American culture isn’t something I write much about here, at least not in the abstract, but a couple of things I heard today got me thinking. First, at a Center for American Progress panel on the African-American vote in 2012, there was a question from an audience member (an older, white, male career soldier) who suggested that those of us who do not vote cannot call ourselves Americans. Then, this evening, I was having a discussion about the London riots with a British friend who was telling me how Americans online have been baffled at the idea of people defending themselves with pepper spray and the like because “around here if you tried to bring violence like this to our homes you’d be staring down the barrel of shotguns, hunting rifles, and handguns.”
These two things coalesced in my mind because I think they’re excellent examples of the American mythos that often shows up as a giant obstacle in my radical, gender-bending work. This mythos is built around masculinity, but in particular a type of American masculinity that is exemplified by the Good Male Citizen. The Good Male Citizen, or GMC, participates in his society principally by going to the voting booth every four (maybe every two) years. He believes strongly in his democracy, which he can demonstrate by pointing to that all-important vote. He knows that law and order is basically on his side, but should a problem arise, he is prepared to defend himself and his family with his shotgun, hunting rifle, or handgun. The GMC doesn’t envision himself as scary, but as justified in violence where necessary. He cares about truth, rule of law, and the American way. See: voting.
The problem with this mythos, of course, is that it is a mirage to most Americans. Middle-class, middle-aged, white American businessmen might have been able to get by on this image of America for most of their lives. But for many Americans, the cops are not a benevolent force but a scary one. Guns are a real threat, and they’re not principally used for hunting and storing in a “just in case” spot to protect the family. Voting isn’t a real option, because there are no viable candidates. We use the vote as a smokescreen, a proof of this idea of democracy we were all taught in elementary school. It hides the real problems in society by serving a proxy for justice, safety, and American freedom.
Do not be fooled. Riots can happen here, too. Violence happens here. When families are threatened, protecting them is not always possible. The police are not always on the side of the one who’s right. The candidates don’t represent opposing views for many women, people of color, and queer Americans. If guns and democracy do make you feel safe, I would urge you to think critically about that assumption. Is it gospel truth, or is it a comfortable myth?
These myths exists to make us feel safe and to blind us to the change that is desperately needed. If we want to form coalitions and make radical change, we need to push past these myths and accept that a gradual solution is not going to do much for us. I don’t believe that riots are the answer, but I do believe that critical attention to our myths is desperately needed. Collectively, we need to tell new American stories.
I was reading an old blog post the other day about the whole “it’s rude to ask what someone does for a living in Europe” thing, and I got to thinking about the difference between class/family background and income/occupation/career. It is true that what you do is a pretty common way to identify oneself right off the bat here in the US, but what’s the alternative? The most obvious one I could come up with is where you come from–hometown, family name, background. The difference between those two identities, of course, is that one is dealing with class and upbringing (which you can’t control) and the other is dealing with income and occupation (which you, supposedly, can).
Part of our American individual responsibility rhetoric is the idea that it’s only up to us whether we succeed or fail in our careers. Supposedly, occupation should be a more egalitarian way to define oneself, rather than speaking directly about class or family ties. But is that really the case? Personally, I feel a pressure around the occupation question, because I grew up in a middle to lower middle class family in the South, did very well in school, and was expected to far exceed my parents’ incomes. I am more educated than any of my family members, and live in a large urban area in a more affluent part of the country now. However, I make far less money than expected, and I find myself defining myself more by what I want to do than by what I am when someone asks about career. I often define myself as a blogger, writer, and activist, obscuring my full-time paying job. Sometimes I say that I work in the “non-profit” sector, but rarely mention my job title, because it’s more a means than an end.
I do wonder if the tendency to identify ourselves by our careers contributes far more to stress than some people realize. How many of us use an aspirational definition of what we are, or speak about our education rather than our job, or our sector rather than our occupation? How many feel ashamed by a job description? I do think that there is a tendency to see what we do as a direct reflection on our job skills and what we have to offer as professional people, rather than an accident of circumstance, what was available in this economy when we applied, or what we grew into as we went from job to job. I don’t necessarily think that defining ourselves by class is any better, but I do wonder what the attendant pressure of that definition would be.