“The American People”

“The American People” is an abstraction. It is a fiction. Yet pundits and politicians are always saying it. American pundits and politicians. When this began, I do not know. But to refer to fellow-citizens of the United States in this way is to fictionalize real people and to regard them as somehow separate from oneself. It’s silly. It’s shallow. It’s trite.

It’s unthinking.

And it’s often used with promiscuous presumption about what the American People think or feel, want or believe.

It’s also a totally useless generalization when it functions as a stand-in for what pundits and politicians think fellow Americans want (or what they want them to want).

I think the American People would agree. Don’t you?

A sea of self-motivated individuals or a web of interdependent talents? Both, of course.

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

One Response to “The American People”

  1. Mark says:

    Dr. Geivett I wouldn’t agree that the phrase the American people is an abstraction nor a fiction, nor would I follow your convention of capitalizing the definite article. If there are “scare quotes”, then surely there are “scare caps”. Perhaps I just coin a phrase.

    I’d distinguish between the validity of a term and it’s abuse. It is certainly used with promiscuous presumption and in self-serving ways by pundits and politicians. I would say pundits are far worse in attempting to find in the public what they want them to want. So I think it’s a valid term that is much abused. If it weren’t a valid term, for what do people give their lives when they do so for their country? What does “we the people” in the Declaration mean? No, it means something. No matter how abused any generality may be, it doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

    I’d highly recommend Bernard Yack’s “Nationalism and the Moral Psychology of Community”. It’s a brilliant study that ought to be highly relevant to every Christian leader, but probably not for the reason one might think. Look, I’m going to say something bracing and unpopular, so that’s my trigger warning.

    Yack’s scholarly treatise in my view unpacks the abject nonsense that now surrounds the term “community”. If only those so fearful of “nationalism” were as skeptical of romantic or idealistic communitarianism. Self-serving idealistic communitarianism is so rife within the Evangelical academy and church now that many of us that haven’t drank the kool-aid have taken to applying the term “the romantic-industrial complex”. Evangelical church life and discourse in many significant ways has been absorbed by such myths. These romantic, idealistic, and postmodern ideologies have corrupted its witness. These things are far more virulent and corrupting than anti-intellectualism ever was. Under this influence many Christians are no longer able in their public expressions to give time-tested advice from their experience. Instead they repeat idealistic communitarian boilerplate not informed by their true situations actions. Which is fortunate for those that unconsciously compartmentalize, but very bad for those who listen and try to act upon their words. This is why relational advice generally in the church is exceedingly poor, despite classes and seminars conferences on relationships. In fact it’s because of them.

    Some psychologists use a term called “idealistic distortion” and I think the term can be perfectly apt in any case where negative appraisals of actual people or things come about by comparison to perfect copies that can only exist in the mind, and wouldn’t be a good thing even if we could realize it in isolation in an otherwise fallen world (to distinguish between an “idealism” that simply seeks difficult but attainable goals).

    C. S. Lewis, in Chapter 6 of Mere Christianity in the context of love, warned that discernment between the ideal and the real wasn’t such an easy thing. Most people’s self-image as spouses and/or parents is such that they find such advice insulting and condescending. Just as we assume advertising works on others, but not our own wise selves. But there it is:

    “… make quite sure that you are judging [what I’ve said] by what you really know from your own experience and from watching the lives of your friends, and not by ideas you have derived from novels and films. This is not so easy to do as people think. Our experience is coloured through and through by books and plays and the cinema, and it takes patience and skill to disentangle the things we have really learned from life for ourselves.”


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