Leonard Pitts has long been one of my favorite columnists. I rarely quote him on this blog for a very good reason: his writing is usually–okay, pretty much always–too good, too precise and evocative to paraphrase or summarize, and I really do try to minimize the direct quotes in these posts.
That said, Pitts made a supremely important point in a recent column, and I need to emphasize it. He began by reporting the blowback he’d received over his use, in a previous column, of the phrase “you people.” As one reader wrote him, “How dare you lump all Trump voters like that?”
His response was direct.
Well, dear reader, I cannot tell a lie. That objectifying language was no accident. Rather, it was designed to make a point. In order to understand that point, you have to understand something else:
I’m an American. By that, I don’t simply mean that I’m a U.S. citizen, though I am. But what I really mean is that I venerate the ideals on which this country was founded.
Unalienable rights. Life and liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Freedom of speech. Of faith. Of conscience. Government by consent of the governed. Equality before the law. Because of those ideals, America already was a revolution even before it won independence from England. Despite themselves, a band of slaveholding white men somehow founded a nation based on an aspirational, transformational declaration of fundamental human rights.
And then came the taco bowl connoisseur and his acolytes. Their values — more accurately, their lack of values — have coarsened the country, impoverished its spirit, debased what once was revered.
His use of the phrase “you people,” Pitts wrote, wasn’t a call for division; it was employed in belated recognition of the fact that some Americans have “seceded from common cause, common ideals, common hope.”
To put that another way: If I never see another cable-news reporter doing interviews in some red-state diner to help the rest of us “understand” the people there, it will be too soon. How about we send that reporter to a blue-state shopping mall to help the people in the diner understand the rest of us? What they will learn is they have no monopoly on frustration or anger.
Pitts then enumerates what “his” people continue to believe and those he labels “you people” don’t–freedom of speech, the rule of law, democratic ideals, facts and reason.
You people don’t honor the aspirational and transformational ideas that made this country great. My people do.
For those reasons and more, you people are not my people.
My people are Americans.
Pitts has summed up, in his far more eloquent way, what I have been calling “The American Idea.”
What the culture warriors pontificating about “American Exceptionalism” don’t understand is the actual American exceptionalism that was baked into the country’s origin: the notion that one wouldn’t be an American by virtue of status or identity, but by embracing the philosophy of the new nation, by the willingness to “pledge allegiance” to an entirely new concept of governance.
It was–as Pitts readily admits–mostly aspirational. But with fits and starts (lots more fits than most of us learned in high school history classes), we’ve tried to follow that philosophy to its logical conclusion. We extended the franchise, welcoming non-landowners, freed slaves and women into the ranks of “We the People.” Our courts (again, with fits and starts) protected the rule of law against efforts to subvert it in favor of the greedy and unscrupulous and the efforts of racial and religious bigots.
What has so many of us worried sick right now isn’t simply the realization that so many of our fellow citizens are credulous, racist and mean-spirited. There have always been folks like that (although not as vocal or empowered by rampant disinformation).
We are worried that we are losing that aspirational America, that “American Idea,” to the people Pitts calls “you people”–people who never understood or embraced it.