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Part Five: Step Back, Take a Breath: There is Hope for this Social and Cultural Experiment

If you are a member of the human family–Mankind at large–that is all you need be to become an American. That, and the willingness to be an American, which (historically) ultimately translated to a surrender of the dominance of ones native Culture for that of American Culture. That, essentially, is the “Idea of America”. It was, and is, an experiment that is not yet complete. We are a Culture and society still in embryo–after 220* years America is still in development. This is critically important for all of us to recognize and accept. We have yet to make America the place “on the ground” that it is “on paper”. We deny this to our great peril. For those who think America is a finished product and that we have this experiment mastered, consider this: one year before and twenty-four years after the U.S. successfully and repeatedly landed men on the Moon, that same America also had riots in the same city (Los Angeles), among the same disaffected citizens (blacks), for the same reasons (lack of unqualified inclusion in the American “family”). The idea that all who wish to join are welcome in the American “family”, and the promise of equal treatment implied by the declared equality of Men, remains stubbornly illusive at the private, individual level of how we do, how we interact, how we think of ourselves and one another. This propagates inevitably into our public, collective social lives. It seeps through millions of pores into our public behavior, creating the powerful illusion known as “institutional racism”.  Just to be clear–the racism is real. The illusion is that any institution is in any way responsible for it.  It is  behavior brought to the institution, and there tolerated, giving said behavior collective sway within that institution.  So as it happens, the demand of unqualified willingness to become an American is not enough. Unqualified acceptance must be forthcoming from those who think of themselves as Americans as well.

So, here we are, 215 years after the ratification of the Constitution, flirting with persistent ideas about race both archaic and discredited, yet powerfully evocative and seductive. They are also, significantly, traditional. Virtually all of those traditional ideas (as well as the behaviors they are used to justify) are or stem from purposeful contrivances. More significantly, they are essentially incorrect. And despite protestations to the contrary, America [as a whole] continues to evidence a persistent obsession with and obeisance to these ideas about the idea that is race. The emotional power and allure of these ideas springs from a central one–identity. Identity is essential and determinative. It is intimate with survival, possessing lines of binding obligation linking past, present, and future; that is ancestors, grandparents, parents, children, and grandchildren. Identity, however, is essentially an idea as well. Its real power, as with any idea, is derived from its acceptance by the many. Simple intellectual adherence and behavioral conformity consistent with an idea can create an illusion of reality as potent in its power to effect as reality itself. For all that any idea, even one as compelling as race, has an Achilles’ heel. Its fundamental vulnerability is the power of the individual to disprove and delegitimize it through the simple act of rejecting it. That is, to not adhere to its attendant behavioral imperatives. This betrays the true nature of race. Being white and being black are ideas created by Man, not independent imperatives spawned by nature. The beliefs associated with them have been variably points of departure, rationale, and justification for more pain and injustice in our country than anyone wants to accept responsibility for.  

America’s social retardation with respect to “ace relations is ultimately a symptom of developmental failure at the basic level of Culture. Specifically, the failure of the basic [components/vehicles] of our Culture, individual Americans, to internalize the value that “All Men are Created Equal”, and the “idea of America”, which is that any who wish to become part of the American “family” need only embrace it to be embraced in return. Consequently, the phenomenon of Multi-Culturalism is better understood as a reaction to stubbornly persistent exclusion of non-whites from the “family”. A society can do little more than its values, taboos, traditions, and prejudices allow. As such the ascendancy of Multi-Culturalism stands as an indictment of traditional American Culture rather than a failure of contemporary American society. 

 As a society we have busily and painstakingly crafted racially specific legislation which has been declared ineffective or worse, the most enthusiastic promoters of this assessment being its original opponents and their ideological heirs. The real inspiration behind the detractors and demonizers of the Great Society notwithstanding, (themselves the spawn and fortunate beneficiaries of Roosevelt’s New Deal, a similarity and irony either lost upon or beyond them) champion an essential, legitimate criticism. New laws, amendments, and special protective legislation were not found to be necessary for Jews, Poles, Irish, or even the Chinese. They should have been no more necessary for blacks (or women or homosexuals). How to interact with members of the American community that were formerly considered not equal is implicit in the declaration that they are equal. Making special exceptions and distinctions based upon race served to allow whites to preserve certain essential and traditional ideas about race. More insidiously it provided cover for those whites who insisted upon behaving in ways consistent with racial taboos, values, and cherished beliefs, while giving the appearance in general of more comprehensive fundamental change than was actually the case. Those traditions, taboos, and values associated with race are nowhere codified, but everyone has learned them, black and white alike; they are not sanctioned by the courts nor were they voted upon by any electorate, but they carry a compulsion to adherence which transcends regional and ideological loyalties with a force far greater than any law. These things have their foundation in Culture. Tradition is Culture by another name. Traditions, taboos, and values are the ways and means, the “laws”, of Culture in specific. The enforcers of these “laws of Culture” are each of its individual members, from children to the elderly. The “Culture Police” are everywhere, and they have far greater discretionary power than their societal counter-parts. Each of us is empowered to act as judge, jury, and if need be, executioner. We have not only the power, but the obligation to punish transgressors of Cultural Traditions, taboos, and values. Nowhere is this better illustrated than as regards Cultural Traditions governing the interaction between blacks and whites. Carefully watch any element of the [purportedly] liberal media–television ads, sit-coms, or movies that are “integrated”–and you will observe taboo obeisance in action. All of these Cultural Laws and behavioral imperatives derive their coercive power, ultimately, from simple conformity. 

Like it or not,  America is multi-cultural by definition, with a demonstrated ability to incorporate aspects of different Cultural groups. But it is imperative that any such group abdicate their native Culture’s sovereignty over their beliefs and behaviors, settling for its having influence rather than control–(sub)culture status. On the other side, contributions [from other cultures] should not only be welcome but recognized as necessary. Otherwise America will become like every other traditional Culture on the planet, and in the process lose its vitality, its allure, and its unique capabilities, eventually degenerating to mediocrity, or worse. The process is already underway. And the reason is not, as one foreign diplomat recently asserted, because America has become “mongrelized”. We have always been mongrelized. That has been our self-acknowledged strength. The decline has more to do with the fact that at a certain point we began in earnest an elaborate and self-defeating process of selectively resisting that mongrelization. As a result we have squandered resources both emotional and physical, willfully interfering with a process that we were not only ultimately powerless to prevent, but one to which we are ostensibly committed to realizing.

The “Idea of America” is as much about letting go as it is about embracing. The idea was as much about creating a new Culture as a new society. That obligates new traditions, new taboos, new values. In America what we have not done is to be consistent, and to follow through. We have insisted upon the existence of a wall (race), rather late in the day publicly declared our intent to scale it, and in the failing declared the wall unscalable. What we have failed (or refused) to do is to notice that the wall, to the extent that it even exists, has a door. It is not necessary to scale it. All that is required is the will to open it, step through, and accept what we find on the other side. Our failure to deal with “the race problem” has not been inevitable, as some on both sides of the color line choose to believe, but willful. The “Idea of America” was a challenge when the experiment began. Blame is easy, responsibility is hard, and blame is what we have reduced ourselves to in America. Blacks blame racism. Whites, ironically, blame (in effect) their own creation, race. Both use blame to avoid responsible action and justify [ultimately] irresponsible, if familiar and comforting, behaviors from transparent prejudice to sociopathy. If America is to survive we must meet the challenge of realizing the “Idea of America” in terms of individual responsibility and commitment rather than relying exclusively and indefinitely upon governmental prescriptions, be they formulations of either the Right, the Left, or the endangered Center. Retreat into collective mutual recriminations is not a viable option, despite being the one Americans are increasingly choosing. 


Cultural Crisis and the Unraveling of the American Social Fabric

Part Two: Original Intent and the American Dilemma: Who Belongs and on What Terms

The cultural differentiation that generally characterizes the Earth’s human population is essentially an accident of time and geography. The unwieldy cultural heterogeneity that specifically and uniquely characterizes America is not. America is a philosophical contrivance, a grand, ambitious experiment. It began as an exercise of the intellect over irrational tribal passions so ancient that they have either been granted largely unchallenged legitimacy, or self-servingly conceded as human nature. With the simple assertion that “All Men are Created Equal” as both an essential article of faith and a seminal concept, the so-called Founding Fathers conceived “the idea of America”.  We are now some 220 years down the pike. What might those Founding Fathers think of what we’ve done with the society they bequeathed us? Let’s look at some of the features that would likely stand out most to them (technological developments aside).

Descendants of enslaved Africans not only no longer enslaved but with full rights of citizenship, and integrated wholesale into the society. Now tell them this process began in earnest a mere 84 years after the ratification of a Constitution that established their status as citizen non-entities. 

They would be stunned. 

Women, unshackled from their traditional roles, standing abreast of men in endeavors of both the mind and the body, competing with and not uncommonly surpassing them 

They would be shocked and appalled. 

And universal suffrage for “white” men. 

They would not think much of that, either.

The Founding Fathers were well educated, enlightened thinkers for their time. They were also products of their time. They considered themselves white, which enabled and obligated constitutionally conferring 60% manhood upon enslaved people from Africa. Every reference in the Constitution to man was literal–they did not consider it to include women. And they were elitists–the right to vote was limited to propertied males.To them contemporary American society would be chaotic, having spilled wildly outside the infrastructure created by the Constitution. To them the Constitution would have been interpreted as far more socially inclusive than intended. The Constitution they knew made no provision for women or non-whites as enfranchised, fully vested citizens. They would see that as the root of our societal problems. And they would be correct.

The Founding Fathers were neither geniuses nor prescient. And their enlightenment was effectively bounded by prevailing ideas about sex, race, and religion (freedom of religion being in the context of Christian religion). These boundaries were not recognized, much less challenged. Of course, the interpretations that rendered the socially chaotic landscape of modern America were as inevitable as the atomic bomb and as irresistible as the evocative power of the moving picture. In the end the Constitution was a victim of its own enlightened language and flexible structure. The promise in the language that drew white ethnics from the entire of Europe in the 1830’s and 40’s was insisted upon by the longer-resident descendants of Africa in the 1860’s and 70’s. The inevitable logic that the concept of universal suffrage could not be legitimately invoked while simultaneously excluding women was finally conceded in 1922, with the 19th Amendment. But these were merely formal, structural changes in society that, in keeping with its essential fragility, is rather easily mutable.And not self determined. Culture arises organically from cohesive groupings of human beings, and is a much harder nut to crack. But crack it did–against the “idea of America”.

The “idea of America” is the most elaborate, ambitious, and difficult undertaking conceived of and attempted by any grouping of humanity. Landing a man on the Moon was child’s play in comparison. America is nothing less than an attempt to create a new and profoundly different kind of culture from the seeds of existing ones, a forced evolution of culture, if you will. Actually there would, in effect, be only one small, but profound, philosophical difference from other cultures. America would be inclusive rather than exclusive. Most significantly this inclusion would be explicit and immediate, and on a fundamental not simply superficial level; formally codified, as opposed to being established by tradition. For the sake of illustration: one might immigrate to Germany and become a German citizen, but one could never become German, which is to become culturally, ethnically German. That is because culture has historically been geographically, ethnically, and racially specific, hence exclusive. At least it was until the advent of the “idea of America”. Anyone can come to America and truly become fully (and be accepted as) an American culturally–…‘give me your weak, your poor, your huddled masses…’. This is because at inception America was a cultural formulation that explicitly dismissed historic ethnic distinctions. As a society and culture America would accept all to its bosom, exerting dominance over its citizens not by force but by seduction. It would offer all the material benefits of an open society, with with a special bonus normally available from a native culture–universal acceptance. A place where Brotherhood of Man was a stated social value. And in an unprecedented development, cultural membership was to be derived from a deliberate, intellectual construct rather than historical accident, a construct elegant in its comparative simplicity, whose seminal, definitive idea was–“All Men are Created Equal”. That equality was the basis for acceptance, and the moral force behind any claim for inclusion.

 The U. S. Constitution can be likened to a strand of DNA, which holds the promise of a whole, integrated, unique human system–if development goes properly. But if problems arise in the basic constituents of a DNA strand, problems in the expression, the realization, of that promise arise. And the basic constituent of our Constitution is the Anglo-Saxon culture of our Founding Fathers. Class-bound, ethnically as well as racially chauvinistic, Anglo-Saxon culture is in direct conflict with and sometimes in outright contradiction to the society the Constitution promises, and the new cultural formulation that it was intended to spawn. The Founding Fathers knew this explicitly, for they engineered mechanisms to either circumvent or deal forthrightly with foreseeable conflicts generated by most of the “traditional” aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture. What they could not have foreseen was the pace and direction of human scientific advancement. Specifically, to them non-whites were not strictly human, and women were fundamentally inferior to men. These were scientifically verifiable facts in the 18th century. Unfortunately for facts, it seems to be their birthright to be proven, at some time, to be either inaccurate, incomplete, or simply dead wrong. For example, the Earth turned out to be neither flat nor the center of our Solar System, much less the center of the Universe–all scientific facts (according to western European scholars) for many hundreds of years. The overturning of these facts created seismic upheavals in societies and cultures–you don’t change Mankind’s relationship with the Universe without having some impact upon Mankind’s relationship with itself. So it has been with ideas about women and non-white peoples.

That non-whites are verifiably human and women are not fundamentally inferior to men has been widely conceded in America at the societal level. And though not thoroughly internalized at the level of culture, these latest factual updates are steadily, if incrementally, eroding traditional beliefs about and behaviors towards women and non-whites. While these changes are small and grudgingly conceded (the willfully and desperately atavistic notwithstanding), they have been profound. As a consequence both our culture and society continue to suffer powerful shocks and aftershocks. 

 America has its origins as a British Colony, which means it’s first immigrants as well as the crafters of its governmental institutions were culturally Anglo-Saxon. Those same cultural Anglo-Saxons deliberately designed a social structure at odds with many of the traditions and values of their native culture. This is amply illustrated by the fact that America did not become a cultural Melting Pot for white European ethnics easily or overnight. Despite the intent of the Founding Fathers, the “rank-and-file” early Americans indulged in certain culturally-based ideas which had their antecedents and continued justifications in stereotypes and attendant prejudices imported from the Old World, as well as ones homegrown in the New. The most notable aspirants to the then Anglo Melting Pot who were subjected to Americas’ Old World-New World hybrid of cultural ethno-chauvinism were Italians, Spanish, Irish, Poles, and Jews. Their struggle for acceptance and assimilation was painful and sometimes deadly, but ultimately they were permitted to effectively “melt” into the American “family”. This is not to say that those negative ideas that justified and empowered their erstwhile tormentors disappeared, or that they have not been passed down, even to the present day. It is just that for many people those stereotypes and prejudices eventually lost most of their power, significance, and even legitimacy. Unfortunately for the United States, the powerful irony of one group denying the entry of another into the American “family” due to a presumption of inferiority and assertion of essential difference would prove stubbornly persistent. This in spite of the fact that the majority of the former were themselves accepted as Americans only because of their great, great grandfathers’ presumption of the equality of all Men. And in a greater, more painful irony it would not be newly arrived people of alien culture and tongue, but common-tongued, thoroughly acculturated people, whose ancestors were as long resident as the earliest Anglos. Their only distinction was being modern descendants of Africans. 

Next: From the ‘Great American Melting Pot tot the Tower of Babel

Coming:  Too Many Chiefs–Why the ‘Idea of America’ Cannot Survive Multi-Culturalism

Could the Right be right? Part One Cultural Crisis and the Unraveling of the American Social Fabric copyright 1996 Pierce Brown III

Blogger’s note:   As you can see I originally wrote this in 1996–at the beginning of Bill Clinton’s second term, and at arguably the zenith of Newt Gingrich’s power. This period also marks the beginning of the rightward shift of the center of gravity for the Republican Party, heralding the forceful emergence of what should be called the New Right.  Below I have referenced the “Right” and the “Far Right”  The reader should be advised that I am speaking of a Republican Party that still contained what were at the time referred to as Liberal, Moderate, and Conservative Republicans, mirroring the diverse viewpoints of their Democratic colleagues in a way that is no longer true today.  This is a LONG piece.  I have sub-divided it and will post those segments separately for easier consumption.  I have also resisted the urge to update it.  That I will leave for a future piece, “Multi-Culturalism Revisited: The Idea of America vs Contemporary American Nativism.” 

Much is being said about the state of American Culture, much of it being of limited usefulness. The Far Right is prepared to go to war over Culture, and the Far Left, presumably, is prepared to engage them. And the rest of us will be drawn in, whether we wish it or not, because the Culture they will be fighting over is about each and every one of us. Before becoming too engaged and invested in one side or the other, it is critically important to have a clearer idea of what we will be fighting about–and why–than we will get from either extreme.   As far as the Far Right is concerned the concept of multiculturalism is a plague on the land with no place and less legitimacy in “their” America. There is an essential truth in the Right’s assessment of multiculturalism. However, it is effectively masked by a strident extremism which handicaps the Right’s efforts at making a palatable case to non-believers, while simultaneously blinding the Right to the essential legitimacy in the arguments of their adversaries. Both multiculturalism and its as yet unnamed philosophical antithesis (presumably some form of “Americanism”) represent a voguish tribalism whose allure and power can be traced to the fact that they tap into vital fundamentals of the human psyche–beliefs about identity, feelings of belonging, and notions of safety.  These fundamentals are also, significantly, in intimate proximity to  real and imagined ideas about power and hegemony, ideas which are currently making the rounds on both the Right and Left under the more contemporary euphemisms ethnicity, race, and culture. The capacity of the beliefs erected around these notions to influence the thinking, feeling, and acting of people is profound. The passions unleashed when people’s allegiance to these notions is invoked are notorious for their proclivity at making successful end runs around reason, and are astonishingly skillful at co-opting intellect. They are also, by virtue of their exclusive nature, divisive. This aspect of tribalism is perhaps the most critical where the U.S. is concerned, comprised as it is of virtually every tribe on the planet. Consequently, any manipulation of people via ethnicity, race, and culture is a powerful and potentially dangerous exercise. Dangerous in the extreme.

Next: Original Intent and the American Dilemma–Who Belongs and on What Terms

Coming: From the ‘Great American Melting Pot’ to the Tower of Babel


An Open Letter to Women Concerning Roe v. Wade

 It’s about a lot more than abortion, and it’s closer than you think. 

The religious right’s anti-abortion agenda is well advanced.  After the failure of peaceful appeals that ranged from religious arguments to secular morality to simple pedestrian guilt in order to compel the compliance of non-believers, the religious right returned to historically proven basics.  And so abortion providers and their actual and prospective clients were subjected to a generation and more of intimidation, terror, and violence.  A careful survey of news stories from as early as 1976 and as recently as 2009 will yield an appalling amount of violence nationwide perpetrated against property and people, including but not limited to bombings and fatal shootings.  This protracted war of attrition didn’t simply lead to the closing of most existing clinics providing abortions.  The reach of the cold hand of terror caused providers, whether personally targeted or not, to get out of the business, and led most medical schools to stop teaching the procedure altogether.  

Often low-profile but blessed with a relentlessness characteristic of the devout, the religious right movement managed to accomplish in practical terms what it couldn’t via peaceful persuasion.  Consequently today an abortion, while still essentially legal, is very much harder to obtain than you might think.  

And it’s getting harder.  

A successful strategy of incremental erosion is making the legal window narrower in terms of acceptable circumstances and shallower in terms of how late in the pregnancy an abortion may be performed.  If you are poor and living in parts of the rural South, it is virtually impossible to obtain an abortion, regardless of when or why.  And the potential demise of Roe v Wade would NOT be the end of the matter.  It is, in fact only the end of the beginning.  

The religious right movement is opposed to all forms of contraception.  If asked directly its leaders will deny or dissemble, but their movement’s ultimate goal is to eliminate all forms of contraception.  This is clearly exposed by the response of the religious right to Plan B.  Plan B, commonly known as the “morning after” pill, chemically prevents conception if taken within 72 hours of intercourse.  It is officially designated as emergency [oral] contraception.  The religious right has christened Plan B an “abortion pill”, characteristically ignoring the science supporting its clearly contraceptive action.  From the perspective of the religious right this is a distinction without a difference–contraception is abortion.  It also clearly illuminates their end game.  Once abortion is criminalized it will be a relatively simple matter to legally designate all oral contraception as abortion.  All it would take is a bill introduced by any pro-life Congressman (or Congresswoman), and a President willing to sign it.  

No President can guarantee any specific amount of job growth (ask the current one), unless he’s willing to create new job openings in the Federal Government.  Failing that, one highly lauded approach is to attempt to create an environment that will presumably encourage new business formation and new hiring among existing businesses.  Anyone who understands and accepts this should also understand and accept that nothing about these speculative jobs can be guaranteed by the President–not their quantity, not their quality, not their equitable, effective and timely distribution among those who need them.  All these things are in the hands of the private sector, dictated by the market, and at the mercy of its timetable.  In this scenario, aside from providing what big business considers a “business friendly” environment at the Federal level, the President is effectively impotent in terms of job creation.  But the appointment of Supreme Court Justices who will criminalize all abortions, a President actually can do.  A President can sign immediately into law any anti-abortion legislation that comes across his desk, regardless of when he might become aware of it.  Right now, today, the foes of women’s sexual and reproductive freedom have the wind at their backs, and they know it.  They have virtually the entire Republican caucus in the House, along with a significant minority of Conservative House Democrats.  All they need is a willing President. 

The end of Roe v Wade is not simply the end to the legality of abortion; it heralds the end of every American woman’s control over her own reproductive, and yes, sexual life, something which affects every other aspect of her life.  So, women and mothers of daughters, consider this as you consider the merit of Mr. Romney’s economic arguments.  Within 4 years, and at the stroke of a pen, both you and your daughters could find the choices for how you might choose to live and direct your lives circumscribed in ways that your grandmothers would recognize.  The sexual emancipation of women, which led to so much else, could be effectively reduced to the willingness of a man to use a condom. It can happen very much quicker than you might think.  How long it might take to undo it is anybody’s guess.  With a President Romney you won’t get his economic plan without limits to women’s freedom.  The religious right can and will see to that.