Click to go to the Subscriber Log In Page
Go to menu with buttons for all pages on BC
Click here to go to the Home Page
Est. April 5, 2002
 
           
January 10, 2019 - Issue 771

Bookmark and Share


Behold America’s Nightmare:
Dreams of Fascism



"The now of a Trump, announcing the death of the
American dream. Don’t worry! America needs me to
revive it. Me, the self-made billionaire. And by 'American dream'
he means the latter version, the one in which it’s required
of the nation and everyone in it to turn inward."



The power of modern America was built on the ruins

of institutionalised slavery;

the post-bellum generation they called ‘Big Money’

energised the country, galvanised

its desires, and began to glorify the enduring

mercenary strains in American life.

Sarah Churchwell,

‘It was no good just blaming fascists, she concluded. ‘I accuse us.

I accuse the twentieth century America. I accuse me.’

Dorothy Thompson, American journalist

In William Faulkner’s 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury the protagonist, Quentin Compson, has trouble living in time. He believes in a world in which America is great. It was once. In that America everything is as it should be, everyone plays a predetermined role. But the novel’s opening sentence shows the protagonist speaking of an ominous awakening. “When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtain it was between seven and eight oclock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch.”

His grandfather’s chain watch. And he recalls his father handing the watch over to him, after having long experienced the betrayal. Succumbing to the seductiveness of alcohol, he talks to Quentin of “folly and despair.”

[V]ictory is an illusion of philosophers.”

In the “shadow of the sash,” Quentin tries to forget the watch only to find it around his neck once he steps outside. On this second day of June 1910, he’s convinced time, represented in that sun above which denies him the light of day, denies him the right to be Quentin Compson, grandson of General Compson.

Time is one long nightmare, lived in the shadows of what was once great.

There will be the placing of “two six-pound flat-iron weighs” under a bridge in shadow. He’s seen his reflection in the waters of that river. He’s seen himself merge with his own shadow. “The displacement of water is equal to the something of something.”

The 22-year old Quentin is conscious of time passing, of time having passed, of time approaching, as he walks around Boston. The first of his family to attend college, Harvard, no less, will be no more. And he remembers the discussions around the piecemeal selling of the Compson estate for college. For survival. Aristocracy no more.

The northern sun, appearing at a “slant,” mocks him as it reveals black people conversing and walking about.

Quentin tries to escape the streets by taking a train ride, but there appears along side the train more black people. He thinks they are looking up at him—how could it be perceived any other way. So the young rebel leans over his window to toss coins down to the blacks who follow the movement of the train to catch the coins. And it feels familiar, satisfying, even if he can’t recall ever when he had done this before.

But whatever was conjured into existence briefly dissolved again. The shadows never leave him, even in this moment of familiarity. Black people are no more his to own than is the sun in the sky above them.

As the day progresses, the sun slates until it slides away from him, until, for Quentin, shadows appear on the sun itself. Tracks, bridges, clocks materialize to his left and right, in front of him and behind him. Bells ring from church steeples. By sunset, he and the sun’s shadow are one, “and after a while the flat irons would come floating up” from under the bridge where he hid them earlier in the day.

Quentin Compson imagines blacks unfettered from the myth of white superiority; he sees himself chained to its absences. To shackle the blacks to that myth of racial purity would be preferable to living in what another incredulous character of Faulkner’s labeled, an “unbearable reality” (Absalom, Absalom!).

What’s to be done if not return to the river? Anger has called him.

This story about Quentin Compson came to mind while I was reading Sarah Churchwell’s Behold, America: The Entangled History of ‘America First’ and ‘The American Dream’ (2018). He’s haunted by what he perceives to be a nightmare, personal as it is social, cultural. A defeated Confederate general, grandpa Compson, looking on as enslaved blacks walk off Southern plantations.

I thought of the young Quentin. Here’s a man unwilling to live with the reality of human suffering, of injustice. Here the literary representation of a man for whom the time is never right so long as racial hierarchy isn’t the law of the land in order to guarantee the social, political, and economic rights of white Americans. Without the legalization of racial hierarchy America is no more a paradise but a living hell. A nightmare.

Behold, America is a reading that calls to mind Faulkner’s famous observation about the past, which isn’t a matter of the simple re-occurrence of events. Rather, its as if we are in a continuum, contrary to all reason, all illusions of time passing. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” No amount of “flat-iron weights” resolves the way Americans entangle the “American dream” and “America first” (illusions) with what Churchwell calls the three fates: capitalism, democracy, and race (equally illusions, useful to manipulate human relations and resources into anything but an ordering life into a just society. Truly, a nightmarish existence for everyone. But the real nightmare is the continuation, generation after generation, by a consensus, in the practice of cruelty and indifference toward the plight of other human beings.

***

To the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) in the 1920s, the “American dream” was slipping away with every appearance of an “uppity” black. Despite the increase in the spectacle of “economically motivated” violence against blacks, including gruesome lynchings and the forced return of blacks “to work in the cotton fields of South Carolina,” it was not enough to discourage blacks from walking about, unfettered—as if free people. Lynching becomes a means to eradicate the problem of black people talking “wild,” gambling, or arguing about wages and debts, not to mention some possessing the audacity to circulated literature. Aligning itself with the political front, first with President Wilson and then the Republican candidate for president Warren G. Harding, the KKK adopts “America first.”

A “fig leaf,” writes Churchwell. The move toward “America first” is a way for the KKK to brandish an anti-immigrant rhetoric, the vocalization of a normalized xenophobia, one “socially and politically acceptable” while serving as a cover for “a vigilante racism that was (at least officially) not, as they protested that they were purging ‘alien elements,’ and that they had nothing against black people.” Sounds familiar. And yet, the victims of vigilantism were rarely foreigners.

Employing a euphemism, the KKK brands “the wrong kind of American” as anti-American. And by “the wrong kind” the KKK meant the “hyphenated kind,” writes Churchwell, “the kind with alien ideas, an alien name, an alien religion, or of an alien race.” (Let’s not forget how “the wrong kind,” the hyphenated identity troubles many Americans today. Then as now, however, some Americans are not troubled by a call for borders and walls. “America first” implied then as now “pure blooded”). A brand of nationalism for white Anglo-Americans, in other words.

Churchwell notes the concern of Americans who feared the “one-drop rule” wasn’t enough to prevent a black person from passing as white. After a rumor became a national hysterical debate about the racial make-up of the presidential candidate, Harding, leaders called for the disqualification of any presidential candidate who isn’t “one hundred per cent American.” Harding passed the test and became President Harding, America first all the way! One hundred per cent American. “The pure blood of the white man,” possessing a long cultural ancestry that could be proven most obviously by “splendid patriotism” and “high achievement.”

Jews, blacks, Indigenous, Latinx people needn’t apply!

From the ‘pure Americanism’ of ‘America first’ to ‘the pure blood of the white man’ in a few easy rhetorical steps,” writes Churchwell. Fascism in America is easily attainable.

And indeed the fascists boarding ships to arrive in America wasn’t necessary; Americans donned black shirts and sewed on their chests swastika patches and, engaging in the usual brand of American racism, as fascists, white Americans attacked black Americans. It’s not long before it becomes necessary to disempower the feared—creating and developing Jim Crow legislation to force “segregation” between black and white people. Make the South, at least, great again!

America merges with its own shadow. Don’t mind that the American fascists’ pamphlets denounce communists. Look to the banners that read: “Back to the cotton patch, Nigger - it needs you; we don’t!”

A decline in KKK membership, opened the door to a more virile grouping of the anti-democratic. The leader of the American blackshirts, Churchwell writes, was a former member of the KKK!

The “American dream,” first version, intended to “differentiate American democracy from totalitarian or authoritarian projects and from the prejudices and racism,” Churchwell argues, drives the country to fascism.

A native of Chicago, Churchwell, a professor of American literature, currently teaching the humanities in London, gives us a mosaic of literary voices, including those of Walter Lippmann, Dorothy Thompson, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Theodore Dreiser, Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and W.E.B. DuBois. Of DuBois, she quotes: “the question of why socialism never took firm hold in America can be answered in once word: race.’” As in “race”--imaginary but the emerging fascist regime in Germany managed to coerce a majority of German citizens to acknowledge that fellow Jewish citizens were sprouting horns. Images of cartoon-ish heads with horns were painted on the sides of buildings in Germany—buildings soon to be no longer owned by or occupied by Jews. Behold, America exhibits a grainy, black-and-white photo of “the lynching of Lige Daniels… Texas, 3 August 1920.” The “difference” between the man hanging above the crowd of whites, including children, is that matter of “race.”

Did I mention the rallies? Pro-Nazi rallies. Rallies south and north of the Mason-Dixon line. Rallies sponsored by Friends of New Germany by the 1930s. And these rallies were not just in the South: New York’s Madison Square Garden saw plenty of action, including, Churchwell writes, a rally at the Garden “authorised by Rudolf Hess and officially recognized by Hitler.” The rallies are as antisemitic as they are racist.

By the 1930s, Hitler has advocates in the free world!

As Churchwell writes, the original meaning of the “American dream” gave voice “to principled appeals for a more generous way of life.” It was a term used to “describe a political ideal, not an economic one; and when it was used to describe an economic aspiration, it was with the pejorative meaning of ‘dream’ as illusion, not ideal.”

In other words, the “American dream” didn’t mean get rich quick. “The American dream was about how to stop bad multimillionaires, not how to become one.” The “American dream” discouraged the multimillionaires who challenged the idea of “principles” and democracy in the 1900s. According to newspapers of the day, this moneyed class desired nothing short of “special privileges.” They want to be treated like “an elite class,” and, if given power the wealthy will only “wreck havoc on democracy without consequences.”

Behold, America is a page-turner. But we know we’ll not reach an end on the finally page of the book. Before the end, however, I’m at a lost as to why Churchwell mentions the Indigenous Americans only two or three times. Briefly at that. She references the Founding Fathers as first responsible for giving voice to the “American dream.” Even if the phrase appears nowhere in the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Washington Irving, Herman Melville or Mark Twain, she argues, the above notables and others of their ilk wanted no part of promoting “economic” success. Yet, the Indigenous are steadily being removed from their land! “This land is my land...” Is a quite dreamy folks song! The conquest of the Indigenous people is tremendously profitable for America’s dream of “ownership” and the future of American industry.

Jefferson didn’t “hire” hundreds of gardeners at Monticello; he engaged in the acquisition of enslaved blacks just as he did land and a house and a wife and, yes, an enslaved black mistress. And Hawthorne, disgusted by what he witnessed when he traveled south, returns to his home in New England, shuts his doors, and creates tales about the haunting of mansions, and of the families residing uneasily within them.

The Founding Fathers owned plantations on which toiled enslaved black people -for the economic benefit of not just the individual slaveholder but also for the nation’s progress and rise in the world. Even the good version of the “American dream” served the United States up to a point.

So where are the Indigenous people while the Founding Fathers calibrate the tenets of the “American dream,” the one standing for principles and “social justice”? The original inhabitants of the New World, from north to south, were Indigenous people - not European immigrants. How did the European’s imagined nightmare sit with the savage destruction of native land, livestock, homes, families? The conditions of Indigenous reservations, the memory of forced removal and long treks to nowhere, the memory of children separated from mothers and fathers. Abused and mistreated because America had a dream, the memory of which Faulkner’s quintessential slaveholder once shared with General Compson. In that dream, a design, really, worthy of the established order of things: “‘a house, a plantation, slaves, a family—incidentally of course of wife.’” The slaveholder thinks: because it seems improbable that the dream ever happened, maybe it didn’t. Maybe he had given 50 years of his life to the “‘design,’” the “‘plan’” that, in the end, it may “‘just as well never have existed at all.’”

Enslaved black people. Not Indigenous people. After Reconstruction, if not before, blacks become as expendable as the Indigenous people. That’s the problem of reading while black: it’s difficult to allow the sun to slide away!

The nightmare haunts this book. In Behold, America, Americans, former European immigrants, fight to the death often in pursuit of what they desire - the house, the plantation, the submissive black and Indigenous, the migrant workers, the family, and the wife - but not the democracy for all. The American dream of democracy can’t exist for all! Then - was “democracy” ever a goal to organize American society and structure its institutions?

In fact, we aren’t talking about “democracy,” at least not the way I’m reading this book. Fearful Americans, disappointed Americans, greedy Americans, mean “dream” not “democracy.” So it’s the “American dream” that’s dead, once again. As if it never existed. And for some Americans, it never has! Asks the Indigenous people, for openers.

Churchwell weaves the now of a Trump, announcing the death of the American dream. Don’t worry! America needs me to revive it. Me, the self-made billionaire. And by “American dream,” he means the latter version, the one in which it’s required of the nation and everyone in it to turn inward. When the First Lady, Melania Trump, exhibited her “I really don’t care, do U?” jacket, the sentiment had already gained ground again in the run up to a Trump victory. A woman in the building where I live, purchased and then wore a sweatshirt that read: “I understand. But I don’t care.”

With “America first,” there’s no talk of organizing to effect policy to confront the global eco-devastation already underway. Americans stuck on displaying their anger over “race” and the dissolving of the racial hierarchy would rather focus their attention of the Second Amendment.

Behold, America!

The racist dream of building walls and fueling American fascism. As historian Yuval Noah Harari writes in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018), the imminent problems threatening the lives of Americans in the US--”nuclear war,” “ecological collapse,” “technological disruption,”--threatens all life forms on the planet.

So how will “the American dream” (get rich frenzy) and “American first” (nationalism/fascism) address any one of those global problems?

Reading List

Sherwood Anderson, Windy McPherson’s Son

Gloria Anzalda, Borderlands/LaFrontera

James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work

Charles Chesnutt, Marrow of Tradition

Theodore Dreiser, American Tragedy and Twelve Men

W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880

Sylviane A. Diouf, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Darlene Clarke Hines and Kathleen Thompson, A Shinning Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in American

Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt and It Can’t Happen Here

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Walter Lipmann, Men of Destiny, Public Opinion and Drift and Mastery

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Albert McCoy, Policing America’s Empire

Robert J. Miller, Native America, Discovery and Conquered

Heather Cox Richardson, Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to An American Massacre

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath

Tanya Talaga, Seven Feathers Fallen

William R. Taylor, Cavalier & Yankee: The Old South and American National Character

Sinclair Upton, 100%: The Story of A Patriot

Ida B. Wells, Crusade for Justice

James Whitman, Hitler’s American Model


BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels and BC.
 
Bookmark and Share


 
 

 

 

is published every Thursday
Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield, MBA
Publisher:
Peter Gamble










Ferguson is America: Roots of Rebellion by Jamala Rogers