The Ballot and Bullet Ballet (America’s Danse Macabre)
I lived in rural Mississippi for three years. The social lines were drawn sharply and there was little room for error. One was either black or white, man or woman. These two dyads generated a four-celled table of values internal to each cohort, and such values which must be honored at all costs. Social distancing was the order of the day, and mixing was possible only in the most clinical or contractual conditions. Marriage was thus an exercise in daily deportment and compact comportment alike. Men and women could never truly be friends, and neither could black and white. Communities contiguous but not convivial, these southernmost southerners coloured in their corners and painted themselves inward.
By a murky metastasis, Mississippi is no longer an emblem for the most marginal, but rather is to be taken as an ideal, by some, for the nation as a whole. Set apart for so long, the proverbial land that time did not so much forget but rather ignored, the deepest Dixie could carry on unmolested by either history or demographics. A large and diverse country, the United States oft appears as a disunion of fractious factions, entities of enmity that provide for the modern person a Caesar’s Palace simulacra of what conflict might well have looked like in Antiquity. And this partly by design. Just as the revolutionary ethics of Christianity was an answer – even a solution if practiced with humility and by all for all – to the caste societies of the ancient Mediterranean, populated by up to forty percent slaves, a latter-day prophet might seek to embolden a resurrection of some version of these same ethics as an equal solution to the travails of today.
I think that the unintended consequences of violation come first, the opportunistic politics of violence second. Their combined outcome is fascism, but we are not quite there nationwide. Not the presence of guns, nor the staunch belief in self-defense, not the self-reliant individual, rugged or ragged, nor the Christian soldiers nor even the race warriors, but the simple fact that the vast majority of Americans raise their children with violence, explains the presence of, as well as the apathy about, conflict and even combat in American society. Some eighty to ninety percent of Americans believe in physically punishing their children. The other great socializer, media, punishes them with visions of violence, cartoonish or no, while shying almost completely away from illuminations of affection and intimacy. Sex is taboo, killing is just fine. Compassion for children in crisis only, otherwise strict and stern disciplinary measures are the daily routine, at home, in school, and even in the workplaces wherein youth first get a taste of the lifelong wage slavery to come.
Speaking of Antiquity then, laboring classes are not naturalized, unlike ethnic-based castes, but they are nonetheless ordered in a lockstep of heritable social traits, sometimes referred to as ‘life-chance’ variables by social scientists. Wealth begets wealth, poverty tends to repeat itself. Political freedom is mistaken for that human, equality under the law used as a guise for social equity. In the eighteenth century, when the United States was born, the true individual was idealized as one thing, the ‘sovereign selfhood’ of the Enlightenment. This citizen was not ‘two-spirited’, was content with his gender assignment at birth, and struck up the repartee of universal humanity through its European lens. As a child of the counter-enlightenment, I myself respect these ideas, as revolutionary then as were Christian ethics in their own time, but I am aware that my ‘sovereignty’ is subverted by class conflict, sometimes sabotaged by the unconscious, but also sublimated by the reaching forward towards the Overman. Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche are the postmodern trinity, replacing that of the ethical agrarian world systems with a new vision so blindingly disconcerting that we are yet some ways from coming to terms with it.
Nevertheless, with it we have come to grips. And the United States is the proving ground of this world-historical confrontation with tradition. Always the boldest social experiment, the longing for the Great Society as a kind of cultural destiny yet animates the American political consciousness, insofar as it is alive at all. For a nation resettled with religious fanatics and peasants, the United States has come a long way, baby. Women, especially, have benefitted from this evolution which, in its longer-term Gestalt, is indeed revolutionary in its import. So why just now, when one would imagine that such a society is ready to make the next step, perhaps toward a greater freedom and equality combined, does it show such signs of falling over backwards? This is not a battle of the sexes. One third of American women apparently have no interest in equality or equity. This is not a battle of the ‘races’. Black American households are far more violent than those white, blacks far more likely to hold to revealed religion, and this in spite of their historic voting patterns. Latinos similarly, though of late we have also seen such immigration from nations ruled by once-fascist regimes and perhaps now by equally repressive authorities – Cuba is the usual example – that the successors to these refugees have swung hard in the rearward direction. This is also not a battle of the classes. Rural whites are as poor or poorer than urban blacks and yet they hold polar opposite values in the political and social spheres.
No, the conflict in the Great Society is about differing visions of what that very greatness is, should be, or shall be. Each side is fatally conflicted about its own vision, for it knows that in order to piece together enough votes to wrest or maintain power, as the case may be, it needs ever bed many it would ever fain to wed. The neo-conservatives concoct a fake temporality which sets itself outside of history, the ‘neo-liberals’ construct history as if it were destiny in motion. In the absence of a universally shared religion – for the first time, less than half of Americans say they attend church and those who claim no religion at all are close to a quarter of the population – competing versions of ‘civil religion’ attempt to hold the day. Each ignores the vital interests of the culture as a whole. Both practice authoritarianism in the home, support it in the schools, ignore the blandishments of the relatively unmitigated exploitation of labor, presume upon the two-party system, mock the idea of representative polling, fund their machines through cronyism, and delude their majority franchises with promises unkept while they elude responsible governance with politicians unkempt, apparently unaware of the very idea of public service.
In the avid abstraction of greatness, we as individuals are apt to forget our fragile mortality and our general historical inevitability. It is a powerful fix, to the point of becoming a fixation, to imagine oneself larger than life. Specific narcissists are certainly present on the political stage, but they are perhaps more representative of the rest of us than we, or even they, might be willing to believe. It is perhaps only because of a steep social stratification that we as well do not strut as they. As long as ethereal images of greatness, destiny, material conditions of violence against children, poverty in general, and incompetence in education remain as the core sources of conflict, any such society will fall upon its own double-edged sword of self-reckoning. It remains to be seen whether or not we are witnessing the culmination of a Rite of Winter ballet, or whether this singular dance of death will in fact carry on with no end, and thus preempt all possible new beginnings.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over 55 books in ethics, education, social theory, aesthetics, health and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.