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What is It About the the American Character?

Do CounterPunch, 28 de Dezembro, 2018
Por JOSEPH NATOLI

“What is it . . . about the American character that allows the long con of our politics to go on and on. . .?”


– Ben Fountain, Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion and Revolution, 2018.

What indeed can we say about the American character that clarifies the tribal state in which we now find ourselves?

What is the “long con that goes on and on?

How do we base our party politics on letting “the voices of the people be heard” when they have been conned by leaders who “treat the bulk of American people with the very same contempt” they treat blacks?

I quote James Baldwin again on will of a people “at the mercy of an ignorance not merely phenomenal, but sacred”:


The will of the people, in America, has always been at the mercy of an ignorance not merely phenomenal, but sacred, and sacredly cultivated: the better to be used by a carnivorous economy which democratically slaughters and victimizes whites and Blacks alike. But most white Americans do not dare admit this (though they suspect it) and this fact contains mortal danger for the Blacks and tragedy for the nation. (“Letter to Angela Davis,” 1970)

Aligning the sacred with a “carnivorous economy” is an alliance deep within the American character, both affiliations defending each other. It’s a preposterous, bullshit con we are in and it goes something like this:

We cannot be racists because we are Christians but we also as Christians cannot be supporting a “dog eats dog” economy. It is our sublime and exceptional moral sense that we export to the world along with our goods and services. The onus of guilt is always on the black man because the white man is protected by a moral superiority. A moral shield protects whites from assuming guilt even in cases where the “guilty” black is shot eight times in the back, as happened in the police shooting of Stephon Clark, 22.

Whites wrap themselves in the sacred and thus insulate themselves and so place themselves on the high ground in a moral review while blacks seek the sacred for solace in this vale of tears, which in the U.S. began with black African slavery, went on to Jim Crow lynching, and the dog whistling summoning racism which the Republican Party employed as a way to win elections. We have now advanced to the explicit use of racism by a President who has liberated whites to be openly racist in their campaign against the Liberals’ political correctness restraints.

President Trump, a con man extraordinaire, has grasped that part of the American character that is pathological and therefore of greatest energy.Regardless of the energy, the pathology places the American character on the therapist’s couch, a character heavily laden with a sense of imprisonment, of containment paranoiacally attributed to a widespread, permeating campaign of restraint on personal liberties led by Liberals.

What meaning does Liberal have in the American character?

Meaning is not necessary, the signifier is its own sufficient identifier, in the way “Black,” “Jew,” “Queer,” “Untouchable,” “Communists” “Immigrant” are. These signifiers do not mean but perform prior to meaning. Liberals cannot on this level of psychomachia hide behind another signifier, Progressive or Democratic Socialist because, they like “Black,” transmit an overdetermined value. And it is this bogeyman who stands behind every insult piercing like a nail in your shoe the American character. What one tribe perceives on this widespread phenomenal level is a dictating, repellant Liberal who has also muzzled law enforcement from responding to black crime in ways that make Americans secure in their homes and neighborhoods.

The angry brief of an American character derangement continues: Too much care has been given to the undeserving, too many holds have been placed on those who take charge of their own care through their own hard work, too great a societal welcoming and enfranchisement has been given to those whose lifestyles offend the Heartland’s devotion to the sacred.

No longer even masked behind it all lies hate and fear.

There is a subliminal part of the American character that fears blacks because harm has been done and retaliation is expected. It is a situation that leads to hatred because it is an unbearable spot to be in when the spot you have chosen for yourself is a morally superior one. The clearly exploited victim becomes the hated perpetrator but one we at the same time and place in our psychic drama have no reason to hate but every reason to fear because we have exploited and victimized.

The ensuing racial tension goes on and on in American society because, we need to confess our crime but are restrained by every dimension of superiority we cannot give up.

White Nationalism seems then to be a kind of suicidal doubling down on that superiority, even though every new incident and expression of racism intensifies both a fear and hatred that cannot be extinguished in this way, by these means.

No doubt many will exonerate themselves from the psychomachia described in the previous paragraph, asserting a post-racist attitude, a gentrified positioning in regard to racism, women’s rights and the entire LGBTQ community, as well as a long established Liberal position in regard to minorities and the marginalized. The distinctiveness here of the secularized, the professionalized, the gentrified, the technocrats, the agnostic, the dividend recipient takes the same high ground of moral superiority as does the Christian sacred.

It does not matter what road takes you to a self-proclaimed sense of superiority when the fruits of all claims of such injure those you place below you. Those injured by white supremacists may be black or brown, Jewish, or gay, socialists or Coastals while those injured by gentrified, meritocracy winning secularists may be everyone who displayed their inferiority by voting for Donald J. Trump.

When none is entitled to the high ground here, we face a kind of hostile tribalism grounded not in commonalities and loyalties but in animosities and prejudicial discriminations.

Thus, the angry brief I mention above, in one tribe’s view, applies only to the thinking of the Trumpians, not the meritocratic, professionalized, creative enlightened tribe whose contentment nullifies race as any concern. There is no hatred here among this self-conferred enlightened tribe because there is neither a troubling history nor a present involvement that would generate such. No gentrifier invading the “Do or Die” neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn recognizes Jim Crow, dog whistles or racist tweets from the President as disturbing life-style events.

This is a kind of obliviousness on a larger scale than you see all around as eyes directed on cell phones or laptops are oblivious to the car heading toward them.

There is no hatred among this entitled tribe because the whole drama of Black history is a “whatever” thing in the lives of the professed “post-racists.” There is also no capacity or willingness to recognize the inequities and injustices that have mobilized many to seek redress for damages done in a man who can fuel the hate and do the damage they seek. Individual 1’s con cannot work on this meritocratic, gentrified tribe because there is no damage and seeking for revenge here. Hatred isn’t present, but disdain and dismissal are. And fear is not of all manner of ruination but of those facing such.

Communities are not gated to keep out wolves but human predators, which based on what the media shows us, are mostly blacks, the ones the police seem always forced to shoot, as well as roaming illegal, terrorized immigrants.

Blacks and browns also are not part of the invading gentrifying army but the ones being excluded, not part of the gentrifying design but rather what must be erased from the scene.

Thus, fear exists among this entitled tribe not as a fear of retaliation for past sins, which are among the Millennials and Gen-Z extinct along with all of the pre-digital past, but as a fear that the colonized will spoil, injure or disturb the designed appointments of their materially comfortable lives.

II.

In two years, President Trump has been able to saturate that part of the American character that is full of pent up frustration, anger and fear with enemy targets to focus. He has staged himself as a wild swinging iconoclastic leader in whom to trust in this campaign.

The question arises as to what was in place in the American character that so easily fell, like a medieval castle that split open with the first canon ball? Alongside the question as to whether a constitutional democracy can defeat the con of an autocratic president is the question as to whether something exceptional in the American character can defeat the far different expressions of fear and hatred tearing a social contract apart, one that precedes a form of government under attack.

You get a preview of what is absent in the American character by studying the Republican primary debates where Trump, truly a man who if asked could not distinguish the Articles of the Constitution from the Bill of Rights, joisted like a savvy con man and yet not one of his ten rivals laid a glove on him. It is now difficult to imagine that all of them were as ignorant of U.S. government and political ideologies as Trump.

Clearly, the problem the Republicans had in deconstructing Trump involved a reluctance to expose Trump’s financial success in a Wild West capitalist system that the Republicans themselves saluted. They could not expose Trump without undermining their own law of profit not people.

Trump was an exemplum of capitalist success and so whatever else mattered Republicans could not present because in spite of the view that there is something in a Republican ideology beyond or critical of “the invisible hand of the market,” there is really just absence. There may be appeals to a humanitarian exceptionalism, a compassionate conservatism, a kinder, gentler nation and so on but these we know are no more than Nietzschean alibis, cover-ups, fronts behind which the mantra “Greed Works, Greed is Good.”

In short, what was absent in that Republican debate was also absent in the American character.

Beyond pathological anger and a need to focus it, a fear that illegal and immoral privilege will be taken away, and the alibis of affiliation with the sacred, the American character, at least the part of Republican origin, was and is an empty bag.

In the same way that we saw some indication that there was nothing to resist the assault of Donald J. Trump on that Republican debate stage, we have seen that all the Liberal resistance, capital “R” or not, boiled down to the health care issue in the recent midterm elections.

Democrats did enough winning to take back the House because there were enough voters repelled by Trump personally, his executive orders, and his intentions to do things like build a 5 billion dollar wall or possibly start a war if he felt the “art of the deal” demanded one.

Regardless of all that, Trump seems a good bet to win the 2020 presidential election, which means that we may in the next two years warm to his personality (for a nihilist, he is endlessly entertaining), find the wall less objectionable, and see war as necessary to preserve our national security.

There is little in our derogatorily shaped tribalized American character to prevent this.

If self-interest is your thing and you find that in your stock dividends and not, for instance, in mitigating a global warming that will probably not exterminate you but your progeny, you may prefer Trump to a Liberal who wants to regulate the market as well as tax and redistribute your winnings.

You may prefer Trump in 2020 to a Liberal who wants to extend equality and equity to those upon which “the invisible hand of the market” has, in its elegant simplicity and efficiency, already passed judgment. If your only criteria of judgment is market rule, why allow a government to intrude? This is comparable to the identity/difference debate. Why allow difference if identity is already credentialized by your reasoning, not Nietzschean reason but an efficient, instrumental reasoning.

So some will vote for Trump because he won’t redistribute their wealth to 80% of the population, and you will find some who will vote for Trump because they believe he will redistribute the wealth to the middle class and not to the blacks, the browns, the welfare recipients, the underwater mortgaged, the homeless, the occupants of public housing, and any brand of immigrant or refugee seeking asylum. Hilariously, those opposed here include the opposers.

But all of these possibilities are so many trees in a forest we have not yet described.

When we pan our camera back, we can see that whatever climate the anti-market rule contingent developed since Reagan, it did nothing but fuel the pathology of the American character and set the stage for a con job.

The stage was set for Trump’s appearance by a failure of Liberals, Progressives and budding Social Democrats to confront the abuses in anything other than a quick bandaging operation of an economic system gone Wild West.

You can arguably attribute this to the fact that there were as many Liberals and Neo-liberals doing quite well under Market Rule. You don’t need a visitation from an impartial Martian to tell you that in the U.S. the Green party (not the environmental one but the cash nexus one) is honored before all other parties.

A significant part of the American character that is pathologically generated and oriented can most certainly be traced to Neoliberals and Conservatives in the Republican Party. They are axiomatically and openly attached to the bottom line of profit in all things and will play the dark side of that character without any qualms of Christian conscience, regardless of how many Pecksniffs profit draws as a front.

This transparent destruction of all the pretenses of an egalitarian democracy has persevered, beyond even the stupidities of Reagan’s supply side economics, and has thrived because Liberals and Progressives in the Democratic Party have been disingenuous in their opposition to this Prime Directive of Republicans.

Liberals have therefore abnegated an oppositional role that would clearly connect the dots between racial hatred and fear, the false alibis of Christian moral superiority, and the efficiency of a Market Rule that is only efficient in preserving its own mythos.

Market Rule has always been prepared to deal with the abundant losers in its zero sum game by stoking the fears and hatreds that its own system has generated. That strategy has been supplemented by firmly instilling the illusions of an individual autonomy that places all responsibility on the shoulders of a self-empowered, delusional, free choosing individual. This is indeed an efficient strategy.

Neck and neck finishes in our elections, reported like horse races, prove this.

Because fear, hatred and hypocritical sanctimoniousness works, there is no inclination here to correct the inequities of Market Rule by hamstringing it in any way. That job should be in some political party’s hands but the Democratic Party stands in the way of forming such a truly oppositional party.

Rather than support Bernie Sanders’s bid, the Democratic Party machine worked to undermine it. It has remained on the sidelines of the battlefield, engaged in everything peripheral, the collateral damage of an economic system they have no ideology to engage.

The Liberal/Progressive reaction to the Trump supporters is difficult to swallow because it represents a second level of dismissal of what Market Rule has left us. The first level of dismissal is of a defined corrective critique of that rule.

Refusing to take on an economic system that has axiomatically led us to our tribal state and placed as Commander in Chief a truly dangerous man is an abrogation of a responsibility that FDR recognized and took on, leaving the Democratic Party with a rule system of their own, one that put people before profit, wages before dividends, workers before shareholder.

Rather than admit their part in creating the pathology of the American character, Liberals have derided, mocked and insulted the Trump followers, dismissing them as a lower form of life, of somehow unformed in any complete human way. Calibans all.

Is this not a repeat of a judgment of inferiority imposed upon those, blacks and women, who a society has denied access to the criteria of judgment? I’m thinking of a notable education of mind as well as income to workers, equitable to men and women, that is equal to or greater than profit to shareholders.

There’s a high ground here from which those on a lower ground are discounted. An intellectual, civilized superiority, a gentrified repulsion shown. As if, ironically, the Trumpians fear and loathing of dark skinned immigrants, druggies, rapists, criminals was a fear and loathing in the view of Liberals been encapsulated in the Trumpians,

And the Liberal/Progressive/Democratic Socialist tribe has been, in the eyes of the Trumpian tribe, encapsulated in the dark conspiracies of “The Deep State,” a dark cabala that President Trump is fighting.

It has become difficult to see who is anointed with the sacred or who will have the arrogance and presumption to claim it.

Liberals have also denied what is clearly before them, namely that Trump has successfully worked his way into that pathology and thus become a formidable political force.

He is feeding that pathology for his own ends, which do not seem to extend beyond his own ego, but he offers recognition, something that is therapeutically effective, something that is denied to them by Democrats.

Trump has taken ownership of the dark side of the American character but he has, in a folksy expression, also owned up to its existence, its origins, affinities and triggers.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans were prepared to do this, both unaware until Trump made it all visible that this outgrowth of the American character, this tribal schizophrenia of the American character, existed and had the force to upset an orders of things both parties had in different ways and in different degrees created.
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More articles by:JOSEPH NATOLI


Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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