Letting Go of America
by Gregory Stephens
May 16, 2004

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From far and wide across the amber waves of grain, in books and cyberspace, in private dreams and public declarations comes the great bleating rally cry: “Take Back America!”

This whole notion of “taking back” America is in fact tangled up in the root of our problem, American exceptionalism. Rather than holding on to the illusion that America is something that can be reclaimed, I argue, better to let go of the myth of national unity, to accept and work for the inevitable decentering process. But first let’s listen to some of the voices.

Taking Back America is a non-partisan aspiration. You can download a flag from the internet, the Red-White-and-Blue with “Take Back America 04” beneath, that presumably can be used by patriots of any political persuasion. From Seattle, there’s a “4-step Civic Action Plan” addressed to both liberals and conservatives, with a typically American self-help sort of title: “How to Take Back American from the ENEMY WITHIN.” And on the East Coast, there are Citizen Action “Take Back America” groups—often, but not always anti-Bush.

The most visible charge is coming from what remains of a progressive political wing. The idea of taking back America was a core idea in the Howard Dean campaign, in its “Blog for America” and outpourings by Deaniacs. One of the “Songs for Dean” was, you got it, “Let’s Take Back America” (recorded by Carlton Schreiner).

Dennis Kucinich described his presidential run as “a grassroots campaign to take back America.” He gave a speech on that theme at the “Take Back America” conference in Washington D.C. June 2-4, 2003, which can be heard on Indymedia.org, or seen on video. Bill Moyers gave an inspiring keynote speech at that conference, “This is Your Story—The Story of Progressive America,” a historical overview as to why the America that progressives want to take back was, arguably, the heart of the country. (Think the expansion of rights).

Most of the reporting on this conference came from the left. But the theme is resonating in much broader circles. Thom Hartmann wrote a widely reprinted column, “How to Take Back America.” This has been expanded into a book, We the People: A Call to Take Back America, co-authored by Gene Latimer, Paul Burke and Neil Cohn, and published in March 2004.

Books on this theme are proliferating. Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, and Robert L. Borosage co-authored Taking Back America: And Taking Down the Radical Right. Jim Hightower has been selling bundles of Thieves in High Places: They’ve Stolen Our Country and it’s Time to Take it Back. Along with outrage, Hightower supplies humor, a quality too often in short supply among both those who idolize or demonize President Bush.

The flavor of the diversity of people behind this uniting idea, on the progressive end, comes across in Rob Kall’s report, “The World is Waiting for Americans to Take Back America.” “There's a wind blowing across America, from sea to shining sea, blowing away the numbing mist that has befuddled the good people of America, that has left us sleeping in the poppy fields, like Dorothy in Wizard of OZ,” writes Kall.

I truly do not want to rain on this parade—heaven knows we need all the hope we can get at this moment. So I beg your pardon for pointing out that this vision is relentlessly Amero-centric—that is, centered on the United States as the “last great hope” of the human race. Can we agree that our self-absorption is a key part of what got us in this crisis in the first place?

What a comforting fantasy, that the whole world is watching us, waiting on us to wake up and live up to our creed. True, there are people around the world still voicing the hope, as Martin Luther King Jr. once put it, that America will “get on the right side of the world revolution.” There are arguably many more who have concluded that King’s darker vision was the correct one, that the U.S. is "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." And that  "The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve."

There is a growing awareness that “the American way of life is simply not sustainable,” as Arundhati Roy put it. Does the rest of the planet really expect Americans to voluntarily give up our fabulous entitlements? No. "The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” Bush Sr. famously said. Many want to live like we do, to be sure, but many also have concluded that since the U.S. seems willing and eager to use violence to protect the “American way of life,” there is nothing left but to oppose America and its lifestyle, by any means necessary, in ways both direct and indirect.

George Monbiot’s conclusion still does not seem to have penetrated Oz: “America’s assertions of independence from the rest of the world force the rest of the world to assert its independence from America.”

The American right has their own growth industry of books calling on the troops to reclaim their country. Thus on Amazon.com you can find a list titled “Arm Yourselves to Take Back America!” by a “Christian, Husband, Father” who lists authors like Tim LaHaye, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh. The political invasion of Christian fundamentalists has been in progress for decades. In Clinton’s second term, Jerry Falwell’s National Liberty Journal printed this “Liberty Council” ad: “We Need an Army of Attorneys to Take Back America.” A new generation of fundamentalist attorneys has in fact been moving through training grounds like Liberty University and straight into Republican-controlled turf in Washington.

But even now that the Presidency, Congress, the Supreme Court, and much of the media have been taken over by, or are under the sway of ultra-conservatives, Christian conservatives are still convinced that America is occupied territory. The Christian Coalition has initiated a “Take Back America” campaign. It asks: “Did you ever think the 10 Commandments would come under attack in our nation?” In May 2004, the Christian Coalition circulated a petition of support, addressed to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, condemning “an intolerant liberal mob” that it believes is persecuting Lt. General William Boykin for asserting that his Christian God is bigger and better than the Muslim Allah.

At the very moment that a Congressional investigation is linking Boykin to the Iraqi prison abuse scandal, the Christian right is proclaiming that Boykin’s worldview is one and the same as President Bush’s crusade to “rid the world of evil.”

Here we come to the heart of what is at stake in this epic battle to “take back America.” Sexual abuse and torture in Iraq is just good ol’ boys “blowing off steam,” says Rush. The reactionary Senator from my home state of Oklahoma, James Inhofe, announced that he was outraged by the outrage over the actions of American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. Never mind the International Red Cross report that up to 90 percent of Iraqi detainees were arrested by mistake. “Many of them probably have American blood on their hands and here we're so concerned about the treatment of those individuals,” Inhofe fumed.

You think this crowd is going to change? When you get your news from Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Fox News, you’re not going to be shocked by any means to the end of American world domination. Or by Bush’s Education Secretary Rod Page calling American teachers “terrorist.” You’re not going to be concerned about how spending $5 billion a month in Iraq affects education or health care at home, when many of the people you listen to favor abolishing public education or social services altogether.

What if Kurt Vonnegut is right? “I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America’s becoming humane and reasonable,” he says, with the hindsight of 81 years.

I understand the importance of differentiating between short-term and long-term goals. In the short term, I’m with the ABB crowd. Not only anybody but Bush, but Aznar, Bush, and Blair, the order in which the primary culprits of the Iraq fiasco will tumble. For now, it is important to stop the bleeding, at home and abroad.

If Dubya gets another four years, by hook or crook, I hope to join the mass exodus into exile. But even if we get a slight change of national priorities, and I stay and fight, my long-range political plans are far removed from “taking back America.” I’m certainly going to do my best to help create a new vocabulary, to help forward a national debate about issues of sustainability and inclusion, to elect national leaders who will appoint judges that are more tolerant, etc. 

But I stopped believing in national solutions, for the most part, a quarter century ago. In truth, there is not much of America left to take back. It has been paved over, sold out, and put on mood-control drugs. There are still brave citizens slowing the wave of Wal-Mart culture. There are progressive enclaves at the corners, and political mavericks on the margins of the nation. Every now and then a true progressive like Russell Feingold sneaks into national office. More typically, whenever a moderate starts talking about meaningful change on a national level, the elite become terrified and quickly escort him to the political margins.

The biggest, and I believe insurmountable obstacle to this rhetorical takeover, from any angle, is size. Almost 300 million people live in the U.S. That’s not a nation but an empire. And where’s the center, pray tell? There are plenty of red-blooded American patriots now offering critiques of American empire, but how many of them are willing to challenge the myth at the cornerstone of the whole superstructure? That we are a unified people? Don’t most progressives also believe that America is “the greatest nation on the earth,” as we’ve been chanting with numbing regularity for the past quarter century or so? Don’t most of those on the left scheming to “take back America” also hope to help America reclaim its place as that “shining city on the hill,” that old Puritan myth about the United States as a moral example and a beacon of freedom to all nations?

Of course they do. We still desperately want to believe the best about ourselves—that we are exceptional among all nations. The same poll showing that 79% of U.S. citizens are bothered by the Iraqi prison abuse also reports that more than 8 in 10 believe American soldiers have higher standards than soldiers from other countries.

We have stretched our national myths beyond the breaking point, trying to export them globally when they are not even adequate at home. There were less than three million people, including slaves, living in the United States when the 13 colonies declared independence in 1776. And what did we fight for?

As Renee Roth of the Boston Globe points out, it’s worth remembering that it was Massachusetts liberals who initiated the American revolution, and later spearhead the battle for the abolition of slavery, among other campaigns for the expansion of rights. But in our modern plutocracy, which is “long shed of its revolutionary outlook,” as Kevin Phillips observed, that revolution has been buried safely in myth. “Much of the American Revolution,” writes historian William Marvel, “was undertaken more by self-interested demagogues and the mobs they incited than by altruistic patriots.”  The Indian wars and the Spanish American War were “nothing but thieving expeditions conducted on the excuse of imaginary provocations.”  

We really don’t want to talk about the continuation of that pattern in the 20th and 21st centuries, do we? A young woman I know in Austin, unable to avoid the pictures from Iraq, wrote that “my mind won’t let me believe it.” The myth of national exceptionalism is a collective blinder, a schema Freud called it, which causes a dysfunctional majority to tune out the facts that don’t fit. So we keep making the same mistakes, over and over.

Patriotism can be felt at more than one level, and allegiances can be overlapping. I came of age in the desert southwest. The spectacular landscapes of that region, and the intermixing of peoples, with a cultural dominance of Native Americans and Mexican peoples, inspires a love and allegiance in me. I only feel a fainter echo of that identity and allegiance at a national level. My homeland is where the South intersects with the Southwest, and in this region, I feel the tug of Latin America and the Caribbean. I feel myself to be a citizen of an America that crosses national boundaries and languages. When I think of civil rights, for instance, I immediately think of César Chávez and Bob Marley as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.

When I was living in Oregon in 1978, I read a utopian novel called Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach. The premise is that the Northwest—Northern California, Oregon, and Washington, secede from the United States to form a new nation based on principles of sustainability. The vision of Ecotopia still echoes in the culture and politics of the Pacific Northwest to this day. From their cultural expressions to their voting patterns, Northwesterners often go against the grain of mainstream American politics and culture.

There are patriotic alternatives to blind allegiance to a nation-state. Our primary allegiance to a region or a cultural group gives us a healthy critical perspective on the larger political community of which we are also a part. Without that local, regional, ethnic, or linguistic root, we are susceptible to group-think and manipulation.

There are several such regions in the USA. Many parts of the West Coast and Hawaii look as much or more to Asia as they do to the United States. When I visited Washington D.C. from California, I always felt like I had entered another country. The statues and names referred to a history that was familiar, but yet foreign. The tremendous self-absorption of D.C. produced inflated cultural mythologies that were not always self-evident, seen from a distance. Coming from the mountain states, the mythic “Capitol Hill,” on a small slope of flat land, seemed overblown to me, verging on self-parody.

Large number of immigrants from the Horn of Africa have settled in Minnesota. Their worldview and cultures, along with immigrants from Asia and Latin America, intersect with a progressive Minnesota tradition (owing much to Scandinavian immigration), and a proximity to Ontario, to produce an independent-mindedness that is unique in the United States.

In southern Florida, the right-wing politics of Cuban exiles and the generally left-leaning perspective of the rest of the large Latin American community there produces a volatile, often creative mix. As the new capital of Latin America, Miami is only nominally North American, although one could easily argue that in some ways it is in fact typical of the new, globalized United States that mainstream politics mostly ignores.

The Republic of Texas, as part of the conditions of its entry to the U.S., kept the right to secede into seven different countries or states, I’ve read. Many people within and without the Lone Star State would love to see Texas make its world-unto-itself-ness official!

Then there is Northern California, which occasionally votes to secede from Southern California, including once when I lived there. The San Francisco Bay Area has the most ethnically diverse population in the United States. Not surprisingly, its politics is far to the left of the American mainstream. Although many in the South and on the East Coast like to make fun of California, Northern California is already a semi-autonomous region that offers many insights into challenges the greater United States faces in the near future.

These regions remind me of the truth of Yeats’ famous declaration that “the center cannot hold.” The shrillness of the culture wars in the United States is due precisely to the fact that there is no cultural center. Thus, efforts to impose a unity become ever more draconian.

Nowhere has this become more apparent than in an increasingly hysterical opposition to bilingualism. Newt Gingrich wrote that “Bilingualism keeps people actively tied to their old language and habits and maximizes the cost of the transition to becoming American.” Former Colorado governor Richard Lamm states flatly that “it is a curse for a society to be bilingual.” In the 2004 election cycle, Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations, published an essay in Foreign Policy titled “The Hispanic Challenge.” He decries the “dual loyalties” of bilingual Americans, and concludes: “There is no Americano dream. There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.”

The cost of becoming American! I declare my independence from any nation-state in which leading scholars and politicians feel that they should be in the business of telling people what language to dream in. As the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes points out, this “new crusade” is “profoundly racist.” It is also a predictable result of the ever more desperate attempt to enforce a cultural and linguistic unity on an empire that has long since ceased to have a common point of reference, other than its external enemies.

When I hear the old gringo say that Mexican Americans are “often contemptuous of American culture,” then I know we live in different nations. South Texas Mexican Americans are among the most patriotic Americans I know. And it is primarily through Latino immigrants that I can recover a fuller appreciation for American culture and political traditions. They often see it more wholly than I do. Clearly, Huntington’s diatribe rests on erroneous conceptions of what is American culture, and how foreign-born Americans feel about it.

“Unlike past immigrant groups, Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture, forming instead their own political and linguistic enclaves,” writes Huntington. This, he fears, will “revolutionize the United States.” It is precisely what terrifies Huntington that gives me some measure of hope: “They [his Hispanic hordes] could eventually … do what no previous immigrant group could have dreamed of doing: challenge the existing cultural, political, legal, commercial, and educational systems to change fundamentally not only the language but also the very institutions in which they do business.”

I can turn on CNN en Español, and hear critical commentaries about U.S. military adventurism in Iraq, or bullying towards Latin America, and see just how healthy this change can be. Because some of these Latin American voices come from other countries, while some of them are professors at elite institutions such as Georgetown here in the U.S. But none of them could be heard on CNN in English, or any other mainstream media.

When I suggest we must let go of America, I also mean letting go of the sense of ownership of the word America itself.  I repeat: America is a continent, and a hemisphere, in which most people speak Spanish. Yes, I am an American, but that means not only that I am a U.S. citizen, but also a member of what Cuban patriot José Martí, while living in exile in New York, called “nuestra América.” That is, our America, that larger sphere of Americans of which the United States is but one part. I can be part of the “loyal opposition” to doctrines such as American pre-eminence, but what I am most loyal to is this larger America, and to the hope that the nation state of my birth can begin to learn how to listen, to engage in dialogue. It is the voices of this other America, our America, that animate my opposition.

A paradox: most countries in the world will accept dual citizenship. But if you move from another country to the U.S., and you want to become an American citizen, you must renounce not only your prior citizenship, but any allegiance to foreign states. In a similar way, a Christian can practice Buddhism, or most other non-monotheistic faiths, without being pressured to renounce Christianity. But if you start in another faith and move to Christianity, you have to not only give up your prior faith, but condemn it as your enemy.

Americanism is a monotheistic faith. It accepts no competitors. Being an American “is an ideological commitment,” Seymour Martin Lipset noted in American Exceptionalism. We are drenched in this ideology, as it is disseminated through public education, mass media, churches, and popular culture. “Those who reject American values are un-American,” Lipset wrote. This Procrustean groupthink means that Americanism as currently practiced in the United States does not accept the whole of me and my family. Therefore I just have to let it go.

As long as the government of the United States is engaged in “messianic militarism,” then I will seek its replacement or overthrow, as the founders of this nation stated that we should do. But blind love and blind hate both encourage bad behavior. A different strategy is required, long-term, to change the dangerous habits of the American Empire.

“If you love someone, set them free.” That should be true for nations as it is for individuals. Setting America free means letting go of the illusion that we can have freedom without limits. That we must be first among nations. Letting go of America requires individual and collective declarations of independence from leaders and institutions that demand blind allegiance, that want to cripple us with compulsory monolingualism, that go on crusades against nations embracing alternative creeds.

What I have in mind is not mere opposition, but a “revolution by rejection.” We must accelerate withdrawal of our support from institutions that no longer serve us, or that wreak havoc on the peoples of other nations. This may or may not eventually lead to actual movements towards independence. But cultural or linguistic difference may indeed set us on that path, which is why so many Hispanophobes fear the “reconquest” of land once part of Mexico. I suspect that in the long run, some versions of regional autonomy, or independence, will become necessary. Consensus on the scale of 300 million people and up cannot be gained but through fear. The megaphone needed to speak to that collective is too expensive.

Artists and corporations in the U.S. will go on creating and marketing movies, music, and literature drawing on the myth of American culture. Like current commercial American music, film, and political discourse, those products will become ever more artificial. Creativity, and visions of change, will come from subcultures, from social movements increasingly opposed to or disconnected from national definitions of American politics or culture. This process is already well under way, as maverick artists and insurgent political leaders realize that the dumbing down necessary to speak to the entire United States collective not only takes the originality out of their message, but reinforces the very national characteristics they oppose—runaway materialism, dishonesty, the culture of violence.

A revolution by rejection does inevitably mean increasing levels of economic and cultural autonomy. That was, after all, what the original American revolution was all about. Political independence was really a forced afterthought. The political shape of our various future autonomies, from some sort of federation to full independence, cannot be predicted. But one essential step in making our political institutions more accountable will be to prioritize the implementation of systems of proportional representation. The dream of “taking back” national political institutions is evidence that we are in denial about the American Humpty Dumpty, and fixated on a paradigm of reconquest. Proportional representation, both locally and nationally, will allow various groups to maintain a voice in public debates, without furthering the imperial tradition of “winner takes all” rule over collectives in which true consensus is impossible.

Furthering the revolutionary spirit of the Americas in our day means, above all, learning to live within our means. Buying locally or regionally produced products, when possible. As with the citizens of the fictional Ecotopia, it will probably have to be cities, states, and regions that are trailblazers in reducing our energy dependency. Maybe it is possible, with a change of regimes, to undertake a national “Apollo Project” of large-scale funding to develop renewable energy resources. More likely, the initiative will have to come from smaller companies and local or regional governmental entities.

But as long as we feel entitled to continue our current lifestyle—5% of the earth’s population consuming 25% of its resources—then national governments will be corrupt, and will engage in violence in order to secure our fix. There is too much money to be made in supplying our habit to confront us with the consequences of our addiction.

There is no way that we can avoid complicity with the dirty work of American Empire unless we reduce our consumption, especially of oil. Those who planned the invasion of Iraq were clearly aware of the political consequences of our lifestyle. “The central dilemma” of the Bush administration, according to a report submitted to Vice President Cheney, is that “the American people continue to demand plentiful and cheap energy without sacrifices or inconvenience.”

In that sense, letting go of America, or of the “ugly American” that we project to the world, means facing up to our co-dependency with the national government. Politicians and citizens mutually reinforce the fantasy that the American way of life is a non-negotiable birthright. The world is indeed waiting to see if we are capable of taking responsibility for changing this equation.

Gregory Stephens has taught at the University of California and the University of Oklahoma. He is currently completing a book called Real Revolutionaries: Revisioning Kinship and Co-Creation. His writings and radio shows are available at: http://www.gregorystephens.com. He can be reached at: gstephen@email.unc.edu.

Other Articles by Gregory Stephens

* Projections and Erections
* Heartland Morality, American Politics