The Double Truth of Who We Are
11 January 2021
In a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne written in 1851, the same year his great work, The Whale (as Moby-Dick was first called) was published, Herman Melville wrote about truth: “by visible truth we mean the apprehension of the absolute condition of present things as they strike the eye of the man who fears them not, though they do their worst to him.”
As many commentators have argued (most recently Timothy Snyder in The New York Times) Trump’s lies have built up to such a degree that they clamber to form their own truth. But they fail, sliding down the soiled walls of the Capitol like oiled rats. The nation and the world were forced to witness the visible truth which revealed to us the “absolute condition of present things,” for the people who absorbed them. In witnessing the truth that the President of the United States spurred on an armed, enraged mob, gorged to bursting on lies about an election that, by all reasonable accounts was free and fair, we saw in the sharp and plain light of day what some in liberal white America have attempted to deny: that white supremacy has dictated our politics from the beginning. The rhetoric of “this is not who we are” is, unfortunately, false. This is who we are. And I don’t like it.
But this truth is doubled with another, infinitely more just and hopeful truth.
A noose swung loosely in the breeze on a swiftly erected scaffold outside the Capitol on Wednesday, 6 January 2021. It was reportedly there to hang Vice President Pence for the crime of upholding the law by refusing to overturn a free and fair election. In desiring to shackle Pence at the neck, the mob no doubt understood the symbolism of the noose, and its racial reversal. Who could be whiter than Pence? This country has participated in the lynching of thousands of people, almost all Black, most completely innocent. By some estimates 6,500 citizens were lynched between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and 1950; this includes 2000 lynched during Reconstruction.
Reconstruction (1863–1877) was a laudable effort to turn our once slave-holding country into something like a ‘multiracial democracy.’ While the abrupt end to Reconstruction as the compromise that troublingly resolved the deadlocked 1876 election has been much in the news lately, perhaps not everyone knows that that year also marked the first time a Black physicist received a Ph.D. Edward Bouchet wrote his doctorate, “On Measuring Refractive Indices,” at Yale. My husband, the theoretical physicist Philip Phillips, dug up this fascinating nugget and discussed it during a talk about increasing Black representation in physics. Had reconstruction not been so swiftly squashed, Bouchet and legions of other Black scholars may have emerged a hundred years earlier and taken up academic positions a hundred years before many eventually did.
Had Reconstruction been allowed to blossom, it’s entirely possible that the KKK may not have resurged. While the overwhelming number of victims of the KKK were Black, the second wave of this reprehensible group emerged in 1915 in order to lynch a white-Jewish man. As I discussed at length this second swelling of the KKK flourished after an angry mob, broke into a jail cell in order to lynch Leo Frank, a Jewish transplant from Brooklyn living in Atlanta who was wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering a thirteen-year-old girl. The white supremacist mob did not feel that the law was right — Frank’s sentence had been commuted from death to life in prison based on the scanty evidence against him — so they took the law into their own hands, broke into the jail, and hung Frank. It took seventy years for a witness to come forward and definitively prove Frank’s innocence.
The angry mob that stormed the Capitol similarly wanted to take the law into their own hands. Disbelieving the reasoned evidence of thousands of poll workers, officials, voters, lawyers, judges, and politicians, their plan was to break in, drag out, and lynch the Vice President. Their garb and signs often bore antisemitic or racist slogans. One widely circulated image featured a man wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt.
On the same day as the mob thusly plotted, Georgia’s free and fair election of Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff as the first Black Senator from the South and the second Jewish Southern senator was confirmed. As the running joke has it, “A Black man and a Jewish man walk into a bar…and the bartender says, ‘hey senators.’”
The mob who lynched Frank is cut from the same cloth as the January 2021 mob. One can only imagine the scores of Jewish senators from the South who may have emerged had Frank not been lynched: after this horrific event nearly half of Atlanta’s Jews fled North
The election of Warnock and Ossoff is an historic and joyous moment in the long, often rich and fruitful, sometimes troubled history of Blacks and Jews (and Black Jews) in the U.S which became sadly almost totally occluded by the white supremacist attempt to overthrow the law. Ossoff was inspired by the late, great John Lewis, who offered the teenage Ossoff a summer job thus opening another chapter in the positive side of ‘Black-Jewish relations.’ Let’s pause for a moment to celebrate Warnock and Ossoff’s victories because they also form an integral part of who we are. Heroes in Georgia like Stacy Abrams, who believe in transformation, catalyzed this immense sea-change. Campaigners for just elections such as Abrams in turn energized hundreds of thousands of volunteers, including my family, to donate, write letters, send postcards, make phone calls, send texts. We formed a morsel of the multigenerational and active effort to get out the vote.
I’m part of a multi-racial family. My mother is white, English, my father was Jewish-American. They were both active in the Civil Rights era and taught me to be ethical, just, and politically engaged. My husband is the middle of five children who all immigrated from Tobago with their parents in 1968. They arrived in the U.S. just after Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Quite a terrifying welcome for a Black family, and one to which my husband returns often as he reflects on racism in America. My father-in-law is a retired professor of philosophy and my mother-in-law took care of the kids until they were young adults at which point she went back to college with her middle son and they found themselves together in a logic class taught by her husband/his father. When my husband first met my mother, she embraced him warmly, and he became utterly verklempt because his previous white in-laws had not been so inviting.
On the day the Capitol was stormed and taken by a white supremacist mob my husband and I had the same thought: if those people stomping angrily up the steps of the Capitol and breaking windows with crow bars were Black they would be dead. I remained glued to the news for hours and hours, but Philip turned away in disgust and outrage. I can only imagine it was even harder for him than it was for me to witness whites so boldly sliding into the Capitol seemingly unopposed. Later, footage was released that told a more nuanced story.
I was immensely moved by one of my anchor-hero’s speeches. Joy Reid described covering the protests against the murder of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police. “Police brought in tanks,” she said, “they were wearing full body armor…they were standing menacingly waiting to brutalize anyone who even looked at them funny…I was never afraid among the marchers. The marchers just wanted justice. They didn’t think it was ok to just kill a guy…I wasn’t afraid of them, I was afraid of the cops.” She went on to accurately describe the kid gloves with which the police treated the insurrectionists a few years later. “White Americans are never afraid of the cops, even when they are committing insurrection, even when they are engaged in attempting to occupy our Capitol, to steal the votes of people who look like me.”
There is much talk in the press about a divided America. While we have to admit that this America, the America whose citizens invaded the Capitol, is us, we are the heirs to settler colonialism and the legacies of slave-holding. But we have a double truth here: this is who we are but it is not all of who we are. On one side you have progressives in deliciously messy, sometimes argumentative coalition. Many of us — lord knows there’s disagreement about even this — believe in a greater distribution of wealth (tax the very rich, not the middle-class), science (hello, I can’t even believe science needs defending), free and universal health care and childcare, options for free education at all levels, free choice about whom to love and what gender to choose, diversity and the effective encouragement of diversity through affirmative action, democracy and an electoral system that works via a simple majority (this requires abolishing the electoral college, a slave-state enabled inherently racist system), a major overhaul of the police and prisons, welcoming and valuing immigrants and refugees. None of these ideas are “radical.” They are sensible and sensitive to the needs and just demands of the majority of Americans.
On the other side, we have those who believe in a white America, who feel threatened by the very idea of “multiracial democracy” who feel threatened by immigrants who, they fear, will take their jobs, who feel wronged by a system that does not seem to listen to them, who adore Donald Trump because he is a clear white supremacist and because his voracious narcissism, his unfettered id, his utter disregard for “political correctness” or anything that smacks of sensitivity to other people’s needs, his ability to say to the world that he loves to ‘grab them by the pussy’ without consent, and then get elected President, his trampling on all norms of civility…all of this appeals to them because it licenses their own unshackling. This is what we saw on Wednesday: the freedom of this group of people whose ransacking of the Capitol recalled the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of the Carnivalesque — the transitory moment when the disempowered take on the mantles of power. Richard Barnett gloried in sitting in Nancy Pelosi’s chair and putting his big-booted feet up on her desk. Another protestor who was late but heavily armed planned to murder her, as reported in The New York Times.
Shackling, muzzling, constraining. These are all the feelings now associated with the angry white supremacist insurrection. A rough, spray-painted sign on a highway in rural Illinois reads: “Free yourself from your muzzle and free Illinois from Pritzker.” Governor Pritzker, who is Jewish, has been harshly critiqued by the kindred spirits of the group who attacked the Capitol for his laudable attempts to stop the spread of the Coronavirus by requiring masks. Pritzker has been repeatedly subject to antisemitic signs during protests against mandatory masking. In Charleston, Illinois, right downtown and opposite the impressive nineteenth-century courthouse and administrative offices that dominate it, a large sign reads: “Masks NOT required here.”
Joy Reid rightly said: “I guarantee you if that was a Black Lives Matter protest there would already be people shackled, arrested, or dead. Shackled, arrested, or dead.” And yet the very group who avoided shackling, who waltzed into the Capitol protected by the visible halo of their white skin, this very group feels constrained by the “liberal elites,” finds it limits their freedom to be thoughtful of other people’s needs, “muzzled” when asked — required — to wear the very masks that might protect other people, that might even protect them from a potentially deadly virus.
The visible truth of the absolute condition of things, as Melville puts it, was boldly visible on January 6, 2021: but it was a bifurcated truth equally self-evident. We are a nation who believes in and peacefully advocates for change; and we are a nation who believes in taking the law into our own hands. This past summer, amid a pandemic, millions of us peacefully protested in favor of justice, in favor of Black Lives mattering and against police brutality. Almost exactly four years ago today millions of us marched peacefully to protest the inauguration of a white supremacist President; we knew it would come to crisis, and now that it feels unspeakably awful to be here, let’s remember that we millions, a vast majority who believe in justice, are also who we truly are.
Brett Ashley Kaplan Directs the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, Memory Studies at the University of Illinois where she is a professor of Comparative and World Literature and Director of Graduate Studies. She publishes in Ha’aretz, The Conversation, Asitoughttobe, AJS Perspectives, Contemporary Literature, Salon.com, among other venues.