The ‘American’ Way

Perhaps a sheriff’s deputy or highway patrol officer was passing through. The fireworks set off, illegally, by our neighbors had paused for most of an hour. They’re back at it now.

It’s the Fourth of July, on which, incomprehensibly to me, we are to celebrate the United States’ independence from Britain. I do not celebrate. I’ve closed all the pet doors; my cat is simultaneously irritated that she cannot go out and frightened by the noise.

I used to trust her good sense more. Then I came home one afternoon when the neighbor had some landscaping workers over. One of them was running a gas-powered blower at maximum volume. My cat seemed at first to want to go in, and I would have let her in, of course. But then the worker revved his blower, frightening her. She went berserk, running at full speed away from the door, toward, then around me, dodging me as if I were a threat.

She was so terrified, she no longer recognized me.

The fireworks tonight, of course, celebrate “the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” which is to say they celebrate war. And the U.S. does war a lot. At one point, I calculated that the U.S. has had only sixteen calendar years in which its armed forces had not somewhere, somehow been on a killing expedition.[1] I noted further the country’s indoctrination of Boy Scout uniforms and salutes (I could have added calisthenics and physical education uniforms), its war on the poor and people of color, and action-adventure movies as evidence of a nation addicted to violence.[2]

But in addition to all this, there is yet another insidious form of violence. Thomas Frank notes that people in Kansas—his example of those I refer to as authoritarian populists—felt that among other putative virtues such as loyalty and patriotism, they were always supposed to be cheerful.[3] I’ve heard that Wal-Mart insists that its workers, even when putting in unpaid overtime, are expected to keep a smile on their face, and I believe Barbara Ehrenreich describes a similar experience, without naming the employer in question, in her exploration of the lives of the working poor.[4]

This doesn’t just appear among conservatives and exploitive employers. I have previously analyzed “The Secret,” in which it is asserted that “like attracts like” and therefore that one should have a positive attitude in order to attract positivity to one’s life.[5] In my more recent analysis, I wrote,

It does not help when some people tell me about “The Secret” and its “Law of Attraction,” in which all I need to do is to change my attitude and the universe will provide. This denies social reality. More than that, it immunizes those who utter it from accountability, for if I claim to change my attitude and the predicted results do not materialize, they can claim that I didn’t really change my attitude, that I continue to sabotage myself, that I didn’t try hard enough. Because I cannot prove that I was thinking or not thinking anything, I have no way to disprove such a claim, but they are freed from any social responsibility to help me. Which is very convenient in a place like Sebastopol, where I am surrounded by faux liberals, pseudo-Buddhists, and other New Agers, who are really quite satisfied with the status quo, who are materially quite well off, who continue to think Obama’s election to the presidency is a sign of progress, who have a little dead tree in front of a local coffee place where you’re supposed to attach a little note saying what you’re grateful for.[6]

It appears again, even in a more mundane context, of the Fourth of July. A woman I know from the dot-com boom posted a cartoon on Facebook about how we trigger the traumas of those who have fought and risked their lives for the United States with the sounds of explosions, all in the name of patriotism. I commented that such celebrations are inherently about war and empire.

Someone responded about ideals from the Declaration of Independence which, it should be noted, has zero legal force, referring to “freedom from oppression.” I called him out, pointing to the oppression of neoliberalism: If you are poor in the United States, you are anything but free from oppression.

He responded with a line about focusing on the positive. Betraying his privilege, he refused to acknowledge that some oppressed people, including myself, have nothing to be positive about. And he denied his privilege. And he blamed me for my misfortune, utterly ignoring the multiple forms of violence I have endured throughout my life.

It seems I should have made better choices, I guess, when I was four years old on the side of the road, having just been whipped, understanding my father to tell me not to get back in the car. I should have made better choices when he continued to abuse me until my mother finally threw him out when I was fifteen years old. I should have made better choices when fellow students at every school I ever attended as a kid found something to tease me mercilessly about. I should have made better choices as some of those kids seemed constantly to be prowling for me to beat up on me some more. I should have made better choices when, having taken the only jobs I could find, my employers reveled in their freedom to regard workers as infinitely replaceable, and therefore as infinitely subject to terror—just for the hell of it. I should have made better choices when, even after having returned to school, earned a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree (I’m now well on my way to a Ph.D.), I could find no job at all.

Right. Focus on the positive. Scare my cat. Throw another bomb.

After all, it’s the “American” way.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “United States history of war,” February 18, 2013,
  2. [2]David Benfell, “‘Violence has no place in a democracy’,” Not Housebroken, January 9, 2011,; see also Ernest Drucker, A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America (New York: New, 2011); Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor: The Underclass And Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, 1995); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  3. [3]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
  4. [4]Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (New York: Owl, 2001).
  5. [5]David Benfell, “The Secret,” Not Housebroken, November 12, 2006,; David Benfell, “Diverging paths,” Not Housebroken, November 11, 2013,
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Diverging paths,” Not Housebroken, November 11, 2013,

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