by Eric J. Weiner
There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now. —James Baldwin
Before the pomp and circumstance of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s inauguration officially framed the white supremacist insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 an outlier of U.S. history, an affront to American Exceptionalism, and a brief pause in the Nation’s moral progress, there was a lot of talk about the “big lie” that precipitated it. I expect, with the impeachment trial scheduled to begin next week, that we will again hear quite a bit about the “big lie” and its power to change water into wine. Historically, the big lie, lobbed in concert with many smaller lies, is the one that tips the scale of reason, fuels delusional thinking, and provides the foundation for all kinds of violence and hate. Hitler knew it when he perpetuated the big lie about Jews running a global cabal. And Trump knew it when he repeatedly told the big lie about a rigged and stolen election. Timothy Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale University and author of On Tyranny (2017) says, “There are lies that, if you believe in them, rearrange everything…a big lie is a lie which is big enough that it tears the fabric of reality.” When enough people believe in the big lie, and their beliefs have time to ferment and spread, the big lie becomes a spectacle.
“The spectacle,” as Guy Deborg explained, “is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images… It is a world vision which has become objectified.” Right-wing corporate media and social media platforms, during the past five years, have helped to construct and disseminate the spectacle of the big lie, turning facts into a matter of perspective and words/images into weapons of mass delusion. From the ashes of “the real” arise the rational irrationality of relativistic thinking. The Trumpist cult of mass delusion, aided and abetted by corporate and social media, is unified by the spectacle of the big lie while becoming an integral part of it. But however dangerous the spectacle of the big lie is to democracy, it is not the most pernicious and dangerous lie in America. In fact, Trump’s big lie could not have become the spectacle it did had a bigger lie not preceded it.
The spectacle of Trump’s big lie rests on the foundation of what Eddie Glaude, Jr., the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University calls in his book Begin Again (2020), simply “the lie.” Relating to the “racial value gap,” which is “the idea that in America white lives have always mattered more than the lives of others, the lie is a broad and powerful architecture of false assumptions by which the value gap is maintained…[and] that support the everyday order of American life, which means we…count them as truths (p.6). The lie, depending upon your disciplinary orientation, is a “grand narrative,” a “Foucauldian episteme,” a Discourse, or a Kuhnian paradigm. Given the power and reach of the lie, it may be some combination of all of these things.
The architecture of the lie includes the idea that “black people are essentially inferior, less human than white people, and therefore deserving of their particular station in American life” (p.8). It includes the belief that “America is fundamentally good and innocent, its bad deeds dismissed as mistakes corrected on the way to ‘a more perfect union’” (p. 8). But Glaude goes even further and, against the backdrop of the spectacle of Trump’s big lie, the white supremacist insurrection of January 6, and the Disneyesque inauguration two weeks later is worth quoting at length:
But the lie’s most pernicious effect when it comes to our own history is to malform events to fit the story whenever America’s innocence is threatened by reality. When measured against our actions, the story we have told ourselves about America being a divinely sanctioned nation called to be a beacon of light and a moral force in the world is a lie. The idea of the “Lost Cause” as just an honest assessment of what happened after the Civil War is a lie. The stories we often tell ourselves of the civil rights movement and racial progress in this country, with Rosa Park’s courage, Dr. King’s moral vision, and the unreasonable venom of Black Power, culminating in the election of Barack Obama, are all too often lies.
The lie is the mechanism that allows, and has always allowed, America to avoid facing the truth about its unjust treatment of black people and how it deforms the soul of the country. The lie cuts deep into the American psyche. It secures our national innocence in the face of the ugliness and evil we have done (p. 8).
It is not necessary to be conscious of the lie to be shaped by it. Even the most “woke” white people often believe some part of the lie. But the real violence of the lie can be seen and felt when African American people learn to believe, in whole or part, the lie. In speeches to young black people throughout his life, James Baldwin warned them against believing in the lie because he knew it would do “irreparable harm to their soul” (Baldwin quoted in Glaude, p. 7).
When we are shocked and appalled by the white supremacist insurrection, our reactions, like emotional shadows cast from the longue durée, give evidence of the lie. When we speak in horror about the sacred space of the Capitol and its desecration, we willfully ignore the role slaves and slavery played in the construction of the Capitol as well as other monuments to democracy in Washington, DC. As Jesse Holland, author of Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African-American History In and Around Washington, D.C. (2017) writes, “Through research, we’ve been able to determine that just about 400 of the more than 600 people who worked on the construction of the Capitol were African American slaves. So the entire building, the center of democracy in the United States, was created by African American slaves.” The Capitol might be more than a monument to the violent and brutal legacies of slavery, but it is far from the sacred place the lie would have us believe. The lie explains the insurrectionists’ audacity just as it turns feelings of betrayal and surprise into an expression of historical amnesia. The ideology of white supremacy is not only the ideology of Trump’s “base,” as liberal media never tires of repeating. It is the foundational ideology of the Nation, veiled behind the narrative assumptions of the lie. Mitchell S. Jackson says it exactly right when he writes:
To be appalled at what happened Wednesday is tantamount to believing the rhetoric that America tells itself and the world: that it is the greatest nation on earth, a beacon of liberty and justice for all. To be appalled at what happened Wednesday is to believe that America has ever been a true United States, not a country diseased by the psychosis of a supreme white race. To be astounded by what happened Wednesday is to be ignorant of what happened in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898 when a mob of 2,000 white supremacists, upset that Blacks had been elected to a fusion government, overthrew it, killing 60 people—the only coup d’état on American soil.
The Nation will at some point have to confront more radically than it has in the past the reality that the Capitol building, like so many buildings throughout Washington, DC, is an artifact of barbarism. As Walter Benjamin (1940) argued in his essay On the Concept of History, “There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism. And just as it is itself not free from barbarism, neither is it free from the process of transmission, in which it falls from one set of hands into another.” As an artifact of the barbarism of slavery, like most symbols of democracy in the United States, the Capitol represents a contradiction more than a triumph of democracy. The lie erases the contradiction and in so doing white washes historical memory.
In preparation for the inauguration, the lie was fortified; the Capitol had been repaired and cleaned, the mall sterilized of white supremacist paraphernalia, and the city and buildings protected. The basic fact that if the insurrectionists were black there would have been a violent police response was quickly erased. The massive show of military force after the attempted coup, from the perspective of the lie, shows how far the Nation will go to protect and maintain it. Beyond protecting Biden, Harris and the other VIPs that were present, the military and police were protecting the sanctity of the lie by reestablishing the Nation’s innocence. Nothing would get through the newly erected barricades and armed forces that might bring into question the Nation’s commitment to fighting against white supremacy and the insurrectionists. The inauguration would be the grand stage for the Nation to reassert its role as a beacon of light for the world to admire and follow.
It was remarkable to see how quickly any evidence of the lie, in the form of smashed windows, white supremacist symbolism, destroyed barriers, debris from a fascist rampage, and straight-up murder was washed clean from the Capitol in preparation for the inauguration. The massive military build-up was, for the most part, visually absent from the inauguration’s televised performances. Even the man responsible for the insurrection was absent. Although many people were happy he wasn’t there, his presence would have been a visible reminder that the narrative assumptions of the lie that helped bring him to power remain enfleshed, despite him losing the election, in the political body of the Nation.
It was as if Disney’s imagineers and stagecraft designers had been brought in to reconstruct and reassert the Nation’s innocence through a sterilized performance of diversity. The lie had been exposed for the world to see; a crack in the veneer of exceptionalism needed repair. Call in Lady Gaga, J. Lo, and the impressive young poet, Amanda Gorman, to help heal the wounds of a Nation reeling from seeing the lie, in all its ugliness and violence, up close and personal. J. Lo’s rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s critical response to “God Bless America,” not surprisingly was the saccharine version, leaving out the stanzas that reference poverty, hunger, and private property.
However moving and inspirational Gorman’s words might have been, the real threat the insurrectionists and Trump posed was not to democracy, but to exposing the lie. Watching them swarm the Capitol, fly their fascist flags off the building, march through the halls demanding the heads of congress, and then being politely led down the front steps was only surreal if you were unaware of the lie hiding behind the curtain of American Exceptionalism. Trump’s “silence” during the insurrection amplified the lie he had the audacity to reveal to a country previously comforted by it.
When we resist acknowledging that white supremacy in the United States is a form of domestic terrorism and that the “radicalization” of more white people under Trumpism is a threat to our national security, we give credence to the lie. The lie gave the “birther” scam legs. The lie made it difficult for many people to believe that Obama was qualified to be President. The lie made people seethe with hatred for the first African American president, just as it provides a rationale for belittling the country’s first African-American/Asian-American female Vice President. The lie justified Mitch McConnell’s legislative strategy of “no” to concretize the GOP and refuse to work with Obama on any legislation, even when it, on an ideological level, was aligned with typical GOP concerns. The lie gave permission to Joe Wilson who shouted, during a joint address to congress by President Barack Obama, which was nationally televised, “You lie!”
But then the lie gave birth to Trump and Trumpism. The rise of Trumpism could not have occurred without the lie. He just doesn’t tell the big lie; he is a manifestation of the lie. I’ve heard the argument that just because people supported him doesn’t mean they are racists or aligned with the ideology of white supremacy. Those people who the writer Evan Osnos calls the “executive class” rationalize their relationship with Trump and Trumpism as simply transactional. People who make this argument/defense fail to realize that the transaction is racially coded; the tax breaks, deregulation of the marketplace, and judicial appointments are built on the backs of people of color. The appeal to the transactional nature of Trumpism (i.e., one without white supremacist roots) obfuscates how the lie leaves black and brown people holding the bag as the rich get richer all the while denying their complicity in furthering the objectives of domestic terrorism in the form of white supremacy.
These Trumpists, unlike the insurrectionists at the Capitol, are, to varying degrees, shocked and dismayed not only by what occurred at the Capitol but every time Trump tweeted and whistled anti-Semitic and white supremacist ideas. His words and actions kept pulling the curtain back on the lie. Silence and darkness are the oxygen of the lie. Trump needed the spotlight and couldn’t shut his mouth. In this way, we have Trump and the insurrectionists to thank for bringing the lie out from behind the veil of American democracy. Ironically, another four years of President Trump would have destroyed the country as we know it, but he would have dragged the lie further into the sun; naked, raw, violent, no one would be able to deny, look away or dismiss it. White people in particular would be forced to confront the way the lie not only debases and defines black people, but debases and defines themselves (Baldwin quoted in Glaude, p. 7).
The lie maintains, rationalizes, and/or justifies black and brown ghettos across America, decrepit schools, and the school-to-prison pipeline. When COVID-19 inequitably kills black and brown people, the lie creates befuddlement. Private prisons that are overpopulated and overwhelmed by black and brown men are rationalized by the lie as proof that we need more prisons. Trump and his deplorable band of white supremacist insurrectionists and all of their enablers in Congress and the United States (i.e., all the people who voted for him for every other reason besides that he embodies and animates the lie) are complicit in perpetuating the lie. Every liberal who dismisses the veracity of the lie becomes complicit in its reproduction. In short, the lie, as Glaude and Baldwin both argue, is what makes the United State of America truly exceptional.
Thinking about the lie as I watched the events of January 6 stream across my television screen, I was reminded of the parable of the scorpion and the frog. I also thought about a skit Chris Rock did a few years ago in which he riffs about the imminent threat of violence from white folks and the potential of the lie to blind black folks to the threat as well as blame themselves for allowing the violence to happen:
There’s nothin’ a white person could ever say to me that will ever catch me off-guard. Ever! I’m always lookin’ for some racism! No matter where the fuck I’m at, I’m like “where the racism at? Where it at, where it at, where it at?” No matter where I’m at. I could be sittin’ down with Regis Philbin, doin’ an interview, talkin’ about Madagascar 2, sayin’ “yeah, Regis, Madagascar 2’s real good, man. I play a zebra again! Oh, this motherfucker’s great!” And right in the middle of the interview, Regis’ll pull a pencil out of his pocket, stab me in the neck and say “take that, ya fuckin’ ni****r! Take that, ya dirty, greasy ni****r! Take that, ya fuckin’ ni****r!” And I’d be like “I shoulda seen it comin’. I let Regis get too close.” I’ll be mad at me. I’ll apologize–“hey, man, I left my neck all out, man. I’m sorry, man, I’m sorry.”
As I watched the insurrection being televised, I thought about Gil Scott-Heron singing “The revolution will be no re-run, brothers/The revolution will be live.” I thought about the scene in the Wizard of Oz when the wicked witch slowly melts and dies, breaking the dark spell that made her henchman murderous and obedient and wondered if there was a place in the educational sphere to deal with the people who raged in DC; or the folks who didn’t rage or do violence but nevertheless joined to protest what they believed to be a stolen election; or those that passively browsed the racist, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic paraphernalia in curious silence/acceptance; or the thousands that just wanted to show support for a man who, in spite of his openly racist and sexist attitudes and his pathological drive to lie about the silliest things, they believed was not part of what he named the political “swamp.” As an educator, I wondered if teaching was a realistic way to not just uncover the lie, but compel people to seek the truth.
Since public education is a major apparatus of the lie’s normalization and transmission, can it change and become a source of critical consciousness? Can educators teach against the grain of the lie in a way that compels students to rethink their fundamental identities as white, black and brown Americans? Combatting the lie requires a reckoning not only with the Nation’s foundation of white supremacy, but also with its contemporary articulations, representations, and formations. Are our teachers and schools, as well as our political leaders and the parents of school-age children, prepared for what they will learn? When President Biden said in one of his recent speeches about the need for unity and healing, “It’s hard to remember…,” he was referring not to age-related memory loss (although I’m sure it will make a great meme) but to the pain that we will feel from remembering, from resurrecting lost, erased and the repressed history of National violence and barbarism. Appeals to unification are empty without a national reckoning which reveals, confronts and begins to repair the economic devastation caused by the lie.
Like waves crashing on the shores of my imagination, I am thinking about Kurtz’s repeated phrase “The horror, the horror” as I imagine critical lessons that unveil the narrative assumptions that have nurtured and maintained the lie since the Nation’s inception. I am thinking about James Baldwin who said “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” I am sensing Toni Morrison’s notion of “re-memory” in Beloved, the project of reassembling shattered bodies and minds, resurrecting memories forgotten in the pain and violence of survival. I am thinking about the last stanza in Audre Lorde’s poem Litany for Survival when she concludes, “So it is better to speak/remembering/we were never meant to survive.” I am reminded of “This is America,” Donald Glover’s (aka Childish Gambino) master-class on representations, music, and white supremacy.
Today is the first day of Black History Month in the United State. For many of us doing critical and progressive education, it is a month that signals a time to address the lie while also acknowledging that its presence in the schools is evidence that the lie persists. The contradiction is not a reason to abandon Black History, but signals the need to think dialectically about History itself. Progressive teachers, the frontline workers in the fight against the intersecting and anti-democratic ideologies of white supremacy, religious fundamentalism, and neoliberalism in the Nation’s public schools, must confront communities of scorpions every day. Like Frog, these teachers are vulnerable to attack, yet for the good of the country they keep trying to teach the scorpions how to unlearn ideologies that betray and threaten the promise of democracy. But is this possible in a country whose official history is muddled by the lie; a country that can’t seem to come to terms with the reality that tens of millions of its citizens continue to reject the basic principles of democratic life and are enamored by the promise of a fundamentalist Christian, white supremacist, free-market autocracy; a country that is choking under the knee of its own contradictions?
Imagine the children of the insurrectionists, or those that supported it, or people who willfully refuse to acknowledge let alone confront the lie; imagine the children of the people flying confederate flags and buying Nazi paraphernalia; imagine the children of those rabidly deluded by the dark paranoid conspiracies perpetuated by QAnon, veracious consumers of right-wing media, and prostrate at the altar of Trumpism. Now imagine these children sitting in a classroom waiting patiently for a history lesson to begin about slavery, Reconstruction, Christopher Columbus, or the ideology of white supremacy in the United States. If the teacher stays committed to teaching against the grain of the lie, she/he will assuredly become a target of these parents. The courage these teachers exhibit on a daily basis goes mostly unrecognized while their commitment to democracy is undermined by the silence of the very people who should be supporting them.
When Carter G. Woodson started “Negro History Week” in 1926, he imagined a time when Black History would be recognized in schools throughout the year. “We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history,” he wrote in 1927. “What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.” But we cannot begin to meet Woodson’s curricular standards of History until we unveil the narrative assumptions that fuel and continue to perpetuate the lie. In both curricular and pedagogical terms, the lie cannot be relegated to a month of celebrations and critical interrogations. It’s too big and formative to be contained within the curricular and pedagogical bubble of Black History. Indeed, the lie gains currency because of the segregation of Black History to one month out of the year. Current standards of American history and the hegemony of Black History Month belie the lie. The extraordinary successes of African American people in the United States is in spite of the lie, not evidence that it doesn’t exist or is slowly losing its power over the Nation’s memory and imagination.
The lie speaks to the history of all of us. It is central to our understanding—past and present—of Nation, race, opportunity, freedom, democracy, education and each other. The only unknown variable in the architecture of the lie is whether it will continue to shape the future as it does the present and past. As James Baldwin knew better than most, the lie gives credence to the problematic notion of race itself. Until we can confront the spectacle of the lie—expose it as the visible negation of life that it is—we will not be able to move beyond race. Until we can move beyond race, we will continue to struggle to realize the love and power in our shared humanity.