I have often tried to contemplate what David Whyte was saying with this short poem.
This is not
the age of information.
This is not
the age of information.
Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.
This is the time
People are hungry
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.
I thought of it once again when I read this article by David Roberts. While I am loath to consider the possibility that anything good could come from the candidacy of Donald Trump, the light Roberts shines on the divide we’re currently seeing in this country can feed the possibility of creating the kind of understanding we need to move forward.
Roberts starts off by pointing to this admittedly kitschy recording by John Wayne in 1973 – the year that the “Watergate scandal reached its peak. The Vietnam War entered its final throes. The turbulent cultural revolutions of the 1960s had everyone raw-nerved and exhausted.”
Then he says this:
I’ve thought about this song a lot over the years. To me it represents the flip side of white resentment; it’s white nostalgia, a yearning for something lost.
Roberts goes on to discuss how we are psychologically polarized and describes this left/right spectrum:
Think of the spectrum as issuing from our sensitivity to threat. Those who are more sensitive to threat, to negative stimuli in their environment, lean to the right end of the spectrum.
They are likely to value order and tradition over chaos and novelty. They are more attuned to in-group/out-group distinctions and to the purity of the in-group. They prefer clarity to ambiguity, hierarchy to egalitarianism…
It is about living within a social order that makes sense. There is no ambiguity. Everyone knows their purpose, knows their neighbors, and has a common understanding of what America means. Consequently there is an ease and harmony to life. Because people know where they stand and feel secure, small acts of generosity and social solidarity are common…
For many people, those social bonds, that Us, is constitutive of identity, and when such communities are degraded by economic and demographic forces, those people can feel as though they are being erased…
And so it was inevitable that the right-sider backlash to those disruptive changes would be mostly a white backlash, that some whites — the ones who most crave order and clarity — would blame their dislocation on outsiders: immigrants, minorities, and meddling elites.
Combine psychological polarization and racial polarization, and you get a Republican Party primarily animated by angry white right-siders. That’s what Trump has so rudely exposed to the world.
In this piece Roberts is trying to encourage the political left to understand these angry white right-siders and their yearning for the mythologized America that provided them with a sense of stability and security. Back in 2008 during the height of the controversy over Barack Obama’s connection to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Tim Wise wrote an article on the same subject, but he was not so interested in being understanding.
What Jeremiah Wright knows, and told his flock (though they surely already knew it), is that 9/11 was neither the first, nor worst act of terrorism on American soil. The history of this nation for folks of color was, for generations, nothing less than an intergenerational hate crime, one in which 9/11s were woven into the fabric of everyday life: hundreds of thousands of the enslaved who died from the conditions of their bondage; thousands more who were lynched (as many as ten thousand in the first few years after the Civil War, according to testimony in that period’s equivalent of the Congressional Record), millions of indigenous persons wiped off the face of the Earth. No, to some, the horror of 9/11 was not new. To some it was not on that day that “everything changed.” To some, everything changed four hundred years ago, when that first ship landed at what would become Jamestown. To some, everything changed when their ancestors were forced into the hulls of slave ships at Goree Island and brought to a strange land as chattel. To some, everything changed when their homes in Northern Mexico were swallowed up in a massive land grab, annexed into a newly engorged United States, thanks to a war of conquest initiated by the U.S. government. To some, being on the receiving end of terrorism has been a way of life. Until recently, it was absolutely normal in fact…
Most white people desire, or perhaps even require, the propagation of lies when it comes to our history…Our version of history, of our national past, simply cannot allow for the intrusion of fact into a worldview so thoroughly identified with fiction. But that white version of America is not only extraordinarily incomplete, in that it so favors the white experience to the exclusion of others; it is more than that; it is actually a slap in the face to people of color, a reinjury, a reminder that they are essentially irrelevant, their concerns trivial, their lives unworthy of being taken seriously. In that sense…that all those classic television programs like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best and The Andy Griffith Show portrayed an America so divorced from the reality of the times in which they were produced, as to raise serious questions about the sanity of those who found them so moving, so accurate, so real.
What Roberts is describing with compassion and Wise with anger is what leads to the phenomenon we’ve been witnessing for the last 8 years of white people wanting to “take our country back” to an ideal that was mythologized from the get-go.
I appreciate the perspective of both of these writers, but struggle a bit with Roberts’ call for compassion – given that white mythology has been constructed on the suffering of people of color since our founding. When is it finally time to focus our compassion on the other side of the ledger? On the other hand, I’m not sure that Wise’s anger will get us anywhere in the long run other than further polarized.
But perhaps it’s not really an either/or question. What I think about often in this context is the ongoing attempt by President Obama to expand our definition of “we” rather than simply focus on the concerns of one side or the other. He’s done that countless times. But the ones that stand out to me include his speech on race during the 2008 primaries, when he acknowledged the anger in both the African American and white communities. In our efforts to reach for “a more perfect union,” he suggested what was necessary.
It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.
In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.
President Obama’s 2013 inaugural address was dedicated to this same theme.
Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:
“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.”
But of course, the quintessential speech addressing the expanded “we” was the one he gave at the 50th Anniversary of the march in Selma. I’d encourage you to go back and read or watch the whole thing. It culminated with this:
Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” “We The People.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Yes We Can.” That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.
It is in that sense that “we” is the one good word that is bread for a thousand.