Tuesday, April 3, 2012

American Dreams, part one: The Violence of the Dream

The American dream. Politicians in America jump over themselves to explain what it means. The Republican Party say that they lay claim to its essence, a ghostly thing which is some sort of mixture between libertarianism, God and the self-made man. They lay claim to America's past as a frontier country, a country forged out of bravery, ingenuity and sheer will-power by those brave pioneers.

If you want to include God into that mix, that's fine. But it would be an addition, make no mistake. God or no God, this was a country forged through the will of those first self-made men. It was a country that fought back the English crown, and declared itself "the land of the free." It shares a genealogy with the French Revolution, with the fight against old old regimes in Europe.

Once it began to forge its own destiny, away from Europe, it began to make an ideology out of this notion of freedom. These pioneers were the ones who found this continent, made it their own, without kings and (the founding fathers would probably have said, though perhaps not as popular these days) without God or gods, or any sort of intervention by the divine.

That this involved the subjugation and to the near-genocide of not simply one race or culture of Native Americans, but hundreds of them - whole ways of life - is largely left unsaid when the myth of the origin of America is evoked. It remains a kind of repression, a flip-side to this origin myth of the self-made man. It is rarely spoken about on the political stage, in public discourse, and rarely brought, outside of academia, to crash headlong into the rosy picture of the beginnings of America, as it surely would. This is the silent violence of the forging of a nation.

One wonders if the had Nazis triumphed in the Second World War, established some sort of Europe-wide regime, would their history books mention their genocide? Yes, American history books do mention the Indians, but there is a separation of the Indians' tragic encounter with the Europeans (who eventually became the Americans) and the myth of America. The sorrow of the Indians' tale stands in stark contrast to the optimism and exuberance that the forging of America is imbued with.

Though the Native Americans are not written out of the history books, they serve as a kind of alternate history. Their sorrow cannot easily be reconciled with the other myth. So tonally and thematically they are written out of American history by not converging with the dominant myth of the forging of America. For their experience of American freedom was a truly disastrous one. The same can be said of slaves in America.

How are we to consider this alternative history with regard to the myth of America? How are we to reconcile the two? Well, surprisingly enough, I think that there is an allegory to be found that highlights the discrepancy. Between the pages of a children's comic book, we find that very American figure of the superhero, the masked vigilante that exists in a constant crisis of identity. He has two at once, one worldly and ordinary, the other grand and extraordinary, sometimes otherworldly, just as America has its own mythic history and its alternative.

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