The problem with these discussions is that they attempt to assign “blame” – who owes what to whom, and all manner of approaches that comfortably degenerate into various forms and degrees of denial on one side and disconsolate resignation on the other: “Sigh.” I sometimes refer to this spectacle as “the battle of the most martyred minority” (a phenomenon that has been described by others as “victimization Olympics”, or “comparative victimology” ). At any rate: what it too often boils down to is a duel to determine America’s biggest loser and why the “winner” must pay for his gain.
Maybe it’s time for another approach—one that focuses on the historical trauma of the American experience as collective, intergenerational trauma.
In the aftermath of the 2005 school shooting on the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota, I had already begun thinking in terms of intergenerational trauma with regard to the phenomenon of mass shootings. Back then, I claimed—and still contend the same—that we, as Americans, are committing collective suicide:
To me it is obvious--our children—red, white, and black--are screaming bloody murder, and what they are saying is: there is something profoundly wrong with the world you are living in and the world you are leaving us. The social symptoms to which children are responding may differ: in Columbine perhaps it was the vacuity and meaninglessness of opulent suburban wealth; in Red Lake, the debilitating effects of poverty and the long-term aftermath of genocide and chronic, intergenerational post-traumatic stress--but the response is the same. Either way, what the kids are saying is: WE DON’T WANT TO LIVE IN THE WORLD YOU HAVE CREATED. Money—the excess or the absence thereof—plays a role in these incidents, but the more pertinent issue is moral bankruptcy. Our children are telling us that we have cashed in on their future and they do not want to live in a morally bankrupt world spinning out of control with depravity.
Ultimately, we, the people, are committing collective suicide.
In an article
about the work of Sousan Abadian, a Harvard scholar who has taken on the notion of collective trauma, Craig Lambert explains Abadian’s understanding of “collective trauma” as “
the pervasive consequences communities suffer when powerful external forces violate their physical and/or sociocultural integrity
Such forces can be as random as a one-day tsunami or as systematic as the Holocaust; collective traumas can kill millions in war or genocide or enslave generations. The phenomenon can be a fairly short-lived event with lasting consequences, such as the Rwandan genocide of 1994, or it can extend over centuries—as with American Indians, whose numbers dropped from an estimated 10 million before Columbus landed to 250,000 by the turn of the twentieth century; disease brought by Europeans, and sometimes intentionally spread by colonizers, claimed the vast majority of those native lives.
From the original dispossession and near total extermination of this country’s indigenous population, combined with the Atlantic Slave Trade (when viewed honestly and with no skin in the blame-game, both these events clearly fall under the category of genocide), to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II (and the internment of Japanese-Americans, along with the subsequent vilification of all things “Furren”), the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty—all three of them wars in which “we” as Americans had hats and asses handed to us in stunning displays of defeat—to the Oklahoma City Bombing, the WTC attack, the ongoing drip-drip-drip of gun violence in our inner cities, to the sensationalized suburban mass murders witnessed in recent
Americans are a traumatized people. The trauma is chronic, ongoing, and intergenerational. It just keeps coming. Partly because the core pathology is never addressed, never resolved—we never work through it, we just keep acting it out. On each other. On “Others”. And not least of all, on ourselves.
The authors of Hope For Humanity: How Understanding and Healing Trauma Could Solve the Planetary Crisis discuss the way “cultural memories of collective trauma may go back centuries”:
Once a people has been traumatized, that trauma is often passed from generation to generation in self-perpetuating cycles that are hard to break. A war veteran with PTSD may withdraw and be emotionally remote at times. At others, his rage may terrorize his wife and children. When they grow up, his children may unwittingly re-enact their trauma, and the patters of family relationships they have learned. As a result they damage their own offspring, and the trauma passes to the next generation through family traditions of child-rearing, ways of relating, and associated beliefs and stories.
Citing Peter Levine, the authors explain:
Trauma is among the most important root causes for the form modern warfare has taken. The perpetuation, escalation and violence of war can be attributed in part to post-traumatic stress. Our past encounters with one another have generated a legacy of fear, separation, prejudice and hostility. This legacy is a legacy of trauma no different from that experienced by individuals—except in its scale.
Traumatic re-enactment is one of the strongest and most enduring reactions that occurs in the wake of trauma. Once we are traumatized it is almost certain that we will continue to repeat or re-enact parts of the experience in some way. We will be drawn over and over again into situations that are reminiscent of the original trauma. When people are traumatized by war, the implications are staggering.
Our national narrative is one of triumph, not of defeat. We are winners, not losers. And victims? Victims are losers. No one wants to be a loser-victim—a lesson Mr. Winner-Takes-All-Romney learned all too well this November.
Rolling Stone editor William Greider succinctly identified this dynamic in his 1998 bestselling book One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism:
American history did provide ample basis for humility and social introspection: slavery and the enduring wounds of race, “winning” the West by armed conquest, Hiroshima and the nuclear potential for mass destruction, the bloody failure of neocolonialist war in Vietnam, to name several large and obvious examples. The social meaning of these experiences was usually deflected, however, and repackaged by the optimistic American culture as stories of triumph (or as bureaucratic betrayal as in the case of Vietnam). Thus, Americans generally managed to evade any national sense of guilt or defeat. Critical reflection on the national character was discouraged, ridiculed as “un-American.”
After a brief stint in the US the Jewish-Hungarian playwright, George Tabori, whose off-Broadway play The Niggerlovers gave Morgan Freeman his acting debut, returned to Europe in dismay, saying—“America is a sick country that has lost its innocence and must find a new identity.” That was in 1974—at a time when, by many accounts, this country was experiencing its heyday! Sick? Yes, sick. We are the walking, warring wounded. And this mental health issue is killing us because we fail to address it.
Instead: Fuck yeah! We Americans are some sick fucks. We really are. And on some level, most of us know it. But rather than accurately diagnose the disease, rather than heal the hurt, we limp along, hurtling heartlong into the next acute episode of chronic, ongoing, intergenerational pathology. In the aftermath of each subsequent flare up, we wring, we writhe, we point the finger, wag the dog and wonder who or what is to blame. We look for “causes” but rarely come upon any real “cure” because we are in a perpetual state of denial about the nature of what ails us.
What is it? Wtf is it that makes us the sick fucks that we are?
Some say it’s capitalism. Others point to racism. Or sexism. It’s always an –ism, never a –ness: as in sickness. We are not sick—we are exceptional!
For many years now, I have been thinking of the American sickness in terms of the disease of uprootedness as outlined by the early 20th-century French “mystic” philosopher Simone Weil in The Need for Roots, where she identifies the need for roots as “the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”
Uprootedness, according to Weil, is
by far the most dangerous malady to which human societies are exposed, for it is a self-propagating one. For people who are really uprooted there remain only two possible sorts of behavior: either to fall into a spiritual lethargy resembling death…or to hurl themselves ito some form of activity necessarily designed to uproot, often by the most violent methods, those who are ot yet uprooted, or only partly so.
We are an uprooted people: whether we sailed from our homelands as “Pilgrims/Unsettlers” fleeing religious persecution and in pursuit of prosperity, whether we were violently wrenched from our homelands in Africa and brought here in chains, later given neither mule nor back forty, but instead guns and crack cocaine, substandard housing and education, whether we were stripped of our homelands us and herded onto “reservations”, given diseased blankets, alcohol and plutonium and forced to witness first-hand from the confines of the Reserve the destruction of all we hold dear, or whether we came here seeking refuge from political and/or economic persecution in our homelands, only to later see our children turn on themselves as others with assault rifles and other means of self-destruction as our feted democracy disintegrates before our very eyes.
We are the uprooted.
The uprootedness we suffer is a soul wound wide as the waters flowing beneath the bridge to nowhere. We know this. We have invented, patented, developed and consumed all manner of “drugs” to treat the symptoms, in individuals. But we have yet to acknowledge, identify or seek, as a collective, to cure this “most dangerous malady to which human societies are exposed” and have chosen its self-propagation instead.
I looked for Weil’s The Need for Roots for a number of years before I recently found it in a local used bookstore. But the Wiki pageon it is pretty good, and distills Weil’s ideas down perfectly well for our purposes here.
'Uprootedness' is defined as a near universal condition resulting from the destruction of ties with the past and the dissolution of community… Weil conceives uprootedness as a condition where people lack deep and living connections with their environment It is aggravated if people also lack participation in community life. Uprooted people lack connections with the past and a sense of their own integral place in the world. Uprootedness has many causes, with two of the most potent being conquest of a nation by foreigners and the growing influence of money which tends to corrode most other forms of motivation.
Seen through the lens of Weil’s “need for roots” the American narrative of collective triumph unravels into one of collective trauma. Historical trauma. Chronic, and intergenerational, in four sets of “uprooted” peoples: Africans (dragged in chains, brutal cruelty and unfathomable inhumanity), American Indians (displaced, dispossessed of land, lives and lifeways), Other Immigrants of two sorts—recent and originary (for lack of a better term), both of which were in a sense “driven” from their homelands, by economic, religious, or political persecution or circumstance.
Each of these populations suffers from “uprootedness” in a different way. The first step in breaking this cyclical collective trauma involves acknowledging that all four sets of current inhabitants of this “Island” we call “Turtle” suffer from this malady of uprootedness outlined by Weil. The conditions leading to each case of uprootedness differ—accordingly, not all of these groups have suffered in the same degree, nor in the same manner or with the same consequence—long- or short-term. And this is where most of our discussions break down because, in examining this history, we begin identifying “perpetrators” and “victims” within a framework of “winners” and “losers”. But when viewed through the lens of collective, historical trauma, we see ourselves not as loser-victim/winner-perpetrators, but rather as members of a population suffering from a disease that afflicts and has afflicted all of us, but one that manifests itself in different ways, and in different degrees.
Weil attributes most of the world’s tragic tales of conquest to a perpetual re-enactment of uprooting because “Whoever is uprooted himself uproots others. Whoever is rooted himself doesn’t uproot others.” Weil’s account of this is much more detailed, but let’s consider the kWiki-version good enough for GOS-work:
Whoever is rooted doesn't uproot others - Weil opines that the worst examples of misconduct by the Spanish and English during the colonial age were from adventurers who lacked deep connections with the life of their own countries. Both the left and right include activists who want the working class to be rooted again, but on the left there is sizeable contingent who merely want everyone to be reduced to the same level of unrootedness as the proletariats, and on the right a section who want the workers to remain unrooted the better to be able to exploit them. Disunity prevents good intentioned activitists from having much effect.
Our American history is one of conquest, a conquest that Weil identifies as an “ersatz greatness” for “the unhappy peoples of the European continent” who have forfeited true greatness to the “old lie of world conquest.” And yes, that includes the conquest of North America, and of Africa. In her view, European colonial methods always, “even under their least cruel aspects” produce uprootedness. Weil explains:
The white man carries it about with him wherever he goes. The disease has even penetrated into the heart of the African continent which had, for thousands of years, nevertheless, been made up of villages. These black people at any rate, when nobody came to massacre them, torture them, or reduce them to slavery, knew how to live happily on their land. Contact with us is making them lose the art. That ought to make us wonder whether even the black man …hadn’t after all more to teach us than to learn from us.
And Weil warns specifically of the increased risk of uprootedness on the American continent, “since its population has for several centuries been founded above all on immigration, the dominating influence which it will probably exercise greatly increases the danger.
This affliction with uprootedness is what permitted the people of this country to commit genocide against two distinct populations of people—African Americans and American Indians. The fact that this genocide goes unacknowledged is what prevents not only its “victims” but also its “perpetrators” from healing—that is, recovering from the genocide and its intergenerational impact as it manifests itself in epidemic rates of homicide, suicide and mass murder in this country. In the inability to heal from the genocide, the African American community acts out the wound in a homicide epidemic that America has come to call “black-on-black crime”. In American Indian communities, a suicide epidemic has long been recognized as a symptom of the post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of genocide. In both these communities—one beset by a homicide epidemic, the other by a suicide epidemic, homicide and suicide rates rank far above average—alarmingly so. This is because these two populations have suffered most directly and harrowingly from America’s historical, collective trauma of genocide. But the fact that most of the mass murders we have been witness to in recent years have been committed by white males is also a function—or a symptom—of this country’s traumatic, collective, and historical experience of genocide, with genocide itself being a symptom or ancillary effect of uprootedness as defined by Weil.
In other words: the homicide epidemic that has hit urban, predominately black communities particularly hard is the manifestation of uprootedness resulting from a people being ripped from their homeland and hindered in their effort to heal from this historical trauma because American genocide is the crime that may not speak its name. The suicide epidemic that has long ravaged American Indian communities is the manifestation of uprootedness resulting from the land being ripped from a people and again, a people hindered in their effort to heal from this historical trauma because American genocide is the crime that may not speak its name. The kind of mass murders we see in suburban environments today, are the manifestation of uprootedness resulting from a people being driven from their homeland by persecution, religious, economic, or political and again, a people hindered in their effort to heal from this historical trauma because American genocide is the crime that may not speak its name.
Homicide. Suicide. Genocide. The connection between these three terms—and these three phenomena—goes far beyond etymology. Seen through the lens of uprootedness: the epidemic rates of suicide and homicide amongst the two populations for whom the immediate and ancillary effects of this American genocide has been greatest (American Indians and African Americans) may be seen as pathological responses to our common, unresolved genocidal history. The trending phenomenon of the “angry white male mass murderer” is a similarly pathological response to this unresolved/unacknowledged history of genocide.
For anyone who has been concerned with these three issues—personally and professionally—for as long as I have (which is about 30 years now, 50 if you count the 20 “formative” years), that idea does not seem far-fetched. I understand, however, that it may seem a bit of a stretch even to those who have concerned themselves with one or the other, or all three of these issues. Anyone who still questions the very idea that genocide is the foundational and constitutive principle (and practice) that established this country will likely have difficulties accepting the theory of the nexus between homicide-suicide-and-genocide that I see as crucial to stemming the tide of a lot of things in this country seem plausible…
At present, the only part of the argument I’ve taken the time to make a written “case” for is the case of genocide against American Indians. About ten years ago, I outlined that “case” in an article published in a peer-reviewed journal, and presented it in an invited lecture at a major university (in the interest of maintaining my anonymity, I choose not to cite the article, but I recently posted a copy of the lecture version here).
A similar case can be--and has in fact been--made for genocide against African Americans—the basic outline for this case has already been made by several authors, including Paul Leighton and Robert Johnson . The historic 1951 petition submitted by to the UN by William Patterson and others (We Charge Genocide, ) would have to be taken into account, and the work of Loïc Wacquant would have to play a significant role in making that case based on developments since 1951.
A big part of the problem in dealing with this is issue in America today is genocide denial—because without acknowledging the genocide, you cannot discuss its aftermath, you certainly cannot speculate about its causes, and you cannot seek to cure an illness you cannot even identify. And it really does not matter which “cide” of this deadly symbiosis you and/or your ancestors participated in—if you are an American, you have been impacted by the collective (and traumatic) experience of genocide.
Acknowledging that brings us back to the “blame game”. When the name of the game is “genocide”—well, hell, no one wants to admit or be affiliated with the “perpetrators”. This is where the dynamic of the “most martyred minority” comes in. Everyone would rather associate with anything but the perpetrator (or descendant of a perpetrator),and that’s where genocide denial serves the purpose of sweeping the whole horrid history of genocide as America’s defining and constitutive soul wound under the carpet.
Gregory H. Stanton, president of the organization Genocide Watch, has identified “8 Stages of Genocide,” with “denial” being the eighth and final stage of genocide. Israel W. Charny, one of the world’s foremost experts on genocide, has developed a conceptual framework for differentiating different forms of denial—a continuum that begins with “innocent denial” and ends with the kind of “malevolent denial” of the David Irving-types who engage in malicious campaigns of historical revisionism that would go so far as to contend that the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews “never happened.”
Most liberal Americans who attempt to deny America’s historical genocide/s belong to the category of “innocent deniers”—they harbor a sincere belief that “such and such people” [in this case, their ancestors!] “could never be such inhuman monster killers as the story of the given genocide implies.” Turkish scholar Taner Akcam states that “If you want to understand and analyse collectively committed cruelty, and you wish to prevent the repetition of such events, then you will not find a solution if you direct your attention primarily to the group of ‘victims.’ Attention must be directed to the ‘perpetrators’ in order to uncover a series of ‘conscious or unconscious’ mechanisms which underlie their actions for it is the activation of these mechanisms that makes these people ‘perpetrators.’” This is what the discourse on “white privilege” seeks to do, but too often fails because it cannot get past the “blame game.”
I propose that the models of “uprootedness” and collective trauma are frameworks that might better allow us to move forward in addressing these issues. Viewing our collective historical trauma through this lens provides us with a model for understanding how “such and such people”—that is, the ancestors of “white” Americans—could be “such inhuman monster killers”, and a model for understanding the way this unresolved genocide manifests itself in the phenomenon of the “white male mass murderer”, just as it manifests itself in epidemic levels of homicide in urban black communities and in suicide in American Indian communities. Seeing ourselves as an "uprooted" set of peoples that is engaged in re-enacting the collective trauma of genocide helps us get past the divisive vicissitudes of the blame game to understand the ways we are all related.
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