addressed to his son,
“Everyone of any import, from Jesus to George Washington, was white. This was why your grandparents banned Tarzan and the Lone Ranger and toys with white faces from the house. They were rebelling against the history books that spoke of black people only as sentimental “firsts”—first black five-star general, first black congressman, first black mayor—always presented in the bemused manner of a category of Trivial Pursuit. Serious history was the West, and the West was white.”
What our history teaches young white boys and girls is that they descend from those who matter and that they have an important legacy to carry on. What our history teaches those who are not white is that their histories are unimportant and only a side note in the history of human progress. We certainly could not cover everything from every culture in our history classes, but we have decided only to focus on what has made America white, and not on what has made America great. The story of our country has always been about incredible diversity and the societal challenges that have accompanied our demographic realities. It is more comfortable to live in a homogenous society of people with similar backstories, but living and working in a culture that is built on differences pushes for new advancements, perspectives, and growth in a way that homogeneity can not imagine. We should do more to understand how the histories of black people and people of other minorities are the histories of the United States. The history of race in America is more complicated than a story of continually greater acceptance and inclusion, and we should be honest about the wretched realities of slavery in the past, and how we have been slow to truly accept other people throughout our history.