US society exists under the cloud of historical traumas rooted in its three main communities: the Natives, the Africans and the Europeans. The first two have long been on the journey of healing. The third is yet to begin.
To be a refugee is to be something of a reject. This is not to be unkind: I was one myself for many years. The US is a country founded by rejects, whom other rejects then joined.
“Nations of immigrants” is a misnomer. These were white refugees, not “immigrants”, or “founders”, as they like to call themselves. They may have become immigrants on arrival, but they began as economic and political refugees, rejects of the European order they left behind.
There is a very real sense in which America as is, is indeed the property of the white people there. The land may not be theirs, and much of the labour power that created their economy was not theirs either. Neither has ever been paid for.
But the exploitative economy, and the twin legacies of enslavement and genocide are certainly the spiritual and cultural property of white America. Their “founding fathers” used those means to create the kind of society they wished for themselves, and then invited millions of other Europeans to join them.
Between 1862 and 1934, the US federal government gave 270m acres of land to mainly white European settlers. This is said to be 10% of all land in the country. Earlier such settlers between 1850 and 1854 were able to obtain 320 or 640 acres of land each for free in what are now the modern states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming.
So the problem of American politics is trying to change the US “for the better”, while holding on to all that was stolen. Even the new and/or non-white immigrant often tries to buy into this. That is why first-generation US citizens can often take great offence when they are asked where they “originally” came from. It is important to privilege their newly acquired US identity over the previous one that their parents abandoned.
The simple fact is that if indeed one wishes to believe in an idea of American greatness, one then has to accept that the US’s origins as a genocidal, slave-dealing economy are part of the make-up. It was the failure to hold an honest conversation bridging the space between how the US came into existence, and what it wants to be now, that has ultimately undermined the “progressive” politics of the Democratic Party.
The first act of economic migrancy was European imperial expansion. Western European monarchies, beset by huge public debts, borrowed money to send pirates overseas to see what could be found and looted from the “New World”. This gave rise to a whole new set of industries, economies and social formations, including a white settler population in North America – which then led a revolt and took the colony for themselves.
So the problem of American politics is trying to change America “for the better”, while holding on to all that America seized.
People carrying a sense of rejection, or any other kind of psychic shock are often damaged people. That is why most African societies have cleansing rituals for people returning from exile or prison (which is a form of exile) and even war, before they may re-enter their homes and reunite with their families. US society therefore walks under the dark cloud of three sets of deep historical trauma rooted in its three primary communities: the Natives, the Africans and the Europeans. The first two have long been on the journey of healing. The third are yet to begin.
As the ongoing confrontation over protecting sacred territory from a state-backed corporate land grab in Standing Rock, Dakota, shows, the indigenous natives are still resisting the genocide. Africans, having brought down the US apartheid system just over 50 years ago, still march towards justice.
As for the Europeans, they carry and hold the values of the very societies that they fled due to poverty and violence, while maintaining a contradiction that began with their amusing attempts to recreate the very Europe that rejected them, for instance placing the word “New” in their settlements, followed by the name of a place they had just fled.
Many of the first Europeans to set foot in the continents they would later name after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, were rough sailors and soldiers. Theirs, and the later ships carried physical bodies, but those bodies carried damaged souls and hearts wounded by essential hatreds borne of 200 years of non-stop violence before they left Europe.
A most wicked and sustained pathology was the result, expressing itself in a culture of social intolerance and violent, combative language of the sort Trump exploited during his US election campaign.
The social histories quietly carried in Native communities tell the stories of the conduct of specific, now very rich white American families, from their origins as vagabond gold hunters and land grabbers, through to frontier traders and then “noble” corporate giants. The Lakota Nation knows the ancestors of the wealthy Hearst family, who exploited and promoted treaty-violating native clearance military operations so as to make their fortune mining gold and silver in the Lakota Nation’s Black Hills, still possibly the largest gold mine in the US. They even acquired the San Francisco Examiner newspaper specifically to maintain a racist propaganda campaign aimed at justifying the land grabbing.
The Trump family history certainly fits into that pattern. His grandfather fled the poverty and endless war footing of 1880s Germany and became gold-hunter, brothel-keeper and land-grabber in the western frontier towns recently erected on stolen native land.
After amassing a small fortune that he would stash with his also immigrant sisters on the East Coast (the most Europeanised part of the US), he joined them there and settled into real estate development.
It was a simple pattern; migrate, use your whiteness to make a lot of money by breaking a few laws, and then invest in “respectability”. The external appearance changes, but what of the inner person? “That which is seen (or see-able) is not what is to be adored”, say my people.
It is not possible to remember and to forget at the same time, and the white settler communities should not be asked to forget their own ancestry. However, they do need to come to terms with the most salient fact concerning Europe: that it rejected them.
The descendants of all those Europeans must make peace with those demons. They must cease aspiring to be the big people in America if they are to become whole human beings again.
Trump’s rise can only be fully understood in this context. He represents whiteness’ “last walk in the sun”. After a very long journey, the settlers now stand stranded at a huge dead-end, an over-extended empire that struggles to pay its debts while maintaining the largest, most deadly military machine humanity has ever created.
As the US election result – not to mention the quality of all the main candidates – shows, this is now clearly a matter far beyond the capacity of mere politics to solve. Looking back at some of the other ignoramuses from the white settler community that have held the presidential and vice-presidential offices there (the Vice President Dan Quayle comes quickly to mind), it is clear that things have been heading this way for some time.
However, given the great economic crisis that is the US, and how it has bound much of the rest of the world to its fortunes, this is a matter for the whole world to be concerned about. What does this mean for Africa?
Only natives, using a native sensibility, can solve this. But to solve a problem, one must start from where the problem started.
The US must be coaxed into auditing itself: does it still honour the treaties it signed “in perpetuity” with the natives? Has it compensated the descendants of the enslaved Africans in the way the families of British slave-owners were financially compensated when the practice was abolished?
Will it ever hold a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the damage and shortcomings of its long stay on stolen land? Can it contemplate a process of mass counselling to begin the cleansing, healing and civilising of the descendants of genocidaires, as well as those that later benefitted from the mass killings and clearances, so as to remove the inheritance of bloodstains from their psyches?
Without a deep look into its own soul, and the birth of a desire to really change, the country is set on a course of entrenched cultural wars.
On the other hand, it could continue to choose leaders who are warped and damaged individuals, thus accelerating its own decline, and inviting ridicule and derision.