I don’t want the old America back

27 February 2012

So I follow the popular strands of American politics with what strikes me as impressive forgetfulness. I just keep coming back for more, evening after morning after evening after morning, and I keep feeling frustrated and bewildered. Actually, that’s not fair, it’s not forgetfulness, because it’s not the same frustration and bewilderment. The thing is, I am actually more keenly bewildered each day I see yet another instance of dastardly cynicism or badly cloaked racism or the arrogance of institutional patriarchy (is there any other kind?)… just to speak of generalities. Disagreements on policy are a separate question altogether. I don’t feel I know enough about how things work to believe I know the best policy on this or that issue, let alone the more significant question of what best policy can be put into practice and how – the complexities are astounding and require care and attention. I love having those conversations, especially because there’s always more for me to learn. So no, that’s not what I’m talking about. Just the little things, the lies and the hatred. It’s all about the, “I want my America back.” It’s about how, when you read that sort of comment in a news story, you can freely bet on the race and relative age of its speaker. Interestingly, both male and female cluelessly bigoted older white Americans make this comment. The women want their America back, too. Maybe their political selves are more entrenched in being white than in being women. Whatever. I want to care, but I struggle to, so blinded am I by the anger I feel towards their hatefulness and childishness and ignorance.

Most of the time I prefer to write more carefully put together posts, but I’m not sure when I’ll next have the energy to compose myself when thinking about this particular issue. Looking at a Thomas Jefferson statue in Charlottesville, VA yesterday, Sarah and I briefly discussed my disgust. Earlier in the day I had supposed in 300 years (to pluck a random number) humans would look back at our beliefs, practices, attitudes, etc., and find themselves confused and aghast. Sarah pointed out that this is how it is now, so there’s good reason to think it might continue on in this way. (In that sense, perhaps 300 is a clever number, after all, the US being a bit younger than that: out of the range of that particular survey, sort of.) My consideration, upon looking up at TJ: people oughtn’t be allowed to say they want to go back to the founders, to the ideals and values of the founders. When I say “oughtn’t be allowed,” I hope it goes without saying that I mean socially rather than legally; i.e., I don’t think it should be considered a legitimate sentiment, and should be mocked and derided in polite company and popular media.

Now, that isn’t to say the founders weren’t a group of interesting and in some ways very admirable fellows who started something I can honestly say I am proud to be a part of. And suffice it to say, I won’t be accused any time soon of being an expert on TJ, George, Sam and their ilk. Nevertheless, Thomas Jefferson, among our favorite and most well-known founders, was, to say the very least, a slave-owner, as were most of the other founding fathers. (The few notable exceptions are notable indeed.) I submit it is not outrageous to say that this fact alone suffices to disqualify Jefferson’s from being values to which we should return.

Perhaps some of his values (his deism seems interesting…) are worth revisiting, debating, situating…, but any simplistic expression of a return to the values of our founders must include slavery. This is not some minor nit to pick, this is not one man’s private questionable practices coming to light and casting a shadow on his reputation. It’s hard for me to find the language here, as I’m imagining as my interlocutor someone who says things like, “Do we really have to talk about slavery anymore?” Anymore? No, not anymore, we have to begin the discussion. The fact that folks are simply quoted as saying things like, for example, that [Rick Santorum] is going to “bring back the old United States,” is, to me, as clear an indicator as any that the unpardonable sin of slavery continues to mark this country and its culture. (Let us not, for a moment, get into the justice system and incarceration. My restraint wears thin as it is.)

Let us return to the founders for a moment. Perhaps my interlocutor would reply that what matters more than, say, the 3/5 compromise (which, can we just, like, point that out as soon as this sort of comment/conversation arises? as, like, a pertinent fact…?), are the ideals of, you know, the whole “self-evident” business and the “we the people” bit. To a certain extent, I can agree to this. It would be more troubling if, looking back on our past, we found no one outraged at the glaring hypocrisy of the publication of the Declaration in light of the institution of slavery. We can find facts that lend a positive reading: founders who were abolitionists, others who eventually freed their slaves, slave owning founders who felt conflicted about the whole thing… Is it wrong of me to skew the argument with the phrasing of that third item? I have an image in my head of a cowardly George Washington, willing the freedom of his slaves knowing his wife won’t allow them all their freedom. To whatever extent this story is true, it is a lesson in not putting off ending your enslavement of other human beings until after death. No, I refuse to accept the small-minded dichotomy between actions and ideals. I can appreciate the wording of the Declaration and Preamble and seek to uphold their ideals without accepting simplistic idolization of the men who signed their names on those documents while considering some people to be their property. This is one issue that really could not wait as the political wheels turned. Let me explain.

I am supportive of gay marriage in the sense that I honestly have a hard time understanding how anyone doesn’t recognize this to be among the more obvious issues of our time. It’s hard for me to understand arguments I’ve heard against gay marriage. The whole “definition” thing is a laugh, religion is irrelevant (don’t marry gay couples in your church if you don’t want to…), and studies in support of my contention aside, we don’t legislate straight marriages by whether we think ahead of time the children they may or may not have will be better or worse off for having these two for parents. It’s, again, just not relevant to the discussion. It’s a question of context. Anyway. Nevertheless, I am under the impression that the gradual but increasingly speedy legislation of equal marriage rights around the country will be a more stable shift than, say, the seeming tenuousness of Roe v. Wade. I think it is a travesty to force couples to wait – especially seeing as we’re not immortal – but I also think, from my privileged vantage point, that the cultural shift is forcing the tide of legislation, and that by the time (soon!) all fifty states and the federal government recognize marriage equality, those who remain against it will be mocked and derided, if, after their ignorance and frightfulness is lovingly made known to them, they cling to their ignorance. Hooray for the derision of willful ignorance! I want everyone to feel loved, but love doesn’t mean not giving someone shit for being proud of their foolishness.

My point? Obviously,  re slavery this is something I say not only from a privileged vantage point, but from an absolute temporal distance. I can’t say about the institution of slavery in America (at least not in the same sense that I can say the opposite about the extremely significant and integral but thankfully much less dire issue of gay marriage) that it cannot wait for the shifting tide of public perception and the slow and steady degradation of ignorance and bigotry. And yet, there is still a certain sense in which I can say that of the present. It is not okay to continue to portray (often unwitting) thinly veiled racism (is there a better and stronger word than ‘racism’ or ‘bigotry’? I think ‘hatefulness’ comes closer to capturing it) as just another of a set of opinions relevant to this or that political matter. Who knows, maybe when Santorum’s supporter speaks of the “old United States,” he’s not thinking of white domination but of the economy in the 90s. (Yuk yuk yuk.) Then don’t use that ugly phrase. And if you do, we will ask you just what you mean, and we won’t accept evasion or defensiveness. We honestly want to know, because if you don’t mean what we think you mean, we all need to know that, and you need to express yourself more clearly – and if you do mean what we think you mean, then there’s a long conversation we’ve been meaning to get started, anyway…

4 Responses to “I don’t want the old America back”

  1. sarah Says:

    great post james! i remember very clearly watching the insane town halls of summer 2010, the foaming mouths of the electorate. there was an older white woman with a large sign that said “I want my america back!” My dad turned to me and said, I’ll never forget, “what america do you think she’s referring to?”
    i’d say circa 1950. you know, when you didn’t have to see people who were different, suffering or protesting. they lived on the other side of town. things were safer.
    i think you’re right that these are hateful, racially coded phrases. a nostalgia for homogeneity. when people talk about neighborhoods changing or safer times they mean times when they were willing to talk to all of their neighbors. and this is not one directional. race-wise i mean. there is distrust on all sides. the difference is that certain populations had all their rights, let’s say white males [your privilege you refer to], and others did not. but now they do. why would black families threatened from the ballot box and the local public schools want that America back? they dont.
    And finally, your point about women’s rights is spot on. that’s what’s most baffling about this winter. Why are we talking about contraceptive and abortions and vaginal probes?? why are men the only people making decisions on women’s health? again?? for those old ladies who want their old america back, this is what they get. maybe they don’t care because they are past the reproductive age? but don’t they remember??

  2. sarah Says:

    here is your msnbc-style outrage photo. TJ inspires conversation, that’s for sure..

  3. Paul Says:

    Your timely (for all time) post recalled a brief essay i wrote regarding the now infamous slip of the tongue by Trent Lott, a former senator.  Here’s the relevant excerpt:

           “…solving particular mental contents (e.g., riddles) requires an understanding of the psychic reality generating the changes of mental content, as any mind is always reformulating its contents, and to prevent the plague of rash action one must not become too set in one’s ways.”
                                            Bollas, ‘Why Oedipus?’
    I’ve been reflecting on Trent Lott’s now infamous parapraxis, “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”
    Robin Toner, in her perceptive NY Sunday Times article (A Sanitized Past Comes Back to Haunt Trent Lott — and America), invoked William Faulkner’s oft quoted dictum,  “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Her article reads like a case example of narcissistic denial and vertical splitting (dissociation); the patient, however, is American culture itself.  Trent Lott is just one introjected voice of complicity (which implies being “too set in one’s ways”) in “the plague of rash action.” 
           “What was striking was not that this past reared its troublesome head after Mr. Lott delivered his praise of Mr. Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign as the nominee of the Dixiecrats, a “states’ rights” party devoted to the preservation of a segregated South. What was striking was how long the reaction took to build, how distant the memories had become, how many politicians were initially caught off balance. Americans often tend to sanitize their past, smooth the edges, develop a happy amnesia about the hardest parts, particularly when the subject is race. “What’s fascinating about the Lott episode is it brings back the reality” that “people had to fight, some had to lose their lives, to win these rights,” said Roderick Harrison, a sociologist at Howard University and an official with the Joint Center for Political and Economics Studies, a research group that focuses on issues facing black Americans. “That it was bitterly resisted. That Martin Luther King, who is now sanctified, was looked at as a dangerous radical.”The urge to tidy up the story is strong.
           Consider Mr. Thurmond, who was bid a sentimental farewell from the Senate this month as a kind of national grandpa, the long, morally ambivalent arc of his career turned into an uplifting narrative of a man who changed with the times.
           “Life is easier if there are no former segregationists around,” said David J. Garrow, a civil rights historian.”
    Americans are not the only ones to “sanitize” their pasts.  To sanitize, or “to make more acceptable by removing unpleasant or offensive features from,” is a deep function of the unconscious mind clashing with unacceptable, threatening, and painful mental contents.  Lott’s question once again begs the question:  How could the obvious not be seen (whether the obvious is racism or any other reality that engenders discrimination, cruelty, violence, horror, abuse, torture, etc.)?  How do we as individuals and cultures “not see” psychic realities.  
    I read another editorial on Trent Lott’s comment by an African American writer who thanked Lott for expressing what still exists in the minds of many Americans, and why we are still a nation divided by race.  Well, of course, isn’t it obvious?  Yes and no.  Complicity is a mechanism of denial.  It’s also a function of rhetoric that offers up simplified, concretized, and dualistic explanations of deeply complex phenomena, as reflected in President Bush’s demonization of Iraq.  Note an excerpt from a recent article:
     “Mr. Penn, a onetime Hollywood bad boy who was rarely known in the earlier stages of his career for his forbearance, arrived here on Friday for a three-dayvisit after an open letter he addressed to President Bush in October in the form of a $56,000 advertisement in The Washington Post. Speaking of Mr. Bush’s threat to invade Iraq, he condemned the president for “a simplistic and inflammatory view of good and evil.” He added, “Sir, I beg you, help save America before yours is a legacy of shame and horror.”
    Conservatism in its degenerative form is fascism.  The “fascist state of mind,” as Bollas calls it, attempts to sanitize on a grand scale.  Yet, what allows such massive collective denial of psychic truth is the unconscious.  And this is why, in my view, the systematic explanation of the unconscious was Freud’s most significant contribution, particularly given the historical and cultural contexts of his “discovery.”
     “What was striking was how long the reaction took to build, how distant the memories had become, how many politicians were initially caught off balance.”    
    This statement could read from the literary source of Freud’s other significant contribution, Sophocles’ ‘Odeipus The King,’ another famous text on the human complex. 
    Enter CREON.
    My royal cousin, say, Menoeceus’ child,
    What message hast thou brought us from the god?
    Good news, for e’en intolerable ills,
    Finding right issue, tend to naught but good.
    How runs the oracle? thus far thy words
    Give me no ground for confidence or fear.
    If thou wouldst hear my message publicly,
    I’ll tell thee straight, or with thee pass within.
    Speak before all; the burden that I bear
    Is more for these my subjects than myself.
    Let me report then all the god declared.
    King Phoebus bids us straitly extirpate
    A fell pollution that infests the land,
    And no more harbor an inveterate sore.
    What expiation means he? What’s amiss?
    Banishment, or the shedding blood for blood.
    This stain of blood makes shipwreck of our state.
    Whom can he mean, the miscreant thus denounced?
    Before thou didst assume the helm of State,
    The sovereign of this land was Laius.
    I heard as much, but never saw the man.
    He fell; and now the god’s command is plain:
    Punish his takers-off, whoe’er they be.
    Where are they? Where in the wide world to find
    The far, faint traces of a bygone crime?
    In this land, said the god; “who seeks shall find;
    Who sits with folded hands or sleeps is blind.”
    Was he within his palace, or afield,
    Or traveling, when Laius met his fate?
    Abroad; he started, so he told us, bound
    For Delphi, but he never thence returned.
    Came there no news, no fellow-traveler
    To give some clue that might be followed up?
    But one escape, who flying for dear life,
    Could tell of all he saw but one thing sure.
    And what was that? One clue might lead us far,
    With but a spark of hope to guide our quest.
    Robbers, he told us, not one bandit but
    A troop of knaves, attacked and murdered him.
    Did any bandit dare so bold a stroke,
    Unless indeed he were suborned from Thebes?
    So ’twas surmised, but none was found to avenge
    His murder mid the trouble that ensued.
    What trouble can have hindered a full quest,
    When royalty had fallen thus miserably?
    The riddling Sphinx compelled us to let slide
    The dim past and attend to instant needs.
    Well, I will start afresh and once again
    Make dark things clear. Right worthy the concern
    Of Phoebus, worthy thine too, for the dead;
    I also, as is meet, will lend my aid
    To avenge this wrong to Thebes and to the god.
    Not for some far-off kinsman, but myself,
    Shall I expel this poison in the blood;
    For whoso slew that king might have a mind
    To strike me too with his assassin hand.
    Therefore in righting him I serve myself.
    Up, children, haste ye, quit these altar stairs,
    Take hence your suppliant wands, go summon hither
    The Theban commons. With the god’s good help
    Success is sure; ’tis ruin if we fail.
    “It is ruin if we fail.”  But, fail at what?  Discovering who killed Oedipus’ father, King Laius, or not solving the riddle of the Sphinx?  And what is the riddle really about?  Is it not about the nature of, not man, but mind; that is, how mind deceives itself and, therefore, other minds?  

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