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America Asleep

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Photo by Diego Torres Silvestre | CC BY 2.0

“The summer of 1919, called “The Red Summer” by James Weldon Johnson, ushered in the greatest period of interracial violence the nation had ever witnessed. During that summer there were twenty-six race riots in such cities as Chicago, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; Elaine, Arkansas; Charleston, South Carolina; Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee; Longview, Texas; and Omaha, Nebraska. More than one hundred Blacks were killed in these riots, and thousands were wounded and left homeless. The seven most serious race riots were those which occurred in Wilmington, N. C. (1898), Atlanta, Ga. (1906), Springfield, Ill. (1908), East St. Louis) Ill. (1917), Chicago, Ill. (1919), Tulsa, Okla. (1921) and Detroit, Mich. (1943).”

— Robert Gibson

“A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct.”

— California Governor Peter H. Burnett, 1851

“At the time, Executive Order 9066 was justified as a “military necessity” to protect against domestic espionage and sabotage. However, it was later documented that “our government had in its possession proof that not one Japanese American, citizen or not, had engaged in espionage, not one had committed any act of sabotage.( ) These Japanese Americans, half of whom were children, were incarcerated for up to 4 years, without due process of law or any factual basis, in bleak, remote camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.”

— Michi Weglyn.

The recent attack in Charlottsville hardly stands out as in any way unique in American history. But there are several very telling aspects to this display of organized white supremacist values. First, how is it the police allowed it to happen? Well, ok, we know the answer. That was rhetorical. The next question would be perhaps the media coverage of this. Third would be the President and his response.

In a sense, the media coverage actually encloses the other issues. For the narrative being manufactured by the NY Times and Washington Post and all the rest, CNN and MSNBC is pretty much the same, with only variations that are designed to target specific demographics. The story of U.S. racism and colonial plunder, of a settler mentality and the reality of Manifest Destiny and genocide is simply erased. In its place is the fairy tale of white American goodness that I and millions of others were taught in school. Charlottsville is thus not a result of Trump, of his personality, of his friends such as Steve Bannon. It is part of a deep current in the collective psyche of the U.S.

There has never been a time when America was good. There was goodness in America, certainly in culture, in art and even in certain movements for social justice. There was the Wobblies and early socialists and union organizers. But the overriding reality has been one of acute racism, both institutional and individual, and of conquest and since WW2 of a rabid all consuming anti communism and quest for global hegemony. The U.S. was founded on the twin pillars of slave labor and the genocide of six hundred indigenous tribes. It is a settler colonial project that has never wavered in support for the Capitalist system. It was founded by rich white men, and that also has never changed.

“Blacks can’t run it. Nowhere, and they won’t be able to for a hundred years, and maybe not for a thousand. … Do you know, maybe one black country that’s well run?”

— Richard Nixon (Whitehouse tapes)

“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of 10 are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the 10th.”

— Theodore Roosevelt

I mean one could just go on and on. Woodrow Wilson worked to keep blacks out of Princeton when he was that University’s president. Calvin Coolidge, Andrew Johnson, James Polk — who deserves a special place as the most pro slavery president, perhaps, in U.S. history. In fact, its pretty hard to find a president who wasn’t overtly racist.

“While it may be tempting to dismiss 500 knuckle-dragging racists marching through Charlottesville waving Confederate flags as unrepresentative of a nation that takes pride in values of tolerance and racial equality, it would be wrong. Those who took part in those ugly scenes are the reality rather than the myth of America. They know that the American exceptionalism which Obama, while president, declared he believed in with every fiber of his being, is in truth white exceptionalism – ‘white’ in this context being not only a racial construct but also an ideological construct.”

— John Wight

But what has struck me is the outcry from the educated white class. Those gatekeepers to media and what passes for culture these days. The outrage is extreme and this has served to amp up the anti Trump sentiments even further than they already were. But none of these people uttered a peep about Obama and his CIA support for radical head chopping takfiri killers in Syria, and not a word when Hillary Clinton and Victoria Nuland (and John McCain) orchestrated the coup in Ukraine that installed a full on Nazi Party, complete with swastikas. But then U.S. foreign policy has a long history of support for fascism. In Africa, the U.S. supported war lords and mass killers…as Keith Harmon Snow wrote…

“The violence wreaked on Congo-Zaire by Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame was exported by perpetrators who first waged genocidal campaigns and coups-d’état that violated the most fundamental international covenants on state sovereignty first in Uganda, then Rwanda, then Zaire (Congo). On 6 April 1994, they assassinated heads of state from Rwanda and Burundi, again the most fundamental and egregious violations of international law. The U.S., U.K., Canada and Israel could not have been happier.

These first campaigns of Tutsi-Hima guerrilla warfare set the stage for unprecedented violence as the terror regimes of Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame tortured, slaughtered, raped, disappeared, assassinated, and terrorized millions of innocent non-combatant civilians from Uganda to Rwanda to Burundi to Congo (and in South Sudan). They had the backing of western intelligence and covert operations at the start.”

Or take Haiti. The U.S. ushered out President Aristide at gunpoint and replaced him with former Ton Ton Macoute fascists. The U.S. removed Zelaya in Honduras (on order from Hillary Clinton) and replaced him with a far right wing fascist. The U.S. supports fascist Leopoldo Lopez and his friends in Venezuela at this very moment. But rarely if ever do I hear a word from those people *outraged* at the tiki torch Blood and Soil pro confederate neo Klansmen in Virginia this week. The U.S. openly supported the fascist loving Croatian secessionists under Franjo Tudjman, an ardent admirer of the fascist state of Croatia in the 1930s under Ante Pavelic, as they dismantled socialist Yugoslavia. The racist murderers in Charlottsville are ideologically the same as countless parties and leaders the U.S. has supported for sixty years. No, for two hundred years and supports today.

I read a meme on social media yesterday that described Trump as having disgraced the office of the President. This is from a liberal and a Democrat. Honestly I’m not sure what one would have to do to disgrace that office. Harry Truman ordered the destruction of two Japanese cities with Atomic bombs, the murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians, women, children, the elderly…everyone. Disgrace the office? The School of the Americas, now rebranded, taught torture and subjugation to several generations of right wing dictators, and helped train death squads throughout Latin America.

I suspect that if Barry Goldwater returned from the dead and ran as a Democrat today he would be hugely successful. There is a certain swooning adoration for rock ribbed conservatives in liberal America. It is the result of an endless inculcating of the idea of money equating with merit. Most Americans have an unconscious knee jerk respect for the wealthy. Listen to how the owners of major sports franchises are talked about…it is always MISTER Bennet, MISTER Dolan, MISTER Snyder, MISTER Kendrick. It is a kind of weird hologram of the plantation system brought to you on network TV.

“While demanding an Open Door in China, it had insisted (with the Monroe Doctrine and many military interventions) on a Closed Door in Latin America-that is, closed to everyone but the United States. It had engineered a revolution against Colombia and created the “independent” state of Panama in order to build and control the Canal. It sent five thousand marines to Nicaragua in 1926 to counter a revolution, and kept a force there for seven years. It intervened in the Dominican Republic for the fourth time in 1916 and kept troops there for eight years. It intervened for the second time in Haiti in 1915 and kept troops there for nineteen years. Between 1900 and 1933, the United States intervened in Cuba four times, in Nicaragua twice, in Panama six times, in Guatemala once, in Honduras seven times. By 1924 the finances of half of the twenty Latin American states were being directed to some extent by the United States. By 1935, over half of U.S. steel and cotton exports were being sold in Latin America.”

— Howard Zinn

The white liberal today operates from an ideological position of intellectual containment. One might think Hiroshima would be condemned without qualification. This is not the case. The intellectual containment is to partition aspects of history and simply ignore the disturbing parts — things like the reality of slavery for example. Hollywood goes a long ways in sanitizing the story of the slave trade, and more, of the enduring scars, emotional and psychic, that such barbarism produced. White supremacism is, as John Wight rightly notes, is an ideological construct.

So back to Charlottsville. The goofy Hitler haircuts and ridiculous tiki torches (Wal Mart sells them by the by) make for good TV and provide an easy target for hand wringing liberals, but the reality is, of course, that most people have no desire to upset the status-quo. How many white American football fans applaud Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the anthem? According to a Reuters poll 72% of Americans saw Kaepernick as unpatriotic. The overt racism and fascist symbols in Virgina are easy to denounce. They seem almost made for that. And the attendant cries of how empowered the Trump base is seem almost silly (for one thing Trump’s real base is upwardly mobile whites, suburban usually, and nominally educated). The cartoon crackers in Virginia are not a significant force. But they do have symbolic weight. And yes, a woman died. Killed by a former Marine. Quelle surprise says I. The police watched. The U.S. domestic police system was born of militia hunting runaway slaves. It has not traveled a very great ideological distance since.

“As an internal colony in what some refer to as a prison house of nations that characterizes the U.S. nation state, black communities are separated into enclaves of economic exploitation and social degradation by visible and often invisible social and economic processes. The police have played the role not of protectors of the unrealized human rights of black people but as occupation forces.”

— Ajamu Baraka

The U.S. society is one in distress. There is a desperation in the affluent classes that suggests a growing recognition that the system they believe in, that has protected their privilege, is starting to fray at the edges. And maybe worse than fray. A recent study on addiction to smart phones among teenagers links depression and feelings of isolation with smart phone usage. It also has resulted in a generation that goes out less, has less sex, and desires independence less. Teens live at home longer, and wait longer to get their driver’s license. One in four Americans take anti depressants.

Jonathan Crary’s excellent book 24/7 dissects the global present in which most Westerners today live. And disruptions of sleep play a prominent role in the infantilization of U.S. culture. Everyone today sleeps less. Six and half hours a night compared to eight hours only a generation ago. In a society that metaphorically sleepwalks when awake, the material reality is that people sleep less. They are more anxious, and more afraid.

“The anti war movement (of the 60s) had spawned an identification with pacifism and public empathy for the victims of war; but in the 1980s the conditions nurturing these currents had to be eliminated and replaced in all areas with a culture of aggressivity and violence. That millions of supposedly liberal or progressive Americans will not dutifully avow that they ‘support our troops’ while remaining silent about the thousands murdered in imperial wars attests to the success of these counter measures.”

— Jonathan Crary

This marked the conscious ridicule of the sixties counterculture in mass media. It also marked the start of an aggressive re-writing of history, even recent history. Today it is a criminal offense in many places to feed the poor. It is criminal in many places to grow a vegetable garden in your front yard. It is illegal to criticize the Israel, too. Poverty is shameful, and worse. Against this has come an onslaught of demonizing all communist leaders from Castro to Mao. Chavez is routinely called a dictator, a caudillo, a strongman. Never mind this is only more racism, it is also untrue, factually untrue. No matter. It is a society of mass propaganda on all levels. So Charlottsville will distract the educated white populace for a week or so, and Trump will be made fun of and denounced. One wonders who watched his TV show, though. I mean it can’t have been just those guys in Hitler haircuts, right? Now Trump is a vile and dangerous man. Clearly close to illiterate, weak, resentful and insecure. But Trump is only a signifier for a wider problem. And that problem is that the United States has never altered its basic course. It began as a settler colony, one with genocidal tendencies and a thirst for violence. And so it is today. Eight hundred military bases across the planet. And allies like Saudi Arabia, where women are beheaded for being witches. Where confessions are the result of torture. Torture that isn’t even denied. The UN appointed Saudi Arabia as head of their human rights council. You see the problem…its much bigger than Charlottsville. If a society has stopped reading, and cannot sleep, and is the most obese in history, and where fertility rates are in steep decline; well, one suspects this is the dawn of the Empire’s collapse.

Ajamu Baraka summerized it best I think.

“Looking at white supremacy from this wider-angle lens, it is clear that support for the Israeli state, war on North Korea, mass black and brown incarceration, a grotesque military budget, urban gentrification, the subversion of Venezuela, the state war on black and brown people of all genders, and the war on reproductive rights are among the many manifestations of an entrenched right-wing ideology that cannot be conveniently and opportunistically reduced to Trump and the Republicans.”

George Jackson wrote…“The Capitalist class reached its maturity with the close of the 1860-64 civil war. Since that time there have been no serious threats to their power; their excesses have taken on a certain legitimacy through long usage. Prestige bars any serious attack on power. Do people attack a thing they consider with awe, with a sense of its legitimacy?” The U.S. military lays waste to parts of every continent on earth, or threatens to. There are U.S. troops killing people in Yemen, in Syria, in Afghanistan. The U.S. threatens small nations without real power. And the leadership today, and not just Trump, is infantile and narcissistic and ill-educated. It is as if the very worst and most stupid people in the country are now running it. But this has been trending this direction for thirty years now. It is not new. It has only gotten much worse, I think. There were mass pro Nazi rallies in Madison Square Garden in the 1930s. Americans adore royalty, too. The same Euro royals who have supported and protected fascists for hundreds of years. There is an unmediated worship of power and authority. Nearly anyone in uniform is fawned over. The American bourgeoisie always side with authority. With the status quo. With institutional power. Charlottsville is indeed a symptom, but it is not in any way an aberration.

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John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwriting. Plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. Taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. A collection of plays, Sea of Cortez & Other Plays was published in 1999, and his book on aesthetics, Aesthetic Resistance and Dis-Interest was published this year by Mimesis International.

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