The New Becomes Old: the Historical Normalization of Sudden Madness

I am concerned about the speed with which many people can be convinced that astonishing recent injustice and criminality are normal and "just the way things are." It’s amazing how quickly new atrocity can become old and normal for some.

One night last winter, I happened to be watching the Nightly News Hour on the "Public" Broadcasting System. I’d clicked late into a part where News Hour host Jim Lehrer was engaging columnists David Brooks and Mark Shields about a recent report making it clearer than it already was that the White House lied when it tried to connect Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to al Qaeda and 9/11.

The revolting power-worshipper Brooks dismissed the "news" as irrelevant and ancient history. As far as running dog Brooks was concerned, the false premises on which the monumentally illegal and mass-murderous invasion of Iraq was sold was old news – "water under the bridge."

The basic fact, Brooks argued, is that the U.S. is in Iraq now, like it or not. Worrying about how and why it got there has nothing to do with solving problems in the present. Get real: we need to, you know, move forward.

To his credit, Shields observed that the Bush administration’s Iraq war deceptions of 2002 and 2003 were recent and relevant history in a time when the White House was  trying to construct false pretexts for a potentially disastrous assault on Iran. Unacknowledged and unpunished past criminality has a nasty way of repeating itself.

When reporting the death of a local GI in Iraq, local television news teams (BTW Left media analysts should pay more attention to the local news) never mention the illicit and brazen nature of the U.S. invasion that took the soldier’s life. The local "hero’s" death at the hands of "hostile [Iraqi]forces" seems to have been unprovoked, as if it were perfectly normal and unremarkable for a formerly sovereign nation (Iraq) to be suddenly and criminally occupied by a distant Empire. By my observation, it’s been like this on the local news from the beginning of the invasion.

Some of "our troops" are now facing "foreign fighters" in Iraq, the local newscasters tell us, suggesting that it is perfectly natural to understand the U.S. as a non-"foreign" force there. Viewers are expected to immediately equate the imperial U.S. presence in Iraq with legitimate national authority and the struggle against "external" aggression there. As if there is nothing remarkable about us suddenly seeing Iraq as an extension of U.S. territory. "These Colors Don’t Run" from imperial conquest.  

It’s nothing new – this suddenness with which Americans are expected and sometimes led to see the suddenly and provocatively unjust as the trans-historical normal. There are interesting domestic and historical precedents.

In his remarkable study Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (NY: Touchstone, 2005), James Loewen shows how thousands of United States towns became all-white between 1890 and 1968. Such towns commonly went completely Caucasian after a terrible violent outburst in which all of the local jurisdiction’s black (and/in some cases Asian, Latino and/or Native American) people were expelled. In many cases, blacks were lynched during the original ethno-racial cleansing.

It didn’t take long, Loewen shows, for whites living in such towns to think that it is perfectly normal for a local jurisdiction to be all-white. "Almost immediately," one local historian cited by Loewen notes, "it seemed as if there had never been Negroes in Comanche County, Texas [where blacks were forcibly expelled in 1886] and within a month the only reminder…was a sign on the public well in DeLeon: ‘Nigger, don’t let the sun go down on you in this town."

In towns that go "sundown," Loewen finds, subsequent generations quickly come to see "all-white" institutions and lives to be "perfectly normal. African Americans come to seem unusual – abnormal – except on television" (Loewen, "Sundown Towns, p. 300").

It didn’t take long.

Like it didn’t take the residents of Illinois more than a few years to see it as "perfectly normal" that Native Americans had no legitemate presence in their state by the middle 1830s. In the spring of 1831, white American forces summarily expelled the Sauk Nation from the fertile forests and plains of western Illinois . The Sauk were told to move west of the Mississippi River , never to return.

Over the winter of 1831-1832, white settlers moved into Saukenak, a marvelous Indian village that in the 1760s "contained about ninety multifamily lodges made of planks and covered with bark. Those dwellings," notes historian Kerry Trask in his remarkable book Black Hawk: The Battle for the Heart of America, "were nearly all organized along straight, wide streets, and the whole settlement [explorer Jonathan Carver remarked]‘appeared more like a civilized town than the abode of savages.’ Carver also observed," Trask writes, "their expansive, well-tended fields in which they raised large crops of corn, beans, and melons. The people there, he noted, enjoyed a quality of life well above subsistence, and their community, said Carver, was ‘esteemed the best market for traders to furnish themselves with provisions, of any within eight hundred miles of it’" (Trask, Black Hawk, pp. 28-29).

The old Sauk warrior Black Hawk and a few thousand of his followers had the audacity to see their sudden expulsion as abnormal and unacceptable. When they returned to their home village – which they saw as the "center of the world" – in the spring of 1832, U.S. authorities immediately designated them a "hostile" band engaged in an illegal "invasion." In early August, all but a small number of Black Hawk’s surviving followers – including a large number of women, and children – were butchered without mercy in and along the Mississippi River beneath Bad Axe, Wisconsin. Under subsequent treaties and orders, Native Americans in general – Potawatami, Fox, and Winnebagos as well as the Sauk – were removed for all time from the rich earth of northern Illinois. "The Black Hawk War," notes Chicago historian Robert Spinney, "effectively ended the American Indian presence in both Chicago and Illinois " (Robert Spinney, City of Big Shoulders: A History of Chicago [DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000],p.28). Few people who subsequently lived in Illinois found it unusual or unjust that First Nations people no longer inhabited the lush black soils of the Prairie State .

It had taken only a few years to banish the Sauk from their longstanding homeland and to mark them as illegal "Invaders" – "foreign fighters," as it were – when they tried to return to plant corn in the village at the center of their world.

On hundred and seventy one years later, the United States would employ Black Hawk attack helicopters in the illegal invasion of Iraq (many if not not all the American Empire’s helicopters are named after conquered North American Indian cultures). Dominant homeland media would portray resistance to that invasion as strangely and even neurotically opposed to the perfectly normal U.S. occupation of their land. This is pretty much how the Sauk’s resistance to their expulsion from Illinois was portrayed in the dominant white media of the early 1830s.

The Black Hawk Helicopter, for what it’s worth, is manufactured by The Boeing Corporation. Boeing is headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, a city whose spectacular 19th century expansion was predicated on Indian Removal in the early 1830s.

The old Sauk warrior’s name is attached to a tool of a provocative and unjust invasion that U.S. authorities rushed to frame as a new-normal fact of life.

Black Hawks have fallen from the skies over Baghdad as the United States War Chiefs have tried to normalize a possible assault on Iran and make the criminal seem ordinary.

The scariest question today is whether the American people have been irrevocably conditioned to see the apparent irrelevance of their views – the majority of U.S. citizens have long opposed the occupation of Iraq and oppose an attack on Iran – as part of the "the way things are." The authoritarian Cheney-Bush administration has been banking for some time on the notion of post-democratic citizen irrelevance. "So what if the majority opposes our policies?" the Deciders say, figuring that the people have been permanently relegated to the margins of politics and policy. They think they are living in a world where the last risk has been taken out of democracy and imperial plutocracy is free to reign with glorious impunity.

This is their concept of the new normal – a world in which the fate of U.S. democracy becomes something like that of the lost Sauk Nation, consistent with the living historical dance of Empire and Inequality at home and abroad.


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