Thursday, January 26, 2017

Who Is This "We" of Whom You Speak?

"We, the People of the United States*."

We all recognize the first seven words of the Preamble to the Constitution ... about the only parts of the Constitution many people recognize, other than the Second Amendment. The Framers of the Constitution were creating a bold experiment in representative democracy, and wanted to stress that the government they were designing was intended to serve The People. Their goal, on behalf of The People was to "form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence**, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

Politicians of both parties have battled down the years over how to realize the promise of those stirring words, and it seems to me that their battles begin with differing conceptions of exactly who We, the People are.

First, let's take a grammatical look at we.

"We" is the first person plural pronoun, meant to indicate a group of individuals. It is also used by kings, emperors, and high religious officials in a form called the royal we. When using the royal we, a ruler who says that we will do something means that God and I or my court and I will do it. A more democratic version of the royal we is something The Grammar Girl has called the political we ... used in democracies and representative governments, it's more folksy and democratic than the royal we, and by using it, the ruler means you and I, pardner in this thing together. When the political we gets to be the ruler's default pronoun, it represents what The Grammar Girl has termed the grandiose narrator***.

Which brings me to President Trump's inaugural speech.

In this speech - a paragon of ominous, the-sky-is-falling oration - President Trump used the political we frequently to indicate what we will do; in summary: (1) "We will make America strong again;" (2) "We will make America wealthy again;" (3) "We will make America proud again;" (4) "We will make America safe again;" and (5) "We will make America great again."

Let's look at what Mr Trump has signed We, the People up for ...

He wants to make America strong again, but by any objective measure we have fielded the most powerful military force on earth. Combine that with our abundant natural resources and resilient (if battered) economy, and we are far more powerful than any other nation.

He wants to make America wealthy again, but to which we is he really speaking? He lives in a very small world of incredibly wealthy people who have little in common with 98% of Americans and are presumably comfortable with the legal, tax, and economic advantages that accrue to their social and economic position. Many of the actions Mr Trump might take to make the country wealthy again are likely to work against the interests of those at the top of the economic chain. Will he take them (and his own business interests) on? Which we will he serve?

He wants to make America proud again. I don't know about you, but I'm extraordinarily proud of this country, which I served for 43 years, 23 of them in uniform. I can tell you what doesn't make me proud - grandstanding gasbags who have never served their country at all, but talk a good game.

He wants to make America safe again, and here I can agree with him to a point ... crime is a definitely a problem. But safety is not simply a function of walls, a strong military, hermetically-sealed borders, powerful and empowered police, and a no-nonsense, throw-away-the-key judicial system. It's a also function of economic prosperity, good education, and a culture of civility and good citizenship. I'm still waiting for Mr Trump to explain how we are going to do those things ... and how he can set an example for civility and good citizenship that he belies every time he blatantly lies or fires off another insulting tweet.

Finally, grandly, he wants to make America great again. It's a catchy slogan that looks good on bright red baseball caps, but it's a slap in the face of all those who work hard every day in the service of an America that's already great. Mr Trump paints a picture of an America that's a dystopian hellhole ... but it's a dystopian hellhole that people desperately try to come to in search of a better life. Other countries build walls to keep their citizens in; Americans debate a wall to keep the rest of the world out. Nobody wants to come to a country that isn't great. How many thousands of people clamor to emigrate - legally or illegally - to Pakistan? Saudi Arabia? Bangladesh? Venezuela? North Korea? Yemen?

We, the People, live in a country that's a lot better than we appreciate, a lot better than we often give it credit for, and in many ways a lot better than we deserve based on our rhetoric and actions. Is it perfect? Obviously not. Can it be made better? Of course. We, the People, can do it - but we need competent leadership and vision, neither of which we have elected.

Bottom line: we is an inclusive pronoun, but We, the People of America are a broad assembly of individuals from all over the world, with different conceptions of how we relate to each other, our government, and other nations. Sometimes, the political we doesn't include all of We, the People.

And all sides need to realize it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow, when we name the Left-Cheek Ass Clown for January. Be here.


* This brings up an interesting political/linguistic issue: is "the United States" singular or plural? Is it more proper to say "the United States is" or "the United States are?" This is a topic for another post, but you can read a discussion of the question and how it relates to the lessons of the Civil War in Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson.

** Spelled the British English way in the original text.

*** I believe this appellation would apply to President Trump.

† I was stationed in the divided city of Berlin back in the early 1980s, and have direct personal experience of how an oppressive government uses walls and murder to keep its people in line.


Mike said...

'We' can't afford our isolationist policies of 70 years ago.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

We the People also include people who came here by choice.

allenwoodhaven said...

Bravo! Just excellent!

Unfortunately, I think President Trump means it more in the royal sense rather than the political.

John Hill said...

At this point, I'm happy that the best option for our beach vacation turned out to be in the Dominican Republic and not Mexico since I don't want to be there and considered a part of our President's we. As it is, I may say "sorry" a lot and tell people we're from Canada...