American experimentalism

I’m proud to be an American, always have been. What I’ve always loved about this country is that the truest test of citizenship is about ideas, not history or genealogy. The USA is special in this way, that you can be most authentically American by internalizing and adhering to certain ideals. You can’t become more French by reading Sartre, more Irish by drinking whiskey, or more Korean by eating kimchee. In nearly all countries, the strongest claim to belonging is made by tracing family lineage. Only in America can you make an insuperable claim to belonging merely by believing the right things.

Though a popular view, the idea that the United States is special in this way is strongly disputed in academic circles. “American exceptionalism” is regarded as a naive worldview that has served primarily as a rationalization for imperialism, discrimination and arrogance. While I don’t agree with that critique, I have finally come to understand that the American experiment has always included genocide, and always will. The nature of pursuing ideals above all apparently includes the plowing of actual humans into the ground like so much fertilizer.

There’s no disputing that the establishment of this country by European settlers included the genocide of Native Americans. There’s no way of excusing such carnage; the best anyone can say is that the founding of the nation in blood was regrettable but unavoidable. As if one original sin weren’t enough, our country additionally built its economic strength on the backs of slavery, perhaps the most profitable genocide in history, one that continues to pay dividends to some privileged classes up to this very day.

This carnage can’t be defended. We can only promise to do better in the future. In looking ahead, we try to draw a through line to the past, saying that our nation was founded on the correct ideas, those of liberty and equality, freedom and justice. Although only a very few truly participated in the American ideal at the start, the course of bloody history has painfully expanded the benefits as we’ve expanded our understanding of common humanity. The most charitable view is that we’ve always had the right ideals, but the challenge has always been improving our implementation. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The hope is, I suppose, that each successive genocide is less bloody than the last.

Fleeing Europeans established this country by killing Native Americans. Early Americans grew the country with the slavery of Africans. We are getting closer and closer to a country where our ideals are truly extended to African-Americans, along with previously disenfranchised and disadvantaged women and LBGT people, immigrants and religious adherents of all kinds and creeds. Life is getting better for everyone, on average. And though our conflicts may be impassioned, they are no longer openly murderous. Perhaps genocide is no longer part of the cycle of the American experiment.

But as life gets better for everyone on average, it gets worse for some in particular. Now it seems that many male Americans of European heritage, in losing their privilege, are suffering a kind of slow death. “Genocide” may be too dramatic a term, held too dear by those who have suffered the most from it. But we can still talk about death, we can see that the greatest increase in suicide rate in recent years is among uneducated white male Americans. Here is a class of people who will slowly lose everything they hold dear.

And who will miss it – when what they hold dear is so often tribalism, jingoism, racism, all manner of deplorable -isms – doesn’t such savagery deserve extinction? They deserve to be left behind, for they are malformed and often malicious, substandard and nearly subhuman … Never mind that these are the same judgments that “true” Americans have always made in the name of reforming this nation ever closer to the deathless ideals. Let’s ignore the echoes of of our bloody past, for this time we are so sure we are right.

That is the price of progress, we say, those of us who are on the winning side of the historical moment. Like every other set of Americans who believed that the evolution of our country requires regrettable-but-unavoidable bloodshed, we believe that this is the last forced extinction of a way of life. Once the deplorables are finally put in their place, surely we will have justice for all.

Is there an end to the American experiment? What would that look like? American ideals may outlive America. The institutions of statehood may only be a temporary infrastructure in the eternal pursuit of abstract ideals. For example, democracy outlived and evolved long beyond the historical city-state of Athens.

Stranger still would be an end involving expanded recognition of consciousness. There have long been a tiny minority of people who would extend consciousness and its attendant rights to certain animals, or even plants. If this notion ever becomes mainstream, what are the consequences to expanding American ideals to all conscious beings? More fantastically and yet more plausibly, what will happen when machines have processing capability such that their operations are indistinguishable from human consciousness? Our notions of liberty and equality, freedom and justice, even the pursuit of happiness, may continue to become increasingly abstract, until these ideals are no longer be tethered to any particular people, or to any people at all.

The repeated refrain in the American songbook is the collapse of the way of life of those who thought they controlled the music. Custer had his last stand. The South lost the Civil War, and really isn’t rising again. MLK Jr. is more alive than his assassins, Trumpism is the last gasp of a dying breed. Today we seem to be in yet another war for the soul of our nation. No matter who emerges as the victor, I doubt it will be the last.

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