American Craziness: Where it Came from and Why It Won’t Work Anymore

by Bill Benzon

During the course of my adult life I have witnessed the collapse of the political culture of my nation, the United States of America. To be sure, there have been some good things – the Civil Rights movement, for example – but the framework that served from the nation’s founding through the end of World War II no longer functions well.

Over the last three or four decades the prison population has increased enormously, as has economic inequality, and during this century we’ve become mired down in an enormously destructive, expensive and militarily ineffective series of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As far as I can see there is no near-term prospect of ending either the internal problems or the hopeless and ill-founded war on terrorism.

How did this happen?

Cultural Psychodynamics

The problem, I believe, is rooted in the cultural psychodynamics of the nation-state. The sociologist Talcott Parsons diagnosed it in his classic 1947 article, “Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World” (full text online HERE). At some length and with great sophistication Parsons argued that citizens of Western nations project many of their aggressive impulses onto other peoples so that, in attempting to dominate those peoples, they are, in a psychological sense, attempting to attain mastery over themselves. I fear this problem is not only a Western one, but that’s a side issue in this context. It’s not merely that I’m writing about America, but that America remains the most powerful nation in the world, with by far the largest military establishment. Through that establishment America has tethered the rest of the world to its internal psychodynamics.

That’s crazy.

If by chance Parsons’ argument strikes you as improbable, well, I urge you to read his essay in full. Pending that, I offer as a bit of supporting evidence an extraordinary statement made by Mario Cuomo, ex-governor of New York, in interview published in The New York Times Magazine on March 19, 1995:

The Second World War as the last time that this country believed in anything profoundly, any great single cause. What was it? They were evil; we were good. That was Tojo, that was that S.O.B. Hitler, that was Mussolini, that bum. They struck at us in the middle of the night, those sneaks. We are good, they are bad. Let’s all get together, we said, and we creamed them. We started from way behind. We found strength in this common commitment, this commonality, community, family, the idea of coming together was best served in my lifetime in the Second World War.

That’s what Parsons was talking about.

I have no idea whether or not Cuomo is familiar with Parsons but, while he is certainly an intelligent and sophisticated man, he is not an academic. When he spoke those words he was speaking as a practical politician skilled at the complex and messy business of governance. The socio-cultural milieu that Parsons analyzed is the arena in which Cuomo lived his professional life. Judging by his political success, he had a good intuitive grasp of those dynamics.

Identity, Aggression, and the Nation

Who and what we think we are, our identity, starts at home and in the neighborhood. We are the children of our parents, the grandchildren of their parents, we are brothers and sisters to our siblings, and them to us; we are parents of our children and grandparents of theirs, aunts and uncles to the children of our siblings, and cousins to the children of our parents’ siblings. We are friends or enemies to those who live near us, and to those who live near them. These relatives and neighbors are the people we relate to. They are involved in our lives, we in theirs. All these relationships we have with them, in blood and in acquaintance, in amity and enmity, that variegated web is our identity.

Or, more precisely, that’s where our identity begins. But as we mature and see more of the world, we come to identify with a variety of groups and ultimately with the nation in which we live. The nation state is a relatively new form of political organization, one that brings with it a world of enemies to whom one is opposed, in principle.

The story of the nation-state begins in the European Middle Ages. The Roman Empire had fallen through a combination of over-extension and internal sloth and complacency. With the major exception of Islamic Spain, most of the European tribes had collapsed into barbarism. Few people had any identity beyond their local village or town. No one thought of themselves as French or Italian or German or Swiss or English and so forth, for those polities didn’t exist.

Nor did anyone of themselves as European. Europe was just a name on a map. However, many people did think of themselves as Christian. As John Hale notes in The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance, threads of Christianity crisscrossed the continent and formed the basis of the first identification which linked people beyond the 5 or 10 square miles which defined their daily routines. As the decades ticked off these various peoples began to think of themselves as Christendom.

Christianity is deeply imbued with oppositional spirit. The ancient Hebrews were nomads and captives. They had no homeland to which they could attach an identity. Instead, they took their identity from a jealous god who forbad that they put other gods before him. Christianity began as a reform movement within Judaism, with the holy man, Jesus of Nazareth, tossing the money-changers out of the temple and urging resistance against those leaders who urged compliance with the Romans. Christianity is a religion of resistance, of opposition.

Thus it was inevitable that European Christians, especially the nobility, saw themselves in opposition to the infidels, primarily the Islamic peoples who held sway in Spain and around the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. The Christian peoples of Europe traded with them, warred with them, were more than a bit taken aback at the superiority of Islamic civilization to their own, and managed to recover some of the ancient Greek and Roman past through contact with these more civilized folk. Out of this rich range of contacts and interactions came the so-called Renaissance, the rebirth of ancient learning on European soil. Just as these peoples began forging nations the Protestant Reformation shattered Christendom. European peoples thus found it easier to think of their difference from others as matter of being European rather than being Christian. Protestants and Catholics may have had grave doubts about one another’s Christianity, but they were sure that they were European.

These European nations used their navigational and naval technology to travel to the ends of the earth where their military technology helped them subdue the peoples they encountered. Wherever they went they worked hard at maintaining a sense of difference from other peoples. And not only of difference, but of moral superiority. However much they were fascinated by and desired the spices of India, the silks of China, however much they admired the noble savages of the New World, they insisted on difference-from and superiority-to. Europeans invented their whiteness to justify their imperial activities.

The fact that these people, for the most part, were able to succeed in this far-flung enterprise suggests that their sense of superiority was no mere ethnocentric illusion. Their technology, on the whole, was superior to that of other civilizations, and their methods of social organization more effective in large-scale economic and military enterprises. But, whatever justification it may have had, their sense of superiority had destructive underpinnings.

We are now back where we began, with that classic 1947 Talcott Parsons essay on Western aggression, “Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World”. By defining “European-ness” in opposition to other cultural identities in which they secretly hid part of themselves, Europeans yoked themselves to the never-ending task of conquering other peoples. Because the European psyche cannot take responsibility for its own actions it cannot find satisfaction for its desires. No matter how thoroughly it may dominate others, that domination brings no final satisfaction because it rests on a debilitating fabrication.

The United States, of course, is not a European nation. But the colonists who founded it came from Europe and its national culture is heir to this mechanism of defensive projection. These mechanisms became intensified in the when the colonists advanced ideals of democracy and universality came into conflict with chattel slavery, and with the cultures of African peoples. The enslaved black population served many Americans both as an internal enemy against which they could unite and as a standard of comparison against which “whiteness” could be defined and elaborated.

Mad in America

Thus we confront the peculiar situation that Toni Morrison described in Playing in the Dark, a set of essays on race in American literature, where she is led

to wonder whether the major and championed characteristics of our national literature . . . are not in fact responses to a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence. . . . Through significant and underscored omissions, startling contradictions, heavily nuanced conflicts, through the way writers peopled their work with the signs and bodies of this presence—one can see that a real or fabricated Africanist presence was crucial to their sense of Americanness.

That is to say, the sense of American identity embodied in our literature is at least partially achieved through reference to African Americans. While literature is not the whole of a culture, it is not a trivial bit of decoration on the national cake. Literature has historically proved to be one of the means through which people forge a national identity.

Racial matters have certainly been central to American literature. Early on we have James Fennimore Cooper’s fascination with Native Americans. In the middle of the 19th century Harriet Beecher Stowe would write a book which was second in sales only to the Bible; that book was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Characters and scenes from the book became a central part of popular culture and were played over and over again in the minstrel shows and later on in early movies. Late in the century Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would move to center stage in the national consciousness. Coming into the 20th century movies and radio become important entertainment vehicles and race figures deeply in those media.

Is it any accident that the first major feature-length movie was a racist myth about the white South, The Birth of A Nation? Is it any accident that people would schedule their day around a radio show in which a pair of white men imitating black men named Amos and Andy? It is not simply a matter of literature; it is the whole culture. Whatever else has had the attention of the White American Mind, that Mind has always been concerned with matters of color.

Whatever differences the many flavors of white Americans may have had with one another, whatever problems more established Americans may have had with newer immigrants, they were all white, as in NOT black, NOT slaves or the descendants of slaves. Deeper even than this, though, is the emotional trickery inherent in the deepest forms of racism, those which go beyond ignorant prejudice to active hatred. In this regard white Americans were more “fortunate” than the various European peoples, who either hated one another, or hated the native peoples of far flung and distant colonies, a rather abstract hatred, one not so abundant in its cruel satisfactions as hating slaves who were under your thumb or, after slavery was abolished, in lynching the descendants of those slaves.

The Empath Dynamic

How have African Americans dealt with this problem? What have they done with their own aggressive impulses, many of course directed at their white oppressors but many directed at one another as well? There is a measure of self-hate. More constructively, though, we have religion.

In particular, passionate trance inducing religion. This is, of course, a form of sublimation. And so is art – music and dance. Religion and art have served African America as means through which it can absorb and, in some sense, dissipate the violence directed at it by European Americans.

Let me suggest that this process of absorption and dissipation is an instance of something I think of as the empath dynamic, so-called after an episode of the old Star Trek TV show.

On stardate 5121.5, the starship USS Enterprise arrives at Minara II to pick up research personnel. The mission is crucial since the Minaran star is close to going supernova. Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Spock beam to the planet to locate the research team while the Enterprise waits in orbit. The landing team finds the research camp abandoned and the scientists missing…

As the search continues, the landing party finds themselves teleported to an underground chamber, and there they find a young woman lying on a raised platform. The woman awakens but she appears to be mute and all attempts to verbally communicate with her are in vain. Dr. McCoy names the mystery woman “Gem”.

Soon, two silver-robed aliens appear, and identify themselves as Vians. Kirk approaches the beings but they repel the team with a force field. Kirk is injured and knocked to the floor. The silent Gem then rushes to Kirk's side and uses a mental power to absorb Kirk's injuries, taking them on herself and then dissipating them, healing him instantly and revealing that she is a powerful empath.

The various processes by which the African American community receives a hit of anxiety/aggression from the European American community without returning anxiety/aggression in equal measure are the processes which allow the empath mechanism to work. Some of these processes are self-destructive – the most obvious are crime and substance abuse – but some are creative. In particular, African American music and dance have played a dominant role in American popular culture at least since the beginning of the 20th Century.

Inward Aggression and the War on Drugs

Now let’s start putting things together. If large numbers of white Americans needed to hold themselves superior to black Americans, and to oppress them in various ways, how was it possible for the civil rights movement ever to get traction? Democratic ideals, sure, but you can’t kick those ideals, you can’t take your aggression out on them. What do you do with your aggression when you let your empaths out of the cage?

In a book published in 1999, The Unsteady March, Klinkner and Smith argue that African Americans have been able to move forward on civil rights only during periods where the nation faced an external threat – the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the major wars of the first half of the 20th century. When the external danger had subsided, gains were lost. In effect they’re arguing that, when external danger looms large and demands attention, the citizenry can focus aggression there and so ease up on the internal colony of empaths.

Vietnam was the last major war of the Cold War period. As it receded into the past, a political backlash set in and affirmative action came under attack. That’s the situation we faced when the Soviet Empire collapsed. With the major external threat suddenly gone, there was a crisis of aggression – I’m reminded of the phrase “conservation of aggression” used by Geert de Vries. The fall of the Evil Empire deprived a great many people of an object for aggressive impulses. What then, happened to that aggression?

It got directed elsewhere. My sense is that the political rhetoric on a number of issues heated up in the wake of the fall: gun control, abortion, the arts, gays, affirmative action, violence in the media. A number of these issues come under the rubric of the so-called “culture wars”. Each of these issues was already on the political agenda, and had been there for some time.

Perhaps the most interesting redirection, however, was into the so-called War on Drugs. Political concern about drug use is not, of course, new. It goes back to Prohibition and got redirected by and in reaction to the counter-cultural 60s and 70s. However, it is my impression that the current effort ramped up in the wake of the Soviet collapse.

This war on drugs has had substantial material consequences: increased law enforcement and court activity, a considerable increase in the prison population and, of course, in the prison industry. If you follow this link, you’ll come to a bar chart that depicts the incarceration rate in the United States during the 20th century. Notice that the big rise happens starting roughly in 1990, after the Soviet Union fell apart, thus ending the Cold War. Our prisons now have a relatively large population of non-violent offenders who are disproportionately black, taken off the voting rolls as felons, and available for labor in various prison-based enterprises.

The end of the Cold War changed the psycho-cultural system in a major way. Psycho-cultural aggression had to be redirected and much of it was redirected at targets within the country, rather than externally. That redirection remains with us to this day, though over the past decade the psycho-cultural job it performs has been augmented by the war on terror, which of course directs aggression outward.

I don’t know what happens next. No one does. Politics as usual won’t work. It’s just running us around in crazy circles.

But what other politics do we have? Will the rest of the world figure out how to extricate itself from the tentacles of American psychodynamics and thereby free us all?

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Bill Benzon blogs at New Savanna.