People have, apparently, lost their minds. There seems to be a panic that we have lost the fabric of our society and I’m having trouble getting a handle on what has happened that is so drastic that people would think its tyranny or fascism or hitleresque or stalinesque (Jon Stewart)
That quote is from Stewart’s interview with Lou Dobbs (video below). Dobbs never really answered Jon’s question, so I’m going to try.
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.
No myth illustrates the sleight of hand behind our national mythology quite like the myth of the cowboy. In the mythology, the cowboy is a white man. He is a crusty frontiersman taming the west and paving the way for civilization. He is the good guy fighting the dangerous Indian. He is free and independent. He is in charge of his own destiny.
Read Richard Slatta’s Cowboys of the Americas and you will get a very different picture. In reality, the first American cowboys were indigenous people trained by the Spanish missionaries. In reality, more than 30% of the cowboys on Texas trail drives were African American, Mexican, or Mexican-American.
And cowboys were not so free.
Cowboys were itinerant workers who, while paid fairly well when they had work, spent much of the year begging for odd jobs. Many did not even own the horse they rode. Frequently, they worked for large cattle companies owned by stockholders from the Northeast and Europe, not for small family operations (a la Bonanza). The few times cowboys tried to organize, they were brutally oppressed by ranchers.
So what does all this have to do with Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck, teabaggers and white panic?
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 you know the real history of the cowboy, it makes the selling of Reagan and Bush as cowboys seem like an inside joke. The mythological cowboy is the heroic figure that many Americans wish they were. The fact that the cowboy was actually an exploited worker is virtually unknown.
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.
I had my whole life to get used to the idea that the government was never made to really represent my interests. 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.