I’ve been speaking about our beliefs about wealth and poverty, the foundations of our domestic issues. But the same thinking has undergirded our foreign policies since the very beginning. This is how Americans have always resolved the contradiction of living in a society that raises freedom and equality to the highest values while simultaneously enslaving millions, murdering other millions and consuming vast areas of the Earth and its resources. It is composed of a series of simple statements:
1 – We hurt them / killed them / enslaved them / took their resources.
2 – But we are by definition good, pure and innocent.
3 – Since we are good and innocent, and we did bad things to them, they must be evil and guilty.
4 – If they are evil and guilty, they must have desired to hurt us.
5 – Therefore, we are justified in having attacked them.
6 – Indeed, we did it for their own good. We had to destroy the village in order to save them (as an American officer said in Viet Nam).
In the second half of the 19th century, American intellectuals (and only in America) twisted the idea of natural selection into “Social Darwinism” by falling back upon Puritan justifications for wealth and poverty and asserting that America’s wealth, just like the wealth of its ruling classes, proved its virtue.
Exploitation and elimination of the weak, they claimed, were natural processes; and competition produced the survival of the fittest. The next step was to infer that only the affluent were worthy of survival. These gatekeepers were, of course, merely restating the Calvinist view of poverty as a condition of the spirit. Life was a harsh, unsatisfying prelude to the afterlife, redeemable only through discipline. Deeply religious and idealistic people passionately argued that the suffering of the poor was good because it provoked remorse and repentance, and that political movements to relieve their condition were unnatural. Secular apologists, meanwhile, simply substituted “nature” for “God.”
Social Darwinism was one of the primary justifications for colonialism. Competition for survival had produced a new human type, the Anglo-Saxon, with the moral sense to accept the White Man’s burden. Such men were uniquely qualified to help civilize those who couldn’t improve themselves without the prolonged tutelage of enlightened colonial rule. These notions, tempered with superficially idealistic verbiage, have remained at the core of America’s foreign policy all the way into the Obama years.
But the unapologetic rants about entitlement and poverty of charlatans such as Jerry Falwell and clowns like Herman Cain (both quoted in Part One of this essay) seem somewhat new, or at least since the political backlash that brought Ronald Reagan to power 35 years ago. Why does the media now give them such attention?
UPDATE, March 2017: Demonization of the poor continued unabated in the 2016 election and beyond. Alice Miranda Ollstein writes of Paul Ryan’s rhetoric:
For several years — as he has pushed policies to slash Medicaid funding, food stamps, unemployment insurance, and other social programs — Ryan has repeatedly referred to poverty as a “culture problem” among people in “inner cities,” where “generations of men [are] not even thinking about working.”…His most recent poverty plan takes a punitive stance, punishing people who can’t find a job by a certain mandated deadline by reducing their benefits.
When old myths break down, writes historian Richard Slotkin, ideology generates “a new narrative or myth…to create the basis for a new cultural consensus.” Or we could say that (with the help of the corporate media) older, previously de-legitimated narratives resurface into the public discourse because they still retain their emotional attraction.
We have been seeing a resurgence of this “blame the victims” rhetoric because the shared consensus that upheld our social fabric of optimism, perpetual growth, technology, white privilege and imperial influence began to collapse during the 1960s. Or, as I have written, cracks have appeared and continued to widen in the great edifice of the myth of American innocence. These cracks have brought into question most of the assumptions that Americans – certainly most white male Americans – have lived by and how they identify themselves.
And this creates a profound anxiety, an anxiety that mirrors that at the very core of Puritanism: how can I really know if I am among the elect? If the Other actually has the same rights, skills and privileges that I have and the Other is evil, what does that make me? It should be no surprise that the issues of gay marriage and immigration have provoked such vicious reactions in our time.
When social change periodically creates threats to our sense of identity, as it did for example after the Civil War and after the 1960s, white Americans typically coalesce around our most core principles and attitudes. We fall back upon the tried-and-true notions of knowing who we are not in a positive sense, as we would like to think of ourselves, but negatively: in terms of the Other. We are not the Other.
But representatives of indigenous cultures do not need courses in Depth Psychology to know how fragile such a personality is. If we look at ourselves from their perspective, we realize that America is a society primarily composed of – and led by – uninitiated men. At the root of our national identity is the grief and rage of young men who have never been seen and blessed by their elders, who cover up their depression with masks of grandiosity and racial entitlement.
We insist that we are not the Other, because we are good, pure and innocent. So whatever happens to the Other, whatever we inflict upon her, it must be her own fault.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the whole American project is that, well below the surface of our egalitarian ideals and optimism, our heroic and macho posturing and our good intentions, most of us still believe this about ourselves.