Friday, January 20, 2012
"White is Right" or so we're told
About 2 years ago, I wrote about the mythology of the western expansion of the USA, and the central role that mythology plays in art and in racist thinking. As I look at what will almost certainly be a very nasty election year, I remain unconvinced by the conventional wisdom of the punditariat that the driving force behind all the passionate feeling is the bad economy. I think the extremism that we are seeing this year goes much deeper than current economic statistics. The USA is undergoing major demographic and cultural changes that make a lot of people feel very threatened; especially those people used to being always in charge, and who long took their power and privilege for granted, i.e. White People. Our conflicts are not economic, but tribal. Tribal passions are the most powerful of public passions and trump economic self-interest all the time (how else would you explain the conflicts in the Balkans?). The Achilles Heel of all economic thinking is the assumption that people act rationally in their own self interest. Anyone who's spent 5 minutes in an introductory psych course knows that this is not the case. In the end, old Aristotle was right all along. We are not economic beings, but political beings.
First, I should come clean. I am a guilt ridden Southern liberal. I am painfully unlearning an awful lot that was taken for granted in the world I grew up in. I envy my students who were born and raised in a much more cosmopolitan world than the one I grew up in. They move through a world of cultural differences with an easy confidence and a lack of self-consciousness that I can only envy. And yet, as Molly Ivins once wrote somewhere, noticing and seeing the tangled self-deceptions white folk create around race is the beginning of wisdom for Southerners.
By the middle of this century, white folk will no longer be the majority in this country. No one will be the majority in this country. That demographic prospect terrifies some people and reinforces the very old and very powerful myth of the White Man's Last Stand. General Custer stands defiant to the end against the hordes of swarthy heathens who will overwhelm his tiny band of gallant men. This vision of brave doom haunted the white mind at least as far back as Nat Turner's rebellion; the conqueror's nightmare of becoming conquered in turn. Today that nightmare takes the form of Mexican hordes pouring across the southern border, and loud in-your-face black folk in the living room and in the White House. "I want my America back!" she tearfully cried.
It's no accident that the Tea Party is overwhelmingly white and elderly. Yes, there are black right wingers. That they get so much media attention only demonstrates how rare and exceptional they are. Indeed, supremacism in one form or another appeals to all kinds of people. Despite Herman Cain and Alan Keyes, African Americans remain one of the most reliable of Democratic constituencies and continue to play leading roles in progressive politics.
The Tea Party and the fury of today's right wing politics are the reactions of people who believe that they are the only ones who matter, that they are the only ones who count. They see their legitimate God-given position of supremacy in danger of being usurped (I think this explains part of the emotionalism behind the opposition to gay marriage and gay rights; gays, like Jews before them, are seen as parvenus as well as perverts). This sense of aggrieved privilege drives the revival of apocalyptic fundamentalism. There is a huge element of vindictiveness in visions of The End Times. God will destroy a corrupt and rotten world, but He will save and vindicate His Chosen. The Book of Revelations shades easily into The Turner Diaries. In this, Christian fundamentalism is not much different from Islamic fundamentalism whose prophets like Sayyid Qutb or the Deobandi School preached a similar hostility to modern cosmopolitanism, a similar contempt for other cultures, and an apocalyptic vindication of The Chosen.
I think this sense of threatened supremacy also drives the embrace of market fundamentalism. The right long ago discarded the founder of modern capitalism, Adam Smith. The Cold War attempt to fit this Scottish pragmatist into the role of an ideological prophet along the lines of Marx and Lenin failed utterly. Smith couldn't care less about making an all encompassing philosophy of life. He was looking for the best way to relieve shortages. Unlike the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, Smith believed that a certain measure of taxation and government regulation were necessary to maintain a decent society that anyone would want to live in. Smith even went so far as to assert that labor does indeed have a right to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions. So Adam Smith is now discarded by those who turned his economic philosophy into an ideology. They are now turning to that most radical of anti-egalitarian thinkers, Ayn Rand. Rand took the old "Survival of the Fittest" philosophy of Herbert Spencer and gave it Lenin's ruthless all-encompassing zeal. Now, the Hidden Hand of the Market does the work of God the Father separating out the wheat from the tares, the sheep from the goats. Those who already have, who begin the race already several paces ahead of everyone else must somehow be especially favored (as opposed to just lucky to be born with a trust fund). The Market now replaces War as God's shakeout of the nobility from the commons. And since White folk (especially white straight men) historically have had all the power and still control most of the assets, then they must truly be superior by the grace of God and of nature, so the reasoning goes. Poverty and misfortune must be the fault of the sufferer, a punishment for weakness and lack of foresight and responsibility, the modern version of the old superstition that misfortune was the wrath of the gods for transgressions. Now White folk have license to treat each other the way they've treated the brown and black folk. The poor must be punished for being poor. The only legitimate solutions to social and economic problems are punitive solutions. In that light, it makes sense to keep the Bible next to Atlas Shrugged on the bookshelf.
Now, we have measures like the recent one in Arizona to repeal Mexican American studies from school curricula, to ban the books for the course, and to punish students who protest with janitorial duty and jail (there's more about it here). There is no other way to explain such actions other than the idea that America The White Christian Republic is in peril.
Exactly who gets included in those sweeping three words that begin the Constitution "We the people ..." is the central conflict of American history. The history of the USA is about the very awkward relationship between a radically egalitarian document like the American Constitution and an always conflicted anti-egalitarian society split along all kinds of lines of race, gender, and class. The Original Intent of the document is a republic for white male property owners. The actual words and ideas on the pages of the Constitution speak of universal enfranchisement, especially in the Preamble (that most important part that states the whole purpose of the Constitution and declares the source of its authority and legitimacy, not from God but by the consent of the people).
My father most of his life was deeply and emotionally loyal to America the White Christian Republic. If he was alive, he would definitely place himself in the camp of Original Intent; white property owners writing a social contract for their own kind.
I am deeply and emotionally attached to The United States, the Cosmopolitan Secular Democracy whose Constitution means what it says, and says now to all people.
Posted by Counterlight at Friday, January 20, 2012