We live in a prosperous country, a nation built in part by slave labor on land stolen from indigenous peoples, peoples victimized by genocide by foreigners who themselves were often fleeing victimization in their native lands.
By peoples from foreign lands, including some of our Founding Fathers, who couldn’t reconcile – or wouldn’t – the difference between their vision for a nation aspiring to freedom and liberty and the reality of what they created; an America where one people often deemed themselves superior to others – a reality that persisted for generations.
While America thrived in part because of creative tensions released when individuals and communities competed for opportunity and advantage – sometimes synergistically to benefit everyone, sometimes negatively to advantage one above the other – many of the inequities institutionalized over 200 years ago remain, sins not yet fully acknowledged.
Surrounded by the memory of those original sins we live today in a nation torn between those who demand legitimacy and equal justice for all Americans and those who would deny the Other’s demands for legitimacy.
Today, as we approach an election which many Americans are casting simply as a choosing between forces of darkness and light, I believe it’s really a choice about identifying who we are.
Confronting identity; that’s the reality of this election.
Confronting an identity that rests in part upon domination. Domination by peoples who perceived themselves as exceptional on the basis of a false construct of white patriarchal superiority – a construct based on a belief that to be Christian and non-colored was to be superior to all others.
A construct, I believe, that arose out of the fact that because white Europeans, and later Americans, had been triumphant and become enriched during their colonial and imperial adventures around the world – exploiting native peoples and their resources, as did the British in India – that they were superior to all others.
And, because many Americans still believe in that construct – the edifice upon which they’ve constructed their identity – and believe that that identity is under attack by the Other, by non-white often non-Christian peoples, we’re witnessing new attempts to victimize, marginalize and disenfranchise the Other in order to try and sustain the positional superiority and privilege of white America.
I believe an example of that construct is that when America was attacked on 9/11 many Americans believed it was the first time terror had struck the homeland – at least since Pearl Harbor.
The reality is, however, that you could truly believe that only if you were male, white and Christian.
Native Americans have been terrorized for generations. From 1880 to the 1950s between 4,000 and 7,000 African-Americans were lynched. In 1921 more than 35 city blocks of Tulsa OK were burned to the ground in a pogrom against its Black citizens. Beginning in the 1930s Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were routinely denied sanctuary and admission to the United States and during World War II American citizens of Japanese descent were uprooted and sent to internment camps.
That, too, is terrorism.
Because of who many Americans believe they are – an identity they’ve historically believed to be superior to non-European peoples and cultures – America doesn’t respond well when its identity, superiority and exceptionalism are challenged.
After 9/11, for example, we believed that we could respond in historically-tested methods – intimidation and force. While our military response in Afghanistan was justified we arrogantly went further, into Iraq – and beyond – and stumbled because of false assumptions.
One of the architects of America’s invasion of Iraq, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, perhaps inadvertently, in a Vanity Fair interview, reflected that false construct when he, identified what went wrong: “…I think the greatest mistake is assuming that people will behave, well it’s a version of mirror imaging, I guess. People will be rational according to our [American] definition of what is rational.”
And that definition, based on a corrupt, over 200 year old construct, is today being challenged, challenged because reliance on the false construct has failed us, as it did in 2003, and puts us at risk because our “experts” on the Other – like Wolfowitz – like those politicians and pundits whose world-views are informed by Western stereotypes, words, images that are common, popular and often vulgar don’t understand that the contemporary manifestation of the Other we face is more nuanced than what exists in our imagination – and that it requires a more sophisticated response than we’re accustomed to.
Today, we’re challenged by the legitimate aspirations of the Other on one hand and by false assumptions, narratives and definitions of the Other by some Americans who believe that the Other is the cause of their dislocation, discomfort and alienation with the Public Square.
Those alienated Americans are today being mobilized and exploited by a cynical reality TV star, a cross between a frustrated Jay Gatsby and a newly-empowered George Wallace, for whom neither truth nor facts have currency but who continues to believe and exploit the myth of white legitimacy and authority.
He and his followers believe in an Other as defined by Western artists, writers, intellectuals, pundits and politicians that’s constructed of false stereotypes and newly-formed assumptions bearing little relationship to reality and which certainly do not reflect an often-tarnished legacy of scapegoating minorities like Jews, Muslims, Catholics, African-Americans, Italians, Japanese, Unitarians, LGBTQIAs and so many others.
Today, the Other is writing back, talking back, voting back, pushing back and offering counter-discourses to undercut the perverse patriarchal tropes of colonialism that afflict us still.
We’re witnessing the mobilization, witnessing the intersectionality of oppressed peoples and movements demanding liberation and freedom – from Occupy Wall Street to the Dakota Access pipeline being challenged by the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies to #BlackLivesMatter, all standing together to demand their inalienable rights.
Recently, at the same time that seven white, antigovernment protesters led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, seemingly protected by privilege since their armed takeover of a federally-owned wildlife sanctuary in Oregon last winter, were being tried and acquitted of federal conspiracy and weapons charges, hundreds of unprotected Native Americans and environmental activists opposing construction of a 1,172-mile were being maced, teargassed and arrested in North Dakota.
The truth is, as when Washington Post cartoonist Ann Telnaes recently asked, “What’s the difference between an armed occupier and a peaceful protester?” is that “If you’re white and armed it’s okay to break the law.”
On November 8th – for all the cognitive dissonance that racks America, for all that’s broken within us, for all the privilege of a few and all the inequities visited upon the many – we must vote!
On that day let’s affirmatively identify with those aspirational values of justice and equality for which so many valiantly fought and sacrificed – for which so many from Flint to Standing Rock struggle still – and reject all false constructs of privilege and power.