Americans like to believe that they’re a special people. Every waking hour in the U.S. of A., we try to spin new yarns into the gargantuan American mythology quilt, trying to add new patches that somehow reiterate the idea that America is a better place than anywhere else in the world. We’re the Land of the Free;™ the Home of The Brave.™ But the reality is that the United States of America is prone to many of the same vices that have characterized humanity for centuries, especially violence. If you want evidence of this, you need look no further than the blood-consecrated national death cult that is American gun culture.
It’s a wide-open secret that the American South has long been a haven for right-wing political nut-baggery. There are a multitude of reasons for this, many of which I discussed in a piece for Salon. But over the last few decades, a particular style of extreme, far-right, anti-government, gun-humping circle-jerkitude has found fertile ground in the good ole’ U.S. of A’s scattered rural hamlets. In America’s amber-waves-of-grain littered Heartland — much of which is still in the South — far-right populist movements have multiplied like deranged Donald Trump statements. They don’t share much by way of organization, coherent goals, or even basic levels of sanity, but they’re all united in their core belief that the federal government is the root of all evil in the modern world and is hell-bent on snuffing out every backwoods, freedom-firing, bible-believing Bubba from Mayberry to Hooterville.
Another day in America, another racially charged urban riot sparked by the suspicious death of a black person at the hands of the police.
This time, it’s happening in Baltimore, where there continues to be a glaring lack of information regarding the death of a Freddie Gray. Police arrested Gray on April 12 — for no reason other than the fact that Gray apparently ran — and by April 19, Gray died from “spinal injuries.” If that seems bizarre, that’s because it is. According to witness Kevin Moore, who recorded Gray’s arrest, the cops had Gray “folded up like he was a crab, or like a piece of origami.” Go ahead and view the video at the link, it’s not easy to watch, unless maybe you’re an advanced Yogi who’s used to having your body turned into an Auntie Anne’s pretzel.
Americans don’t do nuance. The basic dictionary definition of nuance is “a subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound,” and boy does this ever go against the American predilection for dualistic thinking in absolutely everything. From the highest level political “masterminds,” to the status-anxiety wracked petite bourgeoisie, to the common blue-collar Bubba, Americans prefer simplistic approaches to a very complicated world. They therefore derive thought-free comfort in the notions that black and white long ago teamed up to gag the numerous shades of grey with a balled-up American flag; that there is only good (America) and evil (everything that isn’t America), and that might ALWAYS equals right — at lease when America uses might.
And no U.S. subculture better exemplifies this inoculation-proof allergy to nuance better than the conservative hive-mind. Yes, if Americans in general prefer simple answers to complex problems, the Right Wing goes a step further: they deny that complex problems even exist. Thus, we have the dunder-headed conservative reaction to President Barack Obama’s invocation at the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast. Continue Reading
Football is the most red-blooded, über-masculine, über –American thing on planet earth. That’s right: FOOTBALL. No, I’m not talking about that ridiculous spectacle in which namby-pamby, ethnically ambiguous European men in short shorts traverse across a sprawling, artificially constructed field trying to catapult a checkered spherule into a large trawling net without using their hands as millions of highly inebriated spectators look on from tax-payer-subsidized coliseum stands. Americans have a word for that: it’s called soccer, and we use it to keep our 2.5 suburban children occupied after school on weekdays.
No, the football I’m talking about puts those European pantywaists to shame. REAL football — AMERICAN football — is a completely non-ridiculous, unquestionably heterosexual sporting spectacle in which gargantuan men in tight pants traverse across a sprawling, artificially constructed field while trying to tackle each other with the ultimate goal of carrying a prolate spheroid far enough to win the right to kneel down and praise their sky-dwelling prime mover — all as millions of highly inebriated spectators look on from tax-payer-subsidized coliseum stands. Continue Reading
As a way of building on some points I made in the previous post about the interconnectedness between modern nation-states and mass violence, Dan Vermilya has an interesting post at his blog Our Country’s Fiery Trial. Vermilya is a Park Ranger at Antietam National Battlefield, who previously worked at Gettysburg National Historical Park. Reflecting on the meaning imparted by national parks that preserve the sights of mass slaughter during the Civil War, he emphasizes the usual, though still important, roles battlefields serve in reminding contemporary Americans why so many men died during that horrendous conflict. We as the American populace continue to honor the Civil War dead for making the “last full measure of devotion,” for sacrificing their bodies on the nation’s altar.
Such an idea is so commonplace, however, that I think its easy to really gloss over the full meaning implicit behind such sentiments, namely, that it is impossible to separate violence from the idea of the modern American nation. If we imagine the United States as metaphorically being constructed out of bricks, those bricks only hold together because they are tempered with the blood of the 600,00o plus soldiers who died at places like Antietam. The traditional, and far more inspiring way to acknowledge this national blood sacrifice is through honor and gratitude. As an example of this, Vermilya prints a portion of an 1881 letter written by Rufus Dawes, a veteran of the 6th Wisconsin, to his wife. In the letter, Dawes recounts his visit to Arlington National Cemetery, where he gazed over the graves of his fallen comrades:
I looked over nearly the full 16,000 headboards to find the twenty-four, but they all died alike and I was determined to find all. Poor little Fenton who put his head above the works at Cold Harbor and got a bullet through his temples, and lived three days with his brains out, came to me in memory as fresh as one of my own boys of to-day, and Levi Pearson, one of the three brothers of company ‘A,’ who died for their country in the sixth regiment, and Richard Gray, Paul Mulleter, Dennis Kelly, Christ Bundy, all young men, who fell at my side and under my command. For what they died, I fight a little longer. Over their graves I get inspiration to stand for all they won in establishing our government upon freedom, equality, justice, liberty and protection to the humblest.
The key statement in this passage is “for what they died, I fight a little longer.” And what did these men die for? They died for their country, of course. Their blood spilled so that a government of “freedom, equality, justice, liberty and protection to the humblest ” might live on. Generally, we give such sentiments the due respect they deserve. Yet, to fully understand the meaning of such sentiments, we would do well to consider that violence; horrible, mass violence, is intrinsically tied to our modern concept of nationalism. And we continue to legitimize that violence.
Each Memorial Day, Americans remember those who gave their lives to their country, but they also, by extension, sanctify and consecrate the mass violence that was integral to the creation of the modern American nation. This is the darker side of patriotism, the darker side of honoring war dead, because through such rituals, we tacitly acknowledge, even embrace, a history of brutal acts on human bodies committed by other humans. So ingrained is the idea of blood sacrifice in modern national cultures the world over that we scarcely stop to wonder if by turning the macabre act of war into a regular, communal ceremony, we lose perspective over our stated human desires for peace. Of course, through honoring war dead, we promote the notion that their blood sacrifice will bring about peace. Historically, however, violence begets violence in a continually repeating pattern. This was certainly true with the Civil War: the end of the formal fighting gave way to a savage, decades-long cycle of terroristic racial violence, the legacy of which we’re still dealing with today.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t honor war dead by acknowledging that they paid the ultimate sacrifice. But it is to say that if we’re serious about taming the level of mass violence in the modern world, perhaps we should be aware of how commonly we sanctify violence in the name of our most cherished ideals, especially nationalism. I mean, if we really want that cake, we should at least be aware of how many eggs we need to crack.
Is the human race predestined to off itself in a vicious orgy of mass violence? Lawrence Wittner, professor of History at SUNY/Albany, thinks so. In a post for the History News Network’s blog, Wittner ruminates on the continued popularity of mass violence in the form of warfare throughout the modern world. Citing the over a hundred million deaths resulting from the two World Wars of the 20th century, the continued persistence of 21st century warfare in the Developing World, and the trillions spent on military buildup in the so-called First World, Wittner sees a dreary pattern of death and destruction that may spell the end of humankind in the near future. He’s particularly worried about the human propensity towards mass violence in a world where many nations continue to proliferate their nuclear arsenals.