John Colson: A theory about our collective craziness
Hit & Run
I’ve been watching and listening to news coverage of the ongoing protests in reaction to decades (centuries, really) of white oppression and killings of black Americans, and the images and stories have taken me right back to my younger days as an anti-establishment protester in the era of civil rights and the war in Vietnam.
I get that the specific issues underlying the present waves of protest are somewhat different than the issues that sent me into the streets of the Washington, D.C., area in the late 1960s.
This time, the rage was sparked by the death of one man, George Floyd of Minneapolis, who was strangled to death by a cop’s knee during what should have been a relatively minor encounter over allegations that he tried to use counterfeit money to buy a pack of cigarettes at a local store.
But the frustration and rage motivating most of today’s protesters have been fired up by the cases of numerous black citizens killed by police around the U.S. in recent years, and by anger over our society’s treatment of people of color in general (not to mention the poor, the elderly and other marginalized groups).
Before going on, I should note that I’m a pretty average older white guy, and I’ve been reading a fair amount lately about how a majority of us in the USA do not trust our own government to “do the right thing,” as filmmaker Spike Lee once urged. Essentially, many of us lack confidence that our government can or wants to ensure that we all have equal access to the promised “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” offered up in our founding national Constitution.
Along with these troubling conclusions, I have a vague feeling that the country, and maybe the world, is going nuts. We are turning away from the idea of humanistic and global cooperation in the face of world-threatening ecological or sociological developments, and shifting back toward tribalistic, militaristic behavior that history should have weaned us from a long time ago.
And as we globally revert to intense nationalism and racial intolerance, we find ourselves in endless wars, big and small, and we stop paying enough attention to looming worldwide social and environmental catastrophes waiting just around the next corner.
Leaving the global situation aside for the moment, and focusing solely on the United States, I believe this country is suffering from a collective form of deep and largely unacknowledged guilt that dates back to the 16th century, in the decades after white Europeans first invaded North and Central America in the late 1400s.
Back then, according to some estimates, there were between about 60 million or so Native American tribal members living in North America generally.
Within a couple of centuries, that number had dwindled to an estimated 7 million “Indians,” as native populations were decimated by disease, war and other depredations, including slavery.
Ignorance, ethnocentrism, racial intolerance and sheer greed were the guiding principles behind the catastrophic genocide throughout North America, and in the nation that became the United States of America those results have been clearly and unequivocally documented.
Concurrently, as the invading, conquering Europeans killed off most of the natives who were found here, the invaders soon concluded that they needed a source of slave labor to do the field work in our largely agrarian society. The African continent proved to be a handy, easily conquered source of the slave labor we needed. By the middle 1500s, according to historians, black slavery was an established fact in the English colonies of North America.
Thus it was that our white-majority nation was founded on two hideous periods of genocide and piracy, and I firmly believe the guilt arising from this fact is at least partly to blame for our national mental malaise.
Somewhere, deep inside us, we collectively suffer from a kind of moral poverty and degeneracy that regularly blossoms into otherwise baffling acts of mass violence and self-destructive political behavior.
The mass violence, of course, was first put on full display in the Indian wars that lasted into the 19th century.
And the self-destructive socio-political arrangements underlying slavery, along with the violence against the slave population, guaranteed that our nation would long have to deal with a simmering undercurrent of discontent, rebellion and political upheaval, such as what is happening today.
Is our lamentable past making us crazy in the present?
I believe it is, and my theory is rooted in my belief that white America has tried, and failed miserably, to match its Constitutional rhetoric (“all men are created equal”) with our societal realities (viewing blacks and other non-whites as subhuman, and thereby tailor-made for slavery and other mistreatment).
Additionally, white Americans are realizing we are losing numerical superiority, and many fear the reprisals that our historical actions might bring.
That fear feeds a strong, irrational undercurrent of racism in this country, which has been a big part of what got Donald Trump elected and is fueling his reelection campaign.
Put simply, America knows what it has done, and many are desperate to ward off the day of reckoning that may be coming.
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