IS AMERICA BY NATURE A VIOLENT SOCIETY?
It is highly doubtful that we know anything about the natural virtues and vices of societies, but it seems evident that a country inhabited by a multitude of ethnic groups cannot even be said to possess the nearest equivalent to natural qualities, namely, a national character. If “like attracts like” is as natural for human society as “birds of a feather flock together,” one could even say that American society is artificial
“by nature.” Still, it seems true that America, for historical, social, and political reasons, is more likely to erupt into violence than most other civilized countries. And yet there are very few countries where respect for law is so deeply rooted and where citizens are so law-abiding. This was already evident at the time of the American Revolution, and since this central event is not remembered for violence, violence has not the same revolutionary overtones in this country as elsewhere and, precisely for this reason, is more easily condoned.
The reason for this seeming paradox must probably be looked for in the American past, in the experience of establishing law against lawlessness in a colonial country—an experience which culminated, but did not end, with the foundation of a new body politic and the establishment of a new law of the land following the revolution of 1776. For it was a similar experience that came into play in the colonization of the American continent, as well as in the integration of the many waves of immigrants during the last century. Each time the law had to be confirmed anew against the lawlessness inherent in all uprooted people. Americans know some things about the enormous equalizing power of the law, and they know more than enough about the initial stages of criminal violence which always precede—not, of course, the relatively easy assimilation of single individuals—but the integration of a new and alien group.
I think that second peculiarity of American society is more relevant to the present situation. Freedom of assembly is among the crucial, most cherished, and, perhaps, most dangerous rights of American citizens. The number of voluntary associations, organized on the spur of the moment, are still as characteristic of our society as they were when Tocqueville first described them. Their work is usually carried on within the framework of the law, and their pursuit of social, economic, and political goals is normally channeled through pressure groups into the government establishment. But this is not necessarily so, and every time Washington is unreceptive to the claims of a sufficiently large number of citizens, the danger of violence arises. Violence—to take the law into one’s own hands—is perhaps more likely to be the consequence of frustrated power in America than in other countries. We have just lived through a period when opposition to our bloody imperialist adventures—voiced first on campuses, on chiefly moral grounds, and supported by an almost unanimous verdict of highly qualified opinion in the country at large—remained not only without echo but was treated with open contempt by the administration. The opposition, taught in the school of the powerful and nonviolent civil rights movement of the early sixties, took to the streets, more and more embittered against “the system” as such. The spell was broken, and the danger of violence, inherent in the disaffection of a whole generation, averted when Senator McCarthy* provided in his person the link between the opposition in the Senate with that in the streets. He himself said that he had wanted “to test the system,” and the results, though still inconclusive, have been reassuring in some important respects. Not only has popular pressure enforced an at least temporary change in policy; it has also been demonstrated how quickly the younger generation can become de-alienated, jumping at this first opportunity not to abolish the system, but to make it work again. This is not to deny that the Republic is still in danger of being threatened by a disproportionate growth of presidential power on one side, and by an even more alarming spread of “invisible government,” the transformation of legitimately secret information-gathering agencies into secret policy-making bodies without any legitimacy whatsoever, on the other hand. We must not forget that the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society are also voluntary associations, and who will deny that such groups aid and abet the outbreak of violence? It is difficult to see how this danger can be eliminated without eliminating freedom of assembly. Is that not too high a price to pay for political freedom?
The third factor, racism, is the only one with respect to which one could speak of a strain of violence so deeply rooted in American society as to appear to be “natural.” “Racial violence was present almost from the beginning of the American experience,” as the splendid Report of the Commission on Civil Disorders
puts it. This country has never been a nation-state and therefore has been little affected by the vices of nationalism and chauvinism. It has dealt rather successfully with the obvious dangers of domestic violence inherent in a multinational social body by making adherence to the law of the land, and not national origin, the chief touchstone of citizenship, and by tolerating a considerable amount of mutual discrimination in society. But nationalism and racism are not the same, and what has worked with regard to the disruptive forces of the former has not worked with regard to the destructive force of the latter. We often hear it said today that we are called upon to pay the price for slavery, the greatest crime of the American past. But the historical period at stake here is much rather the last one hundred years of Negro emancipation without integration
than the roughly 250 years of Negro slavery preceding them. Neither in the South nor in the North, neither before nor after emancipation, were free Negroes ever treated as equals. The civil rights movement has been remarkably successful in putting an end to segregation by law in the South, demonstrating once more the tremendous power potential in organized nonviolent action. Even more importantly, it achieved a radical change in the climate of the country with respect to individual Negroes, who, for the first time, were assimilated in pretty much the same way that individuals of other ethnic groups had been assimilated before. “Tokenism” was in fact a step forward, not only because it opened opportunities for individual “exceptions,” but also because it demonstrated that at least the educated strata of society were no longer racist. But this assimilation of the few was neither followed nor accompanied by the integration of the many.
In the North, where I think the problem is more acute than in the South, we deal with a group uprooted through recent migration and hence no less lawless than other immigrant groups in their initial stages. Their massive arrival in recent decades has hastened the disastrous disintegration of the big cities, to which they came at a time when the demand for unskilled labor rapidly was declining. We all know the consequences, and it is no secret that racist feeling among the urban population today is at an unprecedented high. It is easy to blame the people; it is less easy to admit the fact that, as things are handled now, those who stand most to lose and are expected to pay by far the greatest part of the cost are precisely those groups who have just “made it” and can least afford it. Impotence breeds violence, and the more impotent these white groups feel the greater grows the danger of violence. Unlike nationalism, which is normally limited by a territory and therefore admits, in principle at least, the existence of a “family of nations” with equal status for each, racism always insists on an absolute superiority over others. Hence, racism is humiliating “by nature,” and humiliation breeds even more violence than sheer impotence. Thirty years ago, André Malraux wrote in Man’s Fate
that “a deep humiliation calls forth a violent negative of the world; only drugs, neuroses, and blood consistently shed, can feed such solitudes.” Nationalism is on the rise everywhere, and the danger is that, for various reasons, it has become tainted with racism in many parts of the world. The racism inherent in American society for such a long time could indeed become “revolutionary” if the black backlash, in blatant disregard for the Negro people in America, should come under the sway of those extremists who think of it in terms of a world revolution, a worldwide uprising of the colored races.
The Negro violence we are witnessing now is nothing of the sort. It is political to the small extent of hoping to dramatize justified grievances and to serve as an unhappy substitute for organized power. “It is social to the much larger extent that it expresses the violent rage of the poor in an affluent society” where deprivation is no longer the burden of a majority and hence no longer felt as a curse from which only the few are exempt.* Not even violence for the sake of violence preached by extremists—as distinguished from the rioting and looting for the sake of whiskey, color televisions, and pianos—is revolutionary, because it is not a means to an end: no one dreams of being able to seize power. If it is to be a contest of violence, no one doubts who is going to win.
The real danger is not violence but the possibility of a white backlash of such proportions as to be able to invade the domain of regular government. Only such a victory at the polls could stop the present policy of integration. Its consequence would be unmitigated disaster—the end, perhaps not of the country, but certainly of the American Republic.
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