Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Richard Cohen On Sarah Palin's Empathy Problem

I think Richard Cohen is on to something here:
It's appalling that Palin and too many others fail to understand that fact - indeed so many facts of American history. They don't offer the slightest hint that they can appreciate the history of the Obama family and that in Michelle's case, her ancestors were slaves - Jim Robinson of South Carolina, her paternal great-great grandfather, being one. Even after they were freed they were consigned to peonage, second-class citizens, forbidden to vote in much of the South, dissuaded from doing so in some of the North, relegated to separate schools, restaurants, churches, hotels, waiting rooms of train stations, the back of the bus, the other side of the tracks, the mortuary, the cemetery and, if whites could manage it, heaven itself.

It was the government that oppressed blacks, enforcing the laws that imprisoned them and hanged them for crimes grave and trivial, whipped them if they bolted for freedom and, in the Civil War, massacred them if they were captured fighting for the North. And yet if African Americans hesitate in embracing the mythical wonderfulness of America, they are accused of racism - of having the gall to know more about their own experience and history than Palin and others think they should.
There's a large sect of the American people for whom the only acceptable narrative of our nation's history is one of ever-greater triumphs. Oh, sure, they acknowledge some bad times in the past, but anybody who lets those bad times define the meaning of "America" -- even in the slightest -- becomes guilty of an "America hatred" that disqualifies them from the mainstream of public discourse.

The irony, of course, is that we Americans spend a huge amount time celebrating our past. There's nothing wrong with this. But it does mean we define ourselves by our collective heritage. That's normal. But Cohen is right: Americans who define themselves by the grimmer moments of our heritage are routinely shunned. We don't want to think about that stuff. We are allowed to be proud that our great-grandfather fought in the war, but we are not allowed to be angry that our other great-grandfather spent a lifetime in bondage, or that his children and grandchildren lived lives that denied them their full personhood. It's an unbalanced approach to life and history.

Me? I think there's far more right about America than is wrong, on balance. But to define that heritage purely in terms of the triumphs, it seems to me, is arrogant and chauvinistic. And it leads us down paths that are bad for the nation. A sense of the possibility of tragedy is, generally, a useful thing.


brendancalling said...

wait, richard cohen's on to something? no way. I refuse to believe it. cohen is the blind squirrel who's NEVER found an acorn.

Joel said...

I know, Brendan. I was shocked to find myself writing those words....