Saturday, December 5, 2015

America Is a Victim of Its False Narratives

Yes, I could choose a more America-friendly picture, but why? This is America.

I am an American. In the early 1970s, I traveled extensively in Europe and was greeted with respect (it helped that I was from San Francisco). It was the Vietnam era and I briefly considered staying in the Netherlands and taking Dutch citizenship -- something available back then -- but I chose to come home to be in "the belly of the beast," which was an admission that I was, deep down, an American through and through, just one who was considerably unsettled at our warmongering.

Recently, I made a couple of month-long trips through Europe and heard two narratives that Europeans generally adhered to. One was, "What's with all the guns?" and the other was, "Your Republicans seem really crazy!" Generally, these comments were unsolicited. I wasn't hunting for validation of my views.

What is it about Americans that we -- or at least a surprising portion of us -- believe or promulgate false narratives about our nature and values? The question should have a very obvious answer: It's because we feel better feeling better about ourselves.

However, to move forward as a country, we need to shed the false narratives we drag around that distort reality. Like almost all Democrats and even some so-called "moderate" Republicans, I was shocked by the rhetoric of Republican presidential candidates on the campaign trail and in the television debates. I wondered, where is all this stuff coming from?

And then it hit me: We've always been like this. This is no new development. Americans as a society are unaware of what we really stand for, shielded by the false narratives we build to avoid facing the truth. Even more, we allow our problems to fester because dealing with them would force us to face painful realizations we've dodged for generations.

What are our principal false narratives?
  • We are or rapidly becoming a post-racial nation. Nothing could be further from the truth. We've been a deeply racist nation since our inception hundreds of years ago, allowed slavery to exist for hundreds of those years, and went from a civil war to end slavery to reimposing it through Jim Crow laws, which only ended -- to a limited extent -- after the civil rights acts of the mid-60s. Without repairing the damage we did to blacks during slavery, we've moved to replace them with minimum-wage jobs filled largely by Hispanics, which could be regarded as our new slave class.
We've continued to mistreat people of color right up to the present moment, with the core base of one of our major political parties -- the Republicans -- as deeply racist and nativist as it's always been. The Democratic South of racist politicians was replaced by the Republican South of racist politicians when Lyndon Johnson sealed his party's fate by supporting civil rights for blacks.
 Nixon took advantage of the developments to invoke the Southern Strategy. Now the solid red states of the South are living proof that racism is alive and well in the U.S. I'm not saying there aren't racists in other parts of the country or that the Democratic Party is pure, but to pretend we're anywhere near a post-racial nation is to live in a fantasy world.
Let's face it, white power, or white supremacy, is making a fitful comeback as the core of the Republican Party circle the wagons and fight to maintain Christian, white, male dominance over our institutions. (They also use it to justify overseas military adventures, always against "the other.") This core of the GOP is corrupted by the fear that "Good Ole America" is being lost forever. The fact that Barack Obama was elected not once but twice has exacerbated these fears.
Then Obamacare tried to move birth control to the status of an American right, which shocked the fundamentalist Christians (yes, part of this Southern Republican religious core) who felt it was their right to have authoritarian father figures lord over families, which required women to be pregnant and reproductive at the discretion of Daddy. The government had no right to interfere with this Christian fundamentalist dominance of women. Again, this Republican core was threatened, and its members lashed out.
Close on the heels of this surge in women's rights, the GLBT movement made strides in leaps and bounds, and BOOM! Same-sex marriage was legalized after a dizzying stretch from Gavin Newsom to Joe Biden to Barack Obama to the Supreme Court's shocking (but not unexpected) decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. By this time, conservatives were reeling.
To counter Obamacare -- and anything Barack Obama did or appeared to do that threatened core Republicans' notions of white Christian prerogatives -- the Tea Party was born. With each assault on this American sub-group, the Tea Party both grew and solidified until it overwhelmed the establishment Republicans and became the dominant force in the GOP.
(You may have noticed that I've lumped racism, nativism, minority rights of all kinds under the rubric of "racism." I'm being purposely facile; still, it's all born of the same human -- and very American -- impulse to use ideology to buttress power, in this case the power of white Christian males over everybody else. That this is the way it should be is a key false narrative of America.)
Now, as Syrian and other refugees wish to come to our shores, racism, nativism and a desire to maintain Christian dominance have driven the Republican presidential field to sound more and more, yes, fascist. But what is truly shocking is the extent to which this has always been true. America has always been, at its core, a racist, nativist country that only pretends to believe in freedom of religion. We're apparently only free to practice the Christianity of our choice. 
  • We are a nation that fights for peace in the world. We are a very violent country, obsessed with guns and tough-on-crime stances, which extend to our foreign policy. Guns and wars on drugs and mandatory-minimum sentencing and packing our jails and prisons are self-defeating, which should have been obvious years ago. To a great extent this misguided tendency is an off-shoot of racism, in that we conveniently blame "the other" for our failings, which is why blacks and Latinos populate our prisons to the extent they do. People of both political parties have guided us into this morass of hate and fear, but one party, the Democrats, are at least trying to lead us out of this mess. So far, a Republican Congress is blocking progress we should already have been making.
Guns are a symbol of white patrician power. To give up guns is to give up the ability to kill the bad guys. Tight, restrictive gun laws in other countries have proven that both good and bad guys remain alive -- and relatively free -- when guns are controlled or eliminated. Even if we don't eliminate gun ownership, there's something wildly crazy about an American population that kills with glee. Compare Canada's gun deaths to ours (Canada's gun homicide rate is one-fifth ours). What we find is a North American country very much like ours, except for the killing. What's that about? If you answer that we're a more diverse country, you're telling me we kill each other more because we have more black and brown people. What does that tell you about the good ole USA? Something very troubling indeed.
  •  Capitalism is great, markets work, we are the Land of Opportunity. This is surely one of the biggest false narratives doing a great disservice to American citizens. The free enterprise system is a good way to run an economy, but as in all systems, regulation is required. The libertarian notion that unregulated markets produce good results is insulting. We don't leave fire protection to an unregulated market. No, we wisely leave it to government to handle it. We don't leave utilities like water, gas, and electricity to markets. We regulate them mercilessly or place them under government control. It's not even controversial.
Why do we allow healthcare to fall in the category of enterprises best left to the marketplace? Why do we allow free markets to control guns? We don't leave automobiles and driving up to random market solutions. We don't leave road building -- or most transportation systems, for that matter -- up to the randomness of markets. Social democracies in Europe and Canada are a good example of how regulated markets and government safety nets help societies to function well. Our dysfunctional free-market solutions are a joke, one that the rest of the world rightly condemns.
The key benefit of unregulated markets is that it provides the opportunity to game systems and acquire inordinately large personal fortunes. Add that to the "tax reform" movement in which a privileged class acquires more and more while taking less and less responsibility for the stability of society, and we have created a death spiral of free enterprise run amok. Out-of-control income inequality is unsustainable because it will eventually destroy the consumer class upon which this house of cards rests.
The key false narrative is that, if only government would get out of the way, every American has the opportunity to work hard and achieve anything their heart desires. Those that don't make it didn't work hard enough or were victims of dumb luck, which is okay because, hell, it's not my job to take care of the losers!
Equal opportunity can't solve income inequality, not in today's America. One, we no longer have equal opportunity -- if we ever had it -- for if we did have it, income inequality would be lessening as we speak. And, two, it's a farce that the Republican Party wants to solve income inequality because it's baked into the Republican cake, which is served up to the rich in gratitude for the campaign largess it provides GOP candidates.
Sure, Dems play the game but not nearly to the extent that the GOP does. Dems want to provide at least a little more for the general welfare. It's what sets them apart. The GOP, on the other hand...
  •  America is the greatest country on Earth, the one indispensable nation. This is our greatest fraud. We are not an exceptional country except to the extent that we are exceptionally violent, self-centered, self-congratulatory, self-indulgent, and self-delusional. If we truly wanted to join and work with the community of nations, we'd do it. Instead, we bluster, flex our muscles, and repeat mantras like, "America, fuck yeah!" It's disgraceful. Sure, countries like France, Japan, and others feel their people have special qualities not found anywhere on Earth, which can be irritating, but they don't claim to be indispensable.
  • We have a free press. We don't have a free press. It's been hijacked by Rupert Murdoch and other plutocrats that have learned how to manipulate us for profit -- profit beyond just the margins of the media business. Taxes and corporate welfare are part of the mix. It's disgusting, dangerous, and deplorable, and too many people have fallen under conservative media's sway. We will never be a free people again unless we take back control of our media. One particular troublesome aspect of this false narrative is that so many of our mainstream media protects the distortions brought on by right-wing's radical swing to the far right by attempting to maintain "balance" by employing the "both sides do it in equal measure" mandatory yardstick. Both sides don't do it. One side is nearly out of control with its ideology. Guess which one.
  • We have the "best healthcare in the world." No, we don't. By many measures, our outcomes are exceeded by at least three dozen countries. If by the best, you mean "the best that money can buy," you might be right, but that is only a blessing afforded the rich. The rest can, uh, just die.
  • They hate us for our freedom. Maybe, but the real reason "they" hate us is that the West has dominated, mistreated, interfered with the people, the governments, and borders of the Middle East and, later, North Africa since World War I. Also, we bomb the shit out of them and blow them up on a regular basis. "Death to America" makes sense after what we've done. (No, I'm not promoting "Death to America.")
Ever had a girlfriend or a boyfriend or a spouse that, at some later point we see in a new light and wonder what we ever saw in them? Often, it's we who have changed. That's the way I view America now, but not so much with new eyes. It's more with reawakened eyes, in part because of the vitriol, hatred, nationalism, nativism, suspicion, and fear that has become part of the Republican sideshow these days. You'd think we were in another world, one changed almost overnight.

No, the world, and the U.S., didn't change overnight. It's what we've always been, which is a not-so-pretty society full of deep mistrust for "the other," you know, the ones who are not as white or Christian as we are. Sad but true. It's better to realize this than to wonder what went wrong. Nothing went wrong. It's who we are.

Even those of us who realize this still wander around, toting our backpacks of white privilege wherever we go. And I'm one of them. If I have one thing to cling to it's that I know it, regret it, and want to fight it.

I don't want to be this kind of American.

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