« on: Yesterday at 10:06:39 pm »
--Part 2 because I'm working on a larger piece this will be part of. Part 1 hasn't been posted anywhere--
America is, and has always been, a nation with a sharply fractured identity. Born during the years of the Enlightenment, a period of rapid scientific advancement and rekindled but overly romantic ideas about the golden age of classical democracy, the Founders of the American experiment set out to enshrine very extreme (for the time) ideas about government and political power in their new Republic. Fervent subscribers to the precepts of Classical Liberalism, they proclaimed that "all men are created equal" and that governments are instituted by "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed". These are still inspirational ideas even today, even if they are barely understood anymore by most people -- including most of the leaders who seek and obtain elected office.
Of course, at the same time that these flowery words were being put to paper and inspiring a revolution in the name of democracy and the Enlightenment, America was also a country that relied socially and economically on the morally and physically repugnant institution of slavery. This is not news to anyone, and it is a topic covered in greater detail and with greater nuance elsewhere; but it is important when considering the character of the United States. We have always been, from long before the very inception of the ideas that would give rise to our Republic, an essentially schizophrenic nation defined largely by the deep and at times unbridgeable canyon separating our stated intentions and our actual practices.
We tend to gloss over this divide and coat it with as much sugar as we can manage. Obviously, there is no denying the Civil War that shredded our country in the 1860s and left its own indelible cultural marks and resentments. We often portray American history as an essentially forward-facing arrow in which the evils of slavery reached an untenable fever pitch in 1861, but that the Civil War was somehow the final word on the matter. After that, we imagine, we put our demons behind us with the North's victory over the South, the ensuing Constitutional amendments abolishing slavery, and harsh years of Reconstruction. But we have done generations of Americans an immense disservice by allowing ourselves to see history in that simplistic way.
In reality, America has never really recovered from that fundamental struggle. Honestly, America can never really "recover" from that struggle, because the arguments which led to the Civil War are the engine that powers American culture and defines the American psyche. Squabbles over "States' Rights", the propriety of discrimination, the role of government in social order, and numerous other questions remain unanswered. And they will probably always remain unanswered, not only because they are difficult questions but because our eternal struggle to answer them despite our inability to do so is the bedrock on which the American personality is based. The tug-of-war between our irreconcilable differences powers the engine of American progress and ingenuity.
In our most drastic attempt to answer these questions so far -- the Civil War -- the North imposed on the South, and the Federal Government on all subsequent generations of Americans, the notion that people cannot be trusted to do the right thing without direction (and coercion) from a benevolent power emanating from the seat of government. Whether or not this notion is essentially true, or whether or not it was anyone's intention, is not important. It is the way many Americans perceive history since the Civil War, and this is what millions of Americans continue to fight against.
That fight, and the popular will to ignore it, has defined the last century and a half of our history. Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, when we decided against all evidence that the South had been "fixed", as soon as full control of the state legislatures were returned to Southern aristocrats, nearly all of the former Confederate States set about tearing out every stitch of social progress that had been forcibly sewn into their constitutions. Poll taxes were enacted to keep Black Americans out of elections. Slavery, though abolished in the outright sense, persisted through the economic exclusion and coerced subsistence of sharecropping. Racial segregation was enforced. Interracial marriage continued to be an abomination, one of many imaginary crimes that easily could and often did result in the murder of innocent Blacks by gangs of White thugs who nearly always got away with it, rarely accused and acquitted by all-white juries when they were.
The systematic intimidation, oppression, and disenfranchisement of minority groups remained integral to the politics of the South until the passage of the Civil Rights Act nearly a century later, mostly because polite society simply did not care. As far as the vast majority of White America was concerned -- including, and often especially those who considered themselves progressive and non-racist -- there was no problem. The Civil War had settled The Race Problem, and all that was left to do was for Blacks to get over it.
The North, for its part, was hardly a tolerant and multicultural Utopia. As wave after wave of immigrants arrived in America looking for better lives and opportunities, wave after wave of counterbalancing xenophobic paranoia arose to meet the newcomers with unwelcoming disdain, each wave ironically including members and descendants of previous immigrations now proving how purely American they had become by participating in the tradition of anti-immigrant fervor. America's split personality was evident then, as it is now, as a place that boasts of individual responsibility and opportunity while stubbornly categorizing people and defining them not by who they are, but where they are from and who they bring with them.
The reason it's important to remember our history is because it helps to place current events in a context where it makes sense. The lofty language of American idealism, where "all men are created equal", and where we have "liberty and justice for all", has always been a serene surface masking a deep reservoir of paranoia, distrust, and institutional inequality that gets more violent and more absurd the deeper one goes. Most Americans live somewhere beneath that surface, some lower than others. The most fortunate of us are lucky enough to break the surface once in a while and see America's promise firsthand -- which is a beautiful thing, but when you're swimming up there, it's very difficult to fathom what lies hundreds of feet down. And if you're always up there, the monstrous torrents lurking below are all but invisible, and never felt firsthand.