The American political dream is our searchlight. It illuminates the brightest political aspirations and successes of our best selves. It is the warm story that we tell ourselves about the sunny uplands of our magnificent continent, America the beautiful.
In the dream, we are children of light. Yet shadow stories tell us that we are also children of darkness. The light shows the beauty in our political lives, but also highlights the dark, cold valleys. It shows us the way, but also illuminates our failures. There are ugly hollows in our national political landscape where the world is not reborn anew, but the present and future repeat the cruel experiences of older worlds. Life is disrespected, liberty caged in, and the pursuit of happiness a mirage. If the dream exists, it is far and faint. Our best leaders and our best natures call us to the dream, and we may respond, but the dream itself does not always and everywhere answer back.
Sometimes we see ourselves as our dreams depict us; at other times, we see our darker, shadow selves. In Oliver Stone’s film Nixon, President Nixon, on the eve of his resignation, wanders around in the White House. He ends up in front of Kennedy’s portrait, remarks: “When they look at you, they see themselves how they’d like to be, and when they look at me, they see themselves as they are.”
The dream of American democracy begins in the self evident truths of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The shadow account of America reminds us that the new world was not terra nullia, an empty land without inhabitants. The dream world masks America’s dark origins in worlds of imperial exploration (Amerigo Vespucci and Columbus) and conquest (Conquistadores, Indian Wars). It neglects the way that manifest destiny and western expansion swept over earlier indigenous people, who were evicted, expropriated, and murdered. It misses the transformation from a planter-dominated confederation into a modern capitalist and corporate, plutocratic and oligarchic society—America Inc.
The Founding Fathers are not huddled masses yearning to breathe free, but aristocratic landowners and merchants intent on securing their accrued privileges and liberties to themselves and their heirs. The lives, the fortunes, and the sacred honor which many of the signers pledge in the Declaration of Independence, are founded on slavery, indentured servitude, and forced labor—human pillars of the private mansions and plantations and the new republic formed to secure them. Numerous hopeful immigrants are turned back at Ellis Island. Many are called, but not all are chosen. Others allowed to pass through the entrance gates, do not find a land of milk and honey, streets paved with gold. Some perish or return to their earlier homelands, bitter and disappointed, overwhelmed by the lonely individualism and harsh competition for survival in the new hypercapitalist world.
The shadow storyline tells us that the state is born and consolidated in injustice and violence. Lincoln, in his 2nd Inaugural Address, warns that, “if God wills that it (the war) continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’”.
Neither the Civil War nor Reconstruction, the exhaustion of westward expansion at the continent’s Pacific Rim nor the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, dissolve the American dilemma of continuing violence and injustice in the shadow of American democracy. Lynching of blacks continues in the American South well into the 20th century. The pain of the lynched is counterbalanced by the satisfaction of the lynchers. The violent death of young black men upholds the political order of domination and dominated.
Strange Fruit: Lynching, August, 1930
Even as lynching dies out, Southern police force continues to support the segregated Southern racial order. Again, black humiliation is counterbalanced by white satisfaction. The South has moved away from actual physical lynching, but it still gags as it swallows integrated lunch.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Montgomery, Alabama, 1958
The dream of American democracy goes together with the dream of peace. Domestic freedom and equality coexist within splendid continental isolation, and without entangling international alliances. The shadow narrative of American foreign policy tells a different tale. The United States evolves from an inland, continental empire into a global one. From a weak confederation of independent colonies, the United States morphs into Superpower, engaged in constant and permanent war. Early armed conflicts against the Northeastern Indian tribes grow into continued Western expansion and the Mexican-American War that continue military operations against hemispheric populations. American military expeditions during World Wars I and II and the Cold War return to the older world and beyond as The United States projects its military reach from North America to an all-encompassing global scale Iconic engagement of US Marine “devil dog” Brigade routing terrified German forces.
U.S.Marines: Belleau Wood, June, 1918
In the 20th century, American nuclear weapons and counter-insurgency reach ever more deeply into the nooks and crannies of distant lands. United States atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 6 and 9, 1945 is the final reply to the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and a fitting revenge for young American boys savagely cut down on Pacific islands and beaches and brutal Japanese atrocities against civilian populations. It ends the war in the Pacific without the horror of a bloody invasion of the Japanese homeland. The war ends, not with a whimper, but a big bang. If the Japanese suffer greatly, it is because they have greatly transgressed. Like other dark skinned objects of our wrath, they deserve what they get.
Japanese Nuclear War Victims: 1945
In the 21st century, the United States projects its democratic values through a muscular foreign policy in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Girls Just Want to Have Fun: Abu Ghraib
If there are human costs in destroyed and shattered lives, these are emblems of heroism and souvenirs of adventure travel that echo in the dark night of the soul.
Home From The War (wired.com)
American globalization begins in the dream of universal freedom and harmony and evolves into the permanent global war on terror. The dream of America, its divine mission, exceptionalism and greatness, expresses America’s a drive to extend the highest ambitions of its best self. But, from its dark corners, American globalization hides a deep drive for dominance. The shadow narrative reminds us that America is strongly in touch with its dark side and casts a global political shadow on the rest of the world. American globalization is a triumph of national marketing and public relations. The American dream is a hard power softener, the velvet glove around the iron fist of the American shadow. Together, the dream and the shadow provide a mythic frame that makes the world safe and comfortable for Americans.
Continue reading Mythic America 3: Mythic America