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Day 17

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A Trope for All Seasons

We, the People

by BEN TRIPP

My fellow bloggers, essayists, and well-meaning idealists on the Left, I regret to be a downer. But this must be said. A certain phrase has started cropping up a great deal in the Left’s vast monologue, and I don’t think we’re being intellectually honest when we use it. Without further preamble (pardon the pun), please, I beg you, stop using the phrase ‘We the People’ like it has ever meant anything tangible in our lifetimes. We have enough fresh disappointments as it is without going back 230 years (has it been that long? Seems like yesterday) to find broken promises this nation has made to itself. How about the old ‘One Man, One Vote’ thing? Women in the USA didn’t get the vote until 1920, gang, and lord help us but in the last decade poor folk and negroes lost most of what votes they had, which was never quite a 1:1 ratio even in the best of times. Who is this We the People you’re all so upset about? Was it all Americans, before George W. Bush seized power and we let him do it? There wasn’t a whole lot of ‘We’ going around at that time, as I recall. All Americans during the Clinton years? Yeah, those were some times of unity, brothers and sisters. Oh, no, wait. Maybe you mean the Reagan years, or the 1960’s, when America was deeply united and everybody in the Heartland was trying to get their daughters married off to a New York Jew.

Knock it off before I have to descend to the level of irony, if I haven’t already. Speaking of tropes (irony is a kind of trope, you unlettered buffoons), by now ‘We the People’ is what they call a ‘synecdoche’, or an expression that swaps the whole and the part. Other examples are ‘The Man’ for the authorities and ‘asshole’ when you really mean the entire vice-president. When the phrase ‘We the People’ was originally minted, it had a specific meaning: we, the people in America that have just declared independence from you, the British empire. Can anybody honestly say there’s been a ‘we’ here since the Civil War? Or before then, seeing as the Civil War was a direct consequence of there not being a cohesive ‘we’ in the first place? These days I’m seeing citizens wrung-handedly referring to themselves as We the People, but I get the feeling they only really mean Me, the Utterly Isolated American.

I only bring this up because an awful lot of us are feeling very, very sorry for ourselves now that our entire experience has become a mountain of festering monkey excrement, and we’re pinning it on our fellow Americans (‘My Fellow Americans’ is another nonsense phrase), probably because it’s easier than admitting the real problem is ourselves. Before George W. Bush came along, did you (I say ‘you’, but I mean ‘me’ of course) do anything (I mean ‘I’, incidentally, not ‘me’, sorry) to promote the freedoms of speech, assembly, or privacy we are now losing? Did you do anything to improve the human rights situation for homosexuals or to ensure persons of color could drive a new automobile through Alabama without intervention by the police? Nor I. I just coasted along on residual Americanism, same as you, same as all of us. Rise up and march every 20 years or so, sign a petition, and vote twice a decade, citizenship accomplished!

I’m not saying ‘We, the People’ doesn’t still have some application in American society or discourse. Sure it does. Why not. If one (meaning ‘me’, or rather, ‘I’) were pressed to define the entity to which ‘We the People’ refers, I (one) would probably say something like "’We, the People’ refers to the major polities to which elected representatives are answerable and in the hands of which rest the course of affairs, domestic and international, enacted through the representative proxies responding to the collective will of same". This is why I’m such a hit at social gatherings. In other words, there is a People we call (by way of synecdoche) ‘We’, but it really only includes people that vote, and only those whose candidates subsequently take office. And that’s if we pretend the elected representatives give a flying fuck about what their non-lobbyist constituents think, which they do not. So ‘We the People’ only really means you and me as individuals, because those whose will is being done are most decidedly ‘them’, not ‘we’. It was probably this way by 1800, and it has certainly been this way for the better part of 150 years.

Maybe the way to look at ‘We, the People is as a sort of gnarled tree: at the trunk, in 1776, it’s everybody. By the time the Civil War comes to a boil, it’s split into five or six branches. The South, the North, the Abolitionists, the Slaves, the Beavers (the role of the Beaver in that conflict goes woefully unreported) and so on. The limbs branch off and of and off and now there are almost as many individual twigs as there are Americans, every American a trembling leaf pointing into space in a slightly different direction, each with its own unique perspective on what those lumberjacks are doing down below there. This is particularly true on the Left of the political spectrum, where each of us little leaves is acutely aware of what is happening to all the other little leaves, and deeply sympathetic, but in no position to do anything about it except maybe fall off the twig. And should this occur, We the People don’t give a damn. Knock yourself out if you’re going to go around being all sensitive to the plight of the tree. To put it another way, one (I) is (am) lief to say each leaf left Left, left to leave, has leave to leave at least. But I’ve given up that sort of childish word play and turned over a new page. Anyway, who are the lumberjacks? The Man. Big Money. The White House. Name a synecdoche, it’s probably swinging an axe. Maybe they are ‘We the People’ now. They have a better claim to the first person subjective plural than any of the rest of us gripers, these days.

So don’t please refer to ‘We the People’, whether you’re trying to be ironic, defiant, or just want to remind the rest of us we have let you down personally, unless you can identify a group of people to which you belong that is large enough to have warranted mention in the Declaration of Independence. The original people to which it refers are long dead, of course, as are most of their ideals, so probably you do not belong to any such group. If you must still cling to the far-too-abstract notion that ‘We the People’ refers to all Americans, I honor your commitment to the phantasms dreamed up by Founding Fathers’ publicity department. May Santa Claus shit in your stocking this year. Benjamin Franklin said, "We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." This is of course antanaclasis, which is a kind of trope– and also a sylleptic zeugma. And it’s no longer true. While We, the People have been bitching and moaning about what has happened to us, The Man has figured out how to hang all of us at the same time.

BEN TRIPP, author of Square in the Nuts, is a hack in many mediums. He may be reached at credel@earthlink.net.

Creative commons copyright 2007 by BEN TRIPP