“We” is changing. No, the grammar of that isn’t incorrect. What I mean is that the content of that pronoun –as in “we the people”– is changing. And this election is very much about that change.
Columbus Day is still on the calendar. Most of us seem OK about the gift of an extra day off in his name. But for many people the meaning of the day has shifted significantly in the past few decades. Many of us grew up, as it were, on the boat, identifying w ith the bold European, our ancestor in a sense, who dared risk sailing off the edge of the known world to discover the New World we now inhabit.
But in recent decades we have heard more about the story told from the point of view not of Europeans arriving here but of the people already here in a world it turns out wasn’t new and didn’t need discovering. We are encouraged to identify with those natives on the shore about to be enslaved and tortured and decimated by the bold Europeans.
So the main Columbus stories we hear in 2020 are of Columbus statues being toppled and of at least one city renaming the holiday “Indigenous People’s Day.”
So too with the local planning of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims on these shores. In all previous such anniversaries, including the big holiday of Thanksgiving, the whole emphasis was on the arriving Europeans. By schooling and cultural mythology “we” were on that boat with those brave escapees from European oppression, identifying with their bravery, their suffering (half of them died the first year in Plymouth.) with little thought interest in the suffering in centuries to come of their victims.
But in the planning of the 2020 version we are being actively encouraged to expand that “we” to include the point of view of those on the shore, the culture that had been here for thousands of years. Yes , we are with the hardy band on the Mayflower and the start to what , as the descendants of Europeans, we have been taught to see as the real history of this continent. And we are here on the land about to victims of that European history.
As we have significantly expanded our “we” to include native Americans, so too, many have come to see how the descendants of slaves might feel about statues downtown honoring those brave warriors who fought to keep their ancestors in chains. And to feel the justice of the toppling of those statues. Or of the outraged protests by against systematic racism of police.
A lot of us who thought we were n’t racist have discovered that to the extent that we weren’t bothered by those monuments or have thoughtlessly seen police as innocent upholders of law and order have been in fact guilty of the racism of too narrow a “we.”
That Euro view of the taking of this continent, has been a prevailing view, built into our earliest education. It was inherent in the original “we the people” of the founding document written by white male Europeans who pretty much saw this continent , including its native population, as raw material for a Manifest Destiny of Euro development from sea to shining sea.
For many of us , at least those who have no intention of giving up the Euro style wealth and culture (however unequally distributed), what is required is indeed an expansion of the “we”, not a replacement of the Euro part of it with identification with slaves and natives. What is being required is an exercise of stereo vision: to be simultaneously on the boat with Columbus and the Pilgrims and on the shore with those about to be steamrollered by genocide and slavery . It is a tragic duality.
That we are expanding the “we” has a lot to do with the demographic fact that the country’s population is expanding to include, soon, a majority of non Europeans, those traditionally thought of, when thought of at all, as “they.”
In the election, which more clearly than ever before pits the expanding “we” vs. the contracting “we,” vote the expanded version.