20 May 2007

On national mythologies, part 2

We are, each of us, a composite of our multiple identities that often includes nationality. I am a single white male heterosexual who was raised in the Catholic Christian faith in a lower-middle class family in a small town on the New York-Quebec border and the oldest of three sons born to a French-Canadian mother and an Irish-American father. The relative significance of my identities varies according to the specific environment in which I find myself. For instance, I feel more conscious of my American national identity in Central Asia that I ever did in the United States. Similarly, I often have a heightened awareness of my heterosexuality when I am in the company of my gay and lesbian friends.

Identities are often defined in contrast to, or relative to, what they are not. Masculine or feminine, for example, have little inherent meaning in isolation from each other. The defining qualities of each is understood in relational to its perceived opposite, a belief that is often represented by a paired list of oppositional qualities, with masculine on one side and feminine on the other. Similarly, according to the racial logic of the United States, being white means you are not black and, in some parts of the country, not Hispanic, Asia or Native American.

The formidable social pressures to make either/or choices on matters of our race, gender and sexual orientation does a great disservice to the magnificent variety of human expression, irrespective of how benignly that pressure is applied. We may be born with some impulse to create order of out of what often appears to be chaos, but that desire has run amuck when tries to reduce multivalent reality to simplistic choices that are black or white, good or evil, left or right. We desire the comfort of certainty, but that is largely because we live our lives in a world of ambiguity. The desire for something cannot be seen as proof of its existence.

The dominant Anglo-Saxon culture from the time of its arrival on the eastern shores of what is now that United States viewed itself in comparison to what it was not. A constitutive element of the settlers’ identity in colonial America was Christian, which was widely understood by its difference from indigenous American, or Indians, who were perceived as heathens or savages. By the time that chattel slavery of Africans and their descendants became the economic foundation for the plantation model of agricultural production, a “free white” was, by consensual definition, not a black slave. In the thinking of the early Republic, it was also virtually impossible to the considered free if you were a woman, an indentured servant, a “wage slave,” did not own property, or of Asian or American Indian background.

Racial logic, because it is social constructed, is dynamic and by the middle of the 19th century “free white” was expanded to include many wageworkers, though it still largely excluded women, Russians Jews, Italians, Irish, Chinese, Mexicans, people from the largely peasant societies of non-Protestant southern and eastern, and many others. The eligibility requirements for membership in the dominant racial order were further loosened by the 20th century. White was still the color of membership, but by World War II white was redefined to embrace many Irish, Italians, Polish and others. One requirement went unchanged, though. Being white, or trying to make a case for your inclusion, still required that your group deny the benefits of full citizenship to resident blacks. “A hostile posture toward resident blacks must be struck at the Americanizing door before it will open,” explains novelist Toni Morrison.”[i]

For example, in the U.S. Southwest after World War II, Mexican Americans, many of whom were legal citizens, routinely faced discrimination in accessing public services, housing and employment. Their children were educated in segregated schools inferior to those attended by white children. In many ways, their daily lives very similar to those of African Americans. Yet the leadership of the mostly middle-class Mexican-American civil rights movement saw no advantages in creating an alliance with the emerging Black civil rights struggle because the proven path to inclusion required practices that demonstrated your differences from, and the belief in your superiority over, black Americans.[ii]

So if my subject is national identity, why I am talking so much about race? Because views on race and nationality are inextricably linked in the United States. Race was, and remains, one of the realms of difference through which national identity is formed and maintained. Ask someone from Central Asia—or, for that matter, the United States—to portray a typical American and it is a safe assumption that the vast majority will describe someone who is considered racially white.

American racial and national mythologies of difference and superiority do not end at the U.S. political borders and were carried overseas, perhaps nowhere more clearly than with the Spanish-American War at the start of the 20th century when the United States became an unambiguously imperialist power. The ideology and military tactics used against the independence movement of Filipino “savages” were honed on the western frontier of the United States against Native American “savages” Some 60 years later in Vietnam, in the second U.S. land war in Asia, enemy territory was sometimes referred to by U.S. military personnel as “Indian territory.” Decades later, during the Persian Gulf War, the euphemism “Indian territory” was still being used.

Before I go any further, I think it is important to clarify that any process of national identity formation, especially among the relatively powerful states, goes hand in hand with ethnocentric convictions about its superiority over other people. Beliefs in righteous supremacy, whether granted by God or conveyed by genetics, become key to the legitimating rationale for any nation that wishes to subdue, conquer or exploit others. For example, tsarist Russia crafted a national identity based on its beliefs about its cultural superiority to justify its expansion in Central Asia. The Soviet logic for its dominance of Central Asia built upon that foundation.

After 11 September 2001, the U.S. ruling elite faced the necessity of fashioning an American national identity and sense of purpose powerful enough to support a foreign invasion that defied international law, was widely opposed in the United States before it began, and was based, in the most generous assessment possible, on the selective reading of some good and some lousy intelligence. For the purposes of this discussion, it is not necessary to debate or determine the “real reasons” for the invasion and occupation of Iraq because this inquiry is more narrowly focused on the how the rationalizing logic for this foreign policy initiative and this particular military campaign was constructed around an American national identity with deep mythological roots.

This legitimating logic was, of course, was crafted at a time of crisis, when a large segment of American public and the news media was looking for easily digestible explanation for an attack that many people could not comprehend.[iii] American political leaders needed a new inferior “other” to define the United States and Americans against. The relative increases in the political power of racial and ethnic minorities in recent decades as well objective increases in their size have also made it more difficult for public persons to discuss social differences under the rubric of race. Plus any scientific basis for biologically determined racial differences has virtually no evidentiary support, even though beliefs in inherent “racial” differences still persist among broad sections of the U.S. public and elsewhere. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that communistic atheism could not be the antithesis to help define American national righteousness. The void was filled by Islamic terrorists, the new embodiment of all evil, who for many Americans simply form the frontline in what was widely portrayed in the U.S. mass media as a historically inevitable “clash of civilizations.”

Few individuals have framed the post-9/11 U.S. response with more stupefying simplicity than President Bush only days after the attacks: “Every nation, in every region now has a decision to make: You are either with us, or you or with the terrorists.”[iv] Without belaboring the point, the president’s use of terms like “evil-doers” effectively repackaged the “evil empire” in Ronald Reagan’s Cold War paradigm into yet another Manichean struggle between good vs. evil.

To be continued...

[i] Morrison cited by Neil Foley in “Becoming Hispanic: Mexican Americans and Whiteness,” White Privilege, Paula S. Rothenberg, ed. (New York: Worth Publishes, 2002), p. 55.
[ii] Ibid, pp. 49-59.
[iii] The shocked response of many Americans, the public cultivation of a loss of innocence, and the righteous indignation that followed the 9/11 attacks occurred in spite of the fact that counter-terrorism experts had been warning of a strike on U.S. soil on national TV news programming and newspaper op-ed pages for the preceding decade.
[iv] Pres. George Bush, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People,” 20 September 2001. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html. Accessed 20 April 2007

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