Our Own Endemic Madness
by Michael Barry (Venice, Italy)
IN lurid light of the dispiriting disgrace to our country played out on 6 January 2021 up the steps and through smashed windows of the US Capitol, with Republican President Trump’s impeachment following so hard upon by 13 January, and then a new Democratic Biden Administration sworn in with a fresh agenda on 20 January—as tumultuous a fortnight as any in the American historical experience—I share these New Year thoughts with you, with warmest greetings from someone currently and closely also a sad witness to another utter US catastrophe, now unfolding in Afghanistan and its immediate neighbourhood.
My reflections on our present Afghan disaster, linked to our deranged Iranian and Saudi policies, must, however, follow at a later date.
This on our homeland, peering from the other side of the world:
The United States is a profoundly diseased society, I’m afraid (and I’m far from alone in thinking so). Our country is visibly sick, and not only on account of this past year’s coronavirus whose ravages have served to unmask all our country’s deepest-lying, most stubbornly endemic moral illnesses: notably our grotesque refusal—in the name of “free enterprise”—to implement universal health coverage, in contrast to every other civilized nation on earth (including even our own immediate Canadian neighbours).
Trump has been a symptom far more than a cause, although symptoms can, and in Trump’s case did, worsen our underlying social illnesses: witness violent outbreaks like this month’s mob assault on the Capitol.
Sick societies can carry on for decades, however, even for centuries, in apparent health, but then a moral crisis triggers into painful action such societies’ innermost mordant strains—often fatally.
Imperial Germany, 1871-1945, comes to mind. The unified German Reich was only proclaimed in 1871, a latecomer indeed in Europe in regard to much older established nation-states like France and Britain. But for all their country’s industrial productivity and brilliant science and scholarship, ruling German élites nevertheless nourished abiding and deep-seated resentment and jealousy against both Paris and London, and were determined to assert Germany’s true superiority—whence, ultimately, both world wars’ self-destructive madness launched by two successive régimes increasingly demented but popularly supported: Wilhelm II’s, then Adolf Hitler’s.
From another era on the other side of the earth, one might also think of the Aztec Empire, 1325-1521, predicated on the mad idea that the gods who created and sustained the world needed constant nourishment with endlessly replenished supplies of human blood, else these gods would die and the world perish. The Aztecs as self-proclaimed divinely chosen imperial race believed it their heavenly mandate to make war continually upon their neighbours, either to take live captives on the battlefield, or to demand live victims in tribute, for sacrifice upon the altars of their gods. The Spanish in 1519-1521 had little trouble allying with native peoples goaded to revolt, under the banner of Cortés, against their detested Aztec overlords (Spanish smallpox, to which Europeans but not Native Americans were immune, to be sure also speeded the European conquest of Mexico).
These considerations bring us to today’s United States.
Our own obstinate endemic madness is racism, stemming back to slavery. This virus endures.
We have oddly turned from a brash young country into a very old country indeed—starting precisely when Trump was elected in November 2016 and suddenly showed us our own aging grimace in the mirror.
We were then in a jolt collectively made very painfully aware of our own historical crimes and follies, all two and a half stubborn centuries of them since 1776, a short span admittedly (although you can with a little insistence push our history back to the early colonial 17th century and our first shipment of slaves in 1619), but bearing as weightily now upon our own relatively young shoulders as all those more famous millennial histories that crush down nearly every other ancient nation on earth.
William Faulkner, with historical sensitivity exquisitely sharpened by a childhood in formerly Confederate and endlessly embittered Mississippi, phrased it to perfection in Requiem for a Nun (1951), so often quoted, rightly: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
But until 2016, despite Faulkner, we Americans have generally tended nationally—almost universally as a people and culture—to project ourselves psychologically always into the future. Whatever our past shames and atrocities, we relentlessly optimistic Americans have always normally convinced ourselves that today proves invariably better than yesterday, and tomorrow will prove better still, because “the arc of justice bends in the right direction” as Martin Luther King’s inspirational phrase put it—now turned reassuring cliché.
Yet brusquely, after 2016, we too have begun to fear, like so many of the world’s other nations have so poignantly feared in their own particularly painful cases (Egyptians, Iranians, Europeans in general and the English in particular, Chinese, Russians, what have you), that our own best days might have already slipped historically behind us.
In 2016 we Americans, too, became nostalgic. We looked to our past. We scoured our elapsed events for all possible good archaic examples, hence incentives for future hope, in the midst of the darkest present days upon us. Our main national papers, like the Washington Post or the New York Times or the Atlantic or the New Yorker, have all magically turned into quasi-history journals with articles—have you noticed?—in every single daily or monthly issue, about, say, our first Presidential transition of power; what our Federalist Papers really meant; what social trends triggered the political crisis leading to our Civil War; why our efforts at Reconstruction tragically failed; how our implementation of the New Deal largely succeeded; and what our Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, or F. D. Roosevelt did or said or what they intended to express and do.
All other peoples on earth, of course, explore their past to explain their present, perhaps to exorcise their future. Now we do too. Telltale.
Our past is not pretty. Scouring reveals its rot: the slavery, racism, Confederacy, Jim Crow, “Southern Strategy.”
And it pains one to write this, because one realizes that one belongs oneself to an ethnicity largely saved through historic refuge in America and boundless economic and academic opportunity offered by America, then by American armed intervention in Europe.
All the more reason, however, to stand by every other victimized ethnicity.
One leaves aside Native American genocide from the Trail of Tears to Wounded Knee, although one might, with a groan, permit oneself, at least, one single reference here to one single, but exemplary and particularly egregious, pre-Independence atrocity. In 1761, after the fall of New France, General Amherst distributed blankets to former French allies among the native tribes around Detroit, as these tribes now tendered submission to the British. The blankets were taken from smallpox hospitals, purposely to wipe out these tribes.
But the legacy of Black slavery, as Alexis de Tocqueville already so shrewdly observed in 1835, has been amply verified as destined to become our lasting and suicidally mad streak.
The racism runs right through.
Our nation was schizophrenic from the start, with a 1787 Constitution bizarrely wedding Enlightenment ideas (pulling our minds higher) with the reality of plantation slavery, welding northern largely free states to southern slave states where bondmen counted only as three-fifths of a human being, unfree to vote but serving to bolster the population addition, hence political representation, of the southern states.
Our mad gun laws are originally slave laws. The 1791 Second Amendment encouraged well-armed militias to hunt escaped slaves or to keep cowering bondmen on the farm. A White family with a handful of White overseers obviously needed guns to intimidate its vastly more numerous slave labour.
The generational transformation observable with Andrew Jackson’s election in 1828—ending the rule of America’s Enlightenment intellectuals—highlighted the giant moral shift among all intellectuals throughout all Western civilization, and not just in the northern United States, against slavery itself. But this moral shift in Western civilization resulted in existential crisis in the United States. America’s Southern Whites, in defence of their servile capital, doubled down on their racism and turned fiercely anti-intellectual, henceforth equating liberalism—and support for Black enfranchisement—with moral effeteness, political degeneracy, religious heresy. They lauded slave-owning (and Indian-deporting) Jackson’s “authenticity,” his “manly” cruelty, his populism, his vulgarity. Familiar?
American schizophrenia worsened after our aggressive theft in 1848 of half of Mexico’s land, whence dispute over whether slavery might or might not extend to the new territories.
Our Civil War effectively began in 1860 when seven southern states refused to recognize the legitimacy of Abraham Lincoln’s election, and chose secession.
The Civil War of 1861-1865 is the central, absolutely pivotal event of our historical existence. All our political moments lead to this war, then derive from it.
It was the globe’s first modern war, as European observers at the time failed to grasp, or then forgot in 1914. It was the first war to convey thousands of troops to the front by train, to slaughter thousands of opponents between the trenches with machine (Gatling) gun fire, and to communicate in real time by telegraph. Out of an initial American population in 1861 of 31 millions, the conflict caused 800 000 deaths by 1865. Those are World War One European proportions.
The North’s military learned, or thought it learned, an abiding military lesson: with steady application of overwhelmingly superior armed force nourished by impregnably superior industrial power, an American army might expect to crush any foe into unconditional surrender. The final “Indian” Wars, the Spanish-American War of 1898, World War I, World War II, the 1991 Gulf War and the 1995-1999 Balkan Wars at least appeared, triumphantly, to verify our 1865 lesson. But the 1953 Korean War proved a stalemate, and our 1960s failures in Vietnam, and since 2001 in Afghanistan and Iraq, have hollowed out the 1865 lesson with a sting.
Yet even in victory in 1865, the North was left fearful and traumatized. How to re-integrate and reconcile the southern states, how to neutralize their moral resentment and forestall any possible future rebellion? After fitful attempts to implement emancipation in 1865-1867, the North slowed down Reconstruction to a grating halt under Andrew Johnson’s reactionary presidency in 1867, and by 1877 effectively ended northern protection for the South’s newly enfranchised slaves when President Rutherford Hayes withdrew all Federal troops from the former Confederacy: essentially to mollify, even to coddle the southern states, with “states’ rights” restored and permission granted to re-install slavery under any form—except under the same name.
Hence a following century in the South of official segregation, Jim Crow laws, lynchings and murders to intimidate and continue to subjugate Blacks, and endless chain gangs of imprisoned Black male labour (jailed on slightest pretexts) farmed out for free, by Southern prison authorities, to White agricultural or industrial enterprises, as a servile work force in actual fact.
American schizophrenia thus continued and fissured our nation deep into the 20th century and well into our 21st, pitting our more progressive “North” against our viscerally reactionary “South” marked by an identifiable, easily recognizable, hideously common obsession.
Under waves of of successive rhetorical claims and whole sprays of foaming verbal disguises, this obsession can be boiled down to much of the White population’s fear of becoming swamped by a surrounding and now steadily growing non-White population, even to the point of terror at dwindling into a demographic minority in its own land, hence ferocious determination to maintain its supremacy over non-Whites by every legal or non-legal means, subterfuge, ploy, vote-tampering, threat of violence, immigrant-bashing, even war (in 1861-1865): all the while undermining democracy yet draping in its flag.
This is because our national American culture always demands—even in the precise verbiage regurgitated by Trump’s last-ditch Senatorial enablers or in the slogans screamed by the right-wing mobs who stormed the Capitol on 6 January 2021—at least a minimal verbal “democratic” pretence (hypocrisy being vice’s tribute to virtue as La Rochefoucauld put it, four centuries ago, in a perhaps more civilized land: l’hypocrisie est l’hommage rendu par le vice à la vertu).
Our “North” and “South” have by now morphed from geographical into mainly mental categories, however.
In reaction to officially-enforced federal desegregation and the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s (a full century after the Civil War!), the “Southern Strategy” deployed under the camouflaging slogan of “states’ rights” by the Nixon Administration in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to lure racist White voters into the Republican Party, still targeted, to be sure, a distinct geographical region: those states once forming the Confederacy.
Our Republican Party’s steady degradation, from its foundation days with Lincoln, into a political front for reactionary White grievance, as so sorely seen today, certainly began with Nixon.
But mass demographic shifts have scrambled the political geography: Black mass emigration north to Illinois, almost equally large more recent liberal White emigration to Virginia and Georgia, bitter demographic White rural retrenchment in Wyoming or Montana while urban centres in New York and California continue to grow and liberalize, underlie striking changes in voting patterns across our country.
The Civil War’s battlefront no longer coincides with the old historic Mason-Dixie Line, but still sears our collective brains throughout our broken land.
And so, in backlash to our first elected African-American President in 2008, we watch with horror the resurgence of murderous White resentment.
Make no mistake, this White resentment is exactly what the Trump movement represents and fuels and by which it is thereby fueled—the rest is either democratic-populist hypocrisy or religious cant masquerading as true Christianity (what the French call tartufferie), sheer political careerist opportunism, some golden chances for grift, purely cynical power politics played for so long by the likes of Mitch McConnell or Lindsey Graham and even still by Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, or all of the above in the case of the recently disgraced—mercifully—Jerry Falwell.
While pitched to grotesquely strident levels, the Trump Administration’s tired tropes largely reproduce the jargon (and mentality) of old-fashioned Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace of the 1960s—amplified, to be sure, by modern social media: the race-baiting; the scorn for all other ethnicities except those of Northern European stock (see Trump’s notorious line, “why can’t we have more immigrants from Norway instead of from shithole countries”); the waving of Confederate flags; the hate-mongering of “socialism;” the fear and loathing shouted at all intellectual élites and their professional expertise and rational science, coupled with glorification, instead, of “manly” ignorance; the swaggering equally “manly” cult of guns and cruelty with bullying of women—and all the dreary rest of it.
Trump himself evolved from a merely passive racist, in his business and television career, into an active Presidential racist as soon as he sensed that he might latch onto a vast political base ginned up by such xenophobia.
Rudy Giuliani dripping his hair dye might have been more picturesque, but Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon were ethically probably the oddest animals in Trump’s barn—apparently dedicated racist ideologues who explicitly drew their inspiration from the widely web-diffused French right-wing writer Jean Raspail and his quasi-genocidal novel, Camp of the Saints (Le Camp des saints, Paris 1973): notably reproducing Raspail’s openly boasted idea of warding out—with all necessary and “manly” pitiless armed force—the unwashed hordes of Third World immigrants that “threaten to replace us” (see Charlottesville).
It is amazing how much Stephen Miller resembles photos of Goebbels. By thinking alike, does one end up looking alike?
Seventy-four million Americans knowingly—knowingly!—voted in late 2020 for a régime that publicly tore little children from Latin American immigrant mothers and put them in cages, with no accountability ever to reunite them.
I’m all for committed journalists talking to cranky old White men grumbling in their fabled Midwestern diners or screaming at MAGA rallies, better to plumb their grievances for all the world to read.
One fails to see in late 2020 or early 2021, however, why such White American voters deserve any more respect than, say, that plurality of German voters who elected the Nazi party in 1933.
To weep, yes—in despair over Trump voters, but in hope and joy for Biden/Harris voters.
And thank God for America’s Black voters. In Georgia and throughout the country.
To a Happier New Year under the next Administration.