The roots of America's persistent injustices to its indigenous peoples, and
to other peoples generally, are found in what can best be described as the
peculiarly American version of Christianity. You could hear references to
this phenomenon in recent political conventions, in references to President
Ronald Reagan's allusions to a "city upon a hill," which is a reference to
John Winthrop's sermon of 1830. In that work, Winthrop called upon the
Puritans to act as though God was living among them and asserted that they
were his chosen people, that the eyes of "all people are uponn us," and
"... that the Lord our God may blesse us in the land whether wee goe to
possess it ..." These Englishmen who were about to land in "New England"
were claiming the God of Israel, that they were somehow modern Israelites,
a "chosen people," chosen to possess the earth.
To the rest of the Christian world, such words must sound like heresy. You
can tell you are a member of an irrational, potentially dangerous group
when your beliefs are such that if you were the only person in the world
who held such beliefs, you would be universally declared as mentally
challenged. John Winthrop believed that God had blessed a small band of
English religious misfits and political refugees with the right to all the
riches in the world. It is an endless entitlement, not restricted to New
England, not, apparently restricted to land or money. When God gives you an
entitlement, you cannot do wrong, because everything you do is in pursuit
of God's will. And everything leads to paradise or utopia. Reason does not
impact this argument.
The fact is the ancestors of these Englishmen were barbarians and do not
appear in the Bible, their source of holy scriptures. In that source can be
found no reference to white people, and no offer of blessings by God to
Northern Europeans that they are urged in the name of Christ or Yahweh to
aggressively seize the earth. It is a belief system which is not subject to
rational discourse or historical reasoning. If you were the only individual
in the world who believed it, you would be subject to institutionalization.
But this pattern of belief is one of the pillars of American nationalism,
the one embraced by George W. Bush. He can't deny it, but no one asks him
in public about it.
It is somewhat trendy these days to state that there are two Americas. John
Edwards, the democratic vice presidential candidate, says this: One America
for the wealthy and privileged, and one for every- body else. Edward Hacker
says there are two Americas: One white, one black, separate and unequal. I
also find two: Mythological America which embraces unquestioningly the old
mythologies of the "city upon a hill" and its invitation to empirical
excesses, and Rational America which embraces rational discourse, the rule
of law, and the sense that it is possible for a great country to make
mistakes but is also possible to correct things when mistakes are made.
Mythical America (like mythical Islam) can do no wrong. Of course, when you
are doing God's will, you cannot make mistakes. Anything done in the name
of the nation is done in the name of God. As long as that form of
nationalism is in ascendance, justice for "others" will be off the table.
This is at the heart of why it was and is possible to steal a continent,
and to continue to take whatever desirable things Indians have. It can be
such a powerful myth that even in the current presidential debate, what
John Cairo said 35 years ago about American military behavior in Vietnam is
not talked about in terms of whether what he said is true but whether it
re-enforces the myth of infallibility. When God makes you his chosen
people, when you have a claim to all the world's riches and the right to
use force to take it, your sacred mission is empire.
Shortly after 9/11, George W. Bush made a reference to America being
embarked on a new crusade. It was a moment of unintended honesty and he
quickly corrected himself because some in his entourage know what the idea
of crusade evokes. In the first Crusade, the Christian soldiers marched on
Jerusalem in 1096. We hardly ever hear what happened there, but in recent
weeks the images of Iraqi fighters cutting off heads of innocent people
stirs memories of the times when Christian armies used catapults to fling
Moslem heads over walls of cities. During the early crusades, the crusaders
roasted and ate babies, according to the Christian historians of the day.
They massacred almost all the Jews and Moslems in Jerusalem when the city
fell. God's work sometimes takes strange turns. Americans don't hear those
stories, but Moslem children do, as they are likely to hear stories about
what happened in Abu Graib prison.
The American pathology finds its roots in a myth-centered nationalism which
entertains a claim that God intended his chosen people to have whatever
they want. The majority of Americans do not believe this, and those who do
believe it carry on their discourse somewhat hidden from the mainstream,
but the mainstream is dangerously tolerant of it. Here you find the roots
of America's go-it-alone, treaty breaking, empire building, xenophobic
us-against-them psychology. At the end of that road are dangerous
enterprises involving over-reaching for the fruits of empire. Empires,
essentially, cannot be sustained. France, Spain, England, China, Japan -
all had empires, none could keep them. Each had some kind of
rationalization to explain why they deserved to pursue world domination
which failed them in the end.
The non-mythological (actually less mythological is more accurate) more
rational rule-of-law cooperate-with-one's-allies America is locked in a
struggle with its evil twin and seems to lack some of the energetic
enthusiasm of the latter. What I call here Rational America is a
significant majority of the American people who don't believe in holy wars
and who do believe their politicians are capable of making mistakes. It is
important that Rational America get its bearings because the last time
mythological Islam and mythological Europe clashed it was a slugfest which
lasted centuries. Europe, which had looked to the Holy Land as its plunder
destination, was arguably losing when it stumbled upon the Americas and
five centuries of plunder and exploitation elsewhere. Modern Europe appears
to have no desire to pick up where the struggle left off, but would
certainly be willing to be a partner in building rational solutions which
are not founded on religious mythologies and right wingnut fantasies of
grandeur. Rebuilding a more rational society would mean building a just
society. At the moment, it is not clear the United States is going to go in
John C. Mohawk Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and
professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New
York at Buffalo.