One of the clichés spouted by media and politicians in response to Jan. 6 is that “words matter.” These words are usually aimed at Donald Trump and his epigones, aimed at them for stoking the embers of hate and violence culminating in last week’s siege on the Capitol.
Words do matter but let’s reflect on a different, less innocuous string of terms, the catchphrase “That is not who we are.” Be it a mass shooting or smashing the windows and breaking into the halls of our most sacred institution, President-Elect Joe Biden inevitably intones the mantra, “That is not who we are.” Last week, he repeated this refrain as he addressed the coup attempt at what Biden rightly termed our “citadel of liberty.”
In contesting with those objecting to the certification of the presidential election, a finger-wagging Mitt Romney demanded that we respect voters by simply “telling them the truth.”
Joe Biden, whom I have always respected and supported in the 2020 election, should do the same about who we are and have been. Regarding the mayhem of Jan. 6, we have no warrant to proclaim, “That is not who we are.” Nor should we pretend that slavery, Jim Crow, the treatment of Native Americans, Japanese internment camps and many other of our national transgressions are “not who we are.”
Abraham Lincoln, whom the president-elect, quoted in his otherwise wise and healing remarks, did not dismiss the cataclysm of the Civil War with the likes of “that is not who we are.” Instead, our 16th president, who became more Woke over the course of his term, often spoke about the carnage of the Civil War as the righteous punishment for the evils of slavery, evils he acknowledged Americans had brought upon themselves.
Instead of claiming that we are not what we had done for hundreds of years, Lincoln made frequent reference to our “better angels” a favorite trope of former President Barack Obama. However, in pointing to our better angels, there was an implication that we need to fight against our selfish, devilish impulses and become better people.
If I were caught committing some shameless deed, it would not go well if I were to explain to the judge, “That’s not who I am.” As a parent, it would not go well if one of my children did something wrong and excused himself, saying, “That’s not who I am.” Ditto for us as a corporate body. Just as it is with individuals, our misdeeds, as well as our glorious accomplishments, are part of our collective history, part of who we are. If we want to think of ourselves as that “shining city on the hill,” we should at least be mindful that there are many rough parts of that city.
Another bromide that redounds with events like 9/11 is, “We will never forget.” And yet, that is precisely what the bumper sticker-type phrase “That is not who we are” invites us to do. It invites us to forget what we did rather than hang our collective heads and resolve to change our ways. Consider the fact that while Germans vehemently renounce their Nazi past, they never claim, “that is not who we are.” Instead, they passed laws (for example, making it illegal to display the swastika) to protect Germany from ever becoming another Third Reich. Last week, a veritable platoon of hooligans flaunted the battle banner of white supremacy, the Confederate battle flag. Is that not part of who we are?
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Again, the word is that words matter. Yes, I understand what the president-elect means when he resorts to one of his favorite oratorical hits, but instead of “That is not who we are,” he should be try, “We can and must do better.”
Gordon Marino, professor emeritus of philosophy at St. Olaf College, is the author of the “Existentialist’s Survival Guide.” He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.