I’ve been exchanging e-mail with a friend who is leading the anti-racism training in the diocese. As she has become more and more aware of the Indian culture that surrounds us and infuses the very character of the Inland Northwest she has wondered about how it is that we have such a history of crashing into and trampling down any culture that gets in the way of our own. The “we” in this case would be the European based culture of that has been popularly understood as the normative standard for America.
I’ve been wondering about the same thing. There can be no excuses, but it might be worthwhile to recall that it is only in the last 100 years or so that the world has come to a more or less common understanding that territorial expansion by conquest (and genocide in many cases) is not morally acceptable. The first half of the 20th century gave us two world wars at untold cost in lives and suffering to drive home the point. Before that the question about the morality of violent conquest was simply not much of an issue.
Sometime in the last year or so the Christian Century featured several essays recalling the pre Civil War argument of the plurality of Christian writers that slavery was endorsed by the bible and those who opposed it were heretics who were twisting the clear and obvious meaning of God’s holy Word.
It was not until the early 1950s that the armed forces were integrated and then not very well. The 1964 Voting Rights Act was, for all practical purposes, the true end of the Civil War when the nation came to a grudging agreement about a new moral standard for what it meant to be an American. This slow and often painful transition is not an American phenomenon. Every tribe and nation on the face of the earth is in the same boat. The fact is that the last 100 years have been, perhaps, the most revolutionary in the history of humanity and we have still not got it sorted out.
So I think the answer to my friend’s quandary is that we are in possession of a new moral standard that says it is sinfully wrong to crash through other peoples’ cultures demolishing them as we go, but we do not yet possess the know how or habits of the heart to stop doing it. The anti-racism training being conducted in our diocese is part of the process of bringing us another step or two along the path.
The big stumbling block at the moment, it seems to me, is that our early efforts at integration assumed that everyone wanted to and would become a white middle class American. That didn’t work. Now we are trying to figure out how to live with understanding and respect for one another’s ethnicities and cultures in a way that will lead to a synergistic melding in a new normative America. That scares the living daylights out of some. It was hard enough crafting the synergistic American out of Northern European immigrants. Doing that with people from other cultures and ethnicities looks harder and more dangerous because it means that the old “we” will drift farther away from the European ideal. Obama’s candidacy is, if nothing else, going to a major test of that fear.
James Michener had hopes that a new “golden man” would become the normative American and saw glimpses of that in post-war Hawaii. Arthur Schlesinger lectured that lust, love and sex would eventually make progress where legislation could make little. My own family is a good case in point. My spouse and I come from good Celtic, Anglo, and Norman stock, with the occasional sneaky Saxon thrown in as well. But some of our grandchildren, nieces and nephews are a mix of European, Asian and Pacific Islander. Our two Anglo grandchildren are being raised in Taiwan speaking Mandarin and English. We may not be synergistically melded but I suspect that we are on the way. I can’t quite see the “golden man” of Michener, but Schlesinger sure got it right.