My American Identity

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Confused about who I am


Chapter 3

Finding the best model


the college fixation

With which group do I identify? It’s the educated proletarian. This person is admittedly not one of the more attractive identity types. He has aspirations to status while being, in fact, a rather marginal character.

Our national goal has become to send everyone to college who wants to attend. However, the goal of universal education defeats the original purpose of going to college. If elevation into a higher class was that purpose, then even a dummy can figure out that putting everyone into such a position is a meaningless exercise. Not everyone can find a career in an elite occupation. Not every child can become a lawyer or doctor or President of the United States, or, in Garrison Keillor’s words, be “above average”.

We have enough doctors and lawyers; what this community needs is people to prepare meals, fixing broken plumbing, and do other kinds of unglamorous work. It’s impractical for everyone to be economically and socially “at the top”. So let’s dispense with this hierarchical scheme of occupations, and with the selective judgments of educational gatekeepers, and exercise common sense. While it may no longer be possible to prepare everyone for nice white-collar jobs that pay well and have prestige, we do need a system of education and career placement that leaves everyone in a good place. Everyone deserves an adequate wage and a sound personal identity.

If America is hurting today, it may be that its society suffers from a lack of community. Our citizens are not satisfied to deal with each other as equals; we each want to be better than the other person. The theme of upward mobility relative to others is built into the concept of our nation being a “land of opportunity”. We think that is what it means to be an American: I am one of the “winners”.

This is a society built on quicksand which has started to sink; better seek higher ground while it’s still possible. Not only do we need to demystify our occupations and free them from staggering educational requirements, we also need to find models of personality that will allow all people in the community to live in harmony. We need to promote identities that allow mutual respect. We need a revolution in attitudes where we can be proud of ourselves without having to think we are better than someone else.

Let’s start with the models of identity furnished in American history. Each represents a “hero” to certain kinds of people. Each model of personality inspires someone to mutter to himself: “I want to be like him.” Now, of course, women and men, girls and boys, will likely choose a different role model for their gender. The types of heroic personality discussed in the previous chapter do leave room for both sexes, and for various races and ethnicities as well. They are, however, specific to particular periods of time. Today we are living in different conditions. Although history furnishes certain heroes, we need to find an identities appropriate to the present time.

Here’s another question, then. What history should be taught in schools? What identity found in history is suitable for everyone to study? Ideally, schoolchildren should have a range of models so they individually can pick what suits or interests them. There should be no limit on the kinds of candidates considered eligible to inspire positive identity. There should be no attempt to force students to accept a particular one.

On the other hand, I would also argue that attention needs to be given to the type of hero proposed for the class. If he is a hero because he defeats someone, then he cannot be a hero to the person who was defeated or to types of people identifying with that person, some of whom may sit in the class. This becomes relevant when demographic politics tries to control the content of history courses. I would prefer a hero who is heroic for contributions not to a race or ethnicity but to the entire human race. His identity should stand on its own merit, not in opposition to someone else.

avoid moral dualism

Looking at some types of American identity discussed in the previous chapter, one sees that their identities often depended on being better than someone else. The righteous Pilgrims saw themselves as being in opposition to the corrupt Church of England. The proponents of American democracy saw themselves in opposition to the feudal order in Europe. The western frontiersman was seen as being unlike the effete people who lived on the east coast. His triumph came at the expense of Indian peoples. In other words, to put themselves in a positive light, these types of Americans needed a negative contrast. Instead of feeling proud of themselves for what they accomplished in and by themselves, they acquired attractive identities through comparison with the unattractive identities of others.

This model of personal attractiveness may be rooted in dualistic conceptions of the Old Testament. Persons schooled in Judaic religion are familiar with the story of how Moses confronted Pharaoh and, with God’s help, inflicted numerous plagues upon his domain before leading the Israelites out of Egypt to the promised land. They are also familiar with the story of David slaying the giant Goliath with a sling. Both were “underdog” victors.

Moses and David were the “good” characters in the story; their adversaries, Pharaoh and Goliath, are the “bad” characters. A positive identity is created for Moses and David when, with great courage and faith, they confront their fearsome adversaries and defeat them. By this model, each winner in a contest must have a counterpart in someone who is defeated. If the loser previously seemed to possessed great physical or material strength, so much greater must be the spiritual strength of the winner.

So, through our choice of hero-making stories, we rather ungraciously size up other people to see if they will take the fall for our own positive identities. This may be an attitude of young people who are on the make more than of mature persons. 19th Century America was young and brash. We were quick to trumpet our superiority over other societies and their kinds of people. This created our American identity types.

The U.S. Civil War created a problem because our nation was morally divided. Northerners and southerners both saw themselves as being better than the other side. They each fought a bloody war over their principles. In the end, the northern “Goliath” won. This unseemly victory was redeemed, however, by the blood of a martyred President and the abolition of slavery. The underdog South clung to the glory of an earlier model, having held the North at bay despite its material advantages.

Of the more recent models, I would say that the contentious dualism is most evident in the identities of the labor-union member and of the Civil Rights activist. The union member’s identity is set in opposition to his employer. The Civil Rights activist opposed the evils of racial segregation in the southern states. His enemy was racist white people and groups such as the Ku Klux Klan that espoused white supremacy.

The least dualistic model, I would say, is that of the industrialist-inventor. By his inventiveness and business ability, he created new products and wealth that benefited the entire society. Even if Ford’s automobile put manufacturers of horses and buggies out of business, that was not the spirit of his enterprise. His story was one of progress benefiting everyone.

The irony is that historians have tended to be more critical of this type of person than of those who were morally confrontational. For example, while Andrew Carnegie developed new ways of making steel, his company also experienced bitter strikes with its workers. While Henry Ford pioneered the assembly line, his business, too, was troubled by labor relations. Additionally, Ford has been accused of anti-Semitism because his company-sponsored publications criticized Jewish bankers.

What of the remaining models?

With respect to dualism, the immigrant farmer who lived in the midwest a century ago was conscious both of the country that he had left behind and of the one where he now lived. There may have been a lingering cultural attachment to the Old World combined with an appreciation of the economic and social advantages of living in the United States. Each ethnic group also compared itself with other groups, either disparaging the others or taking pride in its own cultural attainments. The Swedes and Norwegians both felt they were superior to the other. The Germans had a special appreciation for their culture before the German reputation was trashed in two world wars.

The organization man was not much interested in culture. He wanted instead to be promoted by his employer and willingly conformed to the employer’s norms. Both parties were satisfied with that arrangement. Yet, this virtue of conforming to a corporate culture is seen in a negative light by some who believe it violates individual freedom. The term, “organization man”, is considered pejorative.

Similarly, the entertainer and his fans have a positive relationship. Negativity, to the extent it exists, may be directed against competing modes of expression. One may like classical music but not rock ‘n roll; or dislike classical music and be a fan of country western songs. With respect to professional sports, one can root for the Boston Red Sox and hope the New York Yankees lose. Because this is a game, the antagonistic feelings engendered by the competition are pseudo animosities rather than real ones. Who can feel truly angry when people are having fun?

Of the preceding models, the most divisive type of identity, in my view, is that of the Civil Rights activist fighting against white racists. Originally this was a struggle for social advancement by black people in the south who lived in a disadvantageous segregated society. The racial opposition was clear, both morally and politically, even though many whites, especially in the north, also supported the struggle. The Civil Rights movement achieved a stunning political victory. Its dualistic value system became accepted by the establishment. Now almost a civic religion, it has changed into something else.

the anti-white coalition

The Civil Rights movement changed when other groups of people used it as a model for their own demographic struggle. Feminist women saw females as a group oppressed by males, not unlike the southern blacks. American Indians followed the Civil Rights model in protesting the white man’s seizure of their land and suppression of their culture. Then came gays and lesbians protesting anti-gay discrimination in straight society. Immigrant groups today have cast their struggle against discrimination and for amnesty in terms of a Civil Rights-type struggle.

The upshot was that we have today many different groups - perhaps a majority of the U.S. population - all claiming to be oppressed by American society. Who is the oppressor? One could reasonably argue that it is the U.S. Government and perhaps certain other powerful institutions such as in the business sector. However, since the nation’s political and business leaders have also supported the ethic of the Civil Rights movement including preferential programs for women and minorities, it was politically unwise to argue that they were the oppressor. Instead, it became the type of person who typically led those institutions - namely, white males. The blame for the real or imagined oppression of the various peoples within the Civil Rights coalition was thus shifted from the particular individuals in positions of power to the demographic types that they represented.

Now, we have, in effect, condensed all this into a morality tale in which white America becomes a villain against which all these brave peoples are struggling to achieve social justice. Notice that it is not the U.S. government but white America. Our society is guilty of institutional racism. White people are inherently racist. White men are also sexist. The power structure of this society is rotten at its core; and only those who oppose the society can be considered virtuous.

No longer can Americans feel proud of themselves and of their country. The new histories taught in school are books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States that tell of the evils attending Columbus’ "discovery" of America, how George Washington owned slaves, and the white man massacred American Indians; the heroes were Martin Luther King and others who challenged the racist society that we have in America.

Now, of course, there is truth in many of those histories that reveal the bad things about America. But is that the whole story? What about the bad things done by other people? Were there some good things (besides, of course, the Civil Rights movement) that happened in America? Yes there were, but that story has not been told. The political partisans who are writing our histories seem uninterested in such events.

I am thinking, for instance, of the revolution in transportation taking place at the beginning of the 20th century that saw the birth of both the automobile and aviation industries. I am thinking of how factories in Detroit became the “arsenal of democracy” that defeated Nazi Germany. Talented, dedicated leaders of business, labor, government, and the military effectively reorganized industry to produce arms and then converted back to civilian production after the war. It went smoothly so you never hear about this. Even the great effort that it took to send men to the Moon has not received the reporting it deserves. There were plenty of unsung heroes in that enterprise.

As a white man who has never possessed much power, I object to the association of America’s ills with the “powerful” white race. To a large extent, I agree with criticisms relating to policies or structures that govern our society. However, this criticism should be leveled at the government rather than a race of people. It should be leveled at the particular leaders in government who caused those things to happen, not persons born into a race.

The American government has made plenty of mistakes. We have stumbled into ill-advised wars. Our elected officials have effectively been bribed by special interests, including pharmaceutical companies and financial institutions on Wall Street. Due to our national trade policies, we have lost much of our manufacturing base. A real opposition could emerge between the American government and the American people. But it does not because we are preoccupied with race and other other types of division that have arisen from the Civil Rights movement.

Normally social and political movements bring blow-back and a balance is struck between contending groups. In this case, however, the Civil Rights movement has achieved a total victory. Afraid of being called “racist”, white people dare not defend themselves as a racial group. The politicized black minority has succeeded in foisting its story on the majority. The society becomes tainted with a belief in its evil nature. Since the citizens of any normally healthy society must believe that their society is good (even if the government occasionally goes astray), this belief creates a moral contradiction.

That’s what’s happening now in America. We’re confused and weak. All signs point to continued decline.

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