What is the greatest founding myth of America
We are all immigrants. "This saying has been chanted many times in the United States of late. Or written on signs to demonstrate against Donald Trump's ban on Muslims (the entry ban for citizens from seven countries).
"We are all immigrants," at least one of my students always says when we discuss xenophobia and national identity at New York University (NYU). This student is almost always white and his actually positive statement unfortunately has the opposite effect. Regardless of the speaker's intention, this sentence either excludes - or erases - other experiences and stories of American identity. The one or two colored students in the lecture hall then remind their fellow students of their own ancestors and their trip to America. This was completely different and was often cruel. Overall, only 4.8 percent of the students at the expensive private university NYU are colored, 0.2 percent have native American roots. Just their presence and their views could shake the simple story of the "land of immigrants". What remains of the Native Americans in Manhattan are their graves, their ghosts, and the traces of their existence.
Indeed, there are many immigrants or their descendants living in the United States. The USA is shaped by its settlers and colonization, you have to know that in order to understand the current political climate. The founding myth of the USA is used successfully and, above all, aggressively in political disputes: regardless of whether in revised, encrypted or explicitly racist variations, the main thing is that the superior whites are mobilized. The power of this founding myth is still great: This is evident in the privileges for a few and in the violence against others, in the police brutality against black people and Latinos. Another consequence is that large sections of the population reject movements like Black Lives Matter, even though they stand up against violence and demand fundamental change.
Today the ideology of ethnic superiority is particularly revived because the "superior race" is feeling economically troubled. The reason for this is the rapidly changing world and demographic change in society. There is always an "other" whose proximity or mere existence becomes the source or indication of threat and danger. The worldwide system of predatory capitalism has brought people into economic hardship, the domestic political system does not work. Both now merge and are projected onto the other, especially its culture or religion - or both, as in the case of Islam.
The position of the threatening and dangerous other can be taken by Mexicans, Muslims or other others, with Donald Trump devoting most of his racism to the first two. Now he keeps his promises to secure the support of his political base.
In the 1990s, the political scientist Samuel Huntington popularized the idea of the "clash of cultures" - between "Islam" and "the West", but in the decades that followed, significantly, turned primarily to the "Hispanic challenge". The thesis of the "clash of civilizations" seemed to have found its justification on September 11th and provided an intellectual framework in the fight against terror. However, Huntington mistakenly assumed that patriotism would decline after September 11, 2001, and that a new enemy would be needed as a result.
White nationalism and superiority pervade all classes
In his book "Who Are We: The Crisis of American Identity" he writes:
"The continued influx of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the United States: into two races, two cultures, and two languages. ... There is no Americano Dream. There is only the American dream created by Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will only dream this dream and belong to this society only if they dream in English. "
All immigrants should be equal, but unfortunately some are more equal than others, as George Orwell put it, whose dystopian novel "1984" is finally being read again in the United States. "Anglo-Protestant" simply means "white," and Trump's racist statements about Mexicans during the election campaign were a direct translation of Huntington's intellectualized racism. White nationalism and superiority pervade all classes and areas. Trump may sound shocking, but he's not a special case. It only reinforces currents and views that have always been there.
Xenophobic opinions and politics as well as fanatical xenophobia have always been part of white nationalism. Just remember the outrageous strategies against Jewish Nazi refugees or the imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese Americans between 1942 and 1946.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 800 hate crimes were committed in the United States in the three weeks following Trump's election victory alone. Nazi greetings on class photos, swastikas on walls and on public transport, a mosque set on fire, and attacks on immigrants or those who even look like them. When Trump's supporters scream "Make America great again" with enthusiasm, we know which America they mean: an America of white nationalism, white privilege and white power.
Despite their differences, Trump and Hillary Clinton agree on the essence of the national myth of the greatness of America. Barack Obama and Clinton responded to Trump's phrase "America has to be great again" with the slogan "America has always been great": "America has always been great".
The plight of families in the working or lower middle class was invisible and irrelevant to many during Obama's tenure. This was especially true of the elite and most of the Democratic Party, once the party of the working class but now more closely associated with Hollywood stars, corporate bosses and millionaires. Clinton, one of the most corrupt and unpopular politicians, even promised an increase in this development. In their opinion, neoliberalism was perfectly fine, although it had already caused economic problems in the 1990s, a few changes were enough. Perhaps this explains why so many voters were disaffected and did not vote for either candidate. The gap between the ideal and the real America is wider today than ever. Still, it should be the America of as many Americans as possible.
The next few years will be decisive
In 2004 the campaign officials of then Senator John Kerry chose this slogan: "Let America finally become America / Let it be the dream that many have dreamed." He was supposed to get voters to rebuild their country after George W. Bush upset it with his disastrous strategies.
The lines became a scandal. Its authors either misunderstood it or hadn't finished reading the underlying poem. It was written by the colored poet Langston Hughes in 1938 and did not celebrate an American Dream that was dreamed in the past and should now be revived. If one had read the rest of the poem, one would have learned that the poet, like many others, had seen and experienced an America that most people only know from stories. "America was never America to me," insisted Hughes. His poem is about the people who have always been excluded from the American dream, who have become incapacitated and who have questioned the myth of America.
"I'm the poor white man who's betrayed and pushed around
I'm the black one who bears the scars of slavery
I am the red man who was driven from his land
I am the immigrant who still clings to his hope.
We all share the same lot, because here everyone fights against everyone,
and the mighty crush the weak. "
Some right-wingers criticized the Kerry campaign at the time for choosing the poem. They indicated the poet's communist leanings. Hughes was not a communist, but published texts in communist papers and traveled to the Soviet Union. In 1953 he was called to the notorious Committee for Un-American Activities. He later distanced himself from communism. The intimidation had had an effect.
If Hughes were still alive today, it would have broken his heart that after so many decades a white nationalist was again and still taking advantage of the fears of so many people to revive an America that is heaven on earth for some, but a nightmare for many has been.
The next few years will be decisive. Will the "we" of "we, the people" include us all, or will it emerge who is "more equal than others", as it was when America was great? Hopefully the mass mobilization and sense of urgency felt all over the world are strong enough to form a real left.
Until then, it is worth reading the last stanza of Hughes' poem as a secular prayer that connects the emotional moment with hope in the upcoming fight against fascism.
"I tell you
America was never my America
but i swear to you
now it will finally be my America.
The gangsters will die in smoking ruins
and from the swamp of corruption, deception and lies
we, the people, will take back our land,
the mines, the factories, the rivers,
the mountains and the endless plains.
Our whole, great, green country
will finally become our America ".
Sinan Antoon, Born in 1967 to an Iraqi father and an American mother, has lived in the USA since 1991. In German he published "Irakische Rhapsodie" (Lenos-Verlag). He is currently a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. Translated from the English by Natalie Broschat
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