Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Greatest Nation?

I grew up in the United States. I heard, all those years of growing, how I lived in the greatest Nation ever. I heard how we were "special", how we were dedicated to "liberty and justice for all". I heard all that...over and over and over. How the "settlers" came and built a "great" nation. How we were the "envy of the world" and on and on. I saluted the flag, I even teared up sometimes when the national anthem was played. It's both terrific and simultaneously sad how children will believe, with all their hearts, most anything adults tell them.
This is the version I was taught as a child.
I've been reading a book by Lee Mun Wah titled: "Let's Get Real: What People of Color Can't Say and What Whites Won't Ask About Racism." You can read a brief synopsis about the book here.

The first three words of the book title are exquisitely appropriate to write immediately after the title of this post. The Greatest Nation? Let's Get Real.

I read something recently that sort of smacked me in the face. The content of book which I was reading pointed out that...of all the current "first world" nations, countries like England or Denmark or France and so on, the only one of them which was founded on and had human slavery written into its constitution (although the word "slavery" itself was avoided) was the United States.

Ever notice that it is rarely pointed out that the iconic "Declaration of Independence" described Native Americans as "merciless Indian savages". Nope...nobody mentioned that.

The "savages" thing is written in this declaration.
In all those years of my youth (or even later) never did anyone point these things out when they were telling me what a great nation the United States was. Not once. Hmmm...

I did hear hints though that maybe things weren't as rosy as they were presented. When I was in high school I discovered Bob Dylan and his music. One song that had lyrics that suggested some problems with the "greatest nation" meme was one called "With God on Our Side". You can read the lyrics here. That song stuck with me and it still does.

Lee Mun Wah's book consists of observations and thoughts about racism from various people. One of them is Indigo Violet, a feminist thinker.

In response to the question of why she thinks it is so hard for whites to hear the truth about racism, she wrote:

Hearing the truth exposes so many of the lies of U.S. history, that the nation is good, that the process of making it was righteous, that the blood and brutality were not all that bad, that for the most part America is good. As part of white supremacy, whites have internalized a powerful idea that they are good people, nice people, generous people, well-intentioned people. While there definitely good-hearted white folks out there, the attachment to the idea of goodness is profound. It is profound partly because it is linked to the historical ideas (both overt and covert) that Africans, American Indians, Asians, Mexican, etc., were/are bad, problematic, inferior. Goodness - in the present implicit/embedded racist system - is not simply a neutral idea; it is attached to the long-standing ideas of white supremacy. The idea of white goodness constructed in contrast to the Other.

So, to tell a modern-day, liberal-minded, do-good white person that all of people of color don't think white people are very good people, that white people have not always been good, that in fact they've been really horrid and that even when they are nice and well-intentioned the impact of their power, privilege, and oblivion is not good - this upsets a very deep construct and psychological anchor for whites.

That response by Indigo Violet really resonates with me, partially because of the incredible disorientation I felt as a result of the revision of my conception of the U.S. that was prompted by struggling to look at it from differing perspectives.

The version that was presented to me as "objective" truth was all the good stuff...old glory and "liberty and justice for all" and and and. truth...that version was crafted by and for wealthy white men.'s all wonderful for them (yes, I'm a white man, but wealthy I'm not, nor do I think that if life is terrific for one group but awful for other groups that that is a good thing).

It was not such a terrific thing for the groups outside of wealthy white men...and...I don't really think it is such a good thing for wealthy white men. I think it deeply erodes and harms our humanity to exist in environments where there are big power differences between groups...especially when compounded by being untruthful about it. I suspect that's how you can create mental illness and hallucinations and incredible distortions and awful behavior.

(for this post I'm deliberately ignoring not forget that white women could not vote until 1920 and women of color were not protected in their ability to vote until the 1960s...and all women suffer from the patriarchal ideology that has always dominated the U.S.)

If you think about the U.S. from the perspective of Native Americans...then it becomes a totally different thing. The U.S. means death and dispossession of your home and concentration camps called "reservations".

If you think about it from the perspective of the enslaved African Americans, then the U.S. means kidnapping from your home and losing your family and your freedom.

It's really pretty powerful to try to stand in a different position and work at wrapping your mind/feelings around a comprehension of the U.S. that way.

It looks very very different than that which was presented to me when I was a child. It looks very different than the way most white citizens here think about or conceptualize the U.S. What I was taught...and what I thought was "good" sort of evaporates.

James Loewen is a history teacher. If you would like to start moving toward a viewpoint of U.S. history that is more grounded in truth...his book titled Lies My Teacher Told Me is a good place to start. He begins the book by writing about his survey of a whole bunch of U.S. history books that are used in public schools. Just that first part of his book is astonishing because of the inaccuracies and untruths that he points out which are routinely taught to children here in the U.S. We know much much more truth that we teach our children.

Asking the question good for whom? is required in order to move to a position where the idea of "good" can be more accurately comprehended. Jeez.

For those of you who live vegan...just remember that probably at one time you maybe thought you "loved" animals and wouldn't harm them. Oops. If you were eating their dead were complicit in harm. Maybe we don't clearly comprehend things...even when we think we do. Maybe we have to work really hard at shifting perspectives to better understand things.

At least I do.

And it is hard and painful. It's a pain in the a**. But...if I want to let go of soothing (and erroneous) illusions...I have to work at it. It would have been a lot easier to not have been immersed in fantasy...but I wasn't...and it is likely (especially if you are white) that you were immersed in fantasy about the U.S. too.

We white people are much more at risk of being captured by the fantasy because that fantasy benefits us. People of color may benefit sometimes...but...people of color are also victimized by that fantasy and those instances of victimization signal that something bad is going on. And...those signals can offer the opportunity for a different take on the fantasy of "USA number 1".

It is hard to struggle to get out of fantasyville...but...I must always remember that the "hardness" of the struggle of getting out of the fantasy viewpoint is minimal compared to the "hardness" of the horror of being victimized by the fantasy. It is akin to the difference between feeling bad about realizing you harmed someone versus being harmed by someone. Both might feel bad...but they're very very different in really really important ways.

(note: additional marginalized groups have been and are treated terribly by the white version of the U.S. too, I'm aware of that but didn't touch on those realities and histories deliberately for brevity...not because I think they are unimportant.) 



Have Gone Vegan said...

Oops, submitted comment under wrong account. Could you please publish under this one instead, veganelder? Many thanks!

As someone not from the US, I've never understood this "greatest nation" rhetoric. It would be like someone saying that they're the nicest person ever. Well, wouldn't it be more accurate if that assessment was made by other people? So in the case of a nation, it'd be better if that evaluation was given by other nations.

And in the case of the US, just a few areas that people in other countries find completely baffling about "the greatest nation" include: lack of paid maternity leave (in Canada we get one whole year, yet the US is one of less than a handful of countries in the ENTIRE world that doesn't offer ANY paid leave), the irrational fear of universal health care, and the absolutely insane love affair with guns. Not that other countries don't have their own share of problems, but its citizens aren't usually in the habit of saying that they have the Greatest Nation Ever.

So at the risk of offending my American friends, I would venture that where the US DOES perhaps get the highest score is in its almost compulsive need for self-aggrandizement. ;)

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting HGV. I'm glad to hear those outside the propaganda hotbox that is the U.S. don't swallow the fantasy.

If we consider self-aggrandizement from an individual almost always signals someone with serious doubts about the veracity of their boasting. In the case of the's wise to doubt the truth of the proclamations of "greatness".