Barry’s Blog # 339: American Exceptionalism, Part Six of Six

America is not exceptional because it has long attempted to be a force for good in the world, it tries to be a force for good because it is exceptional. – Peggy Noonan

It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. – Vladimir Putin

…one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain. – James Baldwin

Ernest Becker asked,

What are we to make of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart…bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence…and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him.

The indigenous world imagined the Great Mother as both sustainer and destroyer. But modern people can only respond to Becker’s questions in dualistic terms. Either we feel the terror and are immobilized, or we construct myths of religion, romance and domination to transcend our fear of mortality. He argued that all human behavior is motivated by the unconscious need to deny this most fundamental anxiety.

Becker regretted that “we must shrink from being fully alive,” because seeing the world “as it really is, is devastating and terrifying,” and results in madness. Mystics, however, describe this insight as devastating to the individual ego, and a necessary, initiatory prelude to the unitive vision that transcends duality. Ancient devotees of Dionysus, as well as modern practitioners of Eastern and African-based religions, actually strive to attain this state. But for those who lack the containers of community and ritual, the unconscious fear of death is a primary motivator.

To the uninitiated modern person, the death of the ego and the death of the physical body are one and the same. And in America, the loss of identity (white, patriarchal, masculine, Christian, productive, growing, gainfully-employed, segregated into racially conformist neighborhoods, or simply privileged) seems to be equivalent to death of the ego. Yet the prospect of ecstatic escape from the confines of that ego continually beckons to us, and we respond in all manner of unconscious ways.  Let’s try to understand yet another essential American myth, the denial of death.

Despite seeing great progress since the writings of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Jessica Mitford, American culture continues to deny and avoid the reality of death more than any other society. This is particularly curious, given our high degree of (perhaps superficial) religiosity. The myth of innocence represents the attitude of the adolescent who expects to live forever. It provides no space for acknowledging that death is a part of life, rather than its opposite. Some call death the most repressed theme of the twentieth century, comparable to the sex taboo of the 19th century. We still view it as morbid, and commonly exclude children from discussion of it. Many adults have never seen a corpse other than in the stage-managed context of the funeral parlor.

Kubler-Ross argued that since few really believe suffering will be rewarded in Heaven, “then suffering becomes purposeless in itself,” and doctors typically sedate the dying to lessen their pain. They are rushed to hospitals, frequently unconscious and against their will, and most die there or in nursing homes. Then the corpse disappears, not to be seen again until it has been “primped up to appear…asleep.” Euphemisms complete the ritual of denial. The “deceased” has “passed on” or “gone to his maker.” “How peaceful he looks.”

The purpose of the ritual is to repress the anxieties that arise when tending to a terminally ill patient. Relatives collude with medical personnel in an elaborate series of lies, maintaining the fiction of probable recovery until the dying person reaches the point of death. Typically, a doctor, rather than a minister, presides over the deathbed, keeping displays of emotion to a minimum. Adults deprive both children and the dying persons themselves of the opportunity to confront death.

Ironically, write Anthropologists Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf, “In America, the archetypal land of enterprise, self-made men are reduced to puppets.” Then the body is embalmed, restored, dressed and transformed from a rotting cadaver into “a beautiful memory picture.” Neither law nor religion nor sanitation requires this process, and nowhere else but in North America is it widely done. In the last view the deceased seems asleep in a casket (often made of metal).

The ritual achieves two results. First, it insulates mourners from the process of decomposition, the finality of death and their own fears. Second, it minimizes cathartic expressions of grief. The funeral director, writes Mitford, “has put on a well-oiled performance in which the concept of death has played no part…” Wakes are generally pleasant social events, and mourners soon return to work. The mystery of death invites mourners to enter an initiatory space, but it closes too abruptly and too soon for any authentic transition or resolution. A veil that had been briefly lifted drops again.

We claim to believe that Christianity represents a victory over death, yet estrangement from nature is its central theme. Thus, to Americans, death must be either part of God’s plan or a punishment. Arnold Toynbee joked that death was “un-American,” an infringement on the right to the pursuit of happiness. By contrast, Native American tribal religions almost universally produced people unafraid of death, wrote Vine Deloria: “…the integrity of communal life did not create an artificial sense of personal identity that had to be protected and preserved at all costs.”

West African shaman Malidoma Some´ observes our characteristic refusal to give in to grief: “A non-Westerner arriving in this country for the first time is struck by how…(Americans) pride themselves for not showing how they feel about anything.” To him, we typically carry great loads of unexpressed grief. And this leads to a corresponding inability to experience joy: “People who do not know how to weep together are people who cannot laugh together.” This is a succinct, tribal definition of alienation – exile from the worlds of nature, community and spirit.

If we cannot grieve or tolerate the vision of the dark goddess and her bloody, dismembered son, then we cannot experience ecstasy either. We learn to tolerate pale substitutes: romance novels, horror movies (in which characters often refuse to die), the spectacles of popular music and sports, New Age spirituality, Sunday church and happy endings. We learn early to emphasize the light (including “lite”) to the eventual exclusion of the dark.

So our characteristic American expectation of positive emotions and emotional growth makes feelings of sadness and despair more pathological in this culture than elsewhere. Christina Kotchemidova writes, “Since ‘cheerfulness’ and ‘depression’ are bound by opposition, the more one is normalized, the more negative the other will appear.”

Ronald Laing argued that the modern family functions “… to repress Eros, to induce a false consciousness of security…to promote a respect for ‘respectability.’” To be respectable is to produce, and to look cheerful. American obsession with feeling good (“pursuing happiness”) is enshrined as a fundamental principle of the consumer society. As Kotchemidova explains,

Our personal feelings are constantly encouraged or discouraged by the culture of emotions we have internalized, and any significant deviance from the societal emotional norms is perceived as emotional disorder that necessitates treatment.

The average American feels real pressure to present him/herself as cheerful in order to get a job. Once he/she is employed, putting on a ready- made smile is simply not enough. “Corporations expect their staff to actually feel good about the work they do in order to appear convincing to clients.”

She argues that twentieth century America took on cheerfulness as an identifying characteristic. The new consumer economy of the 1920s called for cheerful salespeople and an American etiquette that obliged “niceness” and excluded strong emotionality. Among the dozens of self-help cheerfulness manuals, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) sold more than fifteen million copies. In the 1950s, the media industry invented numerous ways, including the TV “laugh track,” to induce cheerfulness. In the 1980s, politicians discovered cheerfulness; all Presidents since Reagan smile in their official photos (none had done so before). The “smiley face” button sold over 50 million units at its peak in 1971 but remains one of our most recognizable icons.

It follows that depression has reached epidemic proportions in America – and that violence is so fundamental to our experience. Kubler-Ross wrote that our denial of death “has only increased our anxiety and contributed to our…aggressiveness – to kill in order to avoid the reality and facing of our own death.” Phillip Slater wrote of “our technologically strangled environment” in which impersonal forces impact us from remote, Apollonic distances and provoke us to “find a remote victim on which to wreck our vengeance.” This is one reason why Americans rarely protest the military’s mass killing of distant Third World people. Another reason, of course, is their ignorance of the news.

But America was characterized from the start by extreme violence. It was present in the “idea” of America – not the abstract ideals of the founding fathers, but the projection of darkness, instinct and lust onto the Other in the already demythologized world of the seventeenth century. By the Industrial Revolution of the 1840’s, Americans had been slaughtering Indians and enslaving Africans for over two centuries. Herman Melville took note of this and wrote that Indian hating had become a “metaphysic.” Technology certainly contributed to alienation, loneliness and the breakdown of extended families and father-son relationships. But as a seed of depression and long-distance violence, it fell on fertile soil that had been well prepared.

And history conspired. No one alive can recall the carnage of the Civil War; since then we have fought our wars across great oceanic expanses. With the ready availability of handguns, we slaughter each other in small-scale violence like no other people in history. Except for urban race riots, however, there had been no warfare on American territory for well over a century until the terrorist acts of 2001.

These factors all help to perpetuate the myths of innocence and exceptionalism. The final ingredient is the state of the media, in which news reporting, political spin and entertainment are now almost indistinguishable, when half of us get our news from social media or TV comedy “news” shows.

On the one hand, media colludes with our need to remain sheltered from the world and our impact upon it. “We are so desperate for this,” writes Michael Ventura, that we are willing to accept ignorance as a substitute for innocence.” On the other hand, even as violent programming perpetuates fear of crime and terrorism, television has desensitized three generations of Americans to the actual effects of violence.

We all know the statistics. We can theoretically take two populations of children and predict that, as young adults fifteen years later, those who watch more TV will be more violent than the group that watched less. Thus, there is a direct connection between the national denial of death in the abstract and America’s ferocious expression of literal violence. James Hillman concluded that death is “the ultimate repressed,” who returns “through the body’s shattered disarray,” an incursion “into awareness as ultimate truth.” american-exceptionalism2

We innocently observe, we are shocked, and we quickly forget. In book talks I’ve often posed a trick question – When did you lose your innocence? – followed by another one – When did you lose it again? When an exceptional sense of personal and national innocence is so ingrained as ours is, every time it is punctured by circumstances it feels like the first time. In Chapter Eight of my book, I wrote of this experience after the attacks on the World Trade Towers:

The next day, a second wave of commentators offered more nuanced interpretations. Rabbi Marc Gelman, asked if America would be changed by this event, responded, “Yes, we have lost our innocence. We now know there is radical evil in the world.” It was out there, and Americans, mysteriously, had never heard about it. Psychologist Robert Butterworth’s son had asked him, “Daddy, why do they hate us so?” Staring mutely and miserably at the camera, he really didn’t know. His non-response assumed that viewers didn’t either. Such laments could have followed the Oklahoma City bombing, 1993’s WTC bombing, the TWA airliner bombing, the bombings of the destroyer Cole and Lebanon barracks, or any of the recent college or high school shootings. America, we were told, had lost her innocence.

From the perspective of outsiders, or of older cultures, or of the Other, losing our innocence is an absolutely necessary step for white Americans to step out of our adolescence and join the human community. But from within the myth of exceptionalism, losing our innocence is simply a temporary stage that precedes falling back asleep.

Never having confronted death directly, we must find a way to see it, by condoning violence or personally inflicting it upon others. Preferring vengeance to mourning, we are still the only nation to use atomic weapons. Americans invented napalm, cluster bombs and “anti-personnel” mines. We are stunningly unmoved by news of torture at Guantanamo, rape of prisoners in Iraq or police murders of unarmed African Americans, because innocence always trumps awareness. The nation that watches and exports thousands of hours of electronic mayhem and has more handguns than citizens is shocked – shocked! – every time a teenager massacres his schoolmates or a cop drives his car into a crowd of peaceful protestors.

Octavio Paz contrasted his own Mexican culture, which has an intimate relationship to the dark side of existence, with ours: “A culture that begins by denying death will end by denying life.” Such a nation desperately needs someone to save it – distract it – from the black hole of death, and to vanquish, rather than to accommodate those forces of darkness. Such a nation needs heroes. And it will get the heroes that it deserves. On the other hand, writes Caitlin Johnstone,

The principles of individual healing apply to collective healing as well. I have learned that an individual can experience a sudden, drastic shift in consciousness. I see no reason the collective can’t also. Of course humanity is capable of a transformative leap into health and maturity…The only people who doubt this are those who haven’t yet made such a leap in their own lives.

 

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Barry’s Blog # 338: American Exceptionalism, Part Five of Six

Christian nation mythologists pump themselves up with narratives of American exceptionalism and Christian domination. But sooner or later even their most devoted followers should begin to see that also depicting it as vulnerable to non-existent threats undermines the myth itself. – Sarah Posner

Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. – James Baldwin

Our compliant workforce is another aspect of American exceptionalism. Why, alone among developed nations, do we have no established political party that agitates for the rights of working and poor people?

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Why have so many unionized, blue-collar, white men supported such obvious criminals, fakes and warmongers as Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes and Trumpus?

Over three centuries after Bacon’s Rebellion, when blacks and whites briefly united and nearly toppled the government of colonial Virginia,  scholars still wonder – innocently – why a strong socialist movement never developed in America, as it did, at least for a while, almost everywhere else.

Karl Marx believed that every society would eventually evolve out of old-world hierarchy into capitalism, and inevitably capitalism would yield to socialism. The more advanced a nation becomes in capitalism, the closer it must be to embracing socialism. But socialists were baffled by how the United States defied this rule. No nation was more capitalist, yet no nation showed less interest in becoming socialist.

Werner Sombart focused on material abundance: socialism, he complained, had foundered in America “on the shoals of roast beef and apple pie.” Leon Samson saw that the real enemy of socialism was exceptionalism itself, because Americans give “a solemn assent to a handful of final notions—democracy, liberty, opportunity, to all of which the American adheres rationalistically much as a socialist adheres to his socialism.” In other words, radical individualism had become an ideology that overwhelmed our natural inclination to cooperate with each other.

Actually, Marx and Sombart were wrong, writes Allen Guelzo:

There had been an American socialism; they were reluctant to recognize it as such because it came not in the form of a workers’ rebellion against capital but in the emergence of a plantation oligarchy in the slaveholding South. This “feudal socialism,” based on race, called into question all the premises of American exceptionalism, starting with the Declaration of Independence. Nor were slavery’s apologists shy about linking this oligarchy to European socialism, since, as George Fitzhugh asserted in 1854, “Slavery produces association of labor, and is one of the ends all Communists and Socialists desire.”

The institution of slavery became the model for a broader economic / financial system in which corporate welfare, or “socialism for the wealthy” would exist only because of taxes on the middle class and massive budget deficits.

Academics, however, rarely consider the overwhelming presence of the Black Other, the elephant in the living room of their theories about exceptionalism. It is a simple fact that no other nation combined irresistible myths of opportunity with rigid legal systems deliberately intended to divide natural allies.

Whiteness implies both purity (which demands removal of impurities) and privilege. No matter how impoverished a white, male American feels, he hears hundreds of subtle messages every day of his life that invite him to separate himself from the impure.

Without racial privilege the concept of whiteness is meaningless. From the Civil War, when tens of thousands of dirt-poor whites died for a system that offered them nothing economically, to the Tea Partiers supporting politicians who blatantly promise to destroy their social benefits, white Americans have often had nothing to call their own except their relative position in the American caste hierarchy. We can only conclude that for them, and only in America, privilege trumps the potential of class unity.

Throughout both the developed world and their colonial outposts, the elite classes and their servants perceived left-wing organizing as rational, even logical antagonism to their rule, and they responded accordingly. Only Americans, however, saw communists as so polluting of our essential innocence, so un-American, so absolutely, irrevocably evil that they would create a Committee on Un-American Activities. has such fear, born in the Indian wars, the Salem Witch trials and the slave patrols, produced a surprisingly widespread consensus that any violations of human rights whatsoever are justified in suppressing the Other. Only in America have people proclaimed that they would rather be “better dead than red.” 

Thirty years ago, the memory of our eighty-year crusade against Communism was fading quickly from memory – except among those who recognized its mythic and political benefits. But that residue of fear and hatred never disappeared, and – under a Democratic President – it soon reappeared as a series of narratives that blame every national problem on “the Russians.”

How ironic: nineteenth-century thinkers occasionally referred to American exceptionalism; but the first national leader to use it (in 1929) was Joseph Stalin, as a critique of American communists who argued that their political climate was unique, making it an “exception” to certain elements of Marxist theory.

The systematic manufacture of consent – based on terror of pollution by outsiders – is the ultimate meaning of American exceptionalism. The U.S. is unique among empires in convincing its own poor and working-class victims that they share in its bounty – and to pay for its expenses. “How skillful,” wrote Howard Zinn, “to tax the middle class to pay for the relief of the poor, building resentment on top of humiliation!” Noam Chomsky writes, “The empire is like every other part of social policy: it’s a way for the poor to pay off the rich in their own society.”

Chomsky adds, “… any state has a primary enemy: its own population.” But in the U.S., an efficient system of control, a “brainwashing under freedom,” has flourished like nowhere else. It combines free speech and press with patriotic indoctrination and marginalization of alternative voices, leaving the impression that society is really open. The system distributes just enough wealth and influence to limit dissent, while it isolates people from each other and turns them toward symbols that create loyalty. The real function of the media is “to keep people from understanding the world.”

By limiting debate to those who never challenge the assumptions of innocence and benevolence, it maintains the illusion that all share a common interest. When the boundaries of acceptable thought are clear, debate is not suppressed but permitted. But in this context, the loyal opposition legitimizes these unspoken limits by their very presence. The system exists precisely because of our traditional freedom of expression. Chomsky quotes a public relations manual from the 1920’s, (aptly titled Propaganda): “The conscious…manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is a central feature of a democratic system.”

We can criticize the national state from this anarchist perspective not necessarily out of a particular ideology – Caroline Casey suggests “believes nothing but entertain possibilities” – but because it is closest to a tribal perspective. Mass society as we know it is barely four centuries old. For most of human history we have lived in small communities in which individuals knew everyone else and experienced fulfilling relationships within a mythic and ritual framework. Human nature has never had time to adjust to the strife and alienation of modern and post-modern society. And it is precisely this disconnect that advertising and political propaganda take advantage of.

Compared to Americans, many Third World peasants are free in one respect: they have no myth of innocence. Their consent may be coerced, but the media cannot manufacture it for them. They, far more than our educated classes, can see. Where their history has not been completely destroyed, they can see that there has been essentially no difference in American foreign policy for over 150 years. It is perfectly obvious to them that the U.S. controls their resources and manipulates their markets, while protecting American companies from “market discipline.” They know more than we could ever know that talk of “free markets” is just talk.

They know that the only significant changes in First and Third World relationships have been in the resources themselves (first agricultural, then mineral, then human), and in the nature of the overseers (first European, then American, then local tyrants who serve the corporations.) To them, “globalization” is merely the latest top-down phrase that rationalizes such practices.

Ultimately, what makes us exceptional is this mix of overt propaganda, subtle repression of free thought and a deep strain of purposeful ignorance. We want to believe the story. Only in America has a historical collusion existed between national mythology and the facts of domination, between the greed of the elite and the naivety of the people, between fathers who kill their children instead of initiating them and youth who willingly give themselves up to the factories and the killing fields.

Our exceptionalism lies in the denial of our racist and imperial foundations and our continuing white privilege. Cornel West writes, “No other democratic nation revels so blatantly in such self-deceptive innocence, such self-paralyzing reluctance to confront the night-side of its own history.” And because our storytellers regularly remind us of how generous, idealistic, moral, divinely inspired and innocent of all sin we are, we can deny the realities of race, environment, empire – and death.

Read Part Six Here.

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Barry’s Blog # 337: American Exceptionalism, Part Four of Six

Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom. This is the everlasting dream of America. – George W. Bush

I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. – Barack Obama

In fact, American exceptionalism is that we are exceptionally backward in about fifteen different categories, from education to infrastructure. – James Hillman

And yet, despite such emotionally laden issues, both civic participation and civic awareness continue to decline. Americans vote in lower percentages than in any other democracy. One hundred million eligible voters stayed home in November of 2016. Of those ineligible to vote, 4.7 million – a third of them Black men – are disenfranchised by felony convictions.

America has slipped from first to 17th in the world in high school graduation rates and 49th in literacy. Surveys regularly indicate just how “dumbed-down” we are: 60%, for example, know that Superman came from the planet Krypton, while 37% know that Mercury is the planet closest to our sun. Similarly, 74% know all three Stooges, while 42% can name the three branches of the U.S. government.

Millions of citizens completely misunderstand common political labels. Nearly 50% believe or are not sure that conservatives support gun control and affirmative action, and 19% think that conservatives oppose cutting taxes. Seventy percent cannot name their senators or their congressman. In 2000, twelve million Americans thought that George W. Bush was a liberal.

Studies indicate that social mobility – the opportunity to move up into a higher social class – has decreased significantly. But in a 2003 poll on the Bush tax plan, 56% of the blue-collar men who correctly perceived it as favoring the rich still supported it. The myth of the self-made man is so deeply engrained that our ignorance of the facts is equaled only by our optimism: in 2000 19% of respondents believed that they would “soon” be in the top one percent income bracket, and another 19% thought that they already were. Similarly, 50% think that most families have to pay the estate tax (only two percent do), and two-thirds think that they will one day have to pay it. Twenty years later, those numbers have certainly come down. But in America disillusionment can just as easily turn someone’s politics to right as to the left, as the 2016 election showed.

Our ignorance is both the cause and the result of our unique voting system. The Founding Fathers devised both our two-tiered legislature and the Electoral College fearing (pick one) “mob rule” or “genuine democracy.” The Electoral College prevents millions from having their voice heard in national elections. Three times, a presidential candidate has won 500,000 more votes than his opponent, only to lose the election. Senators from the 26 smallest states (representing 18% of the population) hold a majority in the Senate. Still, though most citizens are ignorant of these statistics, they are not stupid: majorities regularly favor dismantling the Electoral College.

But the system, designed to limit democratic participation, has succeeded. As fewer people believe that their votes matter, they lose interest in keeping track of events, and ignorance becomes reality. The contradiction becomes monumental when we periodically bond together to “bring democracy” elsewhere.

A vicious cycle develops: low turnout by the poor results in government that is far more conservative than the population; and politicians reaffirm their apathy by courting the middle class. Indeed, in countless subtle ways the process of voting in America is designed to restrict participation: voting on one work-day instead of weekends; massive voter suppression; computer fraud; and hostile right-wing operatives.

“Americanism” is a mix of contradictory images: competitive individualism balanced by paranoid conformism; an ideology of equality with a subtext of racial exclusion; and official church-state separation negated by the legislation of morality. These features come together in one truly exceptional symbol: the cult of the flag, which we literally worship. We have Flag Day, Flag etiquette and a unique national anthem dedicated to it that we sing, curiously, at sporting events. Twenty-seven states require school children to salute it daily.

But worship? Consider the Flag Code: “The flag represents a living country and is considered a living thing.” Indeed, religious minorities have refused to salute it specifically because they consider such action to be blasphemous. But dread of the Other and re-invigorated, manipulated support for the military creates religious fervor – and fearful politicians. All fifty state legislatures have urged Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to make defacing the flag a crime.

The myths of freedom and opportunity – two-thirds of us believe that success is within our control – meet the myth of the Puritan to form another exceptional characteristic. Since Puritans still perceive both morality and worldly success as evidence of their elect status, we are a nation in which the poor have no one to blame (and often to turn to) but themselves. By more than six to one, we believe that people who fail in life do so because of their own shortcomings, not because of social conditions.

We are exceptional among industrialized countries in failing to provide for pregnant and newly parenting workers; only two other countries do not mandate maternity leave. Reforms such as unemployment insurance came into effect in the U.S. thirty to fifty years after most European countries had introduced them. They remain highly popular there; but as low-income constituencies shrink, both Republicans and Democrats have felt free to erode them.

(Let me point out, by the way, that I compiled most of these statistics for my book prior to the economic meltdown of 2008 and long before the Depression of 2020.)

The results: Nearly four million children live with parents who had no jobs in the previous year. The U.S. is 22nd in child poverty, 24th in life expectancy, 24th in income inequality, 26th in infant mortality, 37th in overall health performance and 54th in fairness of health care. Even so, America’s health care system is the costliest in the world. We spend over $5,200 per person on health care, more than double what 29 other industrialized nations spent. This equals 15% of our GDP, compared to Britain’s 7.7%. We account for 50% of the world’s drug budget, and we were 28th in environmental performance, long before Trumpus (Trump = Us) trashed most of the nation’s regulatory agencies.

Americans naively consider themselves to be quite generous in helping poor nations. In fact, our Puritan judgment encompasses the whole world. We are 22nd in proportion of GDP devoted to foreign aid, and over half of it goes to client states in the Middle East. Indeed, nearly 80 % of USAID contracts and grants go directly to American companies. Nearly 70% of Europeans want their governments to give more aid to poor nations, while nearly half of Americans claim that rich nations are already giving too much.

By choice (the Puritan’s addiction of workaholism) or by necessity (the “McJobbing” of the economy), we work unceasingly. In 2003, Americans worked 200 to 350 hours – five to nine weeks – longer per year than Europeans. Indeed, this was four weeks longer than they themselves had in 1969. Vacations average two weeks; in Europe they average five to six weeks. We spend 40% less time with our children than we did in 1965. Europeans, who consistently choose more leisure over bigger paychecks, claim that they work to live, while Americans seem to live to work.

Even if we factor out economic issues, the Puritan residue remains. Just below the skin of consumer culture we judge ourselves by how hard we work, and we relax only when we have acquired the symbols of redemption. Even then, we keep working.

One reason we work so hard is to afford the national status symbol, the car. We own far more than other countries, both in total and per capita. The average household now has more cars than drivers. Consequently, America leads the world in greenhouse emissions, both absolutely – a quarter of the world’s total – and per capita. We spend ten hours per week driving. We park those cars next to houses that average more than twice the size of European homes.

But the shadow of radical individualism reveals itself in epidemics of loneliness and alienation. According to Jill Lepore, neuroscientists identify loneliness as “a state of hypervigilance” embedded in our nervous system, inherited from our prehistoric ancestors. In the past seventy years the percentage of American households consisting of only one person has risen from 9% to 25%. She concludes:

Living alone works best in nations with strong social supports. It works worst in places like the United States. It is best to have not only an Internet but a social safety net.

Loneliness makes us sick, and alienation – combined with unrealistic expectations of success –makes us exceptionally willing to shoot up a schoolyard or other public space. th For an excellent Depth Psychological perspective on the mass shootings of the past twenty years, read Glen Slater’s article A Mythology of Bullets. 

Despite the talk show rhetoric, Americans have always been taxed at far lower rates than the rest of the developed world. Even before the Reagan years, taxes amounted to 31% of GDP, while most European countries were well over 40%. There are at least two primary results of these disparities. We provide far fewer social services, and economic inequality is far higher than in any other developed nation.

By 2000 one percent of us owned forty percent of the wealth. By 2020, the top one percent owned nearly as much as the entire middle class. We have entered a “new Gilded Age” of unregulated capitalism and conspicuous consumption, as I write in We Like to Watch: Being There With Trump. In the first three months of the Coronavirus pandemic, American billionaires saw their wealth increase by half a trillion dollars.

And that wealth is age-based. Excluding tiny enclaves like Switzerland, white American adults over age forty are the richest in the world. Even so, America has the highest rate of children living in families with incomes below poverty guidelines; this is the result of fewer public resources spent on children than in any industrialized nation.

Youths are by far our poorest age group. Mortality rates among children are also the highest, approaching Third World conditions. Yet even the wealth figures for the elderly reveal surprises. Most – some 35 million – are very well off. But twelve percent of them – again, the highest in the industrialized world – remain in poverty even after Social Security and Medicare.

With a shrinking economy, miniscule taxes on corporations, Puritan condemnation of poverty and the maintenance of empire, it is little wonder that so few resources remain for the poor. The U.S. spends more money on armaments than the rest of the world combined.

Even so, confidence in American institutions – government, religion and education – had been dropping every year since the early 1970’s – at least until 9/11/01. Here we return to mythic questions. A large and occasionally threatening population of Others is absolutely crucial to the perpetuation of the myth of American innocence. As long as the internal Black Other threatens to take one’s job (or one’s daughter), as long as one believes in the necessity of constantly striving in unsatisfying work to attain the symbols that serve as substitutes for a genuine erotic life, one will work unceasingly. In June of 2020, we can legitimately ask, Do Black Lives Really Matter? 

Read Part Five Here.

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Barry’s Blog # 336: American Exceptionalism, Part Three of Six

America remains the indispensable nation…there are times when America, and only America, can make a difference between war and peace, between freedom and repression. – Bill Clinton

I laughed to myself…”Here we go. I’m starting a war under false pretenses.” – Admiral James Stockdale, on the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident

These innocent people are trapped in a history they do not understand, and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. – James Baldwin

It is another colossal mystery, if not an outright contradiction. For the American economic and military empire to justify a constant state of war, with military bases in 160 countries, it has to do two things. It must rely on certain subsets of the exceptionalism myth.

Michael Ignatieff calls them “exemptionalism” (supporting treaties as long as U.S. citizens are exempt from them); “double standards” (criticizing “others for not heeding the findings of international human rights bodies, but ignoring what these organizations say of the United States”); and “legal isolationism” (the tendency of U.S. judges to ignore other jurisdictions). But such policies – absolutely the same under Democratic or Republican Presidents – rely, in turn, on both the belligerence and the ignorance of the public.

And it must rely on keeping its citizens – us – in a perpetual state of anxiety. If we were honest, we’d have to admit that our neurotic susceptibility to fear-mongering is a primary characteristic of American exceptionalism. Here are some others:

America is simultaneously the world’s most religious, patriotic – and materialistic – society. If we add that it is also the most racist, violent, punitive and aggressive of nations, we have the ingredients that require a myth of exceptional innocence. I offer the following statistics and comparisons not out of gratuitous America-bashing, but to put the yawning gap between myth and reality into a helpful perspective. These are a small sample of statistics I collected in 2008 for Chapter Nine of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence. Some point toward our profound, media-nourished ignorance; others reflect the fundamental themes that really do distinguish America from other societies.

Seymour Lipset’s innocent fascination with the bright side allows him to avoid the fact that America (with the sole exception, for a few years, of Nazi Germany) is the most violent society in history. Most of the realities that actually make America unique stem from the foundational facts of conquest and racism.

Our frontier mythology, individualism and inflated fear of the Other have prevented the gun-control measures common in almost all countries. Americans own 250 million legal and 25 million illegal firearms, approximately 1.7 guns per adult. Forty percent own guns. Our adult murder rate is seven times higher and our teen murder rate twelve times higher than in Britain, France, Italy, Australia, Canada and Germany. These nations together have 20 million teenagers; in 1990 a total of 300 were murdered. That same year, of America’s 17 million teens, 3,000 were murdered, while thirty of Japan’s ten million teens were murdered, a rate one-fiftieth of ours.

Annually, 15,000 Americans are murdered, 18,000 commit suicide and 1,500 die accidentally by guns. Twenty-four percent of us believe that it is acceptable to use violence to get what we want. Forty-two percent strongly agree that “under some conditions, war is necessary to obtain justice,” compared with just 11% of Europeans. In 2020 I hope that I don’t need to provide any statistics on the prevalence of police violence toward people of color, or of mass murders. But I will remind the reader that the vast majority of them are perpetrated by white men. white_killers

Our disdain for authority and love of guns contributes to the highest crime rate in the developed world. How we calculate the numbers, of course, reveals our prejudices toward “blue-collar” crime and the lack of political will to control “white-collar” crime, which is certainly far more influential. And there is a mythical component as well. Our fascination with TV and movie Mafioso indicates that many of us perceive organized crime to be an alternative mode of accessing the American Dream. Sociologist Daniel Bell writes that we see this kind of crime as a “natural by-product of American culture…one of the queer ladders of social mobility…”

But the fear of crime and the need for scapegoats results in over two million Americans in jail, more than in any other country except China, with five times the population. With 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 22% of the world’s prisoners. And the fact that few of our prisoners and ex-prisoners are allowed to vote is a major factor in the legalized voter suppression that keeps reactionaries in power in over two dozen states. For more on this, see my essay on the election of 2016, Trump: Madness, Machines, Migrations and Mythology. 

Traditionally, the fear of crime has also been bound up with the fear of miscegenation, or the mixing of the tainted blood of Black people and other undesirables with that of the pure, Anglo-Saxon blood of Whites, who first began calling themselves “native Americans” as early as the 1830s. Well before that point, the nation that was truly exceptional in the sense of being composed primarily of immigrants and their descendants had already been struggling with both legal and de facto definitions of just who would be accepted as full citizens. And this has never ended. The topic is too vast for this essay, but you can read much more here:

The Myth of Immigration

Who is an American? 

The United States has over a million lawyers, far more both in sheer numbers and per capita (twice as many as Britain, in second place) than the rest of the world. This in part reflects the fact that we have far higher rates of divorce and single parent families. But our teen pregnancy rate – twice that of any European nation – leads to questions of religion. American teenagers’ expressive individualism leads them to have early intercourse. But often their greater religiosity – and restricted access to sex education – undermines any attempts at a rational approach to birth control.

Despite the creed of separation of church and state, the Republican base continues to insist on the old, strict legislation of morality. While abortion and gay rights are non-issues in almost all European countries, puritan prejudices continue to infect our attitudes toward the body. Although we engage in more premarital sex than the British, we are far more likely to condemn promiscuity. One out of every four American men condemn premarital sex as “always wrong” – more than three times that of the British.

Between 45% and 60% tell pollsters that they believe in the literal, seven-day creation story, and 25% want it required teaching in public schools. Forty percent believe the world will end with the battle of Armageddon. Sixty-eight percent (including fifty-five percent of those with post-graduate degrees) believe in the literal existence of the Devil.

Read Part Four Here.

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Barry’s Blog # 335: American Exceptionalism, Part Two of Six

I’ve always believed that this blessed land was set apart in a special way. In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace. – Ronald Reagan

What I really found unspeakable about the man (Reagan) was his contempt, his brutal contempt, for the poor. – James Baldwin

I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.  – George H. W. Bush

Here is another curious contradiction. This is the nation that took radical individualism to extremes seen nowhere else. The United States is the only major nation with significant Libertarian ideologues (for more, see my article The Mythic Foundations of Libertarianism), even if most of them prove to be confused if not hypocritical. And yet, studies show that Americans are more willing to fight if their country goes to war.

This stems not only from our violent heritage and historical isolation from war’s effects, but also from our Protestant moralism and the myth of the Frontier. A majority of us tell pollsters that God is the moral guiding force of American democracy. Therefore, when Americans go to war, they generally define themselves as being on God’s side against evil incarnate. Wars are not simple political conflicts; they are crusades, and evil must be annihilated. Lipset writes, “We have always fought the ‘evil empire.’”th-2

Americans have a high sense of personal responsibility and independent initiative. Shared belief in the value of hard work, public education and equality of opportunity continues to influence attitudes toward progress. In 1991, close to three fourths of parents expected their offspring to do better than they, and (in 1996) a similar percentage expected to improve their standard of living, while only 40% of Europeans shared this optimism. Forty percent believed that there is a greater chance to move up from one social class to another than thirty years before. We still believe – deeply – in a nation of “self-made men” – and that poverty is our own fault, not that of the system. We still believe that we will continue to grow and progress toward fulfillment of our dreams, despite consistent evidence to the contrary.

But what are those dreams? Aren’t they equal part nightmare? For all of its enviably optimistic, pragmatic, “can-do” ways, from the beginning this nation has always carried a great bag of fear over its shoulder. At the root of things was a kind of theological fear: the constant anxiety of never really knowing if one is among the elect of God, which propelled the Puritan to work unceasingly.

Layered above that has been the unsettling dread of the guilty, colonial settler: the knowledge that one will never belong to this land as one’s Old World ancestors did to their land.dunbar_ortiz_bacons_rebellion_second_amendment_guns_settler_colonialism_850_593 These anxieties, and the need to justify the theft of a continent and the enslavement of millions, led to the creation of the myth of American innocence. And this myth required a people who would perpetually live in fear of the unspeakably evil red men who might sweep down out of the forest at any moment to attack the innocent community, and of treacherous black men who might rise up from within the community to mix with their women.

Lipset reveals the characteristically liberal naiveté of our intellectual classes: “America has been a universalistic culture, slavery and the black situation apart” (my italics). Indeed.

Human bondage, institutionalized discrimination, mass murder of the natives and “free” land created the economic foundations for the very senses of optimism, moralism, affluence and idealism that, to Lipset, distinguish America from other countries. 1200-535984779-attempts-to-abolish-of-slavery Howard Zinn provides some needed balance: “There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States.” Without the protracted, unresolved and unmourned crimes of genocide and slavery there would be no affluence, no optimism, no police brutality and no innocence in America. And no privilege.

Whoever uses statistics to argue about America is lost in a dream. Since most polls question likely voters, they ignore most poor people, most minorities and most young people. But this confusion provides us with a metaphor for one of the mythic factors in American exceptionalism: “white thinking.” The sense of privilege is so deeply engrained, so invisible that few whites notice or question it; this is why it has mythic power. Politicians and pundits take the perspective of the white male, speaking of “African-Americans,” or “Asian-Americans,” but never “European-Americans.” Their language reveals exactly who is a member of the polis and who isn’t. This inconsequential example points, however, to the significant.

We must begin with the most fundamental aspect of privilege: it is invisible to nearly all whites, and perfectly obvious to all people of color. It is the psychological advantage of having views that define the norm for everyone else. It allows one to view oneself as an individual. It allows liberals to claim that they don’t think of themselves as any color at all. Tim Wise writes, “To even say that our group status is irrelevant…is to suggest that one has enjoyed the privilege of experiencing the world that way (or rather, believing that one has.)”

Privilege allows working-class whites to deny that privilege itself does not exist. It allows them to vote against their economic interests in favor of other advantages. It allows them, even when dirt-poor, to cleave to an identity of white, male, Christian and heterosexual – as moral and clean – rather than as members of a socio-economic class. It allows them membership in the polis, even if they can’t afford to live within its walls.

White privilege allows one to not have to think about race every day. It is freedom to not be viewed as violent or hyper-sexual, not be racially profiled, not worry about being viewed with suspicion when buying a home, or not be denied a job interview. It is the freedom to avoid being stigmatized by the actions of others with the same skin color, and thus to regularly disprove negative stereotypes.

The invisible ocean of privilege lies at the core of both capitalism and innocence. Despite the grinding tensions and anxieties of modern life, it allows whites – including recent immigrants – to have a sense of place in the social hierarchy and to believe in upward mobility for their children. They can know who they are because, as un-hyphenated Americans, they are not the Other.

For much more, please see these essays of mine:

Privilege

Affirmative Action for Whites

Old World nations, for all their limitations on freedom, have known who they are because they have inhabited their land forever. But Americans, in the rush to define ourselves in terms of the Other have periodically been overwhelmed by the need to cleanse the polis through the violent rejection of the impure. Without our characteristically American Paranoid Imagination, we would not endure periodic inquisitions and tribunals running from the Salem witch craze through the Red Scare of 1919 through McCarthyism, the post-9-11 anxieties that keep the “war on terror” going, the Tea Party, and Trump.

Here is another surprising contradiction. Because American identity is so fragile, we have always been driven, more than anything, by fear. In 2015, Glenn Greenwald offered some recent quotes by politicians who have made their careers manipulating what is in fact our exceptional willingness to be immobilized by phobias and nightmares:

— Lindsey Graham: We have never seen more threats against our nation and its citizens than we do today.

Dianne Feinstein: I have never seen a time of greater potential danger than right now.

— NSA chief Michael Rogers: The number of threats has never been greater.

— Canadian defense minister Jason Kenney: The threat of terrorism has never been greater.

— CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell: The ‘lone wolf’ terrorist threat to the United States has never been greater.

— U.K. Prime Minister Cameron: Britain faces the greatest and deepest terror threat in the country’s history.

— Rep. Mike McCaul: Something will detonate…I’ve never seen a greater threat in my lifetime.

— Anonymous EU counter-terrorism official: The threat of attacks has never been greater — not at the time of 9/11, not after the war in Iraq — never.

“Here we are,” continued Greenwald,

…14 years after 9/11, and it’s still always the worst threat ever in all of history, never been greater. If we always face the greatest threat ever, then one of two things is true: 1) fearmongers serially exaggerate the threat for self-interested reasons, or 2) they’re telling the truth — the threat is always getting more severe, year after year — which might mean we should evaluate the wisdom of “terrorism” policies that constantly make the problem worse. Whatever else is true, the people who should have the least credibility on the planet are the Lindsey Grahams and Dianne Feinsteins who have spent the last 15 years exploiting the terror threat in order to terrorize the American population into doing what they want.

Here are some other essays of mine on this subject:

The outside Agitator

The Mythic Sources of White Rage

Shock and Awe 

American Witch-Hunt

A vacation in Chaos

Why Are Americans So Freaking Crazy?

 

Read Part Three Here.

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Barry’s Blog # 334: American Exceptionalism, Part One of Six

Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts…a thousand special causes…have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. – Alexis De Tocqueville

More than any other people on Earth, we bear burdens and accept risks unprecedented in their size and their duration, not for ourselves alone but for all who wish to be free. – John F. Kennedy

All modern people have long internalized and taken for granted the 5,000-year-old heritage of patriarchy, as well as the 3,000-year-old literalized thinking of the Judeo-Christian tradition. We live in what Joseph Campbell called a “de-mythologized world.” It is not that we no longer have myths, but that we are generally unaware of them, they no longer serve us, and our ignorance of them makes us dangerous.

Within the wider concentric circles of those older myths, by adolescence almost all white Americans incorporate the myth of innocence. Our educational, religious and political institutions still teach the values of individualism, consumerism, mobility, racist exclusion and competition – and underneath, the deeper legacy of Puritanism – that define us as Americans. Above all, the media have replaced priests and storytellers in the ancient function of telling us who we are: a nation without a shadow, existing to enlighten and redeem the world – if necessarily, through violence.

Our essence, they tell us, is free enterprise. Entering the world as blank slates, with neither baggage nor purpose, we are free to make our own destiny, on our own merits. We assume that everyone should – and does – have equal access to the resources needed to become anything they want to be, and that one’s responsibilities to the broader community are limited to its defense.

And when sceptics confront us with statistics or stories that question these assumptions, it is our characteristic shock, followed by denial and forgetting, that is the proof of the power of myth.

Myths speak of beginnings, how the world came into existence. We take for granted that the gods (or in our story, the forefathers, the founding fathers) have left us the means to aid the process of freely competing with each other, including a free market of ideas, products and services. th-3 As a result, we believe that we live in an affluent society – the best in the world – that has resolved old racial problems, and that we were meant to do this. Again: our shocked response to regular evidence to the contrary shows how strongly our mythic narratives hold us.

 

The idea of American exceptionalism arises out of this contradictory tangle of ideals and realities.

Curiously, this collectivity of free and purposeless libertarians thinks of ourselves as a nation that is inherently different from other nations; that we are in fact superior to other nations; that we have a unique mission to transform the world, to spread opportunity and freedom everywhere.

However, anyone who has achieved some detachment from the myth can see that those rights and freedoms have rarely been available to most citizens. Indeed, Americans have won them only after decades of sacrifice; and many of them have been eroded in recent decades. But the fact remains that the myth of national purpose and innocence is so pervasive that even in those rare moments when the nation confronts bare reality, we quickly re-veil it. Recall the conservative refrain of the 1960’s: My country – right or wrong! Americans have developed a very old, unique and massive cognitive dissonance – if facts contradict the story, then it is the facts that must change.

Our academic and media intellectuals continually reframe information. This is not at all to take a conservative (more accurately, reactionary) position on the mainstream media as “fake news,” only to acknowledge how they set the terms of debate, frame all reporting in subtle but consistent ways, and rarely convey news or commentary that might be perceived as inconsistent with the main story. In other words, the “liberal establishment” has an essentially religious function, like the Inquisition: preventing, or at least marginalizing heresy. For more on this theme, please see these other essays of mine:

Academic Gatekeepers

Deconstructing a Gatekeeper

Funny Guys, Fake News and Gatekeepers

False Equivalencies

Americans really are unique in many ways, concluded historian Richard Hofstadter. Whereas other nations’ identities come from common ancestry, “It has been our fate…not to have ideologies, but to be one.” One cannot become un-English or un-French. “Being an American…” wrote Seymour Lipset, is “an ideological commitment. It is not a matter of birth. Those who reject American values are (considered to be) un-American.”

It is an eternal mystery: the world’s most materialistic culture, where consumerism and “lifestyles” were invented, where the predatory imagination has reached its apogee – is also the most religious country in Christendom, exhibiting greater acceptance of literal belief and higher levels of church attendance than other industrialized countries. Ninety-four percent of Americans express “faith in God,” as compared with 70% of Britons. Only 2% of Americans are atheists, as opposed to 19% in France.

Read Part Two here.

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Barry’s Blog # 333: Black Swans and White Vultures, Part Seven of Seven

You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star. – Friedrich Nietzsche

Re-reading this essay seven years after I first posted it, it occurs to me that Trumpus (Trump = Us) was barely a blip on the national political radar screen, a comic, low-taste character on reality TV and World-Wide Wrestling. Even two years later, the notion of him running for President would evoke laughter among us sophisticated, bi-coastal types. More or less where the idea of Hitler becoming savior of Germany was in 1919, when, in his first recorded speech, he accused the Jews of producing “a racial tuberculosis among nations.”

Just prior to that year, as Max shows us, Hitler had been in crisis (crisis: decisive point in the progress of a disease…the point at which change must come, for better or worse). He’d been wavering on the cusp of an initiatory moment, potentially open to any direction or influence. More or less where we are right now. 

Hitler gave that speech just months after the end of the war, but also in the aftermath of the Spanish Flu pandemic, which he and other right-wingers blamed, predictably, on the Jews – exactly as their ancestors had done in the late fifteenth century during the Black Plague. Soon, Right-wing extremists won a greater share of the votes in those parts of Germany that suffered larger numbers of flu deaths. Researchers have found a correlation between flu deaths and right-wing extremist voting “in regions that had historically blamed minorities, particularly Jews, for medieval plagues.”

So let’s be clear about these parallels. Times of intense social change and economic uncertainty can potentially bring out the best in us. But this requires a personal courage (as Black Swan’s Nina musters) and a collective willingness to evoke, acknowledge, accept and perhaps even forgive that darkness. But the confrontation with the shadow is terrifying, and American history has provided far too many examples of precisely the opposite behavior. As I write in Chapter Eight of my book:

Between 1890 and 1920, the migration of eleven million rural people to the cities and the influx of twenty million immigrants resulted in new fears that the spiritual and physical Apollonian essence of America would be cheapened by this Dionysian element. Nativists responded by cranking up the machinery of propaganda once again. Scientists and intellectuals (including David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford) argued that moral character was inherited, that “inferior” southern and eastern Europeans polluted Anglo-Saxon racial purity. Woodrow Wilson, then President of Princeton, contrasted “the men of the sturdy stocks of the north” with “the more sordid and hopeless elements” of southern Europe, who had “neither skill nor quick intelligence.”

As a result, 27 states passed eugenics laws to sterilize “undesirables.” A 1911 Carnegie Foundation “Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population” recommended euthanasia of the mentally retarded through the use of gas chambers. The solution was too controversial, but in 1927 the Supreme Court, in a ruling written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, allowed coercive sterilization, ultimately of 60,000 Americans. The last of these laws were not struck down until the 1970s. 

Two years before that ruling, in Mein Kampf, Hitler praised American eugenic ideology and situated himself directly in that Anglo-Saxon (Saxony is a state in eastern Germany) tradition: “Neither Spain nor Britain should be models of German expansionism, but the Nordics of North America, who…ruthlessly pushed aside an inferior race…” After he took absolute power in 1934, Germany copied American racial and sterilization laws. After the war, at the Nuremberg trials, the surviving Nazis would quote Holmes’s words in their own defense.

I’ve speculated about the mythic and emotionally traumatic forces that created the Nazis in three other essays, The Two Great Myths of 20th Century, To Sacrifice Everything — A Hidden Life and Redeeming the world, where I write:

We don’t choose to “other” other people or groups. Othering chooses us. The need to do so seems to enter us quite early on, as parents and society gradually persuade us to identify as part of the larger tribe – to know ourselves, as the ancient Greeks implied – (but) only as we gain the absolute knowledge that we are not one of them, the others. In this modern world we are established in the first knowledge only because of the second.

I always try to make these parallels clear between mythic or historical themes and our current conditions, but it’s hard to keep up with Trumpus, who is constantly upping the ante of hate and ignorance. As I finish this re-write, he praises the “bloodline” of the eugenicist and racist Henry Ford,  threatens to enact absolute power against the media and encourages police violence against anti-racist protestors.

Circular craziness: American racists influenced Hitler’s thinking in 1920, and his life, despite what happened to Europe, became a model for our American fascists of 2020. For a clear summary of early eugenicist rantings and their influence on the “alt-right” Trumpus supporters and political provocateurs of today, read here.

Black swans and white vultures: I originally titled this essay, “A Black Swan and a White Madmen.” But it now seems that I need a more poetic counterpoint to “black swan” that includes all the fascist madmen of the past hundred years. Neither “eagle” nor “wolf” fits. So I settled on “vultures”, which circle above, out of danger, around dying animals – or cultures – and swoop down to eat them once they can no longer defend themselves.

Actual vultures may not be white, but their metaphorical human equals certainly were and are. It is the time of disaster capitalism, in which financial elites exploit national and international crises to further centralize wealth while citizens are too weak or distracted to resist. It’s the time of vulture funds, which prey on debtors in financial distress by purchasing cheap credit on secondary markets to make a large monetary gains and leave the debtors in a worse state. It’s the time of housing vultures, which sucker millions out of their homes for quick profit.  It’s the time of hedge fund managers like Martin Shkreli — the “Pharma Bro” — who buy the patents of critical drugs and raise their prices by factors of over fifty. It’s the time of the second Gilded Age, as I write here.

The year 2020 is not yet half finished. In three months, forty million have lost jobs and medical insurance (on top of those millions who had already given up searching for jobs and the forty million who already had no health insurance), and the nation’s billionaires have seen their collective wealth increase by nearly half a trillion dollars.

But we mythologists are always searching for the reframe. Otherwise, there is no point in studying myth. We’re always trying to imagine how a soul – or the soul of a culture – might behave in a world that provided real mythic narratives, genuine ritual containers and elders or mentors who could see the potential that can’t be seen on the ordinary surface of things. The poet Theodore Roethke wrote: “In a dark time the eye begins to see.” Nina’s struggle to become who she is supposed to be – and in the process, to integrate her shadow and make her art – offers us hope in this dark time. Toward the end of my book I write:

Now we are called to remember things we have never personally known, to remember what the land itself knows, that which has been concealed from us by our own mythologies. We have the opportunity to remember who we are, and how our ancestors remembered, through art and ritual…Our task is unique: inviting something new, yet familiar, to re-enter the soul of the world…

“Hope is reborn each time someone awakens to the genuine imagination of their own heart,” says Michael Meade…imagination builds a bridge between fate and destiny. We need to use sacred language, in the subjunctive mode: let’s pretend, perhaps, suppose, maybe, make believe, may it be so, what if – and play. This “willing suspension of disbelief” is what Coleridge called “poetic faith.”

What if Hitler had successfully channeled his trauma into art, as Nina does? What if some form of communitarian, egalitarian or anarchist organization of society had prevailed in 1920s Germany? What if such a society had provided a non-authoritarian alternative to Soviet collectivism? What if Americans had seen such activity as a positive model and rejected their heritage of fear of the Other, brutality toward the weak and hatred of their own bodies?

What if you were to add your own prayers for the possible right here and now?

What if we were to consider (consider: “with the stars”) the stories that the mega-rich have been telling themselves about themselves and invite them to re-imagine those stories? What if we remembered that actual vultures and similar scavenger birds are necessary for healthy ecosystems, doing the dirty work of cleaning up after death, helping to keep ecosystems healthy and preventing the spread of disease, all so that new, healthy life may emerge?

What if we imagined a culture that perceived every single human being in terms of what innate gifts they came into the world to offer? What if, despite the traumas of racism and gender stereotyping, all of us could become who we were meant to be?

To close, I invite you to watch an interview with an extraordinary person I briefly knew years ago. His Name? Gryphon Blackswan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Barry’s Blog # 332: Black Swans and White Vultures, Part Six of Seven

Truth and reality in art do not arise until you no longer understand what you are doing and are capable of but nevertheless sense a power that grows in proportion to your resistance. – Henri Matisse

Why is art so expensive? Otherwise, no one would buy it. – “Max”

From a very famous, Oscar-winning (Best Picture and Best Actress) film to a film almost no one saw:

Quite by chance (?), the same week in 2010 that I first saw Black Swan in a theater, I also found the 2002 film Max on Netflix. It’s a speculative account of Adolf Hitler’s life during the fall and winter of 1918. This was just at the end of World War I, when Germany was destitute, and the impoverished veteran was wavering between his ambition to be a successful artist and the temptation of extremist politics. Indeed, Russia had recently had a revolution and all of Germany was vacillating between the far left and the far right.

Americans have only been able to imagine Germany’s condition at that time by seeing 1972’s Cabaret, the best-known film about Weimar Germany, which is set much later, in 1931, when the Nazis where on the verge of taking power. For a darker and probably more accurate presentation, see the recent German TV series Babylon Berlin, which takes place in 1929 (also on Netflix).

We think we’re familiar with the all-powerful Fuhrer, and for 75 years, from both right and left, we have universally cited his image as the embodiment of pure evil. However, that is an archetypal image, a projection from the collective unconscious, from us. As an archetype, it is a potential characteristic we all carry.

This energy was embodied most famously by one person, roughly from 1920 to 1945. Max is the only film that I’m aware of that has wondered how that archetype chose that particular man; it’s the only film that has attempted to depict his precarious psychological state before he became a public figure.

What was that state? Liminality – the condition of “betwixt-and-between”, when one has been torn loose from everything one once knew to be true, when one’s fate hangs in the balance. It’s the condition that traditional societies once recognized. Such societies provided the elders and bounded ritual conditions to guide their initiates through the terrible passage to adulthood. In the extreme, such a passage went through the territory of re-living old trauma.

Black Swan and Max deal with the same theme: the absolutely essential encounter with one’s early psychological wounds – what we have repressed and condemned to the “dark side” of consciousness – in order to access and offer our gifts to the world. This is a common, even clichéd theme these days, but both films had me asking myself, “What are we willing to pay attention to? Just how much of our personal and collective darkness are we willing to know, to welcome, to love? What are we willing to sacrifice? How much are we willing to pay in order to manifest a truly creative life?” As viewers know, the ballerina does enter the heart of darkness and does give the performance of a lifetime, but she pays a severe price.

Similarly, in this film, the fictional Jewish Munich art-dealer Max Rothman becomes a reluctant mentor to the 29-year old Adolf Hitler, despite the younger man’s anti-Semitism. He sees that, below the anger, Hitler has an “authentic voice” and encourages him to “go as deep as you possibly can” in order to create something truly valuable. They argue about the purpose of art. Rothman, contrasting the hesitant and insecure Hitler with the impassioned, left-wing artists Georg Grosz and Max Ernst (both historical figures), argues, “It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be beautiful. It just has to be true.”

But there is a second mentor. The right-wing army captain Karl Mayr (also an actual historical figure), senses Adolf’s intellectual and oratorical potential, his untapped charisma, and an uninitiated, pathological self-hatred that can be very useful to the anti-democratic cause. He arranges for the army to pay Hitler’s living expenses while he masters the arts of propaganda and instigation of mob violence. Hitler goes on to begin his speaking career by invoking German innocence: Germany had been defeated because the good, pure, brave Germans had been “stabbed in the back” by Communists and the traditional Others, the Jews.

Adolf can go either way; he can still possibly inhabit his better self and reject his darker potential. But Max Rothman can only offer the enticements and mild satisfactions of the same kind of secular liberalism that so many of us would reject two generations later. Mayr offers him ritual. It may be ritual that has been twisted and deformed, but it is still ritual, something that our indigenous souls recognize inherently.

And he offers Adolf a place within a community (twisted as it is) of hate and scapegoating, something that the Teutonic mind has been familiar with for a thousand years. Hitler is on his way to becoming the latest in a long line of charismatic German personalities who have manipulated mass resentment of the rich and turned it against the weak. For more on this theme, read The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn.

The traumas of poverty and racism have condemned millions to lives that Thomas Hobbes described as “nasty, brutish and short.” Predictably, many men have arisen from these conditions to manifest their worst potentials, to go for power instead of love, to join their oppressors and participate in the perpetuation of these conditions, as so many police are doing right now all across the country.

But after thirty years in the Men’s Movement, I’ve been fortunate to have met many men (such as Louis Rodriguez) who survived the worst excesses of urban street life to become poets, teachers, musicians and activists. I recall reading the autobiographies of Malcom X and Claude Brown.  Although far more have not succeeded, these lives offer us models of how things could be, given the presence of authentic mentors at the right time. For so many others, we wonder, “What if?”

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Noah Taylor as young Hitler

Max is a “What if?” story. Though they never meet, the two angels of Hitler’s nature compete for his soul, and as no viewer of the film can miss, for the soul of the entire world. Rothman, a champion of the new Expressionism, tells him, “You’ve got to take all this pent-up stuff that you’re quivering with and hurl it onto the canvas…Get out of politics…If you put the same amount of energy into your art as you do into your speeches, you might have something going.” But Hitler’s attempt to tap into his pain and rage goes nowhere artistically. Are his wounds too strong, his discipline too weak, or his talent simply absent? Perhaps all three.

But there is an easier way out (one that Black Swan’s Nina does not take) – the lure of scapegoating others as a way to deny his pain. Mayr’s advice is superficially similar but more convincing: “You’ve got your own talent.” – which clearly has nothing to do with painting – “Just let it out!”

The difference between this fictional Hitler and fictional Nina is critical and instructive. Because she is both deeply talented and highly disciplined, she is able (at least for a while) to hold the almost unbearable tension between her angel and her demon. Some might say that because she symbolically kills the demon, she can’t hold that tension for long. But she does make great art – if only for a moment – and contributes a lasting gift to the dance world. Adolf, on the other hand, is at best a second-rate artist, and he simply cannot improve his technique or – more importantly – work the terrible nature of his soul.

But he does “go deeper,” and he begins to muster a particular discipline that will focus on the development of a charismatic personality (from persona, mask). Apparently having made his choice between art as art and art as propaganda, he tells Max,

Go deeper, you said. I went deep. Deeper than any artist has gone before! This is the new art! Politics is the new art!…Art and politics equals power!

Late in the film, Max realizes that Hitler’s art is “futuristic kitsch.” Nevertheless, he attempts to channel that ferocity into the art world, where it might be less harmful to society: “You finally found your voice – the future as a return to the past.” But Hitler, as we know, will succumb to the lure of that mythical past and potentially future greatness. The film ends on Christmas eve, 1918, as Max is murdered by thugs whom Hitler had provoked.

Though not portrayed in Max, less than two weeks later, leftists would go on general strike in the violent Spartacist uprising. Hitler’s fascist allies will prevail, and Germany will begin its spin into that future.

Here is both the contrast with the ballerina and the frightening commentary on our current culture and politics. Nina will crack the masks of Black and White in dramatic expression, while Hitler will retreat behind a different mask and inhabit it for an entire nation. With neither her talent, nor her commitment, nor an artistic community like hers – an authentic ritual container – he falls victim to his own darkness and the peculiar darkness of his culture (think Darth Vader here – “Vader” is German/Dutch for “father”). He succumbs to the easy lure of projection – hatred of the Other – and discovers – we discover – how hate can make its own community.

In doing so, Hitler becomes a conduit for the darkest forces of the psyche and the world. As we know, he will briefly succeed in restoring a sense of destiny – and wounded innocence – in an entire nation. Max was filmed in 2001, the same year as the beginning of the “War on Terror.” I doubt if its creators had the theme of American innocence in mind, but nearly twenty years later, we would be fools, wallowing in our own denial, not to see the parallels.

Read Part Seven here

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Barry’s Blog # 331: Black Swans and White Vultures, Part Five of Seven

To become an American is essentially to divest oneself of a past identity, to make a radical break with the past. – Herman Melville

…the world’s fairest hope linked with man’s foulest crime. – Herman Melville

What is this standard of “whiteness” by which Europeans and Americans have defined themselves for so long? My book argues that American whiteness is actually a perceived “not-redness” and “not-blackness.” In other words, countless White people believe that they know who they are because they lack the characteristics of the Other: primitive, lazy, irrational, impulsive, violent, untrustworthy or promiscuous.

And let’s be crystal clear about this. These are all psychological projections through which White Europeans have perceived people of color throughout the Third World in order to justify the terrible crimes of colonialism and convince themselves of their own innocence. And for a thousand years they have sent their young men to rape, slaughter and die for God’s will to triumph, often perpetrating the most hideous atrocities upon the truly innocent “for their own good.”

Taking this moral disorder to its pathological extreme, Captain Ahab believes that the white whale that men call Moby Dick is the embodiment of pure evil. And let’s be clear about this as well: why does Ahab hate the whale with such malicious intensity? Because on a previous voyage, the whale had taken his leg in self-defense while Ahab was hunting him. In his personal (and national) madness, Ahab, lifelong butcher of whales, has convinced himself that Moby Dick had victimized him, and has taken on the role of the Old Testament god of vengeance. b7f10a1c1d0c4bd80cc2af2f82d41647

But why a white whale?

Chapter 42 (The Whiteness of The Whale) has been described as “…the heart of the entire work.” Melville begins it with the common ideas of whiteness symbolizing beauty, innocence and goodness. But then he addresses the mystery of identity that propels our hateful obsessions about the Other:

…there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood…which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles …that the irresponsible ferociousness of the creature stands invested in the fleece of celestial innocence and love; and hence, by bringing together two such opposite emotions in our minds, the Polar bear frightens us with so unnatural a contrast.

…even the king of terrors, when personified by the evangelist, rides on his pallid horse…it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian’s Deity; and yet…the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind…Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation?…is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?…pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper…And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

Perhaps Melville was also acknowledging the chasm of meaningless that lies just below the surface of American identity and its assumptions about race and innocence. Interested readers should read Richard Slotkin’s great Regeneration Through Violence trilogy.

Gabrielle Bellot writes that just below the narrative of Moby Dick is the theme of race:

…it is a template for Melville’s, and our, America: a world populated as much with gestures towards racial equality as with casual racist assumptions…chasing Moby Dick, that avatar of whiteness, means fighting against the meaninglessness of the world, hoping that, through some bloody violence, life-purpose will bloom into existence. Ahab pursues the whale out of a manufactured anger, in a quest to give his life some vague value…

Six years after the publication of Moby Dick and three years before the Civil War, Melville completed his thinking about the white / red / black triad of American innocence, writing (in The Confidence-Man) of “Indian hating.” It was a unique dimension in which religious zeal, barbaric cruelty, capitalist land-grabbing and sacrificial ritual merged to create genocide. What Ahab had attempted to do to the white whale, his nation had been doing to its original inhabitants for 250 years. It was so ingrained in the national character that by Melville’s time, hatred of Indians had become a “metaphysic.”

Nearly a hundred and seventy years after Moby Dick, millions – perhaps tens of millions – of Americans continue to wrestle, knowingly or not, with the question of identity. Who the Hell are we? Are we nothing more than “not the Other”? Does our “manufactured anger” – or more accurately, displaced anger – give our lives “some vague value”? Is there still a positive definition of “American” that we can speak out loud without laughing or weeping? The good news is that countless good-hearted liberals have been offered the opportunity to awaken from their life-long trance of innocence and privilege. The bad news…well, you know the bad news. For more on the issue of white privilege, see my essays “Privilege” and “Affirmative Action For Whites.”

…this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime. – James Baldwin

Read Part Six here.

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Barry’s Blog # 330: Black Swans and White Vultures, Part Four of Seven

Every act of creation is first an act of destruction. – Pablo Picasso

Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals precisely and inexorably what they do not know about themselves. – James Baldwin

As long as we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord. – Increase Mather

Cut loose from the earth’s soul, they insisted on purchase of its soil, and like all orphans they were insatiable. It was their destiny to chew up the world and spit out a horribleness that would destroy all primary peoples. – Toni Morrison, A Mercy

I’d like to imagine that the Australian stories of black swans who became men refer to times (as in Greek myth) when gods and mortals walked the Earth together in harmony, when soul and spirit, body and mind, male and female or nature and culture were not so terribly divided as they are in our post-modern language, religion, environment and politics.

For hundreds of years, these polarities have been most concretely symbolized by black and white, leading to definitions of “black” that include:

– Causing or marked by an atmosphere lacking in cheer

– Not conforming to a high moral standard;

– Being without light

– Unclean

Black: the Black Death, black shirts, black cats, black crows, Black Panthers, black leather, black holes, black magic, the black knight, the black inquisitor, the black-clothed Puritan, the chimney sweep, the witch, the magician, the Grim Reaper, the Heart of Darkness, and of course, Black people. Our mythologies and theologies create values that praise a “white” world. Hillman writes:

…the negative and privative definition of black promotes the moralization of the black-white pair. Black then is defined as non-white, and is deprived of all the virtues attributed to white. The contrast becomes opposition, even contradiction…(and) gives rise to our current Western mind-set, beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Age of Light, where God is identified with whiteness and purity, and black…becoming ever more strongly the color of evil.

Indeed, well before the age of colonialism, it was obvious to Europeans that blackness lacked the virtues associated with whiteness. In 1488 it was nothing unusual for Pope Innocent (!) VIII to give African slaves as presents to his cardinals.

But depth psychology – and Black Swan – insist that the more we identify with white, the more seductive black becomes. Above all, however, black is terrifying because it threatens (or invites) the collapse of the whole house of cards. I quoted Hillman above:

Therefore, each moment of blackening is a harbinger of alteration, of invisible discovery, and of dissolution and of attachments to whatever has been taken as dogmatic truth and reality, solid fact, or dogmatic virtue. It darkens and sophisticates the eye so it can see through.

We are all well aware in our bones, in our indigenous roots, that the white imagination, white thinking and even white privilege are profoundly unsatisfying. At that level we all know that our fear and hatred of both the internal, Black Other and the external, Red Other (originally the Red Indian, and for most of the 20th century, the Red Communist) merely cover over our envy and our desire to make peace with them and ourselves. However, we are also well aware that our demythologized world no longer provides secure ritual containers for the painful work of remembering who we really are. D. H. Lawrence knew this a hundred years ago:

I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.
and it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self,
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance
long difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.

So, while black (as descent into darkness and as African-American culture) invites America to heal the world and heal itself, most of us still take the easier way out, into hatred and scapegoating.

Black Swan, for all its references to a classical art form, is an American film. It takes place entirely in America’s cultural center. We view it, regardless of our superficial idealisms and ideologies, as Americans. And not just as Americans, but as Christians. Hillman writes:

You may be Jew or Muslim, pay tribute to your god in Santeria fashion, join with other Wiccas, but wherever you are in the Western world you are psychologically Christian, indelibly marked with the sign of the cross in your mind and in the corpuscles of your habits. Christianism is all about us, in the words we speak, the curses we utter, the repressions we fortify, the numbing we seek, and the residues of religious murders in our history…Once you feel your own personal soul to be distinct from the world out there, and that consciousness and conscience are lodged in that soul (and not in the world out there) and that even the impersonal selfish gene is individualized in your person, you are, psychologically, Christian.

Elsewhere, he places mental illness within this context:

As long as we are caught in cycles of hoping against despair, each productive of the other, as long as our actions in regard to depression are resurrective, implying that being down and staying down is sin, we remain Christian in psychology…Yet through depression we enter depths and in depths find soul. Depression is essential to the tragic sense of life…It reminds of death. The true revolution begins in the individual who can be true to his or her depression.

So we speak of Black Swan in American language, where the fundamental symbolism of white and black has never relaxed its hold on our imaginations. Also a hundred years ago, Carl Jung wrote,

When the American opens a…door in his psychology, there is a dangerous open gap, dropping hundreds of feet…he will then be faced with an Indian or Negro shadow.

Linguistic research indicates that some languages have only one color distinction: black and white. In languages with a third color term, that term is invariably red. How ironic that over time, in a curious blend of history and archetype, the American soul projected itself in red, white and black images, as I describe in Chapter Seven of my book. White, of course, speaks to us of our national sense of innocence, while in our language and mythology, black and red came to represent the “Others” who threaten us from within and from without.

As early as the late seventeenth century, America’s primary model for class distinction (and class conflict) had become relations between white planters and black slaves, rather than between rich and poor. The new system, writes Theodore Allen (author of The Invention of the White Race), insisted on “the social distinction between the poorest member of the oppressor group and any member, however propertied, of the oppressed group.”

Consider that statement again. This our American heritage. In most parts of the country, for most of American history, despite the ideology of freedom and equality, absolutely everyone understood that white skin color conveyed infinite privileges over anyone with black skin, regardless of one’s economic status. And the brutal polarity of identity received religious confirmation. Since poverty equaled sinfulness (to the northern Puritan) and black equaled poor (to the southern Opportunist), then it became obvious that blackness equaled sin.

The process of exclusion and subordination required a massive lie about black inferiority that has been enshrined in our national narrative. “After all,” writes activist Tim Wise, “to accept that all men and women were truly equal, while still mightily oppressing large segments of that same national population on the basis of skin color, would be to lay bare the falsity of the American creed.” Similarly, the French philosopher Montesquieu wrote, “It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christian.”

The myth of the Old South, writes Orlando Patterson, stated that the presence of the Other, not a slavery-based economy, had caused its shameful defeat in the Civil War (or, the “War of Northern Aggression”). The ex-slave symbolized both violence and sin to an obsessed society. He was “obviously” enslaved to the flesh, and his skin invited a fusion of racial and religious symbolism. His “black” malignancy was to the body politic what Satan was to the soul. “The central ritual of this version of the Southern civil religion…was the human sacrifice of the lynch mob.

In 1899, before torturing him, ten thousand Texans paraded their black victim on a carnival float,450834550_640like the King of Fools, like Dionysus in the Anthesteria, or like Christ at Calvary. Patterson writes, “…the burning cross distilled it all: sacrificed Negro joined by the torch with sacrificed Christ, burnt together and discarded…”

But in 2020 we continue to make a terrible mistake when we locate racism exclusively in the South, or exclusively among reactionaries, blatant racists or the uneducated. Prior to the Civil War, Northern mobs attacked abolitionists on over two hundred occasions.

Joel Kovel asserts that there are two kinds of racism. One is the obvious dominative racism that developed in close contact (including the privilege of rape) between master and slave. The second – aversive racism – arose from Puritan associations of blackness with filth. De Tocquevile wrote in Democracy in America that prejudice “appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.”

Indeed, New England had about 13,000 slaves in 1750.  In 1720, New York City’s population of seven thousand included 1,600 blacks, most of them slaves. And the two colonies with the strongest religious foundations – Massachusetts and Pennsylvania – were the ones that first outlawed “miscegenation.”

The terrible logic of “othering” – its logical conclusion – takes hatred beyond the requirements of capitalism, beyond the entertainment uses of race, all the way to genocide. Again, as recently as hundred years ago, twenty-seven states passed eugenics laws to sterilize “undesirables.” A 1911 Carnegie Foundation “Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population” recommended euthanasia of the mentally retarded through the use of gas chambers.

Gas chambers.

The solution was too controversial, but in 1927 the Supreme Court, in a ruling written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, allowed coercive sterilization, ultimately of 60,000 Americans.

The last of these laws were not struck down until the 1970s. But now, with the coronavirus pandemic throwing millions out of work and onto the streets, the most extreme forms of gratuitous cruelty are re-emerging, with several prominent Republicans hinting that it would be better to let thousands of elderly – and Black and Brown – people die rather than keep the economy (and Trumpus’ re-election chances) in prolonged jeopardy. I’ll speak more about euthanasia below.

For some three hundred years, the distinction between black and white, with all of its moral implications, has remained absolutely central to white, Christian identity. And especially in times of economic uncertainty, any factual or emotional arguments to the contrary – or gestures of black equality – continue to provoke immense anxiety in the white mind and justify the most reactionary politics. In 2020, ten years after Black Swan was released, whites in Georgia lynched a black man for the crime of jogging through their neighborhood.

Read Part Five here.

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