American Paradox: violence and progress

The author responds to comment on his piece on the American radical right, arguing that the use of violence is profoundly un-American, despite being a part of the country's history and daily life.

David Alpher
8 February 2013
Demotix/Claudine Van Massenhove. All rights reserved.

Demotix/Claudine Van Massenhove. All rights reserved.

In my previous piece, I argued that the use of rhetorical and direct violence to achieve goals - especially as represented in the language of the increasingly radicalized right - is profoundly un-American. In the comments, Allison Nevitt made an interesting remark:

While I agree with what you're saying here about language, I was taken aback by this assertion, "...profoundly un-American—as is resorting to violence in order to reach our goals."

Are you kidding? This country is absolutely founded on the use of violence to reach our goals. We have slaughtered people since landing on these shores. We spend more money on the military than everything else combined, in our government. We continue to use violent force to stop people from non-violent protests. Our commitment to the concept of Manifest Destiny has meant that we have always found that we prove our righteousness by the very fact that we violently overcome anyone who we perceive to be in the way of our goals. Those Founders wrote a riveting document called the Constitution. But, don't for a minute forget that they were complicit in the genocide of Native Americans and the slavery of anyone with darker skin.

We couldn't see the end to slavery in this country without slaughtering one another. So, while I appreciate the need to change the rhetoric, you can't map a course to a new destination if you can't locate your current bearings. We have to admit that we are a culture based [on] using violence. We must face ourselves and determine if that's who we want to continue to be.

I would like to make the following response:

The United States began with paradox—a document and an ideal that enshrines the principle of negotiated compromise as the primary mechanism of government, written by people who owned slaves. In its details, a gloriously different kind of democracy than had ever been seen before, and which we still struggle to live up to. An experiment in a new social order that would ensure a more lasting kind of peace—that began with years of war.

The time since has been no less bloody, even genocidal with respect to the Native Americans. Slavery will forever be a source of shame, one which took an unspeakably damaging war to shed, and the ripples of which are still felt today decades after the “official” end of Jim Crow and the open violence of the fifties and sixties. Despite this history, I said in a recent article that to use violence to achieve ends is “profoundly un-American.”

The reason why is that we as a people regard these examples of violence as failures not just of diplomacy or policy, but of our own character as a nation. America isn’t founded on the use of violence to achieve our goals—it does incorporate the idea that when all else fails, there is such a thing as “just war”, but for the concept of justice to apply, all else must have been tried first. This, not the use of violence, is the historical anomaly. Internally, the entire structure of the republic is designed to ensure that there are as many negotiated roadblocks as possible between any given situation and violent action to address it.

To ignore the failures of this society, its violent outbursts and its flawed protagonists, requires a deliberate and tragic blindness. But since this is human governance, human society and human progress we’re talking about, we should also acknowledge the fact that to see the fact of failure as definitional and unchanging is also a deliberate act of blindness. Both blindnesses are damaging—the former dooming us to further failure, and the latter dooming us to stagnancy. Liberal democratic governance requires high levels of critical thinking and participation from the population—in application, that means the people have a responsibility to separate the nature of the ideal from the failures of the idealist so that we can consider both with at least some degree of objectivity, strengthen the former and continue evolving past the latter.

Howard Zinn, in his otherwise astonishing “People’s History of the United States,” failed to do this, as have a long list of other writers—castigating the ideas represented in the Constitution not because the ideas themselves were flawed, but because the people who wrote them quite obviously didn’t live up to them. It’s important to recognize this as an error—not because the Constitution is infallible holy writ, but because if the idea of social innovation and progress is tied to an anchor of historical failure while discarding the successes, the entire idea of progress becomes impossible. As a way to doom ourselves to repeat history, this comes in second only to ignorance of history.

To focus entirely on failures as though they were the only definitional qualities within a system is as inaccurate as focusing idealistically on the successes. Society is not, thankfully, required to limit itself to this kind of Manichean thinking. We have the opportunity, and I would argue the responsibility, to recognize that both exist, to recognize which reality lies closer to our own ideals, and to work towards strengthening that.

This kind of “rational idealism” is neither meaningless idealism nor academic prettiness—it is the deepest nature of democracy, and the deepest mechanism of social progress. It’s the reason why we consider our own violence to be examples of failure, why we denigrate the police who used violence against the Occupy protesters, why we look back on Sheriff Bull Connor and the methods he and so many others used with shame rather than understanding. It’s why the US has a chance not to surrender to the language of violence and division that’s becoming so common, but to work to change it by pointing out that it is in fact un-American. We should be able to tell the difference between violence as a perversion of our own ideals and “correct application”—and most importantly, we should be able to see how the context of speech and political action in recent times is contributing to the problem.

It’s a critical time for this, because America’s current bearings truly are off kilter—we have introduced the concept of preemptive war, putting the “first punch” on the pedestal of national security policy in contradiction of our own self-image as never throwing the first punch. We have militarized foreign assistance to a degree that has sharply eroded its humanitarian and diplomatic impact. In so doing, we have mis-ordered the concepts of tactics and strategy, pursuing a series of tactics that destroy our ability to reach the strategic goals we strive for, and nurturing the potentially violent divisiveness I discuss in “The Radical Right’s Final Solution.” And part of the social “schizophrenia” we face now comes from the fact that the country recognizes these things as antithetical to our own sense of who we are.

The solution lies in recognizing that—domestically, as well as internationally—the strongest strategy towards security is a human one, not a military one, and in living up to our own ideals as opposed to seeing them as aberrant because we have often failed. That depends upon recognizing the rightful place of negotiated compromise as the foundation of American social fabric; and it requires working actively to strengthen that fabric even in the face of fear, anger and divisiveness.

Designing policy and strategy based on that kind of rational idealism doesn’t dismiss the fact that violence is sometimes a necessary component of security, but it does reorder tactics and strategy back to their rightful places, so that the execution of tactical action doesn’t disrupt strategic goals. It enshrines nothing more or less than a sense of process—the knowledge that failures are no more essentially definitional than successes. It recognizes work in progress and highlights the power of people within a democratic framework to push the system towards its ideals.

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