by Rich Broderick • 10/31/08 • Tracing racism from the baseless, conspiratorial rantings of the far right to the long tradition of American Exceptionalism.
Driving through Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago, I happened to tune into “Crosstalk,” a national call-in talk show broadcast regionally by a religious station in Stevens Point.
The show’s sole guest that day was one Phil Berg, a lawyer and self-styled Democrat whose website, _The Crimes of Barak Obama_, carries on Berg’s lonely campaign to “prove” that Obama is not really an American citizen.
By now, you’ve probably heard some of the details of this charge: Obama was actually born in Kenya, not Honolulu; he has failed to produce a valid birth certificate, etc., etc. Since Obama is not a U.S. citizen, Berg argues, the very act of his running for President constitutes a criminal conspiracy.
Like most of the other charges surrounding Obama, this claim is baseless, almost laughable (gosh — don’t you think Hillary would have used all this against Obama if she’d had the chance?), but you would have never guessed it listening to the fervor with which Berg and his listeners carried on. In fact, many of the callers went Berg one step better with outlandish charges which have also become familiar of late – Obama is actually a Muslim, he advocates infanticide, pals around with terrorists, or is a terrorist himself.
Though the topic of Obama’s race never surfaced during the course of program, it was abundantly clear that the glue holding all the charges together was very simple. Barack Obama is a black man. He is running for President as the nominee of a major political party. This is in and of itself a crime for which there is only one condign punishment. Death.
It is no secret that America remains tainted by racism; the issue has been the subject of countless articles and commentaries ever since Obama emerged as a serious contender for the White House. But in trying to identify why racism is so intractable, most analyses miss a critical point. It’s not just because of our dark legacy of slavery and racial oppression. No. There is another reason, one rooted in a concept that, paradoxically, most of us consider a source of pride.
I am speaking of American Exceptionalism.
Like individuals, all nations possess what Carl Jung called a “shadow,” those things about ourselves we experience as so shameful that knowledge of them must be repressed even from ourselves. Unlike other nations, however, America clings to the idea that our country is different from all others on earth, past or present; _sui generis_, it was born without sin, and is incapable of evil – an exception to the rule.
To the very degree we cling to this illusion and have even made it the centerpiece of our national self-image we are forced to devote correspondingly high levels of psychic energy to keep the truth hidden from ourselves. The toxic anxiety this state generates must eventually find release. That release comes in the form of scapegoating — blaming and, in the most extreme cases, killing The Other.
Those who do not resolve psychological issues on the level of the psyche, Jung declared, are doomed to project those issues onto the world and experience them as fate. The hysteria we have seen so much of this fall (and here it is instructive to consider how the word “maverick” has become virtually synonymous with antinomianism, the heretical religious belief that those who are “saved” are not obligated to follow legal or moral rules – i.e., operate under a personal form of exceptionalism) is handmaiden to the inadmissible buried in the American psyche. While the figure of The Other is a universal archetype, its particular manifestation in any given time and place is culturally determined. In some cultures The Other is The Eternal Jew. In parts of Latin America, it is The Indian. Given our history and background, it is not surprising that the most potent face of The Other in this country is The Black Man.
What makes American Exceptionalism so peculiar is that, contrary to widespread misconceptions, such a notion would have been anathema to the people who actually founded the United States. Heirs to Enlightenment rationalism – and well versed in the destruction wreaked by religious wars perpetrated by fanatics convinced of their absolute righteousness during the previous century – the Founders were profoundly skeptical about theories and movements posited upon faith in the perfectibility of human nature.
Far from believing that their new nation had been created without stain under some miraculous dispensation, that it was a timeless City on the Hill (a trope coined by the 17th century Puritans, those righteous murderers of witches and Native American “heathens”) forever free from Old World corruption, the Founders tried their best to create a government specifically designed to guard against the temptations to which our fallen nature is forever susceptible. Why else would they frame a Constitution incorporating an elaborate – and, when you come right down to it, inefficient – system of checks and balances, distributing power throughout a radically decentralized federal structure?
The Founders understood human weakness. They had first-hand experience of what happens when too much power and too much wealth accumulate in too few hands. (The great blind spot of the contemporary conservative movement is its failure to recognize that the Founders were concerned about concentrations of unchecked power wherever they occurr, in the public _or_ the private sphere.) They had witnessed with their own eyes the vicious cycle of imperialism, in which threats to national security precipitated by mindless military rivalries fuel military expansion which in turn escalates the risk of unnecessary wars abroad and suppression of liberties at home. They would have scoffed at, and deemed profoundly dangerous, the messianic nonsense uttered every day now by our politicians – including Barack Obama – about America’s redemptive mission in the world.
How and why we have turned away from the hard-headed realism of the Founders and embraced American Exceptionalism — a fantasy that poses a growing threat to ourselves and the rest of the world – is an interesting topic in and of itself; it will, I promise, be the subject of a future post. Suffice it to say that today’s sorry state of affairs is rooted in our self-flattering misapprehension of the Declaration of Independence, a document that was not, as we like to believe, so much a statement of settled convictions as a lawyers’ brief justifying a breathtakingly bold act of collective treason.
For now, let me leave you with this counterintuitive thought: the racism we seem unable to shake is not just the legacy of the sins of our ancestors. It is also the product of our contemporary claims of a permanent American innocence. It will not go away, we will never leave it behind, until and unless we collectively take a long hard look at ourselves and finally admit that, as a people, we are no better (though not necessarily any worse) than any other.
And that there is nothing wrong with this.