Thursday, September 4, 2008


Sometimes I think that the most amazing thing about the United States is that we've had only one Civil War.

We are three hundred million socially awkward people who hate each other's guts.
We've always seen the lone rider coming over the horizon as a threat.
We are polarized racially, regionally, economically, religiously, ethnically, sexually, etc..
Politicians have always built careers on our fears and resentments.
Entire political ideologies have been built on our spite and resentment.
Whole religious theologies are built on our fear and hatred of The Other.
We built this country on greed and racism just as much as we built it on hope and idealism.
We are not, and never were, "innocent" or absolved from history.

There are members of my family who felt very deeply the resentment of "outsiders" telling them how to run their own states and businesses, especially in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. They feel profoundly and mortally threatened by huge waves of "outsiders" (especially brown ones) swamping their identity and their very existence. They've always resented what they see as the patronization of the fortunate privileged who presume to know better than they do. On the other hand, I know people who see my native region as a vast wilderness of ignorance and bigotry and regard it with a reciprocal fear and loathing. They have other more direct and vivid memories of the Civil Rights era, memories of people who suffered and died just to be treated as human beings and not as some higher form of farm animal.
As someone who daily straddles the vast cultural chasm between my native Texas and my adopted New York, I sometimes carry all sorts of conflicting resentments within myself. The truly sad part about the whole thing is the knowledge that none of those fears and resentments is entirely wrong or unrealistic, though they are always unfair. I'm sure the folks in Weatherford, Texas see themselves as patriotic embodiments of authentic small town America -- brave, enterprising, conscientious, dutiful -- and perhaps rightly so. On the other hand, Chinatown here in New York City is actually older than Weatherford, Texas. Chinatown here in New York, like all Chinatowns in the USA, exists because people never considered the Chinese immigrants (whose labor built the western half of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s) as authentically "American." Chinatowns were created by segregation, by the refusal of other Americans to welcome them among their own. And yet, Chinatown provided soldiers for every American conflict going back to the Spanish American War. The Chinese don't fit into the commercial mainstream vision of America (blond, blue-eyed, apple-cheeked, with 2.5 impossibly adorable children, living comfortably in a leafy suburb or small town filled with sunshine, where the elderly are always "spry") but then, neither really do the inhabitants of Weatherford, nor does anyone in the United States, now or ever. Maybe it's time to ditch that "mainstream" image that's been assigned to us. It's bamboozled a lot of people (especially mine), has harmed a lot of other people, and hasn't helped anyone.
Texas is, and always was, a much more complicated place than most people, including most Texans, assume. Like this big city that attracts so much of the resentment of Texans, Texas is a very cosmopolitan place built out of the hopes and expectations of poor misfits (and that was true long before Stephen F. Austin arrived). I've seen a lot of courage, enterprise, conscientiousness, and selflessness in this huge boiling cosmopolitan city of New York, built for better and for worse out of the dreams of very poor people from around the world, a city that has always attracted a lot of the world's fears and resentments.

I can only conclude that the social contract that binds us all together in a single unlikely country is greater than each of us who make it up.


Fran said...

Oh my God. This is brilliant. Tragically sad, but very true and brilliant.

300,000,000 awkward strangers who hate each other.

Ubermilf said...

You've encapsulated a lot of my own feelings here, only as someone who's immigrant relatives were the "others," I saw how ditching their heritages in order to fit in with that "ideal" damaged and changed them.

dguzman said...

Here from Fran's. What an amazing post. So true, and so disheartening.

thailandchani said...

Oh, now this is brilliant! Very well stated. This is something most people are not willing to say - but it needs to be said!

Glad I found you. (Came via Fran's site)


thailandchani said...

Oh... I'm putting you in my reader. Hope you don't mind. :)


Anonymous said...

not at all.
I'm flattered.

Thanks Fran.

June Butler said...

Counterlight, you said a mouthful of rightness. One day, I hope to meet you in person and give you a smothering hug. Or if you don't like hugging, I'll shake your hand.

Counterlight said...

Mimi! You're Back!
I hope all is well, and that the crepe-myrtles are wondering what's keeping you.

Mauigirl said...

I'm here from Fran's too - excellent post and very insightful.

Fran said...

Counterlight - you were the hit of my blog today and duly so.

Mimi and I had a long talk- she was thrilled to see this piece,as noted in her comments.

I put something up at my blog about the whole mess, including the ignored people of Louisiana.

Peace my brother.

Anonymous said...

I clicked over here from FranIam. I enjoyed reading this post, if not for the message of unity that it sends, then for the willingness to identify the harmful stereotypes that hold our nation back, including the "mainstream vision of America (blond, blue-eyed, apple-cheeked, with 2.5 impossibly adorable children, living comfortably in a leafy suburb or small town filled with sunshine..."

However, I don't necessarily agree with you on how the Chinatowns were formed because ours has always been a Balkanized nation to some extent. Perhaps this was driven by racism and bigotry spawned by the fear of the group in dominance. But I can tell you from first hand experience that there's a comfort in culture that draws groups of people together, too, if only because they're homesick the places they left behind.

Counterlight said...

There is indeed the "birds-of-a-feather' factor, and there's nothing wrong with that.
But, it's not quite the same as living among your own kind because your kind can't get a mortgage or a lease to live anywhere else.

James said...

Brilliant post, Counterlight! Bloody brilliant!

Distributorcap said...

i am here from fran


this is one of the most amazing things i have read in a long time.........

i dont know what to say - personally i think if we elected mccain/the woman --- we are doomed. totally doomed

TeacherX said...

Thanks for an excellent commentary. I'm a history teacher and was searching for an image of American Progress (which I found in your next post) and was pleasantly surprised to find this intelligent blog. I'll be "following" you now. BTW, I've just started my blog, so don't expect grand things in case you decide to check it out, but there might be some interesting discussions there if anyone discovers it. So far, just my teacher friends know about it. Thanks for your interesting discussions of history and art as well.