Back in February 2017 at a Black History Month event, President Donald Trump regaled his audience with his insights about famous African Americans’ contributions throughout U.S. history. He identified Frederick Douglass as “an example of somebody’s who’s done a great job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”
Shamefully, he hasn’t received any recognition with regard to the release of the Mueller report. I’ve watched a lot of the media coverage and listened to a lot of talking heads, often the same pundits over and over, and not one network seems to have sought Douglass’s expertise.
Wait—what? He’s dead?
Oh, ok. My bad. I really need to stop listening to Trump, who sure made it sound like the major abolitionist, suffrage campaigner, author, orator, and former slave of mid-19th-century America was alive, kicking, and taking more and more names.
Douglass’s passing aside, though, I wonder if he might nonetheless be able to offer some guidance on reading the Mueller report and help Americans decipher where their interests lie when it comes to assessing the importance of Russian interference in our nation’s 2016 Presidential election.
He did, after all, have some important insights into the power of literacy—and into the efficacy of properly reading the power dynamics impacting one’s life.
And it seems, from multiple reports, that the response of many Americans to the Mueller report is less concern over Russia’s influence in determining who the leader and chief decision-maker in the United States will be, than general disgust with our political leaders.
Is that the best way to read and respond to the report? Maybe Douglass can school us a bit on how to read to decipher our political interests.
Most illuminating in this regard, perhaps, is Douglass’ account in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass of his learning to read, or perhaps more precisely his learning of the importance of reading when his master forbids his wife to teach him precisely because “it would forever unfit him to be a slave,” to play his role as worker in the class system of slavery. Douglass recounts the moment when his master scolds his wife for teaching him to read and his concomitant “new and special revelation,” of his political interests, as he comes to understand the denial of literacy as part of “the white man’s power to enslave the black man.” He becomes confident that what the master is saying is true and that the result of the slave’s achievement of literacy will in fact be in some measure the undoing of the system of slavery itself.
Douglass represents reading not just as an act of basically assimilating the meaning of words but as an act of discerning, of grasping, one’s political and economic interests. Douglass doesn’t learn to read the same way his master does but rather reads the master’s statements negatively to decipher the reality of his situation and his political and economic interests, such that we see that ways of reading are politicized and differentially conditioned by one’s position in the larger social power structure.
“What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was a great good, to be diligently sought.”
What does Douglass’ realization here have to do with Americans reading the Mueller report?
Well, let’s consider a couple of conclusions the report reaches rather definitively after 22 months of rather exhaustive investigation.
First, the report asserts unequivocally, “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.”
Second, we learn from the report that “the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”
Hmmm. The Russians believed they would benefit from a Trump presidency.
Shouldn’t a light bulb illuminate over our heads when we read this conclusion?
Maybe Douglass, though admittedly dead, can flip the switch for us, by lending us his formulation to adapt:
What Putin and Russia most dread, that Americans should most desire. What Putin and Russia most love, American should most hate. That which to Putin and Russia is a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was a great good, to be diligently sought by Americans.
Americans need to deeply consider whether Russia has their interests at heart in working to choose a president for us. Is Putin concerned about whether Americans have quality healthcare and public education, clean drinking water, a sound infrastructure and globally competitive economy?
Is that what Putin cares about? Doubtful.
Nonetheless, Americans just don’t seem to be reading the issue of Russian interference in our elections as a big deal, as an event that does and will impact their lives.
Indeed, James Alicie and Richard Birchfield, at a Trump rally in Ohio last August 2018, went so far as to wear t-shirts that read: “I’d rather be Russian than Democrat.”
The Mueller report, if read carefully, would hopefully give Americans pause over such a preference.
Hopefully Americans will begin to recognize the late Frederick Douglass more and more.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.