This text-altered classic comic image began circulating this week and while I agree with the intention of calling the “Alt-right” what they are, white supremacists or white nationalists, I think the viral image is not what we need right now. I recognize the incredulously angered perspective from which this comes but I’m critical of the approach here. A problem which arises from this type of response is that it still uses a form of nationalism and simplification of history. It’s using a “good guy” American nationalism of Captain America against the racist authoritarian version of nationalism that is stepping forward in our culture, but was always there. Even in cartoon meme form this seems to promote the image of American exceptionalism, but now is the time to highlight and discuss the complex and often incompatible American traditions. White Nationalism is also an American tradition. We have a grotesque past filled with genocide, slavery, and the otherering of many ethnic groups that didn’t match the national identity of the moment. The traditional American holiday of Thanksgiving happens this week to remind us all of the dissonance between the story we tell about ourselves and the reality of what happened. We can’t rewrite history and ignore all the terrible things the powerful majority has done in the name of White America. Let’s be careful how we describe our nation and its history, even in the short form. Everyone wants to name our traditions after what they value, but ultimately the US is and has always been a mixed bag when it comes to civil rights and democracy. Our identity has been split between the ideals of “all men are created equal” and the realities of institutional racism at home and the propping up of oppressive governments elsewhere, especially Latin America and Israel.
Since interference in the development of other democracies in the names of American interests is also an American tradition it’s pretty ironic that Russian hackers helped shape perspectives leading up to the 2016 US election (https://www.wired.com/2016/11/trumps-win-signals-open-season-russias-political-hackers/). I don’t think it has ever helped to use the “us against them” language when framing the character of the United States, because political and social situations are never that binary. Call the Alt-right what they are but do the same for the US as a whole. Recognize our role in the world as not the perfectly virtuous superhero, but a conflicted nation that has a complicated relationship with power, race, and nationalism.
I also think of Angela Davis noting the importance of unity in struggles across borders. She wrote, “It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as part of an ever expanding community of struggle.” It’s both an anti-nationalistic stance and a pro community stance. The hero image is too often the tool of political propaganda that is nationalistic and the cause of divide among diverse people who experience oppression in a number of ways.
Finally, I think the path forward is not only calling out racism hiding under any disguise, but also changing the dominant dialog we are having in this country about values and violence. Henry Giroux sums it up nicely: “Another set of questions needs to be asked. What are the deeper political, educational, and social conditions that allow a climate of hate, racism, and bigotry to become the dominant discourse of a society or worldview? What role do politicians with their racist and aggressive discourses play in the emerging landscapes of violence? How can we use education, among other resources, to prevent politics from being transformed into a pathology? And how might we counter these tragic and terrifying conditions without retreating into security or military mindsets?”