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Racism and the Roots of American Exceptionalism

The Devil Made Me Do It

by RODOLFO ACUÑA

After my essay on American Exceptionalism, I was interviewed by RT News (Russia Talks) — an international multilingual television network funded by the Russian government. Its TV programming appears in more than a hundred nations, and the news coverage is quite good. I often find items on Latinos not covered by popular American outlets.

However, I was also disappointed; it was obvious that the interviewers knew little about the historical context of American exceptionalism – a phenomenon that is very familiar to U.S. minorities who know it as racism, nativism, Manifest Destiny and Eurocentricism.

To be fair the interviewers only had ten minutes.  A serious discussion would have included Europe and Russia. While I agreed with Vladimir Putin’s criticism of Barack Obama’s misuse of the phrase American exceptionalism, I disagree on many of his policies.

Germane to what is American exceptionalism is a definition of history. My generation of historians vigorously debated whether history was part of the humanities or social sciences. At first, I had no preference; however, I was quickly put off by how many American historians played with the truth and cherry picked documents to validate their story.

A good example of this cherry picking is Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb, a past president of the American Historical Association, who wrote in The Texas Rangers,

Without disparagement it may be said that there is a cruel streak in the Mexican nature, or so the history of Texas would lead one to believe. This cruelty may be a heritage from the Spanish of the Inquisition; it may, and doubtless should, be attributed partly to the Indian blood.

Another example is Frederick Jackson Turner who in 1893 wrote in “The Frontier Thesis” that American democracy was formed by the American Frontier.  “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development.” Turner disregarded the genocide of the Indians, and how Americans got the “free land”.

American exceptionalism is rooted in Western Thought. Read: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. The Disuniting of America (1992) that deals with the fight for the primacy of teaching Western Civilization in our schools. Indeed, at the university level scholars debate whether World History should be substituted for Western Civilization as requirement knowledge.

American exceptionalism is rooted in the Old Testament’s belief in  predestination — a notion that was tempered by that New Testament and the principle of a free will. However, the preaching of John Calvin brought back the idea of a chosen people of God, which in turn the Puritans took to the colonies.

The term Manifest Destiny was promoted by John O’Sullivan in 1839, and it became a justification for the invasion of Mexico in 1846, and American imperialism following 1898.

I was spared this Eurocentricism of historians because for most of my career I was not housed in history departments — the citadels of American conservatism. The struggle to establish Chicana/o Studies confirmed the need for history to be part of the social sciences; the need for a scientific method to break Disney’s sway over U.S. history.

Even so, I was not entirely shielded. When I was recommended for an appointment in Chicana/o Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara, I was forced to successfully sue for discrimination.  A campus wide personnel committee composed of white full professors, epitomized American exceptionalism.

This impartial committee was dominated by a CIA agent, a linguist named Wallace Chafe who denied that Norm Chomsky was a linguist; a historian Robert Kelley who called me a liar because I wrote in Occupied America that the United States invaded Mexico; and, another historian Jeffrey Burton Russell, the chair of the committee who thought I was the devil.

Russell authored five volumes titled The Devil (1977), Satan (1981), Lucifer (1984), Mephistopheles (1986) and The Prince of Darkness (1988). The books are interesting, even enjoyable (they make me laugh) but they are not history. Large portions are based on faith. They lack the rigor of Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels, and Russell’s books qualify more as literature than history. As one critic put it, Russell’s writings had the depth of a movie trailer.

Leonard Minsky, a former English professor at Simon Fraser University, and adviser on my case, after reading Russell’s deposition remarked, “he has demonized you. He thinks you are the devil.” Indeed, during his deposition Russell testified that I was a Marxist because I used words like “hegemony.”

Russell is not the American exception. Witness Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. In an interview Scalia volunteered, “I even believe in the Devil…Yeah, he’s a real person. Hey, c’mon, that’s standard Catholic doctrine! Every Catholic believes that…If you are faithful to Catholic dogma, that is certainly a large part of it.”

Even so Scalia has the reputation of being a legal scholar. However, a close examination reveals that he does not know the difference between right and wrong. When told that million-dollar checks were flowing to congressional campaigns, Scalia responded, “I don’t think $3.5 million is a heck of a lot of money …billions are spent on national campaigns”. Maybe not, Scalia is a regular recipient of corporate honorariums, something that violates the Court’s code of ethics.

Scalia narrowness is the result of epistemological flaws. By his own admission he avoids the Washington Post and New York Times because they are “so shrilly, shrilly liberal,” he gets his news primarily from conservative talk radio.

Both Russell and Scalia are Catholics — Russell is a convert. They ignore that the Church’s views on the devil are evolving just as its views on matters such as divorce.  Moreover, not all Christian sects have the same take. Anglicans, for example, question the literal existence of the devil, and depictions such as the Satan having horns and a goat’s hindquarters and a tail are inventions of the imagination. Bottom-line is that much of the popular lore on the devil is not biblical.

My fear is that the discussion about the devil is purposely diverting attention away from needed Church reforms. Disturbingly Pope Francis has referenced the devil and spiritual warfare.  As the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he said “At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts. Let us not be naive: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan.

Dating back to 1811, liberalism has been depicted as the anti-Christ, representing demonic forces devised to destroy the Church. In the 19th century, the devil was blamed for the separation of Church and State, and more recently the devil has been blamed for the pedophile scandals, gay marriage and other reforms.

It seems to me that in order to solve society’s problems, we have to go beyond Flip Wilson’s line that “The Devil Made Me Do It.” Belief does not make us exceptional, our good works do, and there can be no dialogue as long as we think we are exceptional and consider those who do not agree with us to be part of an Evil Empire or agents of the devil.

RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution.