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American Exceptionalism? Domenico Tojetti's 1875 allegorical painting, Progress of America. America is driving west in a golden chariot drawn by two benign, white horses. She brings the light of the east into the darkness of the frontier and carries along civilization in the forms of the muses. Although not clearly visible in the lower left-hand corner, Indians and bison are fleeing before her, as she drives out ignorance and replaces it with enlightenment. Manifest Destiny is depicted by three putti, one of which crowns America with the gods’ blessings, while another carries a guiding light and the last employs a heralding horn. The westbound train in the lower right-hand corner further enhances the advancement and reminds the viewer of the transcontinental railroad, completed six years earlier in 1869. (Public domain)

The Ghost That Haunts Us

Carol L. Williams

Of late, I've been contemplating the abomination that is President Donald Trump and his administration. This has necessarily involved thinking about the Right’s fixation on corporatism as the only way to mediate all of life as we know it. Naturally, I’ve also meditated on GOP ideologies that demonize all manner of quite normal and beneficial American traditions like Liberal Arts Education, public workers, and social security. My pondering has been contextualized by long walks at my family's farm situated on the edge of Appalachia and the Bluegrass. Perhaps the term best describing this region is antithesis. Contradiction exists there as a way of life. As I see it, the contradictions, the unrelenting absurdity from the White House, and the vengeful strain of Republicanism arise from a single source and are symptomatic of a national pathology. For true progress to occur in our country the malady must be overcome.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re aware of the Trump Show in Washington, D.C. If you have been living under a rock, presumably without access to the news, I’m sorry I don’t have space here to bring you up to speed on the hourly assault on sentient life. I will though, provide a glimpse of the contradictions that define life in the rural area of my ancestral home.

The farm is located less than 50 miles from a metro area of nearly 2 million people, but the county is so rural it lacks a single red-yellow-green traffic light. It’s nestled in a place where the War of Southern Revolt is not yet settled among the descendants of Union and Confederate loyalists who resided uncomfortably side-by-side during the Great Upheaval. Racism there can be intense in spite of a history of Abolitionist leadership, Underground Railroad safe houses, and clandestine ferrying of slaves across the Ohio River to freedom. It’s a place historically dependent on tobacco production but rife with illnesses caused by tobacco use. It’s a place where everyone is from immigrant stock but xenophobia is abundant.

The area is endowed with an uncommon natural beauty untouched by mining but each day giant SUVs flaunting "Friend of Coal" specialty plates rumble down the improved roads provided at tax-payer expense.

People in this area believe in American exceptionalism and the Puritan work ethic, but it’s a place with recurring below-average health, income, literacy and education levels. It has big problems of poverty like meth and heroin use which in turn spawn companion crimes. There is little access to affordable health care and jobs with living wages. Too few have access to high-speed Internet and even fewer have real property.

Pro-labor sentiment was once indomitable in this region. Here, after the Civil War, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor organized European immigrants, liberated blacks, and internal migrantson a cooperative basis. In the early 1900s, tobacco farmers formed co-ops to break up Robber Baron monopolies, eventually succeeding in their aim. Not too far away in “Bloody Harland” County in 1931, mine workers attempting to organize against hazardous working conditions and unfair treatment were engaged by private security in a hail of bullets. In an apparent case of amnesia, however, the people are now entranced by the anti-labor mantra. During their amnesiac episode their jobs have been moved out-of-state and their elected representatives have passed legislation that reduces the value of their labor and decreases their lifetime earning potential.

These are the inevitable consequences of our country’s founding on racism, genocide, misogyny, patriarchy, complacency, plunder of nature and conquered people, and the construction of a system designed to benefit a narrow segment of humans - those who are white, male, Anglo and Protestant.These contradictions, and the rise of modern Republicanism and the Alt-Right with its fascistic doctrines, leave me with the impression that there’s something deeply unsettled among us. Everywhere. It’s something uncomfortable and substantial, but not material. It’s as if there’s a shadow skulking about, unbidden, unwanted, and vaguely threatening. What is the unresolved, lurking thing?

My answer is not a new discovery. It’s more like an admission, one that will likely resonate with some and enrage others. My answer is this: the same-source of the contradictions filling daily American life, modern Republicanism and its evil twin the Alt-Right is our failure as Americans to acknowledge the unscrupulous ideals and impulses in which our country's existence and character are rooted. We are unsettled. We are uncomfortable. And we do feel vaguely menaced. These are the inevitable consequences of our country’s founding on racism, genocide, misogyny, patriarchy, complacency, plunder of nature and conquered people, and the construction of a system designed to benefit a narrow segment of humans - those who are white, male, Anglo and Protestant. We’ll remain disoriented and off-balance until we face our Founding Ignoble Principles. The longer we flounder, the longer Trumpian Insanity will thwart our collective progress.

Our founders crafted a heroic but fictional narrative of our nation’s founding on virtue, moral high ground, justice and liberty. The founders’ false brand has been marketed to the world and all future Americans using deception, lies, and distortion in ways eerily similar to Trump and his sycophants and their bellicose slogans touting American righteousness. We buy into the brand in spite of so much evidence of its fraudulence. This is our national personality pathology. Does it provide us a measure of protection against self-hatred for a shameful past? No. It serves only those Americans intended to be benefited by the Founding Ignoble Principles by gaslighting the rest of us.

Our founders’ fictional narrative must be reconciled with reality, real reality, the kind faced by everyday people in their everyday lives.

Our personality pathology prevents us from speaking truthfully about the magnitude of our founding history of genocide and hostile Evangelicalism. It causes us to fervently defended colonialism of an “empty continent” as a legitimate way to build a nation of liberty and justice. It makes us cleave to the irrational belief that colonialism has no lasting negative effect - on anyone. We cannot speak of slavery and the exploitation of immigrants of low status, women and children as the basis for establishing our country’s economy. Our pathology drubs Manifest Destiny into our heads as an unassailable truth. It tells us militarism is the equivalent of patriotism. We embrace the Melting Pot metaphor and ignore how after generations of “blending” we are still quite white, Anglo and male in our national character, and that English is our de facto national language. We turn a blind eye to past internment of German, Chinese and Japanese immigrants and others who did nothing illegal or otherwise wrong, and whose lives and reputations were sacrificed along with civil liberty for political expediency to quell politically-stoked fears. Most insidious of all, we stubbornly refuse our profound history of interpreting the Bible to justify oppression, violence and killing for the economic and social benefit of a select few.

We pretend none of it can happen again.

The Founding Ignoble Principles are plainly operating today but we are too distracted with consumption, entertainment and maintaining our anti-depressant/anti-anxiety medicated stupor to notice, or care. Thusly we uphold the undisputable American character, the undeniable preeminence of the white, male, Anglo, Protestant role model, and the incontrovertible superiority of the corporation as the great arbiter of Life. And to what effect? Protection of the 1% to the detriment of us all, nicely packaged in red, white and blue and sold to us as What Makes America Great (Again).

Clearly, correction of our super-sanitized national narrative is long overdue. We cannot hope to be a united nation without doing so.

Does this mean wrongs of the past must be dragged out for pubic execution and the responsible parties posthumously flogged? Must the demons be summoned in order to exorcize them? Must a civil war be fought to construct homogeneity as an analogue for unity? I think not. Steve Bannon and his Armaggedoneers are wickedly mistaken.

A first step could be to admit our past, our whole past, like addicts acknowledging they have a problem. It would certainly be good to acknowledge that there are unspeakable truths before attempting to explore those truths. But we must take care not to stir passions of hatred, resentment, and pride in the process. Those passions are already boiling over – no doubt hastened by our national psychosis of history denial. Indeed, when justice and liberty for all are proffered as the great promise of America but denied to the hard-working, blameless individual, it’s not long before flesh and property are sacrificed for the mere hope of delivery on the promise made.

Perhaps it’s not our history and founding principles per se then, but denial that haunts us.

Our denial sets us against each other making ample opportunity for those who would exploit our division for their own gain. Therefore, we must welcome an awakening to the past. We must speak honestly but with compassion and forgiveness. There is no amount of fanatical Trumpism, Libertarianism, Clintonism or any other sociopolitical or economic 'ism that can resolve for us the wounds of the past and the diseases of denial. Only by acknowledging the whole past and bringing our denial to the light of day can we balm the pain and foster healing. Let us reject denial then, and release the ghost that haunts us.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Carol L. Williams

Carol L. Williams

Carol L. Williams is a research scientist at a Midwest Land Grant university. Her expertise is in ecology and transdisciplinary collaboration.  She spends her spare time working on her family's historic farm and searching for ways to more sustainably produce food from her tiny patch of the Earth.

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