The Delusional Style in American Life

» July 4th, 2015

What follows are some thoughts I’m guessing most Americans will not be celebrating as they fire up the grill to celebrate the 4th of July. The whole thing is a trigger warning to your holiday happiness. –jm

If you’re occasionally confounded by the persistence of American optimism in the midst of ongoing socioeconomic despair, it helps to revisit the driving themes of American history during the nation’s infancy: slavery, republican ideology, Manifest Destiny. As a historian, this is what I do to make sense of the many contradictions at the core of American life.

It’s also, as a professor, what I teach.

Working together, these facets of the American experience fueled national development and generated relative prosperity for white men willing to pull up stakes and Go West. They also made possible the wildly quixotic idea of an America “for the people,” a bold conceit that whiggish historians insist—events such as Ferguson, Missouri notwithstanding—we’re getting closer and closer and closer to achieving. Proof that Americans—and Americans alone—have swallowed the pill of historical optimism comes from a recent Pew study showing Americans to have the most positive outlook on life. Even as other wealthy nations grow increasingly depressed in the face of global events, Americans, well, we just keep on shining.

What accounts for our sunny disposition? In a word: delusion. There’s really no other way to explain it. It’s at our core. What the dominant narrative of American history routinely fails to note is that each of the defining phenomena (slavery, republicanism, and Manifest Destiny) emerged from self-serving and carefully-crafted delusions—delusions sowed in the colonial period and delusions that bloomed like a field of dandelions after the American Revolution to perpetuate the fiction that the pursuit of happiness was integral to a concept that today seems more rhetorically relevant than ever: “American exceptionalism.”

Systematic self-deception began with Native Americans and private property. English settlers such as John Winthrop fully understood that the Native American conception of property—based on what Jefferson would later call “usufruct rights”—ran counter to the English conception of property (based on “fee-simple” ownership).  Rather than acknowledge this difference, English settlers (with the exception of, say, Roger Williams) exploited it. They acted as if Native Americans lacked requisite long-term interest in the land they farmed and hunted and, based on this assessment, acquired that land through twisted and cynical legal fiat. Eventually, as the stereotype of native savagery became established in the white American mind, the foundation solidified for Andrew Jackson’s extermination project (1811-1836), a historically underplayed event that cleared space for an especially crazed delusion of Manifest Destiny and the concomitant notion that God personally chose white Americans to settle the west.

Expansion required slavery and slavery was an even more insidious form of the delusional thinking rotting the core of America’s founding. Diaries of slave owners (Virginia’s Landon Carter’s is a remarkable example) repeatedly confirmed the obvious reality of slave personhood. Slaves and masters interacted routinely as human beings mutually engaged in the project of plantation development and export trade (not to mention abuse, trade, and sex). But these very same white men were the ones who crafted constitutional compromises (three-fifths being the most notable) that explicitly belied the social history of white-black relationships as they played out on the ground. American “freedom” was, as the historian Edmund Morgan has argued, impossible without American slavery. This country—which was twenty-five-percent slave-based at its inception—has yet to confront the deceptive habit of mind that shackled these two realities—freedom and slavery—so tightly that we’re still trying to pry off the irons today.

Finally, there was the ideological appeal of republicanism. This imported way of thinking, coming from the motherland in the 1720s, resonated throughout the colonies as both a bulwark against corruption and an affirmation of natural English rights, representative government, and independence. Few espoused the virtues of independence—and translated them into revolutionary action—more triumphantly than the tobacco growers of Virginia. Tobacco was deeply intertwined with the republican project being forged by the founders.

But economic reality turned both ideology and tobacco into smoke. History books rarely note that those who most passionately espoused the virtues of independence were truly enervated men who were enslaved by debt to English lenders. When Americans were most in thrall to the idea of liberty, they were also at their most vulnerable and dependent. What enabled them to ignore the contradiction was nothing short of delusion—a self-serving one, given than independence would temporarily release them from economic bondage, authorize them to sell slaves down river, and fund the deep southern transition to cotton, empowering a contradiction so deep that it would take a war to resolve it.

American life today is infused with this legacy of deception. It has become an unthinking habit obscured in layers of upbeat historical narration. The Occupy Movement is one example of a momentary blip of consciousness, a fierce little awakening, that spurred us to wonder: Why do so many Americans choose groundless optimism over justifiable rebellion against an elite that gives new meaning to the term “super-rich” every day? Why do people still believe they can hit rock bottom, work three jobs, and thrive when, in fact, they sink deeper into debt? Why do we fail to see the oppression of immigrants as a modern-day version of slavery?

The answers to these questions (and others) lie in our history of delusion, a history that thrives on the perpetuation of a fiction, a fiction so intoxicating that we structure our lives all too successfully to avoid confronting. Our optimism is, in this sense, our addiction.

Happy 4th.

6 Responses to The Delusional Style in American Life

  1. Scott says:

    Another example of American optimistic delusion is that large numbers of low income people oppose tax increases on the rich because they think they will be rich very soon. Joe the Plumber is the most famous example of this. He made $40,000 per year but was an activist against raising taxes on people who made more than $250,000 because he expected to be in that category the following year.

  2. John T. Maher says:

    So good to read post on Eating Plants after an interlude.

    Delusion? Another word for immanence channeled through undercurrents in American history as a ritualized justification for the worst horrors of capitalism. “History books rarely note that those who most passionately espoused the virtues of independence were truly enervated men who were enslaved by debt to English lenders. When Americans were most in thrall to the idea of liberty, they were also at their most vulnerable and dependent.” Yes, and this concept and the fear associated with it has, in turn, been monetized. Immanence may be understood as an abnegation of responsibility through which the extremes of slavery and of all races (me included) is still possible. And that blind faith in social and economic mobility, usually rooted in destroying nature and a belief that theft was not a crime. Not much different from the corrupt Bishops of medieval lore who sold indulgences. Or ISIS/DAESH, they have hope in abundance. Only this time it was internalized as the freedom to extract and steal. Is extraction a hyperobject, I wonder?

    The dark turn in American history we are living, neoliberalism, much like the Enclosure Laws before it, has at least done us Nietzscheans a favor by eliminating hope. Only then is change possible.

    Soooooo, I mark this by hoping business by posting a favorite poem:

    John Ashbery

    we could send you out there
    to join the cackle squad,
    but hey, that highly accomplished,
    thinly regarded equestrian—well there was no way
    he was going to join the others’ field trip.
    Wouldn’t put his head on the table.
    But here’s the thing:

    They had owned great dread,
    knew of a way to get away from here
    through ice and smoke
    always clutching her fingers, like it says
    to do.

    Once we were passionate about the police,
    yawned in the teeth of pixels,
    but a far rumor blanked us out.
    We bathed in moonshine.
    Now, experts disagree.
    Were we unhappy or sublime?
    We’ll have to wait until the next time
    an angel comes rapping at the door
    to rejoice docently.

    (I know there’s a way to do this.)

  3. Teresa Wagner says:


  4. widely unappreciated is the latter-day role of cheap fossil fuels in fostering feelings of entitlement in the usa.

    did you know that it would take about 100 hours for a healthy adult to generate (such as on a bicycle generator) as much energy as is available from a gallon of gasoline? now multiply 100 times the minimum wage.

    we are almost completely unconscious of the real power of our energy slaves, and of how this pricing has skewed market signals.

  5. Tina says:

    Couldn’t agree more.

    Something along the same lines from Chris Hedges:

  6. I have made a habit to read the Declaration of Independence as my form of fireworks on this day. It’s a pyrotechnic use of language.

    This year, a friend suggested I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. That book has informed and transformed my Independence reading–thus this poem.

    Fourth of July 2015
    Declarations Then and Now

    It was written that we all have rights
    Creator given and unalienable
    Except for those seen with hatred’s sight
    For them right’s remain unattainable
    To be young and black and male
    Is a rights-denying condition
    The truth of that should make us wail
    They live in a state of subjugation

    Native people are in this Declaration
    Not slaves in all their ravages
    That part was written but made a deletion
    Native people were marked as savages
    How far have we advanced since then?
    We must question without fail
    There’s a police state millions live in
    Their every movement is curtailed

    They have become the new outliers
    The total outcasts of our society
    Mostly they are small drug buyers
    Who should be free in all propriety
    The justice system yearly spends 200 billion
    To keep millions under domination
    They must live a life reptilian
    Back to prison at the slightest imputation

    The War On Drugs is a war on us
    Violates our freedom’s precepts
    Slowly lose our freedom without much fuss
    That is not an abstract concept

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