Like a Coat You Somehow Slip On Without Noticing

My working theory is that we are shaped and motivated by narrative, that we are who we are in great part because of the stories we tell about who we are and how we understand ourselves in relation to other people through the stories they tell about themselves and also about us.

We can learn new stories, of course, but we often settle in to the old stories, retelling them again and again, like a schoolgirl replaying her favorite daydream over and over, just to see how it might go with a slightly different ending or if the boy of her dreams were to notice her just then or later or at the dance or whatever.

Being creatures of metaphor, I don’t think we can ever get away from storytelling.  It’s part of what sets us apart, that we just make shit up in order to understand the world and, if that explanation works, we run with it, forgetting that we made it up in the first place, forgetting to check back in after it stops working to see if there’s not some modification to the story we might make.

That is often how I see issues of gender playing out.  You can see it clearly there, where when someone is faced with some bizzaro thing, like why, if men and women both enjoy having and caring for children, are women the ones in our society most likely to stay at home with the kids?  And, inevitably, someone will tell a little story about how, back when we all lived on the plains in Africa, men hunted and women gathered and the gathering lent itself to time to childrear (never mind that hunting is not and never was an all consuming activity.  Once you’ve killed your buffalo, you’ve bought yourself, even in a worse case scenario, a couple of days of lounging around time) and we’ve just stuck with it.

Like the story of how things were not just explains how things are, but gives how things are a certain weight of inevitability, as if there could be no other way that the story might go and still make sense.

And I myself love stories, so I have great sympathy for this impulse.

But I sometimes wish that we remembered that we are storytellers and that often the stories we tell are bullshit.

This is a long introduction to my point, because I’m still trying to understand my point, myself and I don’t quite know how to make sense of it.  I’m struggling to articulate it.

But this morning, Mack sent me a link to this post by Ezra Klein, and told me that there was an interesting discussion going on in the comments.  I read and came to this–“emmanuel todd (after the empire) demonstrates that de tocqueville’s analysis of america–divided into whites, blacks, indians (and now mexicans)–still holds. the unvarying low intermarriage rate, for example. blacks are not integrated. they may now have a middle class but it’s separate. whites do not perceive blacks as equally human.” [emphasis mine].

And that small part of that comment rattled in my brain like a ghost in chains, trying to get my attention, trying to tell me something.

I went back to Tocqueville, who was himself, devoted to the project of telling a story about America that would make sense of it.  And I went back with this one question–if the foundational story of the United States has as its three main characters, the European, the African, and the Indian, does understanding that, for us as contemporary Americans, the Mexican as a character in many parts of the country is now filling the roll left by the Indian?

It seems to me that part of the story of America is that our land was inhabited before we got here, but that those folks and that way of life was already passing away.  I think that Bridgett can elaborate on this some, but it seems to me a kind of sleight of hand we did with ourselves, actively working to destroy the indigenous cultures we found here and to remove people from their land while at the same time romanticizing (to an extent) those people and lamenting their loss as historic inevitability, and almost natural, ordained occurrence.   As if we were saying “Oh, it’s so sad that the noble savage has gone away” at the same time we were ethnically cleansing the young nation of them.

And smarter people than me have devoted a whole lot of time to unpacking explaining the whole “noble savage” part of that, how it works to reinforce the notion that “they” are not like “us.” (You need only read Tocqueville for a lesson in that.)

I want to dwell just for a second on the whole “has gone away” part of the equation.  Where, exactly, did we understand those folks to have gone, other than to their graves?

I turn you back to Tocqueville–

But the Federal government, which is not able to protect the Indians, would fain mitigate the hardships of their lot; and with this intention it has undertaken to transport them into remote regions at the public cost.

Between the 33rd and 37th degrees of north latitude lies a vast tract of country that has taken the name of Arkansas, from the principal river that waters it. It is bounded on one side by the confines of Mexico, on the other by the Mississippi. Numberless streams cross it in every direction; the climate is mild and the soil productive, and it is inhabited only by a few wandering hordes of savages. The government of the Union wishes to transport the broken remnants of the indigenous population of the South to the portion of this country that is nearest to Mexico and at a great distance from the American settlements.

I trust you caught that.  They go almost to Mexico.

This, this is what I can’t quite get at right, but it’s there.  There’s meat here.  This, this I believe explains the virulent anti-Mexican sentiment here in the South.  Who doubts Faulkner, right?  And when he says “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” don’t we believe him?

And it’s weird, on its surface, that there should be such hostility towards Mexicans here in the South, if you think about it.  They are, by and large, conservative Christians devoted to family who love Jesus and work hard and like pick-up trucks and big families and good food and alcohol (to engage in just a little stereotyping).  If the South had to have any influx of people, you’d think Mexicans would be among the least problematic.  One more in a long line of waves of immigrants and new folks to be eyed suspiciously for a little bit and then slowly assimilated in.

But, what if that’s the wrong story?  That this is not, at a narrative level, about new people coming here?

What if this is about a great fear of people returning?


9 thoughts on “Like a Coat You Somehow Slip On Without Noticing

  1. If I remember my history correctly, the Spanish used to inhabit most of what is now Texas and California and the areas between after they subjugated Mexico and its inhabitants. Then through war and the western migration of settlers, the fledgling US took over more and more of that territory, pushing the Spanish/Mexican inhabitants out, just like we got rid of the Native Americans in our way (I’m not sure how the Spanish/Mexicans did with the NA population back then, our history lessons in school didn’t cover that, and didn’t cover much of our expansion either, I learned a lot of this from reading other books written by non-American historians).
    So, I think our hatred of the illegal immigrant from Mexico is probably subconsciously based on the fear that they will come back and take over the US and push us out, just like we did their ancestors (and not all that long ago, at that).

  2. Aunt B,

    A woman after my own heart. Qouting Faulkner and de Tocqueville in a blog post. You just turned me into a daily reader.

  3. You’d be interested in reading Marshall’s opinion in Johnson and Graham’s Lessee v William M’Intosh, 21 US 543 (1823). To boil it down, Marshall knows that the story about Indians being “wandering” (not cultivating or improving, which is the way that the English determined who created real property) was BS. He also was just as certain that many Indian nations had not been “conquered,” but that people in western territories were more or less living at a draw — neither group gaining the upper hand in many places. There were no treaties in many instances. There was no “right o discovery” — humans had lived on these tracts long before Europeans. Therefore, he decided to create a rule “better adapted to the actual state of things” (meaning that he was going to make shit up).

    Here’s the money quote:

    However extravagant the pretension of converting the discovery of an inhabited country into conquest may appear; if the principle has been asserted in the first instance, and afterwards sustained; if a country has been acquired and held under it; if the property of the great mass of the community originates in it, it becomes the law of the land, and cannot be questioned.

    This is what we would now call The Big Lie, but it’s a core principle upon which our real estate law is founded. The “wandering people” have to remain wandering. A lot is riding on keeping them unsettled.

  4. Well, hell, Aunt B, I started my blogging by logging on to laugh at and argue with Terry Frank. So almost anything is better than that. I’m now a loyal Southern Beale reader because she kicked Terry’s ass a few times.

  5. Noam Chomsky has been harping on the fear of return rather than fear of new people notion with regards to Mexico for a while now — I’ve heard it come up in quite a few of his talks.

    It made me look up the history of the southwest USA and pay a lot more attention to it. I think you’ve nailed it, really.

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