Van Jones, language and the psuedo memory of national identity
I do not begrudge Van Jones for his tears. It's his words that are bothersome.
by Donnie Moreland
In my six years participating in scholastic speech and debate competition, the one lasting impression of the sport itself, less any social interaction, was that language is never fixed. Language is neither absolute, or inherent. Language is craftable, manipulatable, sellable and infinitely interpretable.
This seems obvious, but when you think of how much of the world’s material history has been obstructed by the infinite malleability of language and the complexities of the subject shines bright. So when political pundit and strategist, Van Jones began to shed tears at the announcement that former Vice President Joe Biden was the projected winner of the 2020 Presidential Race between himself, and then current President Donald Trump, I was disturbed.
I was disturbed, not because of his physical response, but the words that accompanied his reaction. When asked his thoughts on Biden’s victory by fellow pundit, Anderson Cooper, Jones offered:
“…it’s a little easier to tell your kids that character matters. Telling the truth matters. Being a good person matters. And it’s easier for a lot of people… you know, I Can’t Breathe? That wasn’t just George Floyd. That was a lot of people who felt they couldn’t breathe. Everyday you are waking up and you’re getting these tweets and you’re going to the store and people who’ve been afraid to show their racism are getting nastier and nastier… and this is a big deal for us to be able to get some peace, and have a chance at a reset. And the character of the country matters and being a good man matters…”
Those words—character, truth, good, matter—all belong to a vocabulary of moral expectation, which are all antithetical to the political, and philosophical, history of America. And yet, there is a grit to how Jones used them. A kind of hard belief in the tangible value of American moralities. And that is where my concern lies, and not solely with Van Jones.
Jones only provided the latest contemporary illustration of how language can be used to endorse, or is consequential of, a pseudo memory of America as an impression of colonization, the dissociation between how we believe our patriotism ought to be valued, and a history of fascistic white political violence which rebuts that assumption.
America has a very strange relationship with morality. Though there is a supposed separation of church and state, civic religious piety is almost demanded in public, and often, private discourse and performances. The pledge of allegiance, military fetishism, the sacrality of the “founding fathers” and their monuments all have less to do with governance and everything to do with something closer to religious devotionalism.
But nothing more so exemplifies this sentiment than the language associated with Americanism. I am saying nothing of the English language. Words like virtue, honor, freedom, liberty, justice, duty, service and so on are almost expected when discussing the country’s relationship to its citizenry or its position on the world stage. It’s evident at every event of this country’s making.
“I shall carry it with me to my grave… that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue; that, in fine, the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.”
“I believe that the essence of government lies with the unceasing concern for the welfare, dignity and decency and innate integrity of life for every individual.”
Barack Obama on Donald Trump (2020):
“There are strong men and dictators around the world who think that, ‘I can do anything to stay in power. I can kill people. I can throw people in jail. I can run phony elections. I can suppress journalists.’ But that’s not who we are supposed to be.”
What each of these men attempted to preserve, in their rhetoric, was a belief about a system of morality which was as contributive to national identity as any symbol. And yet, Washington was a rigid slaver, Johnson was a bigoted racist, and both he and Obama’s terms in the Oval Office were marred with war criminality. But national memory of their tenure often redacts these episodes of violence in favor of patriot idioms that reject any means of critical judgements of their service.
But that is the story of this “Great American Experiment.”
Indigenous genocide is remembered as the glory of western expansion, through a language of divine directive. Harboring Nazi experimenters is remembered as a spoil of war against evil, through a cultural rhetoric of utilitarianism and technological necessity. A history of abject violence, imperialism and corruption is sterilized, time immemorial, through scholarship, political punditry, political pageantry and dinner table talk alike, and this is as much a part of the language as the grammar by which the words are constructed.
And as with Jones, much of our national identity, through the violence of assimilation is forged by such linguistic history. Thus, it actualizes a pseudo memory of our relationship to state violence, through the construction of an identity dependent on and defended through the verbiage of patriotic pleasantries.
In his seminal work, Black Skin, White Masks, anti-colonial theorist and psychoanalyst, Frantz Fanon surmises that: “To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.”
Fanon’s idea of language is fitting here, because it explains the problem of such linguistic allegiance, on part of the oppressed, of which we can identify in another segment of Jones. After the murder of George Floyd—on May, 25th, 2020—by the Minneapolis Police Department, Jones stated the following about systematic racism and obstructed liberal whitehood:
“…this is the last domino to have fallen in a long line of dominos that have been falling for a long time and Black people have been getting gaslit every time we point this out… white people are always innocent and their innocence constitutes their crimes.”
This type of cognitive dissonance related to a kind of celebration of neoliberalism in contest with a disgust of its implications is the problem with our relationship to the American voice. The answer of state-sanctioned police violence is not found in the reprieve offered by a neoliberal, or softly bigoted, political victory. Both cannot exist.
But if one’s identity, one’s national cultural identity, is married to certain ethical expectations due to a language of national moral pageantry, then the relationship to liberation will always be in conflict with their person, their spirit (and the same can be said about Ice Cube and the rhetoric of political chauvinism).
But more insidiously, where the instructions to resistance are laid bare, Black radical voices are ostracized along a spectrum of traditional Black political identities. Because no matter the position of belief in the morality of America, it is a belief in the imperial subjugation of Black folks across this planet and throughout time, and thus innately objects to comprehensive protections of all to do with Black life and Black futures.
Again, I do not begrudge Van Jones for his tears. It’s his words that are bothersome. It’s one thing to find catharsis in the embarrassment of a bafoonish government official. It’s another thing to suggest that Trump’s tyranny and Biden’s neoliberalism are not political relatives in their relationship to colonization and that relationship to our freedom.
When we begin to speak words such as we, us and our, in relationship to the American mythos of moral purities—past and present—then the ghost of slave ships haunt, not only the ocean floor, but the space between our teeth.
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.