Voices from Russia

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Why America is the World’s Most Uniquely Cruel Society… Or, How Punching Down Became a Way of Life

Filed under: politics,Uncategorized,USA — 01varvara @ 00.00
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CIA Torture and the American Army at Abu Ghraib Prison, Iraq

Max Ginsburg

2009 

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This is a routine SOP for Americans in foreign parts. ROUTINE. Both the Trumpkins and the Clintonistas applaud this. I call this (and them) evil. I’m not alone in thinking that way…

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In this essay, I want to share a theory of what it means to be American. As ever, it’s up to you to judge whether it carries any weight. All that I’ll say is that when I look around it explains a little about what I see. Any theory of being American must explain one salient and striking fact… cruelty. America is the cruellest nation amongst its peers … even amongst most poor countries today. It’s something like a new Rome. It has little, if any, functioning healthcare, education, transport, or media… it has no safety nets, no stability, and no security. The middle class is collapsing, and life expectancy is falling. Young people die from a lack of insulin they can’t crowdfund. Elderly middle-class people live and die in their cars. Kids massacre each other in schools… when they’re not self-medicating the pain of it all away. The combination of these pathologies happens nowhere else… not a single place… in the world. Not even Pakistan, Costa Rica, or Rwanda. Hence, the world is aghast at the depths of American cruelty… yet, somehow, it seems bottomless.

Of course, I don’t mean that all Americans are cruel. I just mean it in the same way we say countries have attitude, dispositions, that there’s such a thing as a French or German national attitude or disposition, so, too there’s an American one. Nor do I mean America is “the cruellest society in the world”. Could we really ever judge that? However, it’s uniquely cruel … a kind of special example… in weird, needless, and singular ways. Let me throw that into relief. Scandinavians are the happiest, longest-lived, and most prosperous people in the world because they don’t punish one another constantly, but lift one another up. However, Americans don’t believe this reality. The underlying sentiment that unites America’s manifold problems is a myth of cruelty.

Where did the myth of cruelty come from? That’s the question before us if we really want to understand America. I’ve wondered about it since I was a kid, to be honest. Once, I thought it was about capitalism, patriarchy, and race. Now, I think that those are expressions of it. Something more primary, fundamental, and unique happened. America was a strange improbable combination of things, singular in history. A Promised Land… but one for the despised. Waves upon waves of them washed up on its shores. First, the Puritans… mocked and loathed in England. Then, peasants, farmers, and outlaws from across Europe. Then, Chinese, Japanese, and Latinos, and today, Muslims.

These emigrants tended to share a common trait. They were at the very bottom, the lowest rung, of social and economic hierarchies in their own countries. All of them. That changed a little recently… but America was founded by and for the despised, loathed, and hated. People referred to as trash, nobodies, serfs, exiles, outcasts… who were never given an ounce of respect, dignity, or even belonging in their societies of origin. Let me make that clearer. We didn’t see nobles and landed gentry migrating to America… British Lords, German Counts, and Italians Barons. We saw German peasants, Irish villagers, Swedish farmers, and the dwellers of Italian slums. People from the very lowest of hierarchies elsewhere, the oppressed and the subjugated, came to this Promised Land. First, the English and French settlers supposed that this New World was theirs (and began a kind of genocide against its natives, of course). However, they didn’t just come to hate the natives for threatening their natural right to this Promised Land. It was the next waves of settlers, too. The English settlers hated the French. The French hated the Germans. They all hated the Irish. The Irish hated the Italians. And so on. That much is historical fact. Do you see the pattern forming yet?

This is very abstract, so let me make it concrete. Here came one wave of settlers… the English. They dominated their way to the top of a hierarchy, above natives and blacks. Then came a new wave… Germans. They were punched down too… and began punching down… to establish themselves in this hierarchy, as high up as they could. Then, another wave… the Irish. Punched, punching down. All desperately vied for relative dominance amongst the rest. You see, the crucial fact is that this didn’t happen elsewhere in the world … waves of settlers, all desperately trying to establish themselves above the next, last, most recent, in a hierarchy, all the more so because they were despised, at the bottom, to begin with. In Europe, Asia, South America, hierarchies were long-established and broken only by revolution. America was the only nation where this constant reconstruction of hierarchy happened to such a degree, repeatedly. Hence, the establishment of cruelty as a way of life… how else but to establish one’s self above the next wave of migrants?

Each new tribe that came to this Promised Land brought the burden of being despised, subjugated, and oppressed with them. They were finally above someone else in a social hierarchy. They weren’t at the bottom anymore. However, to be above requires someone else to be below. Therefore, there was a constant battle for relative position within a growing hierarchy… hence, dominance, competition, and conquest soon became prized cultural values, norms, and institutional goals. Cruelty as a way of life was born. When we note that the despised of England hated the newly arrived despised of France hated the newly-arrived despised of Germany and so on, not to mention natives, blacks, and Asians, in an endless vicious circle, we also say that America was learning to be cruel, by forever constructing greater hierarchies to seize the fruits of a Promised Land. However, greater hierarchies require greater cruelty to climb up, too. Moreover, the irony is that all this is what the despised came to America to escape.

I’ll add a peripheral point. The despised, when coming to a Promised Land, are the least likely, perversely, although we might not immediately think so, to want to share it … because they, at last, have something that they feel is theirs. Today’s servant wants to be tomorrow’s master. Today’s peasant wants to be tomorrow’s landlord. Today’s victim aspires to be tomorrow’s oppressor. What was really happening here, in more modern terms? People were learning to “punch down”, as we might put it today. Americans were being taught to take out their anger, rage, and fear on those less powerful than them… usually, the most obvious and immediate ones they could find. An Irish mutt bastard moved into the neighbourhood? Get them. No Chinamen allowed. Those Italians? We’ve got to move them out of our city. Intern those Japanese. Punching down began to be institutionalised and normalised. Cruelty became a way of life and a norm. Tribe after tribe of the despised fled to the Promised Land, but each one demanded their position above the last, having never had anything before. People who were hated outcasts had status and belonging at last, but only by punching down the next wave. Therefore, no mechanisms ever really developed to allow them to share the Promised Land wisely, well, or reasonably. Might became right.

American leaders tried to intervene every now and then, such as FDR’s second bill of rights, JFK’s vision for a fairer society, and so on. However, they weren’t very successful because they were fighting a history of cruelty that they didn’t really understand, one that went to the heart of what it means to be American itself. So they never really said:

Wait. What do we all really have in common, us Americans? We’re the despised and mocked of history. Its outcasts and its exiles. This is what unites us! Let’s stop punching down, then. Otherwise, what have we really learned? We’re only repeating the very history of cruelty that we tried to escape from.

How sad. How funny. Americans came to a Promised Land but they couldn’t escape themselves. Each new wave tried to rise above the next and built a world even crueller than the old one. Punching down, down, down, endlessly. Therefore, today, here we are. Punching down became a national institution, a norm, and a way of life. School shootings? Can’t ban guns; let the kids have “active shooter drills”. We’re punching all the way down to our little five-year-olds. Life expectancy falling? Can’t have healthcare, let them self-medicate with opioids. We’re punching down to the poorest. Education cost a fortune? Too bad, take out debt. We’re punching down to our young people. I could give you endless examples. However, perhaps, you get the point by now.

What does it mean to be American? To really “be”… to see, feel, think, and act American, so much so that you aren’t self-aware of it, because it’s unconscious, reflexive, invisible, this way of “being”? Well, it means what it always has. Punching down, not lifting up. Punching down is hardwired into America by now, thanks to a unique history of settlers… who had never had any status… punching the next wave down for a relative hierarchical position. An attitude of cruelty was born. Therefore, today, cruelty is the point of its institutions, the purpose of its norms, and the linchpin of its perverse idea of virtue, that by punishing people, we can better them. It’s all that Americans expect from each other, and give to each other. That’s the terrible burden of this Promised Land… history’s despised warred among one another for domination of it.

The problem is this. A society of people punching one another down must collapse. What else could it do? It can’t rise, can it? If I’m punching you down, and I’m punching the next person down below me, how can anyone ever lift anyone up? However, without lifting one another up, a society can’t grow in quantity or quality of life. America has never reckoned with its history of cruelty. Instead, it developed a defensive mythology of being welcoming, even while every new wave of immigrants had to fight, sometimes quite literally, street by street against the last wave for a piece of the Promised Land. Like all myths, that one was a lie that revealed the truth… America was a Promised Land for the huddled masses to roam free, but only if they could fend off the other tribes by punching them down endlessly.

A Promised Land is like a Garden of Eden. However, who can live in the Garden peacefully but angels? Human beings… flawed, indelicate things… can only be cast out, they’re ever in conflict, in tension, hungry and ravenous. That’s never truer than for their most despised, who need healing the most, or else they’d ravage their Gardens worst. In this way, a Garden given to the despised is a war waiting to happen. A war against itself. America is at just such a war and has always been. The name of this war is cruelty. However, the end of this war is not victory, but collapse. I don’t say any of this to blame, shame, or judge. Only so that, perhaps, we can, at last, reckon with this history of violence.

20 February 2018

Umair Haque

Eudaimonia

https://eand.co/why-is-america-the-worlds-most-uniquely-cruel-society-f67afc5c6b9a

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