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The only language Americans understand is violence.




I’ll start with a preface: it’s not a particularly new thesis. Something akin to it was made popular in the 1970s, in the heyday of mythological criticism and the publication of Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence, which (as I remember—it’s been a while since I read it; this summary by my memory seems to be right) argues that violence of the frontier was configured to mask the “march of civilization” and to order it, making violence into a necessary precursor to racial hierarchies and the “natural” dominance of anglo-americanness. It’s somewhat like these recent discussions of redemptive violence, but more particular to the American scene. (Those discussions have a rather solipsistic flair as it is, except for the Wink-ing at Gilgamesh.)

Of course, a blanket statement like that is going to have holes, and exceptions, but on the whole, I think it’s right.

It’s how we earned our freedom from the Brits (War, and not diplomacy)

It’s how we (while still part of Britain), liberated the land from the original inhabitants.

It’s how the West was won.

It’s how Law and Order is maintained, and it has been so ingrained in our DNA that it has caused the imagination gene to go recessive.

So yes, I think the thesis holds.

I can’t agree with #2, not in the way you’ve framed it, anyway. “We,” that is, Americans, didn’t so much exist before 1783, when the Constitution was ratified along with its preamble, which officially invokes us as “We the people.” Before the revolution, and to some extent after it, the Europeans were colonial citizens of Great Britain, and their actions were that of the empire.

Anyway, GKB, though you’ve agreed with the thesis and supplied evidence about why you agree with it, you didn’t say why the only language Americans understand is violence. So—I’m curious—why is this so?

Hmm. . . I’m inclined to agree with much of what GKB says, but only if I posit that “Americans” is a group that does not include me. I often tend to feel that way anyway—I’m not much for much of what seems to constitute Americanness, and I’m not sold on the idea that the happenstance of one’s birth inside of one set of invisible lines makes one of one nationality rather than another—but I’m also sometimes hesitant to let myself be so easily separated from an identity that I might wish to reclaim and recreate.

for the sake of stating the obvs: this discussion, in so far as discussions are defined as a reasonable back-and-forth between two or several persons, sucked.

that it is a fact that most discussions on blogs suck should probably also be considered relevant.

Well, I think we were mostly reasonable. It was the back and forth that we lacked.

From the introduction of William Bartram’s Travels (1791)

IN the consideration of this important subject it will be necessary to enquire, whether they were inclined to adopt the European modes of civil society? whether such a reformation could be obtained, without using coercive or violent means? and lastly, whether such a revolution would be productive of real benefit to them, and consequently beneficial to the public? I was satisfied in discovering that they were desirous of becoming united with us, in civil and religious society.

From Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, chapter 10, Tierra del Fuego

The perfect equality among the individuals composing the Fuegian tribes must for a long time retard their civilization. As we see those animals, whose instinct compels them to live in society and obey a chief, are most capable of improvement, so is it with the races of mankind. Whether we look at it as a cause or a consequence, the more civilized always have the most artificial governments. For instance, the inhabitants of Otaheite, who, when first discovered, were governed by hereditary kings, had arrived at a far higher grade than another branch of the same people, the New Zealanders, — who, although benefited by being compelled to turn their attention to agriculture, were republicans in the most absolute sense. In Tierra del Fuego, until some chief shall arise with power sufficient to secure any acquired advantage, such as the domesticated animals, it seems scarcely possible that the political state of the country can be improved. At present, even a piece of cloth given to one is torn into shreds and distributed; and no one individual becomes richer than another. On the other hand, it is difficult to understand how a chief can arise till there is property of some sort by which he might manifest his superiority and increase his power.

The first speaks sadly of a course not followed…

The second speaks to the violence at the heart of capitalism itself… progress will only come at the expense of the looser.

The 19th century intellectual Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, would say that at the heart of all cowboy culture lies violence.

How cowboy are we?

And, to respond to G’s last post, this is not taking part of the discussion since I’ve only quoted others, and will probably not be around for a while again…

6: and yet reasonableness without the back-and-forth is just being reasonable, and where’s the fun in that? I am sufficiently guilty, by the way, in not being very back-and-forthright myself.

7: What’s so ironic about both cases that you cite, BG, is how deeply rooted even the recognition of the pervasiveness of modernity’s violence. When we begin saying, as many have been for years, “the only language arabs understand is violence,” then we’re actually talking about ourselves.

At the same time, 1) violence isn’t a language, and 2) it’s reductive and antithetical to culture itself to insist that any group only understands one thing as opposed to another.