Pronoun Trouble

27 Mar 2011

I once taught a class at a career college in the city, the kind of place that has signs on the doors saying, “Check and correct your clothing to ensure that your naval, buttocks, chest or cleavage is not showing,” and, “Remove your hat, stocking cap, ‘do-rag’ or bandanna (this includes both men and women).” The students were dedicated, hard working, and so passionate that they would sometimes stand up during discussions.

Their attitude was infectious. One day, while telling them one of my favorite stories from history—the arrest of escaped slave Anthony Burns in 1854, and the massive protest by around 50,000 Bostonians—I said, “Don’t you wish you’d been there?” Out of the silence that followed came a single, quiet,


I knew immediately what I’d done. By “you,” of course, I had meant “we,” while there was actually only an “I.” By projecting myself into an idealized past, enjoying the benefits of free expression and political agency, I had been indulging my political fantasies, reveling in the possibilities of my historical narrative, and the fact that the story had 50,000 characters meant nothing to the students in front of me; they couldn’t see themselves in a single one of those other faces.

It was my powdered-wig-and-tricorn-hat moment. Self indulgence by pronoun.

Here’s another example. It’s a book that was recently used during a unit called “Colonial Days,” at my son’s school:

Now, I’m sure the history in this book is sound, as far as it goes, although it is interesting to compare the cover art with this passage from the site,

In statutes enacted at various times between the 1720s and 1750s, slaves in Boston were forbidden to buy provisions in market; carry a stick or a cane; keep hogs or swine; or stroll about the streets, lanes, or Common at night or at all on Sunday. Punishments for violation of these laws ranged up to 20 lashes, depending on aggravating factors.

But the book does take certain liberties with its title. Who, as they say, are “you”? My own child isn’t a very good antecedent for that second person pronoun. (He once told me that his skin is brown, while mine is “silver.”) And, no, I’m not going to say a word to him about it. No doubt he’ll come to some kind of conclusions on his own, sooner or later.

There’s nothing wrong with historical narratives. Every nation has them: The Aeneid, Arminius, King Arthur, Colonial Days. Whether or not the stories correspond to actual history is not really the point. Like all living myths, they are maps of the present and the future, not the past, at once assuming and solidifying cultural unity. In a fractured and jittery society, though, they can get told with a kind of nervous energy, in either an unconscious or a deliberate attempt to uphold cultural hegemony. They have work to do, and pronouns do a lot of the heavy lifting.

Take, for example, this passage from Mike Huckabee’s book, Simple Government, which touches on Obama’s replacement of the bust of Winston Churchill with that of Abraham Lincoln (emphasis added):

Every president is the keeper of our American narrative, “our story.” He is the commander in chief, yes, but he is also our commemorator in chief. Our wartime partnership with Winston Churchill and the British people is part of our story; the Mau Mau rebellion is not. When we elect a president, we entrust to him not just our security but also our story. These two are inseparable because our security depends on the story we believe in, that inspires us, that we teach our children, and that we, as a nation, are willing to fight for…President Obama’s emphasis on his story rather than history has become symptomatic of his tenure.

This is a virtual pronoun tsunami. And what, exactly, is the antecedent? Huckabee says it’s “all Americans.” Really? I wasn’t insulted, and I’m an American, so that really ends the argument right there.

But lets keep going: when I brought the subject up in class, my American students weren’t insulted about the statue thing, either. In fact, many of them knew nothing about it. Winston Churchill? Our partnership with Britain? Sorry. World War II? World War I? The Boston Tea Party? Nothing much there, either. The Civil War sometimes gets a response, but it’s not the one Huckabee would probably expect, and it’s certainly not the usual narrative that culminates in the feel-good climax of the 13th Amendment.

Does this mean they’re clueless when it comes to American history? Nope. I’ve been given essays on Presidential Reconstruction, General Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15, the Pig Laws, and the Civil Rights Era. (Links are provided for those of us who are unfamiliar with these parts of our history.) My favorite so far was titled,

Here’s to John Wilkes Booth, the Bastard who Freed the Slaves.

And, of course, they’re interested in the President, and know a lot about him.

Huckabee, by so deftly switching from the collective to the singular pronoun, reinforces the story told by most conservatives that Obama stands alone, that he’s un-American, not one of “us,” and the story weaves a complex plot involving Kenya, Islam, urban activists, and basketball. I can see why they want to erase the other narrative, though: they’ve been terrified of it ever since the last election. First they brought in a D’Souza to dismiss it, to declare it dead, historically irrelevant. Then they tried to swallow it, to Disney-ize it, in a way, by quoting Martin Luther King, and pointing out that the Republicans are the party of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass (who actually makes Rev. Wright sound like Ronald Reagan). And they become enraged whenever anyone suggests that their motives are anything other than an allegiance to “our” history, and “our” country, like when Sean Hannity said, in response to questions about birtherism,

“Don’t bring up race. Do not bring up race. Do not bring up race. It is a constitutional requirement.”

Of course it’s about race. It’s part and parcel of the movement to portray Obama as the alien, the “other”–the singular pronoun, that lives outside the communal narrative. But the President is not alone; he’s more American than they realize. It’s a kind of blindness, really, a cultural ignorance just like I displayed in front of my class. And if they want to believe in their American narrative, become inspired by it, and teach it to their children, that’s fine.

However, whenever someone puts on the tricorner, metaphorically or otherwise, and says “we,” and “us,” and “our,” he is indulging in a narrative delusion. When he does so in a political attempt to erase the entire 20th Century, he becomes actively hostile to those Americans who have no part in that exclusive narrative—the Golden Age of “our” glorious freedoms—and for whom it is both meaningless and dangerous.



One Response to “Pronoun Trouble”

  1. I would think that the use of the collective pronoun when giving political speeches is precisely to appeal to the we, make the candidate’s name synonymous with the group identity as well as all the we’s and us’es in the crowd to appeal to and instill the herd or corporate togetherness or unity. When it’s us or them even though there are individuals it generates more contirbution$. So old Huck’s example may not be inappropriate use of pronouns but an actual speaking dynamic designed to elicit particular outcomes.

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