from the pages of December 1996 ../


Reinventing "America" 

by Elizabeth Martinez

 

Last October brought news reports about a wave of enthusiasm for the "Dick and Jane" books that once served to teach children how to read. For some 15 years, starting in 1940, 85% of all U.S. elementary schools used them. The series starred Dick, Jane, their white middle-class parents, their dog Spot, and their life together in a home with a white picket fence.

"Look, Jane, look! See Spot run!" chirped the two kids. It was a house full of glorious family values, where Mom cooked while Daddy went to work in a suit and mowed the lawn on weekends. The Dick and Jane books also taught that you should do your job and help others. All this affirmed an equation of middle-class with whiteness with virtue.

Recently museums, libraries and 80 PBS stations across the country have had exhibits and programs commemorating the series. At one museum, an attendant commented "When you hear someone crying, you know they are looking at the Dick and Jane books." It seems nostalgia runs rampant among many Euro-Americans: a nostalgia for the days of unchallenged White Supremacy--both moral and material--when life was "simple."

We've seen that nostalgia before in the nation's history. But today it signifies a problem reaching new intensity. Today it suggests a national identity crisis rendered acute by the fact that the next century is almost certain to make Anglos a minority population. That crisis promises to bring in its wake an unprecedented nervous breakdown for the dominant society's psyche.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in California, which has long been on the cutting-edge of the nation's present and future reality. California lives up to that questionable distinction again as the stark outline of identity crisis looms in the state once call Golden. Warning sirens have sounded repeatedly in the 1990s, such as the fierce battle over new history textbooks for K-12, Proposition 187's ugly denial of human rights to immigrants, and this year's assault on Affirmative Action which culminated in Proposition 209. When it passed last Nov. 5 as an amendment to California's constitution, Prop 209 clones were already being born in 35 other states.

The attack on Affirmative Action is not just a politician's ploy. It isn't really about Affirmative Action. Essentially it's another tactic in today's reactionary onslaught, which plays on Anglo resentment and fear. A major source of that fear: the fact that California will almost surely have a people-of-color majority in 20 or 30 years at most, with the nation as a whole not far behind . Euro-Americans who worked to pass Prop 209 may have won the election but they didn't get what they really want: to turn back the clock in a host of ways starting with California's current demographics.

The specter of becoming a minority in the 21st century casts a long shadow for some Anglos. It could mean loss of control. It could, in fearful imaginations, launch vengeful retribution by yesterday's disempowered. Right now a profound anxiety centers on the Euro-American sense of a vanishing national identity. Behind the attacks on immigrants, affirmative action, and multiculturalism, behind the demand for "English Only" laws and rejection of bilingual education, lies the question: with all these new people, languages, and cultures, "what will it mean to be an American?"

If that question once seemed, to many people, to have an obvious, universally applicable answer, today new definitions must be found. But too often Americans, with would-be scholars in the lead, refuse to face that need and instead nurse a nostalgia for some bygone clarity. They remain trapped in denial.

An array of such ostriches, head in the sand, began flapping their feathers noisily with Allen Bloom's 1987 best-selling book The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom bemoaned the decline of our "common values" as a society, meaning the decline of Euro-American cultural centrality (shall we just call it cultural imperialism?). Since then we have seen constant sniping at "diversity" goals across the land. The assault has often focused on how U.S. history is taught. And with reason, for this country's identity rests on a particular narrative about the historical origins of the United States as a nation.

 

THE GREAT WHITE ORIGIN MYTH

Every society has an origin narrative which explains that society to itself and the world with a set of mythologized stories and symbols. The origin myth, as scholar-activist Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz has termed it, defines how a society understands its place in the world and its history. The myth provides the basis for a nation's self-defined identity.

Ours begins with Columbus "discovering" a hemisphere where some 80 million people already lived (but didn't really count since they were just buffalo-chasing "savages" with no grasp of real estate values and therefore doomed to perish). It continues with the brave Pilgrims, a revolution by independence-loving colonists against a decadent English aristocrat, and the birth of an energetic young republic that promised democracy and equality (that is, to white male landowners). In the 1840s the new nation expanded its size by almost one third, thanks to a victory over that backward land of little brown people called Mexico. Such has been the basic account of how the nation called the United States of America came into being as presently configured.

The myth's omissions are grotesque. It ignores three major pillars of our nationhood: genocide, enslavement, and imperialist expansion (such nasty words, who wants to hear them?--but that's the problem). The massive extermination of indigenous peoples provided our land base; the transport and enslavement of African labor made our economic growth possible; and the seizure of half of Mexico by war, or threat of renewed war, extended this nation's boundaries to the Pacific and the Rio Grande. Such are the foundation stones of the U.S. along with an economic system that made this country the first in world history to be born capitalist.

Those three pillars were, of course, supplemented by great numbers of dirt-cheap workers from Mexico, China, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, etc. all kept in their place by varieties of White Supremacy. They stand along with millions of less-than-Supreme white workers and share-croppers.

Any attempt to modify the present origin myth provokes angry efforts to repel such sacrilege. In the case of Native Americans, scholars will insist that they died from disease, or wars among themselves, or "not so many really did die." At worst it was a "tragedy," but never deliberate genocide, never a pillar of our nationhood. As for slavery, it was an embarrassment, of course, but do remember that Africa also had slavery and anyway enlightened white folk finally did end the practice here.

In the case of Mexico, reputable U.S. scholars still insist on blaming that country for the 1846-48 war, although even former U.S. President Ulysses Grant wrote in his memoirs that "We were sent to provoke a fight [by moving troops into a disputed border area] but it was essential that Mexico should commence it [by fighting back]." President James Polk's 1846 diary openly records his purpose in declaring war as "acquiring California, New Mexico, and perhaps other Mexican lands." To justify what could be called a territorial drive-by, the Mexican people were declared inferior; the U.S. had a "Manifest Destiny" to bring them progress and democracy.

Even when revisionist voices have exposed particular evils of Indian policy, slavery, or the war on Mexico, those evils remained little more than unpleasant footnotes; the core of the dominant myth stands intact. PBS's recent 8-part documentary series entitled "The West" is a case in point. It devotes more than the usual attention to the devastation of Native America, but still centers on Anglos. Little attention is given to why their domination evolved as it did and so the West remains the physically gorgeous backdrop for an ugly, unaltered origin myth.

In fact, our myth is strengthened by "The West" series. For White Supremacy needs the brave but ultimately doomed Indians to silhouette its own superiority. Euro-American "civilization" needs the Indian-as-devil to reconfirm its godly mission. Remember Timothy Wight, who served as pastor to Congress in the late 1700s and wrote that under the Indians, "Satan ruled unchallenged in America" until "our chosen race eternal justice sent." With that moral authority, the "winning of the West" metamorphosed from a brutal conquest into a romance of persistent courage played out in a lonely, dangerous landscape.

 

RACISM AS LINCHPIN OF THE NATIONAL IDENTITY

A crucial embellishment of the origin myth and key element of the national identity has been the Myth of the Frontier, brilliantly analyzed in Richard Slotkin's Gunfighter Nation, 1992, the last volume of a trilogy. He describes Theodore Roosevelt's belief that the West was won thanks to American arms, which he saw as "the means by which progress and nationality will be achieved." That success, Roosevelt continued, "depends on the heroism of men who impose on the course of events the latent virtues of their 'race'." Roosevelt saw racial conflict on the frontier producing a "race" of virile "fighters and breeders" that would eventually generate a new leadership class.

No slouch as an imperialist, Roosevelt soon took the Frontier Myth abroad, seeing Asians as Apaches and the Philippines as Sam Houston’s Texas in the process of being taken from Mexico. For Roosevelt, as Slotkin writes, "racial violence is the principle around which both individual character and social organization develop." Such ideas did not go totally unchallenged by U.S. historians, nor was the Frontier Myth always applied in totally simplistic ways by Hollywood and other media. (The Outlaw, for example, is a complicated figure, both good and bad.) But the Frontier Myth usually spins together virtue and violence, morality and war, in an convoluted, Calvinist web. That tortured embrace defines an essence of the so-called American Character--in other words, the national identity--to this day.

The 19h century doctrine of Manifest Destiny served to combine expansionist violence with inevitability based on intrinsic racial superiority, in one neat package. Yankee conquest had to be seen as the "inevitable" result of a confrontation between enterprise v. passivity, progress v. backwardness. Even when that justification or the pretension of virtue failed, race was always there to draw the bottom line.

Linking the national identity with race was not unique to the United States. In the October issue of Lingua Franca, the journal, David Stowe writes that "there is no social identity without a defining 'other'--in terms of class, race, or gender." But the United States has linked its identity with racialism to an extraordinary degree, matched only by two other settler states: South Africa and Israel.

Given its obsession about whiteness, which demanded absolute racial purity, the U.S. national identity reserved a special disdain for "half-breed" peoples--above all, Mexicans--even if one half was European. "The West" documentary series reflects that disdain with its offhanded treatment of Manifest Destiny and the U.S. expansionist takeover of Mexico, violations of the 1848 Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo, land robbery, colonization backed by violent repression, the role of Mexican people in building vast wealth in the West, and the West as a reflection of Mexican culture. In doing so the series joins all the other standard historical treatments. Who could care less? is their message.

As these omissions suggest, people of Mexican origin have usually been given short shrift, if any, in U.S. history. They are almost always depicted as just another immigrant population, despite the fact that some of us--especially in New Mexico--can traced family back to the 1500s. If anyone in the dominant society remembers Mexicans before this century, it is usually as "bandits" who fought the U.S. occupation, or senoritas on big California ranchos who had the good sense to marry Anglos. Almost never have we formed part of the origin myth.

That myth has remained constant but the national identity on which it is based has gone through some changes. Immigration is one cause of such adaptation; it has required a process of racialization so that the prevailing national identity could be maintained. Earlier in this century Irish, German, Swedish, Italian and Polish immigrants were also scapegoated and defined out of the national identity, not being the preferred "Anglo-Saxon." Later, as they embraced Anglo cultural supremacy, and also could be seen as White, inclusion became possible. Immigrants of color, on the other hand, largely remained outside Americanism.

 

MANIFEST DESTINY DIES HARD

Manifest Destiny, with its assertion of racial/cultural superiority sustained by military power, defined U.S. identity for many years. The Vietnam War brought a major challenge to that concept of almightyness, and in the final years of the war the words leaped to mind one day: this country is having a national, nervous breakdown. Bitter debate, moral anguish, images of My Lai, the refusal of so many Americans to consider reality including their own government's lies, all suggested that the marriage of virtue and violence was in serious trouble.

It seems likely that this is why the war continues to arouse passions today--compounded by the fact that it ended with the U.S.'s first military defeat. Some who are willing to call the war "a mistake" still shy away from denying its morality or accepting it as a defeat. And how many Americans have the courage to publicly advocate abandoning the idea that our identity rests on being the world's richest and most powerful nation?

By now it should be clear that we need a new, more truthful origin myth and with it a redefined national identity. Instead, we find a massive, stubborn resistance. especially in the world of education. Loudly protesting supposed pressure to be "PC," scholars fiercely reject the idea that "western" values like freedom and democracy could ever have existed in non-western societies (read, among peoples of color). Professor John Patrick Diggins at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, for example, condemned the new National History Standards for K-12 because they have students "begin the study of history immersed in past cultures whose people perpetuated undemocratic rites and other systems of submission." Diggins claims it was "American exceptionalism" that made it possible "for freedom to flower."

 

The war over Standards for teaching K-12 history continues to rage. Round 3 this year brought new recommendations to correct the last, supposedly "PC" revisions. On the subject of "How the West Was Won," for example, the previous standards had described the "restless white Americans [who] pushed westward" and how, "animated by land hunger and the ideology of Manifest Destiny" they "engaged in abrasive racial encounters with Native Americans." To make it less "PC," that text would be changed to omit the adjective "white" for those restless Americans (one should be color-blind, it seems). Also, the new version would add another reason for expansion: "the optimism that anything was possible with imagination, hard work, and the maximum freedom of the individual." The Indians just didn't have enough imagination, you see.

Such is the opposition to ideological change. Other societies have also been based on colonialism and slavery but in this country we seem to have an insatiable need to be the Good Guys on the world stage. The need must lie at least partially in a Protestant dualism that defines existence in terms of opposites so that if you are not "good" you are bad, if not "white" then black, and so on. Whatever the cause, the need to comply on some level with origin-myth definitions of "virtuous" as opposed to "evil" haunts domestic and foreign policy. Wherever would we be without Saddam Hussein, Omar Khadafi, and that all-time favorite of gringo demonizers, Fidel Castro? I mean, how would we know what an American really is?

 

WANTED: A NEW NATIONAL IDENTITY

Today's origin myth and the resulting definition of national identity make for an intellectual prison where it is dangerous to ask big questions, moral questions, about this society's superiority. Where otherwise decent people are trapped in a desire not to feel guilty, which then necessitates self-deception. To cease our present falsification of collective memory should, and could, open the doors of that prison. When together we cease equating whiteness with Americanness, a new day can dawn. As David Roediger, the social historian, has said "[whiteness] is the empty and therefore terrifying attempt to build an identity on what one isn't, and on whom one can hold back." In the end, to redefine the U.S. origin myth, and with it this country's national identity, could prove liberating for our collective psyche.

Urging a more truthful origin myth and with it a different national identity does not mean Euro-Americans should wallow individually in guilt. It does mean accepting collective responsibility to deal with the implications of a different narrative. A few apologies, for example, could go a long way. Former President Charles de Gaulle of France once formally apologized to Mexico for the French invasion almost 100 years earlier; could the U.S. not apologize to all Native Americans, for starters?

Accepting the implications of a different narrative could also shed light on today's struggles. In the Affirmative Action debate, for example, opponents have said that that policy is no longer needed because racism ended with the civil rights movement. But if we look at the role of slavery in this society as a fundamental pillar of the nation going back centuries, it becomes obvious that racism could not have been ended by 30 years of mild reforms. If we see how the Myth of the Frontier idealized the white male adventurer as the central hero of national history, with the woman as sunbonneted helpmate, then we might better understand the ways that women have continued to be regarded as lesser. (We would also better understand why the Angry White Male is so angry today. Poor guy: from Superman to oppressor-on-the-defensive is a big drop.)

In addition, a more truthful origin myth could help correct the bi-polar model of race relations, which sees only Black and white and ignores the other colors all around us. That severely limited paradigm further encourages ineffective policies as well as bigger divisions among different peoples of color.

A new origin myth and national identity could help pave the way to a more livable society for us all. A society based on cooperation rather than competition, on the idea that all living creatures are inter-dependent and humanity's goal should be balance. Such were the values of many original Americans, deemed "savages."

Similar gifts are waiting from other despised peoples and traditions. We might well start by recognizing that "America" is the name of an entire hemisphere, rich in a stunning variety of histories, cultures, peoples. Yet the name has been assumed by a single country, in an arrogant echo of its imperialist might to which Canadians and Mexicans are especially sensitive.

The choice seems clear, if not easy. We can go on living in a state of massive denial, affirming this nation's superiority and virtue simply because we need to believe in it. Overtly or covertly we can choose to reaffirm White Supremacy, with minor concessions. We can choose to think the destiny of the U.S. is still manifest: global domination. Or we can seek a transformative vision that carries us forward, not backward. We can seek an origin narrative that lays the ideological groundwork for a multi-cultural, multi-national identity centered on the goals of social equity and democracy. It is our choice; after all, myths are not born but made.

There is little time for nostalgia. Dick and Jane never were "America," they were only a part of Anglo life in one part of the Americas. Let's say goodbye to that narrow identity and look ahead. In the end, we have no alternative for the realities of the next century except a courageous transcendence of old assumptions. Will the future be ongoing denial or steps toward that new vision? At times you can hear the clock ticking.