America is divided today, but most Americans agree on one thing: Few on either side expected a Trump presidency in 2016.
And while books on how and why and what happened are racing off the presses, a surprising, different, and powerful book, “A Colony in a Nation,” has come from Chris Hayes, host of “All In,” an MSNBC daily news and commentary program.
His book is surprising for several reasons. First, it is not written about the Trump presidency. Trump is mentioned only once, in an aside, two-thirds of the way through the book. Next, the book is a reasoned thesis that America today is the result of some pretty dark national psychological characteristics rooted in the origins of the country. He uses signposts from noted American Revolution rascal John Hancock to events in Ferguson, Mo., in 2015, and stops in between to offer evidence that our nation of laws delivers separate and unequal application of those laws as a result of our national psyche.
Mr. Hayes will discuss his book on Wednesday, August 16, at 7 pm at Bunch of Grapes bookstore, Main Street in Vineyard Haven.
He cites fear, a desire for orderliness, and a love of violence as important predicates for the development of a nation and of a colony within it. The Nation is comprised of, well, you and me — mostly white, well-kempt, and well-kept citizens. The Colony is “them,” predominantly black- and brown-skinned people who have lived in generations of poverty and violence.
We live in the Nation. They live in the Colony.
Mr. Hayes grew up in the late 20th century Bronx, son of a dedicated community organizer. He walked the Colony every day. He knew it, often feared it himself, and he has used those experiences, along with good newsman shoe leather and research, to tell a story of what’s wrong, and presages what we have to do to become a Nation without a Colony.
Based on my reading of his book, we have some heavy lifting to do to get it right. We the People, not we the electors of substandard legislators and governing agents, have to get it right.
The final surprise for me was the feeling that I was self-administering a personal and uncomfortable lie-detector test.. Flashbacks occurred to me. I live in the Nation, and I have lived in the Colony. His book made me remember being the only white skin on Harlem’s 125th Street station platform in the 1970s, and I remembered how white people literally recoiled when I told them I was from South Boston. Fear.
I don’t like what those experiences tell me about myself. “A Colony in a Nation” can serve as a personal civil litmus test. That’s why it is an important contribution to the national dialogue, it seems to me.
The Times spoke with Mr. Hayes this week about his book:
Donald Trump is mentioned once in the book. Intentional?
Yeah, it was. The book was conceived before his candidacy, but it’s applicable, it seems to me, to conditions today and illuminating of his appeal [to voters].
The national psychology you describe seems a kind of a psychological NIMBY: separate and distinct communities created by fear, and a national consciousness devoted to punishment and orderliness.
It is part of our social and political inheritance and our opposition to capricious administration of law, beginning with England’s rule and continuing today. White fear begun with Europeans’ first landing in the New World, then in the South, Jim Crow, up to the crime politics of 1980s and 1990s. The ways the nation has bisected and divided are often along racial lines, but not exclusively; different populations live under different regimes.
The book leads readers to take a moral inventory. Is that intended?
My dad’s view of the world and social outlook framed my own. I think a moral inventory is part of what I’m trying to do about what we have created, and I think a moral inventory is called for now. People read this book in different ways, but liberals, conservatives, prosecutors, and cops have told me it made them think.
The book is intended to be thought-provoking and provocative. I believe that has never been more important than now. It feels to me that we have a national crisis right now. I hope people read and enjoy it, and that they consult the bibliography for other reads related to my book.
“A Colony in a Nation” by Chris Hayes, W.W. Norton & Co., hardcover, 256 pages. Available at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, Vineyard Haven, and online.