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.’”
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. 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. 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:
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: