Sunday, May 27, 2018

Whatever Happened to the America That Never Existed?

It's a strange thing, or at least it seems so to me, the very popular tendency to cast everything in terms of decline from a better past.  Even when the writer knows better.

One of my favorite examples is the late Molly Ivins's lament from 2007:
What happened to the nation that never tortured? The nation that wasn't supposed to start wars of choice? The nation that respected human rights and life? A nation that from the beginning was against tyranny? Where have we gone? How did we let these people take us there? How did we let them fool us?
Every assertion she makes in that paragraph about the better America that used to be is false.  I just reread her first book, Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She (Random House, 1991) which contains numerous references to American crimes past and present, so I know she was not as ignorant as she presented herself in 2007.

So, for some more recent examples, last week I got into a little dustup on Twitter with some guy who called for the "end to the American Empire and the Reinstatement of our authentic American Republic."  Now, the authentic American Republic limited the franchise to property-owning white males, compromised with slavery, and was from the beginning dedicated to driving the Indians into the sea.  I don't really think the other guy wants to "reinstate" those features either, but he refused to admit them.  All bad things, he insisted, started with the beginning of the American Empire in 1945 -- ignoring the Spanish-American War a half-century earlier, with its avowed imperialist aims.  Indeed, the period is referred to in history texts as the Age of Imperialism.  The Founders of the Republic, in fact, referred to America as an empire.  And so on; the discussion went nowhere.  This guy could hardly be accused of being uncritical of American foreign policy; he just refused to extend his critique to the period before 1945.

More innocently, perhaps, there was "Sign of the times: you actually fail to read books, but still have loads of unfounded opinions about them."  Yes, indeed, that only ever happened in the age of Trump.

The recent revelations of horrifying abuse of refugee children by US Immigration officials were often deplored in similar terms.  Many people failed (or chose not) to notice that the criminal mistreatment described in the article happened during the Obama administration, though they continued under Trump.  This was a continuation of Obama loyalists' refusal to recognize their god-king's repressive immigration policy and activity.  So, a writer who pointed out that "When people say that the Trump policy of separating children from their parents at the border is 'un-American', they forget or do not know or pretend not to know that the practice is deeply American and has a history" got predictable pushback.

For example, "True, but just as slavery is part of our history, and is not to be forgotten, we don't now hold it up as an American ideal, an aspiration to reach for, or a standard to measure present conduct by."  There's the question: does "American" mean "an American ideal" or "an American reality"?   People who denounce what they dislike as "un-American" rely on this ambiguity, though they often deliberately blur the line by assuming that what they dislike didn't exist in the past; whatever they like is ancient tradition. The same is true of "Christian" and "normal."  It's also known as the No True Scotsman move: if Americans (or "so-called Americans") did it, they weren't Americans.

It has always been thus; I'm not pushing nostalgia for the glorious days when people didn't try to erase the past.  In his 1973 book The Country and the City the historian Raymond Williams described how writers have been lamenting the good old days when an honest farmer could earn a fair living from the land, though in those supposedly better days nostalgia-mongers had made the same complaint; he traced this pattern back to Greek antiquity.  More recently, Jason A. Storm showed in The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago, 2017) that the trope of Disenchantment, the Disappearance of Magic From the World, has equally ancient roots: in the days when fairies and other magical Little People supposedly communed with Man, they were already being mourned as long gone.

I wrote this particular post because I began asking myself why so many people find it necessary and natural to situate their complaints about the present in fantasies about the past.  I don't have an answer, I'm just wondering.  I suspect that it's an example of what the anthropologist F. G. Bailey calls "the moral mind," in which one establishes one's bona fides through a controlled outburst of passion.  While that describes what people are doing, however, it doesn't explain why the outburst takes this particular form. It doesn't serve any real purpose, any function in an argument; if anything, it's a distraction.  But it's like a tic of some sort, that bursts into the the discourse irresistibly.  And it fills some emotional function, as nostalgia does.

I suppose too that acknowledging the grubby, sordid side of one's team's history makes it difficult for many people to work up moral indignation when that history spills over into the present.  The only way they can condemn official crimes in the present is to cast those crimes as an aberration from a glorious tradition.  And not without reason, since one response to these denunciations is some form of "Well, this is the way we've always done it; why weren't you this angry during the previous administration?"  I believe that it's possible, and not really so difficult, to put together a criticism of present-day misconduct that doesn't rely on misrepresentation of the past.

Since many of these people, such as Molly Ivins, know their history quite well, the cognitive dissonance probably becomes painfully intense, though I don't see how tying themselves up in knots makes it any better.  Is it really so hard, though, to refrain from writing "now" or "nowadays" as if what you're criticizing hasn't been around forever?  I guess it is.  For me, though, knowing that there's hardly anything new under the sun is somehow reassuring; if anything, it's an impetus to attacking Evil right now.  If not now, when?