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.