But too often in this culture, people want to embrace the destination without knowing how they got there - that is, if the destination is comfortable, privileged, and secure. If what made them comfortable, privileged, and secure was a host of regrettable historical events, well, that was then. Life starts from now - that's the American way.
|Senator Joseph McCarthy|
He was finally brought down politically in 1954 after the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings [of note: the chief counsel for the subcommittee was Roy Cohn who would later in life be a mentor for one Donald Trump. For a disturbing NY Times article about their relationship, go here].
Why is this of importance in shaping my early life? Well, my father was a friend of Joe McCarthy. They went fishing together on Shawano Lake, as the story goes, before he was elected to the Senate. I have in my possession my father's invitation to McCarthy's wedding in Washington DC in 1953, the first time my father flew on an airplane. I have a foggy memory of seeing him off at the airport when I was four. It was all very exciting. As far back as I can remember, I was given the legend of a heroic guy standing up to the Communists and ultimately destroyed by them and their fellow travelers. The man was revered in my household.
As a young child growing up in the 50s, a huge part of my formation was this era of what was called "the Red Scare," which came to life in the wake of World War II as the world became split into two major Cold War factions: the West, anchored in the post-war economic and military prowess of the United States, and the Soviet Union. Both had "the bomb," and the U.S. had proven its willingness to use the weapon even on civilian populations.
|Allis Chalmers factory in Milwaukee - Milw Historical Society|
All of which paved the way for the era some historians and ecologists call "the Great Acceleration." In their book, The Shock of the Anthropocene, historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, list some of its most notable characteristics: "the collapse of European pre-industrial institutions, a new international economic system of free trade, the technologies that were developed in the Second World War and now applied to civilian economic growth, and the establishment of markets and growth as 'central societal values.'"
These factors gave way to a great ravaging of the planet in the search for resources to fuel the engines of this new era of industrial growth, what these writers describe as "an exponential upsurge in human impacts since the 1950s."
|Tar sands industrial site, once boreal forest, Alberta|
My background story - and God bless America!
Anyone who is over 60 in this country was shaped by these enormous economic and ecological upheavals - and the upheavals in values that made this era possible. In the mythology of my youth, all of this manifested our national superiority and exceptionalism. We ignored the underside - the rise in poverty and oppression as the inevitable cost of this economic prowess, the racism that protected the greatest benefits for white people, the long lists of military interventions in other countries that included support for brutal dictatorships. In my part of the world, white people moved into the newly built suburbs, away from the foul air and crowded neighborhoods of inner urban areas, and many of those communities, like the one in which I grew up, were zoned for "whites only." [For more on the history of Milwaukee's racial segregation: Reggie Jackson on Milwaukee's Segregation]
|1967 Fair Housing March - Milwaukee|
Yes, in the north this happened, too. And that current of racism - controlled by laws, legally binding property contracts, or socially enforced boundaries of segregation - formed my childhood culture as well, fiercely so. I can still feel that current deep inside me before I was able to finally turn to it, in the face of the civil rights struggles, and see it for what it really was - is.
Okay, I ended up a child of the late 60s and early 70s. I did indeed turn from that history, often in a rage of moral and righteous indignation, feeling that I had been deceived and lied to. Joe McCarthy's disgrace was not only deserved but there was some poetic justice in the fact that it was the alcohol that finally took his life. My father's interpretation was that he "died of a broken heart."
The story of my life and times changed as I grew older, went to university, began entering the world in a period of great dissent and turmoil. It took me out of that formative culture when I realized - with my ever-deepening descent into its reality, daring to open my eyes to its cruelty, its unjust economic and political structures, and its savage assault on the natural world that I revered - that the national myths were based on belief systems that simply did not match reality, but which acted as social and cultural enforcers of those systems.
Ask me if that journey of discovery was a hard one...over decades...years of choosing to go to places where I could see it, see what injustice looks like from the other side of the privilege in which I was raised. Not wealth. We were never wealthy. But privileged - warm, safe, secure, upper middle class suburban - and white.
Everything has changed since then. The planet is already not the one into which I was born. The ravaging of the planet is leading us to multiple ecological crises all coming at once, climate change being only one of them. Here in the U.S., our political culture is in rapid decline, we are fragmenting into volatile and hostile silos based in tribalism, class, fear, and a deep sense of displacement. This is not because of an election cycle or even James Comey. It is much, much deeper than that. It is an empire at the end of its era and we are not doing well with it.
I grew up in the era of America's post-war rise, into a culture of domination over other peoples, nations, and of the natural world. The hubris that is now part of our national character is little tamed by the crises, disasters, and shocks of the past 20 years. None of us - not a single one of us - knows where this is headed. I'm in a narrative which climax and ending has not yet been written, and some of the possibilities are truly terrifying.
|Saved for posterity - Ha!!|
I do not turn away from those roots. I continue to explore them, to penetrate them, to look ever more deeply into the origins of them, why my parents saw the world as they did, what about the real U.S. history shaped our national blinders - slavery, genocide, trauma, displacement and uprootedness, which we have romanticized as people seeking freedom, but which was in reality mostly people fleeing trauma in their countries of origin. This was certainly true for my immigrant ancestors, who fled famine, feudal servitude, and diseases that wiped out whole families and villages back in the 1700s to 1830s.
epigenetics reveals that trauma can impact our DNA and that this altered DNA can be passed down to the next generation (see some of the research here). If we could truly grasp what this means, we might be better able to understand some of the troubling ways in which these pathologies are expressed in the social and political culture of our time. I know this challenges that mystical belief that we are all in control of our own destinies. But maybe the proof that we are shaped without our knowing by a human history loaded with violence and trauma of all sorts might help us come to terms with those destructive tendencies, remove judgement and tribalism as responses to them, and make it possible for us to heal them at the source.
Maybe we could learn how to change our own DNA in a way that could help save the planet. Our personal histories hold a boatload of wisdom - if we care, or dare, to go there.
~ Margaret Swedish
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|CENTER FOR NEW CREATION|