Can We Escape Our History?

Susan J. Douglas

Approaching the University of Michigan’s football stadium for this year’s graduation ceremony, I had to work my way through a gauntlet of white male anti-abortion protesters holding giant images of mutilated fetuses (thank you, Photoshop), and presumed Teabaggers brandishing homemade posters about the evils of socialism, healthcare and – especially – Barack Obama. 

I despair that we will always be cursed by racism, xenophobia and other forms of irrational yet raging hatreds, yet I want to believe that our better sides will win out.

But inside the stadium, where the president spoke at commencement, it was a different story. The New York Times reported that Obama addressed a mostly friendly” crowd. One wonders whether the reporter was actually at the scene; to say the greeting he received was rapturous would be an understatement.

In his address, Obama took on the current contentiousness of American politics. He noted how it was fanned by the news media, especially the cable channels, whose lifeblood has become irresponsible, inflammatory remarks. Then he added, I think it’s important that we maintain some historic [sic] perspective. Since the days of our founding, American politics has never been a particularly nice business. It’s always been a little less genteel during times of great change.” 

He quoted attacks made on Thomas Jefferson (if elected, murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced”) and Andrew Jackson (his opponents often referred to his mother as a common prostitute’ “), and he told of the beating of Massachusetts anti-slavery advocate Sen. Charles Sumner on the Senate floor by a southern congressman. Thus, Obama urged the audience not to get too depressed about the current state of our politics” because it has always been filled with vitriol. The republic has endured.

I don’t know whether to be heartened or depressed that the kind of fury-driven and racist venom we’re now seeing from the right has been and thus, by implication, will always be with us. But a compelling new book about this legacy has just come out: This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. In it you will not find more misty-eyed, honey-hued accounts of the greatness, altruism and nobility of our founding fathers. Quite the opposite: Smith-Rosenberg analyzes the foundational roles that racism, sexism, xenophobia and genocide played in the political formation of the United States and, just as crucially, in the formation of the country’s identity.

Like Obama, Smith-Rosenberg cites our recent vengeful responses against immigrants and possible terrorists, and asks: Is this a unique moment in U.S. history? Emphatically, no. The fear of alien attacks, the need to violently exclude Others seen as dangerous or polluting has formed a critical component of United States’ national identity from the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 1790s through Joseph McCarthy’s war on domestic Communists to the present. To … ruthlessly hunt [Others] down is truly American.” 

Where does this exclusionary vehemence and violence come from? Smith-Rosenberg argues that because immigrants to the 13 colonies were such a motley amalgam – people of differing, even warring countries, religions, political values and social mores – who, in turn, invaded already existing civilizations of Native Americans, there was no stable national sense of self. It had to be constructed, reaffirmed, cemented.

Thus we began to get the stories about our mythic heritage of bravery and love of liberty” that drew sustenance from a sense of being threatened by dangerous and contaminating Others, who had to be expelled or, at the very least, domesticated and tamed. 

Drawing from speeches, women’s writings, novels and magazines of the times, Smith-Rosenberg carefully traces the construction of this deeply contradictory national identity, which wants to both view itself as egalitarian and tolerant and embrace the racial and imperial triumphalism that relentless exclusions have made possible. The result? “[A]n inherently contradictory, unstable national identity never quite at peace with itself.”

Smith-Rosenberg sees the nation’s proclivity for violence as so embedded in our history and identity that, except for extraordinary moments, like the 2008 presidential election, we will never be rid of it. Obama, the ever-hopeful optimist, believes we can vault over it.

I oscillate between them. I despair that we will always be cursed by racism, sexism, xenophobia and other forms of irrational yet raging hatreds, yet I want to believe that our better sides will win out. 

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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