A mysterious and contradictory feature of American society

There do seem to be some real misunderstandings about how our country has come through 400 years from the settlement of English-speaking people on the east coast and Spanish-speaking people even earlier in the southeast and southwest.

Interactions with Native Americans are cast in stereotypes from cowboy movies and African-Americans are kept out of sight. In fact, continuing the movie theme, you might say that the main actors are White men and everyone else are extras. And in fact, many people label it political correctness to acknowledge the role women and non-White persons have played in our history.

American exceptionalism is simply arrogance with a dash of religious bigotry thrown in. However, there are elements of our society, nation, culture and government which we can call special, even though we are not the only possessors of these elements. The major trait spread through all the just mentioned dimensions of the U.S. is the way our political culture handles conflict and change.

Much has been written about the dynamic of the “other” and how various groups have been thrust into that role. What that serves, the “other”, is to allow us to present our country as monolithic, driven by one overarching force and purpose. One illustrative example: freedom is a core American value according to most surveys, but for several centuries our economy was based on slavery. Even after we abolished slavery it continued in divers forms and didn’t truly end until the 1940s and some would argue it still continues in the sugar cane industry and similar labor camps and immigrant sweat shops. But when those most besmirched with the status of slave are marginalized, we can present ourselves as a “freedom-loving people”. We do not have to consider the obvious contradiction.

Self-determination for all but Native Americans, land ownership for all but Chinese immigrants, home ownership for all but African-Americans, the pursuit of education for all but migrant farm workers, self-actualization for all but women, full integration into the community for all but homosexuals, freedom of religion for all but Mormons, and so on with all our values.

To deny the existence of these values in the “fabric of our society” would be a distortion, but so is ignoring the contradictions. FDR wanted to end lynching in order to deprive the Japanese of their claim to be fighting American racism against “colored people”, and discovered he would have to end slavery, too….. in 1943. Some would argue the mass incarceration of Black men has as much to do with the imposition of an up-dated slave code and Black code as it does with crimes committed by the incarcerated. Inequitable sentencing, structural racism, and indifference combine to shatter that part of the Black community we look to for leadership in any community – its young men.

But we accept all this – Indians on reservations, Blacks in prisons, immigrants in detention camps, migrant and sweatshop workers in constant flight with no union representation…….. and we accept it b/c our teachers and textbooks, our news media, our politicans and public officials do not want to challenge the socialization process. For we are socialized into accepting this just as a Pashtun is socialized into accepting child brides married off to 45 year old grey beards.

This socialization process is powerful; it can make invisible whole peoples. It also directs the way we deal with conflict and change. For example, Americans are socialized into accepting political change and turnovers as non-violent affairs. Other than a few fringe groups, notably in the South, most Americans cannot imagine a change of regime (read “administration”) or major court decisions e.g. Roe v.Wade or Brown v. Board of Educaton, occurring amidst violent upheavel. In fact, many of us saw the student protests and Civil Rights movement as violent, quite nonsensical when we look at what happens even in highly sophisticated societies like France and Germany. Despite the contradictions in our society, we have somehow managed to create a political culture that simply does not condone violence as a means of redressing political disadvantage or loss of political advantage. Movies like Seven Days in May are science fiction for us, but not for Greece, Chile, China, and countless other countries where a putsch or coup d’etat (notice: we even have foreign words for the acts, they are so foreign to us) can be counted on every few years and where political stability is purchased with the suppression of dissent. Let a hundred flowers bloom, and then we’ll strip you of your petals or pull you out by the roots once we have identified you.

This is all the more remarkable considering that the United States is a former colony, part of the old imperial system of exploitation and slave labor. Resulting hierarchies, often based on skin color, continue in force to this day in every former colony, esp. those which were economically exploited. An Indian here, a Black there in the government or in artistic circles belies the underlying reality of European hegemony in politics, economics and culture. Only in former slave colonies are there interesting variations on this with light-skinned Blacks having the status of Whites in racially mixed former colonies (Jamaica is one example). Be it Cuba or Peru, Mexico or Guatemala, Venezuela or Brazil, oceans of indigenous people and descendents of African slaves make up the under-class, as we call it here in the U.S. And the violence engendered by the need to control masses of indigenous peoples and gangs of African slaves remains an integral part of the process of meeting change and challenge.

In the U.S., in the face of a similar history and the ugliest sort of racist policies, we yet have managed to socialize all of us into excising violence from the larger political process. The South, as usual, formed an exception to this, though the hold of the ruling class, the over-class, is slipping. Southerners first had to harden themselves to manage slaves and then to keep Blacks out of economic competition, and they explained this to themselves and to us by invoking the inferiority of Blacks. Their stance as resisters was reinforced by their self-delusion that the Civil War was imposed on them, that they fought valiantly for the “Southern Way of Life” and then overcompensated for their treason by filling the ranks of the U.S. military. In fact, a good part of their recruitment into the military is based in their poverty. Anytime anyone offers a way out of poverty, e.g. unions, White Southerners reject it based on the overriding fear that they will have to share a table with a Black, thus diluting their status as a White man.

This fact of America’s colonial past is seldom highlighted as an explanation for our high homocide rate, our high rate of pious religiosity, our penchent for corporal and capital punishment, or our persistent racism. One reason for this is this amazing capacity for self-renewal without violence, for relatively quiet political change. Within that framework then, America has been able to move forward toward incorporating more and more people from the margins into the mainstream. Nothing is more shocking and uplifting at the same time to those of us of a certain age to see Black officials on the TV screen…. hell, we can remember when the appearance of ANY Black on the TV screen prompted a shut-down of the two telephone exchanges shared by most Blacks here in the Phoenix area: we were all calling each other to say, “There’s one of us on TV.”

Just how far removed many people are from reality, I am sure that if I were to post this on a listserv for fl teachers, there would be those who would read this as an overheated exaggeration; nothing just like that could have ever been the state in this country. Maybe resistence in the South to a Black man and White woman in an intimate scene, but some random Black person just appearing on TV? And yet that is exactly what it was. Get copies of quiz shows, talk shows, dance shows, sports events……. anything with a sizeabale crowd and a random setting (obviously not a Black church or a commemoration of Marion Anderson singing on the capitol steps but a typical event in America). You will see next to none, no Blacks. In the South, baseball games and theaters had special sections for Blacks. And people at the time said that that would NEVER change. Yet a few years later, in the late 60s, early 70s, Blacks began appearing at all sorts of venues.

We have to wonder how this happened. Why did the U.S. develop a culture in which political change fell into that category of events where violence is unthinkable? Such things occur in other cultures. I was just listening to a couple of men who work in Afghanistan, outsiders, who say you can rely on the Pashtun sense of hospitality for your protection there; you just don’t cross that line in the society. Why not? Because you don’t. Why not work on assassinating a senator who is working against you in Congress? Because you don’t. Look at all the movies about such acts – pure fiction. It does not happen. The closest we came was Kennedy and it is still not clear what happened there. But routine assassinations as occur in other countries? No.

Considering the violent colonial past of this country and the high rate of personal violence in it compared to other industrialized countries, we have a remarkable feature to examine here, and we can do it in relative security. We may have to have a security guard in the parking lot at night but we don’t have to worry that the FBI is going to, at the behest of a political enemy, storm our office and beat us to a pulp to intimidate us.

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