The Ties That Bind

On Friday morning, intoned the President of the United States, “…we woke up to news of a tragedy that reminds us all of the ways we are united as one American family.” Having arisen to the announcement that one American had gunned down scores of his compatriots in a Colorado theatre, I was compelled to wonder what grisly barometer of kinship Barack Obama had in mind. Yet within the space of a few short hours, he had invoked the same platitude no fewer than three times. “As we do when confronted by moments of darkness and challenge, we must now come together as one American family,” he wrote in an initial press release. He and Michelle were heartbroken, he said later at a truncated campaign stop, on behalf of “the entire American family.”

Exhorting Americans to consanguinity is like teaching granny to suck eggs. The “family” has replaced the melting pot, itself supplanted some years back by the salad bowl, as the veneer glossing the deep internal fissures of an empire whose inhabitants are united chiefly by a tumultuous history of class, racial and gendered violence, yet repeatedly rise, at times like these, to the call for fraternal solidarity. Family is the civil face of nationalism, and like nationalism, it turns acutely upon a twin dialectic of inclusion and exclusion, will and compulsion. Families are formed of those we choose and those we inherit; those we hold close and those we discard. In the face of relentless internecine conflict, the myth of familial Americanism has only ever thrived as a foil to the Old World antecedents whence America originates, rejected as external, inferior, foreign, anachronistic, other. Representative Mike Coffman of Colorado made the distinction explicit on Friday afternoon. “This was the type of violence that I would have expected when I served in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps, but never here at home,” he said, though he declined to intimate whether he anticipated such brutality from friends or foes. Given that the number of Americans who died in seven years of the Iraq war just barely exceeded that of those who died by the bullet in the United States every seven weeks during this period, Coffman was probably better off in Baghdad.

Having returned recently to the United States after years abroad, and now as a dual citizen – a status the US government will not officially recognize, so committed is it to the principle of the American family as a kinship unit irrevocably divorced from the rest of the world – I’ve been readjusting to the culture shock of American nationalism. The facade of American oneness is so seamless that most white Americans, and even many Americans of colour, for whom such alleged unity has long been suspect, if not downright preposterous, profess genuine shock upon its habitual disintegration. I arrived back in New York just as the Occupy movement was gathering steam, around the time an Iraq war veteran was filmed on the streets of Manhattan excoriating the NYPD for inflicting such terrible brutality upon its fellow citizens in the violent policing of  protest. “There is no honour in this. Why are you hurting US citizens? This is the United States of America. This is not a war zone!” shouted Shamar Thomas over and over at a group of shamed and sheepish cops to whom Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently referred as his “own army.” The soldier’s fury was exceeded only by his incredulity. Sergeant Thomas, like Representative Coffman, was baffled by the transgression of the golden rule that American life is inherently more valuable than other kinds, and all the more befuddled that Americans themselves would violate its sanctity: “If you want to hurt someone, go to Iraq!”

The endeavour to impose some framework of national unity upon a young and heterogeneous population has been a defining characteristic of US history for well over a century. During the latter part of the Progressive Era, America’s polarity problem kindled a crusade for confederation styling itself “the Americanisation movement.” In the present day, the term Americanisation typically refers to the process through which we generously export American civilisation to the benighted world beyond our borders, usually for a tidy profit. This meaning, too, boasts a century-long history, but prior to the Second World War and the definitive rise of American empire, it referred more conspicuously to the internalised process of Americanising Americans themselves, a hegemonic project that hinged upon the invention of an American metanarrative to which they could lay claim.

The Americanisation movement preoccupied itself primarily with immigration, seeking to impose upon the masses of proto-Americans arriving at Ellis Island and other gateways not only cultural and linguistic homogeneity, but also, crucially, labour discipline. While the prospect of ethnic discord loomed large in the nightmares of nativists, the melting pot necessarily found its class counterpart in the American Dream of upward mobility for those whose bootstraps were strong enough to hoist them above the crushing weight of inherited disadvantage. Between these cultural, ethnic and class components lay politics. The Americanisation movement sought to impart not only unity but loyalty: to capitalism, to democracy, to their contradictory congruence in the American state. An older and uglier iteration of Americanisation had already been inflicted upon non-immigrant groups such as American Indians and African Americans through the brutality of assimilation, though with the condition that the latter in particular – whose full and equal admission into the American family posed far greater political dangers than the spectre of immigrant separatism – would accept their place on the bottom of the food chain. Like any family, with inclusion comes rank. Beyond the strategic targeting of minority ethnic populations, the process even operated at the regional scale, through what some historians have termed the Americanisation of the South (or, more subversively, the Southernisation of America) in the wake of the Civil War.

If the Americanisation movement no longer exists as a formal campaign, still it persists as a more generalised project, through mechanisms both subtle and flagrant. In addition to the ritualistic recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, invented by the American socialist Francis Bellamy in 1892, the children of my own generation were Americanised in part by an innocuous Saturday-morning cartoon series called “Schoolhouse Rock,” the brainchild of an advertising executive who sought to bring the sophisticated indoctrination techniques of Madison Avenue profitably to bear on the commoditisation of children’s education. A portion of the series was devoted to mythologising such imperialistic accomplishments as the conquest of the New World and manifest destiny, in addition to teaching grammar, science, maths, civics, the evils of national deficit and the vagaries of finance capitalism. The project was insidiously brilliant because it imparted such lessons not only through quaint and comforting images depicting the triumph of American harmony over the prospect of American conflict, but through unforgettable music. I suspect that millions of Americans in their 30s and 40s who shared their home with a television in the 1970s are capable, as am I, of reciting much of the Preamble to the US Constitution by heart, because we learned it from Lynn Ahrens, who wrote and sang one of the most memorable songs the series produced.

In a nod to the Progressive Era Americanisation campaign, Schoolhouse Rock taught us, too, that America is a country of eagerly voluntary immigrants – neatly minimising the messy realities of American immigration as well as sidestepping the vastly divergent experiences of African Americans, brought forcibly to these shores through a programme of kidnap, rape, murder and enslavement, and American Indians, prior occupants subjected to an offensive of conquest, incarceration, deracination and extirpation. America, in this vision, is a collection of ingredients who retain ancestral flavours even while they are boiled down into the bland homogeneity of the great American stew. Kinship, too, makes a metaphorical appearance: America as a family of families, the more benign facets of whose cultural identity may be successfully sustained despite their absorption into a broader national kin unit.

But if America is indeed a family, then Katy bar the door. Even excluding the brutal conflicts of the past, the American household today resembles nothing so much as a national penitentiary, its inmates quartered in cells both real and metaphorical. The United States, with a mere five percent of the world’s people, contains a quarter of those locked away in prison. A quarter of Americans are locked out of the health insurance system. A quarter of America’s children are locked in the desolation of poverty. A quarter of America’s women have at one time or another been locked in the vicious chains of domestic violence. Any other family that habitually incarcerates, neglects, deprives and abuses its members would be rightfully subjected to investigation by the emissaries of the state, but as the American state plays such an intimate role in the maltreatment of the American family, the fox predictably guards the hen house with less than due diligence.

The American political class evoke “family,” and particularly the heterosexual nuclear family, with an esteem bordering on veneration. Anthropologists regard family rather differently, as a variable configuration of kinship with specific political, economic and social functions ranging from the accumulation of wealth to the organisation of property rights. If we discard the rosy familial glasses donned by the “family values” brigade to examine this institution through a more clinical lens, family looks decidedly less familial. Families can, without a doubt, be places of support and succour. But they can also be places of violence and vengeance, hatred and hierarchy, coldness and cruelty. The family, for many women in particular, is one of the most barbaric institutions going, providing the ties that not only bind, but sometimes choke.

So perhaps Obama was onto something after all. Maybe Americans are a family, warts included. Presuming, as the mother of the accused has proclaimed, the Aurora authorities have “got the right man,” then Americans are compelled to assess how our family came to produce such a child of violence, beyond the question of how he came so easily to acquire the means to inflict it. I have no idea why James Holmes did what he did. I don’t know if he’s clinically insane, or acted with perfect mental clarity. But he is, by all accounts released thus far, an American. And no matter how desperately we wish to excommunicate him from the American family, he is more indicative of the way we treat each other, and by extension the rest of the world, than pat political bromides purport. Such events are never defined by the cowardice of the attack alone, but the full range of spontaneous human responses to it, ranging from selfless heroism to self preservation. Indeed such reports are already beginning to emerge from Colorado, where two women attribute their survival to the ultimate sacrifice of their romantic partners, and a third has accepted the compensatory marriage proposal of a partner who admittedly left her to fend for herself and their two children as he fled. These too, are American, and familial, stories, as much as the shooting itself. But it is the sheer inevitability of the next massacre to come, and its symbolism of a plethora of violences, structural and overt, that Americans do to each other, that I wish my countrymen would acknowledge before the bad-apple theories take hold.

Predictably, that ship has already sailed, the President himself cracking the champagne bottle on the hull of state to signify the self-congratulatory national relief that whoever James Holmes may be, he is certainly not one of us. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper went further, disowning Holmes not only from the American family, but the broader organic one. “I mean, this is a case of evil,” he insisted on CNN. “Somebody who was an aberration of nature.” For his own part, Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan peddled the line of exceptionalism, urging parents to tell their children that “this is an isolated incident. It’s tragic, it’s horrible, but it’s isolated.” In the broader scheme of mortal hazards, that’s empirically demonstrable. But as The Guardian helpfully pointed out in 2009 – in an abbreviated inventory of lone gunman rampages on American soil before Aurora, before Tucson, before Binghamton, after Camdon, after Brunswick, after Winfield, omitting Brookfield, omitting Fort Worth, omitting Jacksonville and many others besides – it isn’t isolated enough.

Verily the atrocity in Aurora was an American tragedy. American flags were duly lowered to half-mast on official buildings. Americans duly dusted off the stars and stripes to display mournfully at vigils. And once the urgency of spectacle has passed for those with no immediate relation to the dead, America will duly praise god, pass the ammunition, and resume the cycle of domestic violence which cannot help but anesthetize us to the abject savagery we inflict upon those we consider alien. If this is how we are content to treat family – and the mundanity of mass shootings is but one indicator that indeed, we are – then heaven help those we consider strangers. America is a cannibalistic clan at best, an empire consuming itself from the inside-out even as it stretches its geopolitical arms to gather the world in its violent embrace.

For the record, I don’t hate America. Unlike Rufus Wainwright, I’m not even tired of America. Rather, I am increasingly unconvinced that such a thing exists, at least in the way I’ve been taught, even by people I deeply revere: dissidents like Woody Guthrie, whose critical patriotism rings hollow for the first time in my life, in what would’ve been his hundredth year. I say that with a certain sadness that readers of these pages may find naïve. For though I’ve always abhorred nationalism, however strategic, I did once believe that the American people could, if they chose, organise a society based upon the self-evident ideals of freedom and equality – and not the bankrupt version proffered by the mouthpieces of the NRA, in which everyone is equally free as long as they are equally armed – even, through meaningful reparations and a commitment to consign white supremacy to the dustbin of history once and for all, overcoming the legacy of conquest, slavery and genocide upon which it was formed. Maybe I’m getting too old, too cynical, or too British, or chalk it up to post-Hope malaise in the wake of the Obama sellout, but it feels like I’ve come home to a nationless state, a citizenry of strangers. The battle for America is over, and nobody won, because nobody came. With family like this, who needs enemies?

4 thoughts on “The Ties That Bind

  1. Brilliant. Best Essay dealing with American Exceptionalism and related aspects of the “Homeland” since Ward Churchill’s “On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.”

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