Sunday, February 12, 2017

"The People Out of Doors," American Exceptionalism, and the American Dream

            We are still in San Miguel de Allende. It is February, and we have moved from a house in centro to a gringo condo on the outskirts of the city. The two residences are not more than two kilometers apart, but worlds apart in culture and life style. In our centro house, the noises of everyday living intruded all of the time. Just outside our door, people talked and shouted, children played and laughed and screamed. Evenings were filled with human street sounds until eleven or twelve every night. Over the Christmas and New Year's holidays, festivities, piñatas, songs, even out of doors religious services occupied the time of our immediate neighbours
            On the outskirts of town, I did not see or talk to any neighbours in the condo complex until ten days into our stay, and then the people we spoke with made our conversations as short as they possibly could. It is not only a gated "community," it is a private community. It reflects the psychological norm for North America. Many of us not only want to live enclosed behind gates, sharing our community space only with those who share our values and status, we want to be left alone by those inside the gates as well. Inside our enormous houses, we often strive to avoid our immediate families as well, hiving ourselves off from those supposedly closest to us. The effects have been devastating. We no longer know how to speak with one another, let alone converse politely, or debate ideas openly. We are fixed in our own opinions and ideas -- challenges to those ideas are seen as both alien and dangerous. Discourse is dead.
            I have been especially struck by this because of the events of the past three weeks. The most outrageous of the current American president's actions has brought people "out of doors" in great numbers, talking together about women's rights and immigration. It can be said, of course, that the Tea Party movement began the practice, albeit on a generally smaller scale, helping to cause the devastating earthquake of the presidential election. Still, whether left or right, it is good to see "the people out of doors," rather than simply putting up with the decisions made by the totalitarian corporate world order, indoors, out of sight, in private, secretly. Maybe "the people out of doors" will lead to conversations and, eventually, even discussions, that can lead to push back against the anti-democratic forces that slowly and quietly have made us into "one dimensional" people employed only in the furtherance of inhumane and inhuman ideology.
            Having said this, I am troubled by how the new political protests in the United States are being contextualized, both in regard to the far right and the moderate centre (the only two categories left in American politics). We are all too familiar with the far-right contextualization:  they embrace Donald Trump's desire to "Make America Great Again." That context is, of course, nothing less than a call to empire, and all of the ugly things that go with empire. The call to greatness is fascistic and jingoistic. Combined with the "America First" thrust of the Trump campaign, it suggests arrogant, bullying ethnocentrism at its worst. American ethnocentrism declares bluntly, that they are the world; they lead it, they protect it, they govern it, and they see the cultures of Europe, Asia, or Latin America, and Africa as too inferior to offer any guidance in how societies in general might improve.
            The moderate centre contextualization is not much different. Last week, I read a column by David Brooks in the NYTimes in which he baldly said that President Trump should not be embracing a culture of negativity but should, like all former presidents, appeal to American exceptionalism, and understand that the rest of the world needed a sane America because the U. S. was the leader of the free world.
            A few days before this, I attended a lecture by the renowned American journalist, Hedrick Smith, whose current book is entitled "Who Stole the American Dream." I estimate that 300 people attended that lecture (I got the very last ticket). Smith surprised us by saying little about recent presidential politics in the U. S. He admitted that it was an "earthquake" but, claiming inherent optimism, said he was willing to wait-and-see regarding the progress of the new administration. He made his pitch to revive the "American Dream" through renewed democracy (ending gerrymandering, for example), through reducing stockholder shares in profits and enhancing re-investment and worker wages, and through a renewed partnership among governments and the private sector economy, as is done in Germany. It was a tour de force presentation, one in which he cited statistics, remembered history, and referenced previous scholars and leaders with ease.
            Nevertheless, sitting there as a Canadian and as an American historian, I was uncomfortable as Smith's intoned an argument about re-capturing the "American Dream," a mythic constant in American culture, to which the nation could return. Mircea Eliade's concept of ancient societies as ones seeking an "eternal return" to some early, unique, and elemental origin came to mind as he spoke. The implication seemed to be that Americans need not seek new understandings about themselves and the greater world around them. Instead, it is argued or implied, they need to employ methods to get back to who they should be, basking in the warmth of the "American Dream," re-establishing American "exceptionalism," and making the U. S. the "city upon the hill" for all to see once again. The absence of any mention of the new, big factor that "changes everything" (to quote Naomi Klein) -- the effects of man-assisted climate change -- made this "eternal return" motif even more striking to me.
            The "American Dream," American "exceptionalism," and the belief in the U. S. as a beacon for the rest of the world are all ahistorical constructs, just as Eliade's "eternal return" societies were pre-historic constructs. Indeed, they were constructs intended to deny history and the quotidian deficiencies of the present. All societies, American society not excluded, need to recognize how their real historical pasts have led them to where they are now. All need to respond in ways that are possible and practical. Many of Smith's proposals were just that, practical and do-able, but they were offered in the spirit of returning to a special condition. An "American Dream" might have been an inspirational concept in earlier eras of the American past, but in a mass, urban, post-agricultural, post-industrial society it is hard to give it a proper function. Americans can congratulate themselves for establishing freedoms in the 18th century, in creating democratic governments, and in giving a broad range of its citizens the opportunity to succeed economically, but freedom, democracy and opportunity are goals equally promoted by other nations today, making American "exceptionalism" an idea that may be appropriate to the past alone, if at all. A persistent quest for the "American Dream" and American "exceptionalism" today and in the future, will simply leave the U. S. isolated and remote, always feeling as though it is going-it-alone, resentful of others or insisting that others comprehend the world and history as Americans do.

No comments: