The Drum (ABC Online)
By Brendon O'Connor
I am as concerned as the next inner city liberal about right-wing militias in America. The latest group to come to attention are the Oath Keepers: a militia made up of current and ex-military personnel and law enforcement officers who believe Barack Obama is on the verge of instituting martial law across the United States. While I fear for President Obama and anyone working for a federal agency that these boys with guns will take matters into their own hands, I am neither surprised nor particularly shocked to hear of this latest movement. Violent crackpots are hardly a new problem in the US. However, such groups often gain notoriety far beyond the reality of their power or how representative they are of the average American. Oscar Wilde in a moment of moderation wrote: "English people are far more interested in American barbarism than they are in American civilisation." In his play A Woman of No Importance one of Wilde's characters lampoons America asserting: "The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for 300 years." This bon mot contains a strong element of truth: for a very long time every second scandal or violent act has been described as the breaking of American innocence (yes it is the case of the 400-year-old virgin!). Wilde was essentially right on both counts: America is both civilised and barbarian and its youth is one of the most overplayed features of the nation. America is a vast land with 300 million people and, like in most places, some members of this populace are noble and some are serious fruitcakes. Its innocence is a total myth - think of the treatment of Native Americans or African-American slaves, or the behaviour of scores of Scots-Irish immigrants who settled many a dispute violently. Yet in modern times every new round of public irrationality or violence triggers shock and horror. This would seem to explain why so many people get excited over the madness of the "birthers" (the movement which believes Obama was born outside of the United States) and other assorted anti-Obama movements. And in our strange amnesic media world, American innocence is lost yet again and again in events such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the attacks on the Twin Towers. The reason for this continuous ability to shock and disappoint is that, from the founding of the nation through to the latest Hollywood film, Americans have been excellent myth makers and propagators of the happy ending. Think of the names of some of America's earliest towns: New Haven, Eden, Providence, New Hope, and New Jerusalem (shortened these days to New Jersey). Americans and non-Americans have lapped up these myths but not every new immigrant found it to be the land of milk and honey. In his book Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens caustically satirised that in fact some would find it to be the land of swamps and sickness. Although a well worn literary trope "the unhappy immigrant" is an alternative reading - the mainstream story stars America as the land of opportunity and innocence. In reality America is a land settled and conquered with great violence. It is also a land where the gun has special (although disputed) constitutional status. Given this history, surely the story of militias collecting a cache of weapons to supposedly defend the constitution and overthrow the federal government when it declares martial law should be seen as old hat with plenty of antecedents but this is not the case. Instead such cases tend to be seen as a new phenomena provoked by a unique hatred towards Obama. However, any sense of American history should remind us that before the birthers were the Birchers in the 1950s, before the tea-party crowd was the Goldwater movement, and before the Oath Keepers were the Posse Comitatus and the Michigan Militia. Of course in the case of the Oath Keepers it is disturbing that people paid by the government to defend Americans at home and abroad have formed a secret militia to overthrow the government if it becomes too powerful, too socialist (too "national socialist" to use their words), or unconstitutional. However, although capable of terrible single incidents of violence, these angry young men are probably far less powerful than the rogue elements that existed within the CIA during the 1960s (think of the impact of anti-Castro extremists on American behaviour during this period). But I digress. To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of these latest anti-government and anti-Obama movements - from the more extreme through to the tea party crowd - is the way they use the American Revolution and the US Constitution as their talismans and justifications in nearly any argument. Americans are supposedly an onward and upward looking nation with little interest in history, a fact validated by Henry Ford when he said "history is bunk". However, the reality is contrary. Like most nationalistic peoples history plays a very important role in the politics and identity of Americans. Much of the anti-Obama crowd has an ultra-white view of history which looks back in yearning to America's glory days when it was a truly great land where apparently no one paid taxes, communities pretty much governed themselves, everyone had a gun but used it reasonably and people with names like Barack Hussein Obama born in Hawaii with an American mother and Kenyan father were entirely absent. The best response to this right-wing fantasy version of American history is to remember America was never all that innocent and has been both civilised and barbarian and much that is in between since its birth as a nation.
Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in American Politics at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney. He is the author of books on anti-Americanism, US foreign policy and US welfare policy.