Monday, December 21, 2009

National mythology and dog whistles

I ran into this very interesting essay over at BroadSnark, White America's Existential Crisis. The author writes a great deal on some themes I've touched upon briefly since late 2008. A few excerpts are in order:
There is a certain segment of the American population that really believes in the American foundational myths.  They identify with them.  They believe that America was built by a handful of white, Christian, men with exceptional morals.  Their America is the country that showed the world democracy, saved the Jews in World War II, and tore down the Berlin wall.

These people have always fought changes to their mythology.  They have always resented those of us who pushed to complicate those myths with the realities of slavery, Native American genocide, imperial war in the Philippines, invasions of Latin American countries, and secret arms deals.

And we have been so busy fighting them to have our stories and histories included in the American story that we sometimes forget why the myths were invented in the first place.


Marginalization and myths have always been about economic exploitation.  White supremacy is not simply personal bigotry.  It is the systematic exclusion, dehumanization, and erasure of the majority in order to preserve economic dominance for the wealthy minority.  And while white men may be in most positions of wealth and power to this day, only a very few of them really benefit from our current economic system.  White supremacy helped distract poor and working class whites from targeting their economic exploiters.  White supremacy helped mask the lie of equal opportunity.


When Americans vote for a president, they want to see that heroic version of themselves looking back at them.  They want to see that free cowboy of the mythology.  No matter how poor or exploited white people were, they could always take subconscious comfort in the fact that, when they looked at the highest power in the land, they saw an idealized version of themselves.

And then came Barack Obama.


It’s a powerful thing to be able to identify with the people who are your leaders, to feel like they are one of you.  It’s a feeling that many people in the United States felt for the first time when Barack Obama was elected.  It’s equally powerful when your elected leaders are clearly not like you, when the fact that they do not represent you is glaringly obvious.


Many of these angry people are the very white, Christian, men that this country was supposedly built by and for.  And this is the first time the myth of America has been unmasked for them.

Undoubtedly, there are some bigots out there who are just angry that they have a black president.  Clearly, even for those who don’t feel motivated by personal bigotry, there is a healthy dose of racism underlying the fact that it took a black president for them to realize that their government is as dysfunctional as it is.  But I doubt the people we are talking about have an understanding of the difference between bigotry and racism.

And I don’t believe it is just blackness that makes Barack Obama different and symbolic.  It is also his intellectual cosmopolitanism.  He is a symbol of the privilege that is replacing whiteness – the educated professional/managerial class.  And there is a significant amount of animosity directed towards those people who justify their privilege by virtue of their intellect.

And so these people who have lost their foundational myths are out in the streets.  They are using all the synonyms for “bad” that our pathetic school system and media have taught them – communist, fascist, totalitarian, socialist, nazi.  All the words are interchangeable.  They all mean not American.  They all mean not them.
That I believe is the key to understanding something about the psychological makeup of a large portion of the American population, and to understanding their dog whistles. Structurally, we're still a highly racist and classist nation, and it's no surprise that our national myths reflect and support the structure. For those who've found some comfort in our mythology, the recent election of a leader who doesn't quite fit the mold has caused a near meltdown - not only among the obvious hard right, but also among some elements of the PUMA crowd from the 2008 silly season.

Now of course I might have some quibbles. However, whatever quibbles I might have aside, there is no doubt that the Pope of Hope symbolically represents a different demographic than our aging and shrinking WASP population. It is against that backdrop that we might best understand what is really being said by those who shout about "taking back their America" from "socialists", "Nazis", "Islamists", or whatever flavor of the month label one might use (a sizable proportion of the Tea Party crowd), or who make endless demands for the current prez to produce a birth certificate (i.e., the birthers, whom I might add could be transported back in time to the very delivery room where Obama would have been born in Hawaii, and witness the appropriate paperwork being signed and submitted, and still remain unsatisfied).

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