FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Unravelling

Photo Source abstrkt.ch | CC BY 2.0

“This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognize it…”

– John Mitchell (1969)

“Manliness and mastery required regeneration through violence, and by the 1890s, { Theodore} Roosevelt was spoiling for a fight: “I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one,” he wrote. Any opponent would do, but “the most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages.”

– Jackson Lears (“How the US Began Its Empire,” NYRB 2018)

“There is this myth of happiness: black-magic slogans warn you to be happy at once; films that “end well” show a life of rosy ease to the exhausted crowds; the language is charged with optimistic and unrestrained expressions-“have a good time,” “life is fun,” and the like. But there are also these people, who, though conventionally happy, suffer from an obscure malaise to which no name can be given, who are tragic through fear of being so, through that total absence of the tragic in them and around them.”

– Jean Paul Sartre (“Americans and Their Myths,” 1947)

The long overdue death of John McCain will be remembered not because of McCain himself or anything he did, but because of its timing. McCain’s death happened under a particularly rabid spike in anti-Trump madness. And so, like all useful deaths, especially of public figures, and more especially of *warriors*, the moment was seized upon by the information apparatus of the state and turned into a platform for renewing the symbols and message of American virtue as well as for reinforcing the basic ideological tenants of U.S. militarism. And for pointing out that Donald Trump was to be found wanting in all categories and measurements of manliness and imperial vision. In a sense, McCain is now enshrined as the 21st century Teddy Roosevelt. Both were racist, both xenophobes, and both arch Imperialists whose personal insecurities were projected outward in displays of overt and cartoon masculinity.

There has been a lot written of late about the year 1968. It’s the 50th anniversary of *68*, which is now being viewed as a kind of talismanic watershed in U.S. social and political history. Perhaps it is, but I think that is a bit too simplistic. Still, publications love to pin their stories on such ideas, so one has not seen the last of this meme. I was in high school in 68, in Hollywood California and I was to graduate the following year. I had to think seriously about how to dodge the draft. I remember meeting with counselors, in the various anti-war groups that abounded in So Cal during that time. The feeling in those places was warm, comraderly, and genuinely concerned. Many were women’s groups including the one that most helped me. But in general people helped one another. There was no cynicism. No hustle. It’s hard to remember that, today. The war was bad, and we all knew that. The military was bad, and everyone knew that. When you compare attitudes today you can see just how successful the propaganda arm of the U.S. military has been.

And just how damaged the western psyche is. Now, with the environmental crises accelerating and, as one writer put it, “we are not studying global warming now, we are living it,” you might think people would naturally gravitate toward anti-war positions. After all something like 45% of global pollution is caused by the militaries of the world, and the U.S. military is ten times larger than anyone’s else, and it is far more active than anyone else in that top ten list. You would think that, and you would be wrong.

There is a tendency to think Trump is unique. Just as there had been a tendency among liberals to think George W. Bush was unique. And not even the Christian zealotry that is present in the Trump cabinet is unique. The United States has always draped its avaricious tendencies in the language of devotion and prayer. Or, in Reagan’s case, with the addition of astrology.

“In a ravenous fifty-five-day spasm during the summer of 1898, the United States asserted control over five far-flung lands with a total of 11 million inhabitants: Guam, Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. Never in history has a nation leaped so suddenly to overseas empire.”

– Stephen Kinzer. (The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire.)

Kinzer’s book is a useful guide to a seminal period in the construction of not just American overseas colonizing, but to the cementing of a mythology of individualism and violent conquest that is still operative. And its fitting that Teddy Roosevelt should be enshrined as a heroic figure and among the post popular presidents. Roosevelt shares a lot of similarities with Winston Churchill, in fact. Aristocratic backgrounds, racism, ambition, and a desire for Empire. And Roosevelt was, like Churchill, skilled as manufacturing his own mythology and crafting his public persona. And that persona was at its foundation one tied to war. When the Kurds rebelled Churchill said…“I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes…[It] would spread a lively terror.” Churchill, Roosevelt, and McCain. Uncivilized tribes, savages, and gooks.

And all three are among the popular political figures in English speaking nations. When various groups call for a ranking of presidents, Roosevelt is almost always in the top three or four. Americans simply don’t like even the whiff of intellectualism. Adlai Stevenson was never going to be president. It is surprising, in a way, that McCain never made it. But when one looks at the mythology of the U.S., it is not hard to see the through line of this exaggerated hyper masculinity and how it is now in the ascendent again.

“The exceptionalist double standard was reinforced by racial hierarchies and intensified by preoccupations with gender. Filipinos and Cubans, despite their desires for independence, were alleged to be unready for self-government—a racist argument that has survived in muted form down to the present. Another long-standing exceptionalist theme has been the virtue of reinvigorated masculinity in imperial discourse. These enduring preoccupations in American foreign affairs stem at least in part from educated men’s desire to vindicate their manhood in a society suspicious of thought, from Theodore Roosevelt’s Strenuous Life to John Kennedy’s New Frontier to George W. Bush’s Mission Accomplished.”

Jackson Lears (Review of Kinzer’s The True Flag, NYRBs 2018)

Across Europe today quasi fascist anti-immigration parties are gaining power and rising in popularity. In Hungary, Italy, Slovenia, Switzerland, Austria, Holland, and Sweden. Even in Denmark, where the Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen oversaw “…legislation that will require children from the age of one living in areas defined as “ghettos” by the state to be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap times. This new policy carries echoes of, and is a small but significant step towards the discredited and inhumane practices of tearing indigenous children away from their families, such as occurred with Australia’s “lost generations” of Aboriginals or Canada’s so-called Scoop generations.” (The New Arab, July 2018).

Rasmussen is, unsurpisingly, an enthusiastic supporter of NATO and U.S. militarism. While still the opposition leader in 2015, Rasmussen rode the wave of anti-immigration sentiment claiming one must take a ‘tough’ look the realities of immigrants already in Denmark. He noted half are on public assistance. One does sort of wonder how that is the fault of the immigrants. But Rasmussen has also suggested increasing penalties for crimes committed within the designated *ghetto areas* of his country. In the small city of Randers (with a relatively tiny Muslim population) a measure was passed that pork MUST be served (not could, but must) in all public buildings. As Fergus O’Sullivan notes, “… such official drives to repress minority culture have many European precedents. In the 1950s, efforts to assimilate Dutch Indonesians in the Netherlands went as far as regular home visits to ensure they were eating potatoes, not rice. Until 1973, Switzerland pursued a policy of removing children from itinerant Yenish families and placing them in poor conditions in orphanages, mental asylums, and prisons so as to dilute their differences from what was perceived as a mainstream Swiss identity.” (New Lab, 2018).

Europe has a long history of protecting themselves from the threat of *savages*.

“In 1909 in Sweden, for example, the Swedish Society for Racial Hygiene was founded, followed in 1910 by the Mendel Society, the first Swedish genetics association. Even before World War I, leading doctors including Herman Lundborg, a prominent figure in racial biology, saw eugenics as a means to counter the problem of immigration, and there was a widely held opinion that the racial unity of the Swedish people was threatened. (4) Just as under the Nazis, the welfare state in Sweden had to be protected from ‘‘unproductive anti-socials’’ and so it became a ‘‘eugenic welfare state of the fittest.” – Sara Salem (Discover Society, 2018)

You know who were huge supporters of eugenics? Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt. Well, and Adolph Hitler.

It is important to recognize the shameful role that Hollywood plays in all this. The apologetics from media and celebrities who seem indifferent to the actual history of America is stunning. And in particular to the continued reproduction of the violent hero, the man of action (and not thought). And, as I’ve noted before, it’s not the issue of violence per se, for drama has always dwelt on that, but the ideological frame in which this occurs (I mean watch the new series Jack Ryan for an example that, clearly, CIA advisors are in the story meetings for all networks these days). There are very few stories of early America in which the audience is made aware that twelve presidents were slave owners. In fact the real horror of slavery is still not told.

John Wayne, Dirty Harry, and Rambo.

“The Philippine War was as unnecessary as it is unjust—a wanton, wicked, and abominable war … and what is the answer? “No useless parley! More soldiers! More guns! More blood! More devastation! Kill, kill, kill! And when we have killed enough, so that further resistance is stopped, then we shall see.” Translated from smooth phrase into plain English, this is the program.… In the vocabulary of our imperialists, “order” means above all submission to their will. Any other kind of order, be it ever so peaceful and safe, must be suppressed by a bloody hand.”

– Carl Schurz, (The Policy of Imperialism, 1899)

As an interesting note, water boarding was the favorite technique for American marines in the Philippines. And McKinley, then President, claimed he heard the voice of God as he paced the halls of the White House, undecided about invasion. But then God spoke to him. And God wanted America to go to war (and apparently to waterboard the savages).

The deeply embedded racism of America is still being denied. And its important to see the ways in which this denial is expressed. For they relate directly to the rugged tough guy machismo of much of white america. And not just America, for the *tough* talk is couched as *realistic* and this is what one hears in Lars Rasmussen and Victor Orban, in Salvini and the leader of the Swedish Democrats Jimmie Åkesson. It is what one hears from Trump and McCain, too. The implication is that the left is weak, and worse, effeminate. Many female politicians bend over backwards to appear ‘one of the guys’ (see Hillary Clinton). And the more insecure the white male, the tougher the talk. Roosevelt was an asthmatic child who was never naturally athletic or physically gifted.

“The first state to enact a sterilization law was Indiana in 1907, quickly followed by California and 28 other states by 1931 (Lombardo n.d.). These laws resulted in the forced sterilization of over 64,000 people in the United States (Lombardo n.d.). At first, sterilization efforts focused on the disabled but later grew to include people whose only “crime” was poverty. These sterilization programs found legal support in the Supreme Court. In Buck v. Bell (1927), the state of Virginia sought to sterilize Carrie Buck for promiscuity as evidenced by her giving birth to a baby out of wedlock (some suggest she was raped). In ruling against Buck, Supreme Court Justice Wendell Holmes opined, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind….Three generations of imbeciles is enough” (Black 2003). This decision legitimized the various sterilization laws in the United States. In particular, California’s program was so robust that the Nazi’s turned to California for advice in perfecting their own efforts. Hitler proudly admitted to following the laws of several American states that allowed for the prevention of reproduction of the “unfit” (Black 2003).”

– Laura Rivard (Sictable, 2014)

“In 1937, a Gallup poll in the USA found that 45 per cent of supported euthanasia for “defective infants”. A year later, in a speech at Harvard, WG Lennox argued that preserving disabled lives placed a strain on society and urged doctors to recognize “the privilege of death for the congenitally mindless and for the incurable sick”. An article published in the journal of the American Psychiatric Association in 1942 called for the killing of all “retarded” children over five years old.”

– Victoria Brignell, (New Statesman, 2010)

The U.S. and Europe both are seeing a return of the most virulent xenophobic bigotry imaginable. A revanchist fascist sensibility has found a startling legitimacy in the public and in the media. And no amount of argument seems to sway white liberals today that the FBI and CIA and Pentagon are anything but virtuous and honourable institutions. And hating Donald Trump is all the justification needed to allow the thinly buried racism and privilege of most white americans to come to the surface.

None of this has ever gone away. Forced sterilizations took place as recently as 1963 in California (the leader by a wide margin in carrying out eugenics policies) and reasons included being an orphan, sexual indulgence (slut), alcoholism and foreignness. In fact post WW2 saw little retreat in eugenics policy making in the U.S.

“Today in Western North Carolina, a nonprofit group offers drug addicts money to be “voluntarily” sterilized. It is dubious whether one could honestly consider this program to be voluntary or ethical, since many people suffering from drug addictions will do nearly anything for money—and that money will likely go to scoring their next fix.”

– Keven Bigos (“The American Eugenics Movement After WW2,” Indy Week 2011)

In the 60s and 70s forced sterilizations took place among gay and lesbian people, Cheyenne, Sioux , and Navajo women, and poor whites in Georgia and Alabama. The Weather Underground bombed a federal building in San Francisco to protest sterilizations in 1974. It is worth noting a few additional details about who was financing this stuff after the war. Kevin Bigos’ award-winning article is worth a read in its entirety. But…leading advocates included… “Harvard anthropologist Earnest Hooton, and California eugenicists Paul Popenoe and C.M. Goethe. ( ) Hooton had worked on the “Committee of the Negro” during the 1920s as part of an effort to prove that the black race was inferior, and Goethe had openly praised Nazi eugenics programs.” And then there was the biggest force for Eugenics probably in U.S. history, Dr Clarence Gamble (of Proctor & Gamble). And it should be noted that the idea of coercive sterilization was hugely popular. It was not some crazy fringe flat earth society belief — it found support among the most prestigious Universities and Medical Institutions in the country.

The University of North Carolina throughout the 1950s handed out pro eugenics literature to students. And women were largely the target and *sex delinquency* was the primary reason given for sterilization. Criminals were also targeted. Anyone with a felony conviction was deemed unfit to reproduce. This is the 1950s remember.

Hitler praised California for its eugenics thinking. American Exceptionalism at its finest.

There is no way to over-emphasize the toxicity of U.S. (and European) history. There simply isn’t. But I think somehow the deeper question is how the public has returned to an adoration of the most violent, aggressive and xenophobic figures in public life. No president is criticized for going to war, so, given all the other encouragements for war its an easy call. They will continue to find enemies to fear and reasons to increase defense spending. They will find poor nations, without defense capabilities, and send in troops to save them. Just as the Philippines were saved and civilized over a hundred years ago. And just as Africa is, again, a target for the civilizing mission of the Christian West. Of course the extraction of natural resources is the engine behind this. Profit is always the most powerful justification. But it is also more than that. It is the fear out there today in the bourgeois West — and the crushing heat waves of this last year seem not to have even dented the belief in humanitarian intervention. Obama is literally a figure of adoration. For liberals he is something close to a deity, in fact. His actual record is of no interest. To bring it up is to just be a buzz-kill. Fear runs throughout the populace. But it is far too simple to say that because it is a complex of *fears*. And it is a strange return of core American mythology, Manifest Destiny, Indian killers, gunfighters, and land barons. The current hit TV series Yellowstone (created and written by Taylor Sheridan and starring Kevin Costner) is a prime example. Watching the show (and Sheridan is actually a better than average writer) I could never quite decide if the show was tongue in cheek or sincere. I fear the latter. Costner plays the owner of the largest ranch in the United States. At one point a visiting Japanese (!) tourist says ‘this is too much land for one man to own’. Costner barks back…’this is america, we dont share land’.

Im still not sure if this was meant to be a desirable statement or not. But I suspect it was. Even if only unconsciously. And there are things, believe it or not, to applaud in this show. But the overriding love affair with power eclipses all else. America will always see conquest as individual achievement. Power as a sign of virtue. Oh and Costner occasionally looks heavenward and asks for God’s help — but in manly one syllable words.

White supremacism is a foundational feature of American society. One only has to examine the statistics for mass incarceration to prove this. Blacks are incarcerated 5 times the rate of whites, and in some states that ratio is ten times. In twelve states blacks make up more than half the prison population. Latinos are incarcerated at nearly twice the rate of whites. White supremacism and american exceptionalism. And that belief in an innate superiority is core America.

And as cultural globalism increases, with all its inequalities, the white west is increasingly frightened. And it is psychically circling the wagons. The nauseating outpouring of ersatz grief for McCain has, as I say, not much to do with McCain. It has everything to do with revalidating white virtue, and white superiority. The token superficiality of multiculturalism in arts and entertainment is only another symptom. Praising identity based garbage is really just white parternalism applied to aesthetics. But its not just dark skinned people, not just inner city black kids or Muslims or the Chinese; it is the poor, too. The “othering” of almost everyone not white, or not prosperous and western, is in overdrive. And the constant demonizing and slurs against Communists never slows down. It happens on the flaccid quasi left, too. It is just white fear. And it is radioactive. The terrified bourgeoisie of the West are in meltdown. Everywhere I go ..even to places I love such as Copenhagen or Gothenburg… I sense an uptick in martial vibes. Especially among younger men. No jobs, no pride, no place for courage or honour. There is only the numbing monotony of iPads or smart phones or social media. And a debilitating projection of this fear onto immigrants and foreigners in general. In the U.S. it is worse. For in the U.S. the cultural realm has never been so denuded and dead. It is the province of the bureaucratic technicians of banality and the trivial. And it is now a country of all encompassing anger.

That McCain was given (or gave himself, who knows) the moniker “maverick” says it all. Its a nostalgia for a counterfeit past. For an invented history wiped clean of atrocity. And it provides ever less even momentary relief from the dire future everyone knows is coming.

More articles by:

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.

Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
Robert Fantina
Democrats and the Mid-Term Elections
Joseph Flatley
The Fascist Creep: How Conspiracy Theories and an Unhinged President Created an Anti-Semitic Terrorist
Joseph Natoli
Twitter: Fast Track to the Id
William Hawes
Baselines for Activism: Brecht’s Stance, the New Science, and Planting Seeds
Bob Wing
Toward Racial Justice and a Third Reconstruction
Ron Jacobs
Hunter S. Thompson: Chronicling the Republic’s Fall
Oscar Gonzalez
Stan Lee and a Barrio Kid
Jack Rasmus
Election 2018 and the Unraveling of America
Sam Pizzigati
The Democrats Won Big, But Will They Go Bold?
Yves Engler
Canada and Saudi Arabia: Friends or Enemies?
Cesar Chelala
Can El Paso be a Model for Healing?
Mike Ferner
The Tragically Misnamed Paris Peace Conference
Barry Lando
Trump’s Enablers: Appalling Parallels
Ariel Dorfman
The Boy Who Taught Me About War and Peace
Binoy Kampmark
The Disgruntled Former Prime Minister
Faisal Khan
Is Dubai Really a Destination of Choice?
Arnold August
The Importance of Néstor García Iturbe, Cuban Intellectual
James Munson
An Indecisive War To End All Wars, I Mean the Midterm Elections
Nyla Ali Khan
Women as Repositories of Communal Values and Cultural Traditions
Dan Bacher
Judge Orders Moratorium on Offshore Fracking in Federal Waters off California
Christopher Brauchli
When Depravity Wins
Robby Sherwin
Here’s an Idea
Susan Block
Cucks, Cuckolding and Campaign Management
Louis Proyect
The Mafia and the Class Struggle (Part Two)
David Yearsley
Smoke on the Water: Jazz in San Francisco
Elliot Sperber
All of Those Bezos
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail