What is the story of “us” when “us” is no longer by default “white”?
Eric Liu and The Atlantic are seeking to create a network of evolving essential knowledge about what it means to be American. Optimistically, Liu is starting the project on the assumption that we are in the midst of the end of white supremacy. His colleague, Ta-Nehisi Coates, would undoubtedly disagree; in fact, I don’t think he’d ever concede the possibility of such an end. White supremacy is too integral to our DNA for us to evolve out of it. Where there is no white supremacy, he’d argue, there is no America. Or at least no America as we know it, which is what Liu is trying to change.
(Forgive me for trying to speak for Coates. I have no right. He is not, of course, beholden to my interpretation.)
In proposing the project, Liu calls upon E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s “Cultural Literacy” list, which was “by design, heavy on the deeds and words of the ‘dead white males’ who had formed the foundation of American culture but who had by then begun to fall out of academic fashion.” Academic fashion was hegemonic concession to marginal groups, which really just allowed plunder of other (or Other) cultures so that everything comes out of this here great melting pot as white in the end. What Hirsch did see clearly was this: “Cultural illiteracy is most common among the poor and power-illiterate, and compounds both their poverty and powerlessness.” Being illiterate means being unable to code switch; indeed, being unable to recognize that there’s a code at all.
As Liu describes, “Literacy is not just a matter of decoding the string of letters that make up words or the meaning of each word in sequence. It is a matter of decoding context: the surrounding matrix of things referred to in the text and things implied by it.” Access to this matrix is crucial to understanding and effective decoding. This is typically made by and reserved for the powerful; it is the language they speak, the water they inhabit. If you’re not native to that tongue or that environment, good luck.
Liu wants to open the environment and make it possible for every American to survive. More than that, he wants every American to contribute to the ongoing creation of that environment. He wants it to be a living, shared place. For this to happen, we need context. We need to learn our past, which means learning how to play the game so we might then exploit it and change the rules.
That means understanding what’s being said in public, in the media, in colloquial conversation. It means understanding what’s not being said. Literacy in the culture confers power, or at least access to power. Illiteracy, whether willful or unwitting, creates isolation from power. And so any endeavor that makes it easier for those who do not know the memes and themes of American civic life to attain them closes the opportunity gap. It is inherently progressive.
You can only speak to power through power, so we have to find power and claim it. Hopefully together.
The more serious challenge, for Americans new and old, is to make a common culture that’s greater than the sum of our increasingly diverse parts. It’s not enough for the United States to be a neutral zone where a million little niches of identity might flourish; in order to make our diversity a true asset, Americans need those niches to be able to share a vocabulary. Americans need to be able to have a broad base of common knowledge so that diversity can be most fully activated.
Confronting the past is essential:
an education that in the name of progressivism disdains past forms, schema, concepts, figures, and symbols is an education that is in fact anti-progressive and “helps preserve the political and economic status quo.”
So what should every American know?
Liu can’t help but indulge in a bit of patriotism to get you going, in case you’re hesitant:
As the cultural critic Albert Murray wrote in his 1970 classic The Omni-Americans, the essence of American life is that it relentlessly generates hybrids. American culture takes segments of DNA—genetic and cultural—from around the planet and re-splices them into something previously unimagined. The sum of this—the Omni—is as capacious as human life itself, yet found in America most fully. This is jazz and the blues. This is the mash-up. This is everything creole, mestizo, hapa. In its serious forms, multiculturalism never asserted that every racial group should have its own sealed and separate history or that each group’s history was equally salient to the formation of the American experience. It simply claimed that the omni-American story—of diversity and hybridity—was the legitimate American story.
A real American should know to contribute to something so democratic, I imagine, instead of letting someone else speak for him so much.