What is the United States of America?

 

“Has it been like this in the past or is this something new?” my friend Pádraig asked.

We were sitting in one of the coffee shops close to Purdue’s campus, and around us I could hear the familiar chatter one associates with a café that caters to college students, professors, and artsy town folks. For the past three years Podge and I have had a standing coffee date where we mostly discussed the field of history, and where we were in our respective research projects. But on that day intermixed with the chatter of planning the upcoming fall semester, I could hear the words “Virginia,” “Nazi,” and “Antifa” swirling about the tables as if it were an espresso machine mixing seemingly unrelated ingredients together in an uncomfortable froth.

It was the Wednesday following the white supremacist rally and neo-Nazi terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia. Several pro-democracy protesters were injured, one was dead. And Lafayette, Indiana, like much of the rest of the country, was discussing what it meant.

“Yes and no,” I answered. Three years earlier, Podge had immigrated to the US from Ireland. He was somewhat familiar with American history, but it was not his primary research focus.

I explained to Podge that such attacks and demonstrations of white supremacy were, in fact (and unfortunately), not unprecedented in US history.

As I explained the history of the US, framing it as a larger project of British imperialism that made use of (and in many ways created) white supremacy to justify the white English speaking people’s conquest of North America, I remembered back to the class I had just finished teaching for the summer. It was the first half of US history, and as I explained to Podge the long, sordid history of events like Bacon’s Rebellion, American slavery and apartheid, and the southern Confederacy, all the previous lectures I had just finished flashed through my mind.

Throughout the class I had encouraged my students to think of the first period of US history, roughly the 1600s to 1860s, as a period which provided a way for us in the present to understand how nations formed.

“What is nationalism?” I asked in several lectures. “It is an imagined community, a social and cultural space in history that gives rise to a sense of shared purpose, identity, and cause.”

(Benedict Anderson, obviously, had been the honorary theorist for the semester)

“But how does that shared identity and community work,” I asked in one lecture, “if the US is built on, and perpetuates, a system of white colonial settlerism?”

The easy answer would be to say that the US national project was unachievable, that any push for democracy or revolutionary change in the US context was impossible at best, a dream meant to dupe the naïve at its worse.

But, as I explained through the course, such a cynical reading of American history erased the very people who had been subjected to that colonial hierarchy, and who had fought, resisted, and rebelled against it. From the Enclosure Acts, to the forced removals of Indigenous Americans, to chattel slavery of Africans, peoples on multiple continents had been brutalized and resisted the broader rise of global capitalism in the Atlantic World. Rebellions, “Frontier” Wars, and uprisings were as much a part of the early history of the United States as was the history of upper class colonial rule. In so far as the US was a civilization dedicated to revolution, liberty, and democratic equality, it was such a society because of those who fought back and rejected the broader project of imperialism.

My major point for the course, therefore, was that at the very heart of American national identity sat a deadly contradiction, one that had never been fully addressed.

“Understand that,” I explained to the class, “and you will understand the rest of US history. We are a national community based on high ideals of equality, self-determination, and a democratic political ethos. But the US was also born out of white supremacy and imperialism, and that history is just as important as any democratic ideal.”

A revolutionary democracy and a colonial settler state. A dichotomy that generated historic conflict, and which framed US history. This understanding drew a bloody red line from Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676 to the “Unite the Right” fascist rally in Virginia in 2017.

Once I finished explaining it, how Richard Spencer and company misused history to falsely claim that whites had been “noble” explorers “taming” the “New” world, Podge sat for a moment quietly taking it in.

“So,” he said at last, thinking about his own home of Ireland, “it’s all the fucking British Empire’s fault.”

“God save the queen,” I replied dryly.

+++

Prior to the fascist terrorist attack in Virginia I had already planned on organizing my survey classes by asking a series of overarching questions that would hopefully lead to a broader understanding about past and present periods, and what had led to our current moment.

Modern World History, 1490-2000s would focus on the question “What is modernity?” and would use the class to get students to understand that the concept of “modernity” was in large part a socio-political ideology which argued for a certain trajectory of historical development.

The two other sections, History 151: US History Until 1877 and History 152: US History From 1877, would deal with the question “What is a nation?” and “What is democracy?” respectfully.

This pedagogical approach would steer my survey classes away from the typical slog of facts, figures, and dates most textbooks followed, and instead encourage the students to see history as a complex and everchanging conversation between the past and our own present period. But in order to do this I first needed to frame the classes as a conversation, and not a few weeks of me preaching an established set of information. Instead, for the conversation to take place, we would need to begin with a basic question, the first step in any process of learning via dialogue.

By understanding that modernity is a political ideology, students would be able to question the entire project of our current civilization, one that many in power want to convince them is a steady march toward unending, automatic, progress. Next, by asking what historically is the basis of a modern nation they would see how events that occurred in the past radiated into our own period, informing the very way we relate to one another on a cultural, social, political, and economic basis. And finally, after having seen that an ideology of modernity created an unquestioning faith in progress, and that this “progress” helped sustain the very white supremacist colonial project at the heart of US nationalism, students would be able to take a third class that completed the exercise by asking “What is democracy?” exactly, and as a result begin seeing that the social, political, and economic movements to win dignity, power, and security for people were a broader historical project to alter society and move beyond history’s longer shadow.

It remains to be seen how successful this approach will be, but the hope is that once I am working full time as a college instructor, students would be able to take all three of the survey courses and develop a broader set of historical skills and comprehension.

It is a set of skills that I think are vital for us in the present. After Podge and I finished our coffee and he headed out, I began reading for a project I was working on, and couldn’t help but overhear the two men behind me.

“I’ve been hearing a lot about Antifa,” the first guy said.

“Yep,” the other answered.

“I mean, look, I am against the Nazis, but Antifa just goes too far.”

“What? Why?” the second guy asked.

“Well, you know… they destroy property and stuff,” anti-Antifa guy answered.

“Fuck that shit,” the pro-Antifa guy responded. “That is neoliberal bullshit. Property? Who gives a fuck. Nazis are talking about genocide, literally murdering people, and society wants me to think some business’ profit is the most important thing to worry about? Antifa is fighting to try and stop these fascist pricks from getting more power. If the state did what it was supposed to do, then Antifa wouldn’t even need to exist.”

I went back to taking notes. Online and on campus the sentiments expressed by the two friends arguing over “Antifa” were nothing new. Antifa was literally just the “antifascist movement,” but it was typically meant to designate the more radical anarchist street groups who engaged in direct militant actions, such as physically fighting back against the fascists in places like Virginia. Antifa was getting more attention as their tactics to intimidate and stop Nazis gained more attention, and were credited by people like Cornel West with having saved lives.

The two friends continued to argue some more, mostly about what was most effective in stopping the spread of fascism, but instead of focusing on the anti-Antifa guy, I was genuinely curious about the pro-Antifa friend. Although perhaps not a majority, he was voicing something that I was finding to be a growing opinion.

Fascism is evil. Those who fight it should not be chastised, but thanked.

Again, it got back to what I hoped would be achieved by asking students to ask the broader question, “What is democracy?” By showing them that past actors had been forced to fight, sometimes with force, for basic rights they would hopefully see that US history wasn’t predetermined with the “good guys” being endorsed by society at large. Instead, activism in all periods had been met with some form of opposition, be it government, religion, or corporations. Therefore, activism then and now, was not about automatically being on “the right side of history” but instead it was a longer engagement with society to win major concessions to expand democracy, centering sovereignty and dignity in the individual, and not government power.

Democracy is therefore a way of life, and as such it is more than a political system to delineate power. It is, in simple terms, an ethical and moral outlook that imbues the people of a given community with automatic and inalienable rights. These rights are normative claims that position the individual as a being deserving of dignity. We afford these rights to one another not out of fear that someone may eventually try to harm us, or because humans are alienated individuals who must go it alone, but because as ethical actors we acknowledge that beings have a fundamental dignity to help guide and shape the community we share. In other words, democratic rights serve a dual purpose of empowering an individual and bolstering a democratic civilization.

Democracy, in other words, is not apolitical. It is not an arena where “anything goes,” and it sure as hell shouldn’t be a “marketplace of ideas” where popularity alone determines the validity of a principle. It is a socially constructed sphere where we engage in meaningful dialogue, decision making, and self-exploration so as to improve ourselves, our societies, and our collective knowledge.

One could not trust the weight of “modernity” to carry this forward, anymore than one could assume the relations of a modern nation would sooth over continuing issues of oppression. Only through conscious effort to expand the democratic sphere, pulling out of history’s death grip gravitational pull, could people in a particular period hope to better themselves and future generations.

As such, not all political views are compatible with democracy. Some are, in fact, anti-democratic. Authoritarianism is anti-democratic. Fascism is anti-democratic. Religiously based terrorism is anti-democratic.

Therefore, when people fight authoritarians, or fascists, or religious extremists especially in the cases where those ideologies have a historic legacy of hegemonic power, then the person in question is not “just as bad” because they fought. Fighting and resisting evil is not itself evil.

The the Antifa, BLM, and left-wing socialists and liberals are not evil for fighting Nazis.

Decades of reducing historic understanding to shitty B-movies where John Wayne strutted around on camera talking about “fighting the bad guy” has produced a widespread ethical outlook that simultaneously celebrates violence when it is the US military blowing things up, while shrieking in terror when people organize and protest actual Nazis.

In fact, one could argue that the celebration of such American figures, like John Wayne, has not just produced a confused ethical outlook on violence, but has in fact created a cultural script that normalizes certain types of violence, even celebrating violence when it is violence in service to the broader imperial project of the United States. As we all know, the western portions of North America were not “settled” in any real sense of the word by English speaking colonists. Indigenous people had long lived in the multiple areas the US eventually claimed as territories. Yet even beyond this, the Spanish, French, and Latin Americans had a long standing presence in these areas, in some instances dating back centuries.

That history is still present in the very words we speak.

Los Vegas. Los Angeles. Baton Rogue. New Orleans. Santa Barbara.

All of this makes the present day cultural essentialists, freaking out about multiculturalism and multilingualism, all the more ridiculous.

The US discovered nothing, no matter how one looks at it, in its economic and geographic expansion. Instead, the “settling” of the West was really an incorporation of these areas into the East coast’s rising industrial corporate capitalism. In so doing, the US established a multicultural sprawling empire that had a bizarre relationship with violence as a political and economic tool.

Violence in the expansion West? This is typically treated in many mainstream understanding as just an unfortunate by product of a “clash of civilizations,” as unavoidable as a planet’s gravitational pull.

Violence used against foreign governments, such as the US’s use of violence in the Allied cause against German, Italian, and Japanese fascism? That is not only tolerated, but is in fact celebrated, with movies, monuments, and holidays dedicated to the organized violence the US deployed.

How, then, can the current inhabitants of a country like the United States, especially those who take part in celebrating and honoring certain expressions of violence, retreat in terror when they hear groups make the argument that white supremacists and fascists need to be forcibly opposed?

A movement, such as the fascist movement in modern America, is fundamentally anti-democratic. As such, if that movement were to ever gain widespread power (and take a hard long look at many elected officials to see how possible that is) then the very democracy we say we cherish would be destroyed.

To further illustrate how ridiculous saying fascists have democratic rights, imagine the following:

We do not debate whether or not Christians should be put to death, just as we do not have a dialogue over how many rights we are going to strip from heterosexuals, just as we do not have a friendly discussion over how many white people will be murdered after the next election. To entertain any of these ideas, especially in a political movement, would be met with alarm and terror. And that is the cognitive disconnect many white people have when they say “Nazis have a right to march and try and convince people in the public sphere.” It reeks of privilege, because for the white person there is no widespread danger that should the fascists succeed they would be harmed. Their nation, their imagined community can survive it. In fact, it was built on that very delusion.

In other words, it walks up to the question, “What is democracy?” and fails miserably to answer it.

Now, granted, even the white liberal and conservative would not be safe should fascism ever succeed. Fascism is never content with just a moderate amount of power, since as an authoritarian movement it believes in stripping the individual of any and all dignity (i.e destroying democracy). Only those with the savagery to will themselves to power via violence are to be respected. Compassion and tolerance are weaknesses to them, and that is the world the white moderate would permit to come into existence by tolerating fascists to first be normalized, and then gain power. It is why the pro-democracy movements have been so vital in US history, and it is why I hoped that by being able to answer the question “What is democracy?” historically, students would have a basis for a usable past to construct ethical and meaningful actions in their own lives once they left the classroom.

Perhaps that is far too naïve on my part, but it is what I hope nonetheless.

+++

The day after the fascist rally and white supremacist attacks in Virginia, Allison and I went to the vigil activists in Lafayette had planned. We met at Riehle Plaza with hundreds of other community members to protest and resist both what had happened in Virginia, and what was happening in the larger Trumplandia, USA.

To put it in perspective: It took months of planning for the American Nazis to get only 500 people to the University of Virginia. Yet, in less than 48 hours after their vile acts, over 700 counter marches sprung up around the country. This obviously does not equate to an automatic victory, but it shows that those committed to justice, equality, and democracy are not weak or few. We, as denizens of this moment, have the ability to change the world and move beyond the US’s long shadow of hate and oppression, be it a shadow cast by history, the current President, or a statue of a Confederate general.

Of course, current attitudes are not permanent, and over time this broad support could evaporate.

But this is a concern that is far from new. To me, the issue of opposing fascism is not some “new” issue that we are suddenly charged with undertaking. Instead, it speaks to a much longer history in the US of struggling to define exactly what “The United States of America” means as a civilization, a nation, and a historic political culture. Much of the work of what that antifascist movement looks like has been pioneered, both by previous generations of social movements, and even in more recent times with platforms and agendas put out by broader coalition of groups, like those associated with BLM.

In those platforms calls for transgender rights, global justice, reparations from governments which have benefited from theft and oppression of people of  color, and a broader multi-racial alliance against racism have been clearly articulated.

As one such site for the Movement for Black Lives (#M4BL) argues, “In response to the sustained and increasingly visible violence against Black communities in the U.S. and globally, a collective of more than 50 organizations representing thousands of Black people from across the country have come together with renewed energy and purpose to articulate a common vision and agenda. We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.”

The BLM group continues by contextualizing the fight to define and control what the US should be is a project with global implications.

“While this platform is focused on domestic policies, we know that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation. We also stand with descendants of African people all over the world in an ongoing call and struggle for reparations for the historic and continuing harms of colonialism and slavery. We also recognize and honor the rights and struggle of our Indigenous family for land and self-determination.”

In other words, the fight against fascism and white supremacists is a fight with historic precedent. We will continually return to this point, where the very worst elements of the US are highlighted by fascists in the streets and white supremacy in the government, and the very best is demonstrated by the people’s of the US who push for greater democracy, greater inclusion, and sustained fights for social justice.

We are not a species doomed to repeat the past. We are just historic actors in a period of time that have inherited a society. These issues will eventually be resolved. The US will, eventually, cease as a civilization (that is the nature of historic change). I just hope that the better angels of the US prevail in that time.

As we met in Riehle Plaza for the antifascist rally, a few of the locals spoke about the importance of fighting fascism and racism on all fronts. One couple even framed their justification for fighting white supremacy by explaining in very broad terms how “whiteness” was something colonial elites created centuries ago to keep people apart and control the masses. It was far from a perfect retelling of US history, but it was essentially right. There, in the streets of a small town in Indiana everyday people were voicing a fairly radical critique of US history.

Again, one counter march does not win any victories, but it is a reminder to me that a united popular front against white supremacy is not only possible, but in fact already exists. We simply must figure out how to utilize it for ourselves and future people. Our efforts will go a long way in defining the US.

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