The Illusiveness of the American Community

By  Ivory Phillips 

Jackson Advocate Writer

The concept of an American community is at least eight generations old.  That is the case if one begins with “the Declaration of Independence.”  Of course it had been in the minds of some inhabitants even before that time.  Nevertheless, today with things such as the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin killing and the division between black and white people on the matter; the very vocal opposition to humane immigration reform; and the massive effort at voter suppression all show that the concept of an American community is as illusive as ever.

A community develops and continues to thrive where there is a group of people who are familiar with and trusting of one another; when they have moved to minimize their selfishness, based upon class, ethnicity and other such incidental criteria.  A community does not develop from or depend upon patriotic rhetoric.  It does not spring from the strong imposition of some wills upon others, so that they have no other alternative.  To the extent that America has neglected the former and promoted the latter, the idea of community is just an illusion.

It is far too obvious that right wing business and political leaders are dead set on using their wealth, control of the media and the development of groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council to delude, corral and even bulldoze people into accepting an agenda of nativism, white supremacy, capitalistic exploitation, and Christian domination.  As a matter of fact, it is this combination of concepts that many refer to when they talk about the “good old days.”  But this kind of “community” in the good old days, was not really a community.  It depended a great deal on power and coercion not the free will and embrace of all involved.

In the 1960s and 70s some of the power of this dominate group was eroded.  Now with great demographic changes taking place, right wingers are even more determined to take us back to “the good old days.”  That is what we are witnessing everyday in the Congress, in the state houses and in the courts.  For them, it is more than just politics; they are in a struggle for their life, their way of life.  Meanwhile we are all suffering in what is not likely to result in a true American community on their terms or otherwise.

There is a real fear that America is losing its soul, so to speak.  Many people think that the things that made America into the country that they know and love are being swept away.  Furthermore, without the kind of “americanization” process that they accepted or underwent, America will not long be America.

On the other hand, there are left leaning political leaders who are determined to open America up or make it into the kind of society where all people are free to be whoever they desire and have the ability to become.  They are opposed to nativism, white supremacy, capitalistic exploitation, and Christian domination.  Their fortunes have been cyclical, rising to its zenith under Franklin Roosevelt but also seeing quite a bit of progress under Kennedy and Johnson.  They now find society at a logger head as the power pockets in Congress, several state houses and the Supreme Court use every means possible to derail the agenda of Barack Obama and the left leaning Democrats.

The left leaning political leaders face the problem of not having presented a clear vision of an American community that has the moral dimensions to bring and hold us together as free and equal men and women.  Many people are frightened by their ideas, thinking that “these people” will dilute or destroy America as we know it, without replacing it with one as good.

The problems facing each side is different, and are not being solved very effectively.  The right wingers want to preserve a coerced community utilizing the ideas of the “good old days” while the left wingers want to destroy the old order but without the assurance of a better, free community.   The real problem is the nature of the community, not the idea of an American community.  We need to be a community, if America is to become America.

This brings us back to the essence of what makes for a true community.   If America becomes a community, it can be a model for all generations to follow.  It would be the first time in history that a country has been developed wherein the culture and political status of all groups are equally accepted and respected.  It would have indeed become a multicultural society.   In order to get there, however, there has to be a massive, near miraculous transformation of the living generations.  We must become familiar enough with one another to become real neighbors.  Yet, we insist on having segregated housing by neighborhoods and even towns.  We must become familiar enough with one another to become trusting.  It may be that the process must be reversed so that we become trusting enough of one another that we get rid of housing segregation.  Either way, becoming an American community requires that the inhabitants become familiar and trusting of one another.  It also requires that we gradually but genuinely rid ourselves of the selfishness that we hide behind in order to get ahead; selfishness manifested as race, ethnicity, class, religion, and the like.

The requirements for this transformation is no small order.  We are so determined to get ahead or stay ahead until we utilize the schools to advance it.  Effective public schools are excellent instruments for creating a true community.  But the current attacks on public schools, the unequal funding of the schools, outdated or distorted curricular, and the attacks on teachers are all actions that enable some people to get ahead or stay ahead.  The same can be said regarding society’s moral and religious institutions.  They almost always promote themselves and their members as not just different from, but better than others.  They put forth their major effort in trying to “win” others or impose their beliefs on others.  Then, in our families and various social groups, we draw the circle tightly around our people, protecting and promoting them above or ahead of others.  Under these conditions, it becomes apparent that the only room left for the development of community is, if and when other people already believe and act as we do.

The challenge is to understand history and therefore human nature enough that we lose the narrow-mindedness and selfishness that is an almost universal condition.  The challenge is to understand history and human nature enough that we spurn the violence and cut-throat competition that set us upon one another rather than uniting us against poverty, the environment and natural disasters.  The challenge is to be smart enough and motivated enough to come together and develop the vision of what we would like the American community to look like and in fact be, and then to work together to build.  Then and only then can we conquer the illusiveness of the American community, which is sorely needed by humankind.