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Considering recent events at the US capitol, one looks at the destructive mob and wonders, “How did we get here?” How we answer this question will have ramifications far beyond this coming inauguration day.
It’s not enough to look at the mob and recoil in disgust. We need to understand why so many people are acting the same way; falling into the same trap; predisposed to end up in the same dark place. Limiting our response to anger at the mass spectacle of hate will not succeed at stopping its spread. Simply stating that we must redouble our efforts to fight extremism and that we will give racism no quarter might sound nice, may even be true, but doesn’t get at the root of the problem. The righteous indignation displayed on the cable news networks, yes on both CNN and FOX, is simply not helpful and is not going to prevent the further decay of large swaths of our country.
Let’s start with some basic detective work. What do many of the rioters have in common? Well, most obviously, they tend to be middle-aged and white. So what do middle-aged whites have in common? One answer is that they’ve all been beneficiaries of white privilege their entire lives. One might then assume that they are now simply angry that their privileged status is finally being torn down. While there may be some truth to this, is it really enough to explain current events? There have been angry white males for many years now. They were officially dethroned many years ago. Why the sudden outpouring of hate, anger, mistrust, and conspiratorial behavior? Why now? Maybe it’s no more than the culmination of a building sense of jealousy and resentment that’s been there for a long time and is just now finally reaching the boiling point – why does any volcano finally erupt when it does? But I would propose that there is something deeper than American whites have in common. Or perhaps lack in common.
It first occurred to me in thinking about myself. After all, I’m an American white male. And at 49 years old, I suppose I’m pretty close to middle-aged. So from my vantage point here in Israel looking back at the other middle-aged whites in America, I began to think, “Why didn’t this happen to me?” After the initial answers of “I’m too intelligent, too nice, too good for that to happen to me,” started to seem unfair and biased, I decided to try to take a slightly more scientific tack. What do they have that I don’t? Or what do I have that they don’t? And again, as my perch here in Israel makes clear, I have Israel. I have Judaism. But what do they have?
It was then that I started to feel bad for (non-jewish) white Americans. Because if I have Israel and Judaism, they don’t seem to have any cultural base to hang on to. I am an American but also a Jew. I have “Americanism” but also Judaism and Israel as religion, culture and identity. Mexican-Americans have Mexico with all its culture and traditions as a cultural base. African-Americans have their shared experience with slavery and racism to bind them together in a unique destiny. Indian-Americans have their specific religions and cultures from India to form the base for their identity even as they acculturate into America. If, for example, as they continue to acculturate they find worrisome trends in American culture, they can draw upon their Indian roots for guidance, just as I cling to my Judaism as a counterweight to the excesses of Hollywood culture. But what do plain-old vanilla white Americans have? After all, there is no “White-istan” where they came from. Even in the culturally utopian Star Trek saga, when the Klingon Warf needs to recharge or reclaim his identity he can visit the Klingon homeworld. Spock can visit the planet Vulcan. But there is no White homeworld. Indeed, there never was. This is exactly why we see American whites inventing one, pretending there was a mythic white America that was stolen from them and to which they are trying desperately to return.
But what is going on here? America has indeed changed over the years, but it has changed for all of us. Why is it any different for whites as compared to any other group? And why does everyone need a second cultural identity anyway? If being French is enough for the French, and being Italian is enough for the Italians, and being Japanese is enough for the Japanese, then why isn’t being American enough for Americans?
If you think about it, the answer is obvious. America’s immigrant melting-pot uniqueness is indeed its greatest asset but at the same time its Achilles heel. America is composed of an amalgam of different immigrant groups and lacks any pre-modern, historically rooted cultural identity as one finds in France or Italy or Japan. American culture is always therefore just the sum total of whoever happens to be living there at any given moment. It changes as it drifts through time – as its composition changes. It is not anchored in a mythico-historical past. A nation with such a wandering and fractured identity can be very challenging. This is exactly why it is the second cultural identity which many Americans cherish – because it gives them something solid to hold onto as the national center cartwheels through time. How many times have you noticed something about American culture you didn’t like – Hollywood excesses, consumerism, video game violence, youtube, Facebook, etc – and thought to yourself, “That’s terrible, but at least I don’t take my marching orders from Hollywood.” Or, “That’s horrible, but I’m not part of that culture. My kids won’t learn values from that.” Many of us have alternate identities that keep us grounded.
And this brings us back to white Americans. Although white Americans can be traced back to a variety of European countries, by now most of them have lost any connection to those countries. American whites with British, French or Italian ancestry do not feel today that their true cultural roots are in these countries. They just feel like white Americans. If we try to find a parallel cultural identity for them, similar to what we find with Japanese Americans or Mexican Americans or Indian Americans or Jewish Americans or African Americans, we find that there isn’t one.
And therefore, as the national culture morphs through the years, the only stable cultural base they have is a historical fantasy of a white America that never was. As the cultural identity of America evolves over time – as it was designed to do – they are left adrift. Mythic narratives about the supposed “white race” begin to evolve in parallel, simply to fill this unfortunate void.
But America is 244 years old – shouldn’t this always have been the case? Why is all of this only happening now?
I believe indeed it has always been the case. But in the past, there was a counterweight that served to provide common ground to all Americans, across all immigrant groups, including whites. What was this counterweight? A common sense of purpose. America, rather than being united by a common pre-modern history, was united in a common purpose. So that even if you lacked an alternate historical identity, you shared a common purpose with all other Americans. That common purpose may have taken on different forms through time, but was always shared by the vast majority of Americans and was always rooted in our founding principles of liberty and freedom. In the 1940s it took the form of the fight against Naziism. Following this, it took the form of the fight against Communism. But in recent years there has not been any common struggle to unite us.
Now you may wonder, it can’t be that our national survival depends on constant conflict simply to provide a reason for us to remain united. And you are correct, one should be able to turn back to the founding principles behind those struggles in order to find common ground. But for this, you need an intact set of founding principles. For example, it used to be that Americans felt America to be the new promised land, the new democratic “light unto the nations” with a sacred mission to bring truth, justice, and the American way to the rest of the world. It used to be that America was the “last best hope of Earth.” But even these national principles have been torn down in recent years in the name of political correctness and historical revisionism.
As an aside, I should point out that I am not denying that such historical revisionism doesn’t have truth to it – obviously slavery and the catastrophes experienced by native Americans and other minorities are true and need to be taught. But countries need their foundational mythologies. And those mythologies don’t always need to be torn down just because they don’t comport with historical events exactly. Their purpose is not to document the historical record, but to serve as reminders of who we want to be, of why we are here, of what direction we want to go as we move forward. The fact that these national myths don’t measure up to reality is not a reason to tear them down – on the contrary, it simply means there is more work to be done. We use those national myths not to look backward to teach our history but to light the way forward. When those mythologies are conflated with history and therefore removed, canceled, shunned, and forsaken, then the nation begins to come unglued and the way forward begins to splinter into a thousand separate paths.
And even with all this, as a last resort of sorts, one might cling to religion as a stable set of values to serve at least as one’s moral identity. For many, including white Americans, this would be Christianity. And indeed, for many years our country was, despite the separation of church and state, basically a religious Christian country. Our country’s founding was steeped in religion – “In God we trust” inscribed on our currency – “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” inscribed on our children’s lips in schools across the nation – “God bless America” inscribed on almost every presidential state of the union address in memory. And yet, in recent years the decline in religion in America has been palpable, unwittingly robbing many people of perhaps the last tool in the shed by which to maintain some sense of stability and commonality.
So we have arrived at a situation where most of the groups which make up modern-day America have dual cultural identities, except for plain-old white Americans. And we have seen that the cultural base identity of America is definitionally unstable. And we have further seen that despite this instability, the American amalgam was glued together with a combination of common struggles, common founding principles and a common sense of purpose. And we have unfortunately seen how in recent years, the common struggles, principles, and sense of purpose have all evaporated – leaving many clinging to their secondary identities for support. Except for the American white. In the absence of any real secondary identity and in the absence even of religion as a viable rock to cling to in the predominantly secular state, we have forged, many American whites have fallen prey to the false narratives of racism and white supremacy.
I am not trying to absolve anyone of guilt or responsibility for the choices they make. I am in no way apologizing for white supremacy. But we owe it to ourselves to understand the origins of this tidal wave of ugliness. If we do not understand it we cannot combat it. Our outrage alone will not be enough.
As our nation slowly comes unglued, as the commonalities melt away, we are all left to our secondary identities – if we have them. And while this may start simply as individual minority groups taking pride in their own cultural roots, it runs the risk of devolving into a game of competitive victimhood where everyone feels they are owed restitution by the last group standing once the music stops in the national game of musical victimhood chairs. And everyone knows that white Americans are the last group standing. They, too, know that in this game, unless you find a chair, an alternative ethnic group to belong to, that you will be the moral inheritor of native American genocide and African American slavery, and racism, and all that is ugly about America. I am not arguing history, I am just pointing out human psychology. When all other commonalities are stripped away, all foundational principles burned down, and only the ugliness is left – when after the bonfire everyone runs away to their alternate identities except for the remaining whites who have none – perhaps then the seemingly mystical appeal of the false narratives, the white supremacy, the conspiracy theories and the crazy mob behavior will start to become clear.
If America is to survive as a unified country, as more than just a bunch of squabbling victim groups fighting each other over pieces of a shrinking zero-sum pie, it needs to find an ethical, honest, and true (whatever that means these days) way to reclaim its foundational principles. And it needs to do this in a way in which all its citizen groups- white and non-white alike – can derive inspiration.