Grand Theories of Everything

In the United States we have often seen our country as destined for greatness and we often see great success as a guarantee in our own lives. There is something special about being American and about living in the middle or upper class in our society. Many people see their success and place in society as evidence of their own greatness, ignoring the fact that much of their success is random. Ta-Nehisi Coats looks at these perspectives in his book, Between the World and Me, and examines the way that our history set up our country at the expense of black people.


In a letter to his son looking at national attitudes today he writes, “We live in a ‘goal-oriented’ era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything. But some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms. This rejection was a gift from your grandparents, who never tried to console me with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preordained American glory.” Coats is arguing that the general approach most people have when looking at America, our nation’s role in the world, and our lives within our country is to see our success as a guarantee, somehow guided by a divine plan. In reality, according to Coats, American success is in no way guaranteed, and was kickstarted two hundred years ago by the exploitation of slave labor. “America understands itself as God’s handiwork,” he writes, “but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.”


Coats looks at the exploitation of slaves and the discrimination and inequities suffered by black men and women brought to this continent during the slave trade and sees connections to our lives today. After slavery ended, black men and women were still exploited in many ways, denied opportunities, restricted in where they could live, and often not able to advance in careers. The criminal justice system often singled out black men for crimes that occurred in equal numbers between black and white men, limiting freedoms and creating a caste-like system in our country.


It was this historical vision that eliminated the view of America as a country destined for greatness. Coats absolutely sees great possibilities for our country, but his visions are sobered by the realization that American exceptionalism is partly random and partly driven by the huge sacrifices and work of the oppressed. There is no mystical force pushing any of us individually or collectively toward greatness, there are only our decisions, our reactions, and the tremendous work of only a few to propel us.


When you abandon religious views, you stop asking how things are ‘supposed’ to turn out, and you give up the question of why a higher power would decide that things ‘should’ be certain way. This perspective contributes to Coats’ ability to see the world clearly, and to see not just the tremendous decisions and incredible men that led our country from its inception, but also the lives lost and the injustice suffered by countless men and women who have held up our nation all while being scorned and rejected. His views align with those of Joseph Ellis, whose book The Quartet I recently finished. Ellis looked at how four men, Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay brought about the constitution as we know it today, and while he did not focus on the inequities of slavery, he did acknowledge how such a system allowed for our countries founding, and he did acknowledge that the visions and efforts of a few drove the true change and better future of our country. The decisions of our founding fathers were certainly, in Ellis’ view, not providential (as we like to believe looking back at history) but political and human, and they made decisions which sealed the fate of black men and women and elevated the opportunities for white men and women. Coats and Ellis both understood that it was luck, decisions, and efforts which afforded our country the comfort experienced today, not a pre-ordained destiny of greatness. Coats however, goes further in his writing and acknowledges the crucial role that exploitation played and has continued to play in shaping America and allowing for some people to exceed.


I am in a program for a Masters in Public Administration at the University of Nevada, Reno and the program has helped me better understand and view the choices we have decided to make as a society. Before entering the program I approached politics the way I approached most sciences, believing that there was a single best way, or a single answer to the great questions of how should society organize itself and how we decide who gets what, when, and why. My program has helped me see to what extent our society is built on choices, and how much subjectivity goes into the choices we make. As I read back through the sections I highlighted from Cory Booker’s United, which I read before starting the program, I see how my change in thinking about these questions impacts the way I think about the political questions Booker raises.
Booker quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his book to say, “I think America must see riots do not develop out of thin air,” he said. “Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots … social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
Dr. King’s quote shows the decisions our country had made up to the 1960s and how they led to a situation where riots regarding racial tensions erupted. Society had chosen to organize itself in a way that limited the rights and freedoms of some and protected the status of others. Inequity led to social unrest. Society’s decisions led to its problems.
Our country today faces similar racial tensions, but they are not well understood and racial tensions today are downplayed by those who do not feel the effects of discrimination directly. Our country has decided to continue arresting minority populations at higher levels than white people, and we have decided to segregate ourselves (based on economic mobility) and create neighborhoods of deep poverty. Some of these decisions can be understood by looking at human nature and the tribal tendencies and reactions that we all share, but ultimately we should recognize that intentional or not, it is our decisions that make the world we live in.
As a society, we could decide to criticize those who riot and those who challenge social order and speak out against perceived injustices. This does not just apply to racial minorities who riot, but to those who find such displeasure with the system. We should evaluate the choices we are making and try to better understand what choices on our end create the situation that we dislike socially. Perceived inequities are real to the people who experience them, even if they do not seem to be legitimate to others, and likely do result from real actions taken by real people.
I would argue, and I think Booker would agree, that we must look at those that we condemn and better understand the forces that push them toward riot or despair. From this point we can better understand how our actions fit in with the world that has created challenges and obstacles for so many people. During this process we need to be aware of our own values and judgements, recognizing that the choices we make could be the result of our own prejudice.