American Addictions

The addiction model of United States history is an approach to the story of America I have utilized in my classroom for a long time. I believe it creates a framework of pain and hope for discussing the ever developing nation. It also allows for an intricate web of interrelated issues that allows my students an opportunity to delve into the nuance of history and humanity that blunt yes/no questions and singular proclamations (America is X) simply don’t allow. I’ve decided to post this metaphor here for my current students so they (particularly distance learners) can access it, but also for former students looking for a walk down memory lane and anyone else looking for a metaphor for considering what exactly America “is.” 

Start at the Beginning

Over a decade ago (likely 15 years now) I introduced students to my United States History class with the metaphoric statement “America is a Crack Baby” written on the board. The students were (as perhaps you are) surprised and curious. Some nervous laughter found a home in the space but everyone was on alert. The unspoken question flowing from attentive eyes was, “Where is this going?”

Where indeed? The first step, of course, was to clarify the mystery of what a metaphor was. I made it clear to the class that I was saying an item on one side of the sentence (Crack Baby) has so much in common with the seemingly unrelated item on the other side (America) that they were, in fact, deeply related. If the metaphor could not be unpackaged in a sensible manner, however, then it was merely a shocking statement to write on the board but lacking any true value. 

That process begins by defining what a crack baby is. To allow for the fact that other substances could have been utilized in the metaphor (heroin, alcohol) we settled on, “A baby born addicted to a harmful substance that hinders growth and development.”  It was also noted that the parents’ behavior was the reason for the impacted child. The United States can also be seen as being “born” in the late 18th century addicted to certain “harmful substances” because of their parents (a combination of Britain’s approach to Empire and the historic era that the United States was born into). While the crack baby is born addicted to (and hindered by) crack the question for the class was, “What was the harmful substance…the ‘crack’…the United States was born addicted to?” After some discussion and prodding the three “substances” were revealed: imperialism, racism, and sexism. The next step was to see how these forces play out in the addiction model of U.S. History. 

Imperialism

In the course of guessing the addictions students almost always, without fail, throw out words like power, money, and freedom. Freedom, I tell them, is not a harmful substance – which our definition calls for – but it is part of the story. So we tuck it away for future use. Power and money are subcategories of a larger topic so those are placed on the board until the word Imperialism is found. With a little prodding the word is always found due to previous classes and memorable lessons. While for some it is a word that “rings a bell” they don’t have a clear definition, so one is provided. Simply put, imperialism is the contest for world power. A contest Britain competed in with exceptional skill. Looking at imperialism through the 18th century lens the students noted land was necessary to gain power (there’s that word). The land which nations sought had to have resources, otherwise they wouldn’t be desirable. These resources became the basis for money and wealth (that’s now covered too) and could be gained through different means. Inevitably some of the nation’s wealth would be invested in the military for the purpose of gaining new land and protecting resources.

Students don’t always see the imperialistic impulse of the United States (though they do see the desire for money/wealth and power). To help make this point I simply ask, how many states were in the United States originally? Obviously, 13. How many now? 50. How did the number go from 13 to 50? Did the United States receive new states as birthday gifts on the Fourth of July? That’s just foolish. Two events in U.S. History helps bring the participation in the contest to light: The Louisiana Purchase and The Mexican-American War. 

The Louisiana Purchase effectively doubled the size of the United States while granting us an opportunity to witness economic imperialism. The Mexican-American War led to the immediate acquisition of California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, the western half of New Mexico, the western quarter of Colorado, and the southwest corner of Wyoming. It also set in motion the events that would lead to Texas becoming a state. Students often don’t realize the United States fought a war with Mexico or that Mexico held so much extra territory in the mid-19th century. The time to delve into these (and other) events unfold as the school year progresses, but for this presentation it suffices to note they did happen and led to the acquisition of large swaths of land we now know to be part of the United States.

A Pause for Power

Power is a concept that I like to pause on, and briefly delve into, when discussing this metaphor. Power is pervasive, but people often fail to take into consideration their contribution to its presence. Far too many people take pride in pointing out the power hungry among us and fail to see the log in their own eye. It is this predilection to moral superiority which will ultimately ruin relationships, families, communities, and nations. 

Think about the romantic relationships of four or five of your friends. Do they seem more like partnerships or power struggles to you? Think about a group of four friends. There is sometimes a leader (the one with the most power) in the group. All goes smoothly provided this individual goes unchallenged. He or she suggests option A for tonight’s entertainment and, when all acquiesce, all is fine. But what if someone proposes option B and the others agree? An argument breaks out, not because option A is so much better, but because power has shifted.

 Now, you might say, “These sound like immature people.” Why yes, but how many immature folks – teenagers and adults – do you know? Do you have co-workers or employers that use psychological or emotional arguments to sway you (in school that often equates to “think of the kids” proclamations)? Are the “kids” (or whatever totem is utilized) what the person actually seems to care about or just a manipulative lever to push while their eyes are on power?

 In the end I believe societies and nations covet power because people do. In ways large and small people scramble for power. I sometimes fear people can’t find common ground because they don’t want it…they want victory and superiority. They contend society taught them this but “Society” is often little more than an illusionary foe as it is the competing hearts, minds, and drives of the citizens that matter. If we could learn to master humanity, society would follow suit.

Racism

The second addiction we shall discuss is racism. A most disturbing symptom of this addiction is slavery. Some people mark 1619 as the start of slavery in the new world.  Of course, historic records show that in 1565 the Spanish brought enslaved Africans to what is now St. Augustine, Florida. The point being, both years are well before the date we would use to mark the “birth” of the United States (some would give 1776 as the birth year because of the Declaration of Independence while others might declare the Constitutional Convention in 1787 as the delivery room). Either way, slavery was in the New World well before the United States was a nation. Slavery, of course, anchored itself in the soil tilled by racial prejudice.

Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. Frederick Douglass. Bobby Seale. Thaddeus Stevens. Malcolm X. Mark Twain. Stokely Carmichael. I am sure you recognize many of those names and can identify their role in history. Have you ever considered they all fill the role of interventionist? How many million more have played the role of interventionist for the addict that is the United States? In the journey of recovery many addicts have had to be brought to an intervention. Addicts often deny their addiction and rail against those seeking to assist them. Progress is made but often not without backsliding or relapse. The abolitionist movement, the Civil War, reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, post-civil rights struggles, and into the Black Lives Matters movement. So much time and effort put forth on behalf of the addict to show the depths of their fall and, unfortunately, share stories of damage done.     

Sexism

“Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.” These words were written by Abigail Adams in a letter to her husband John on March 31, 1776. Her words did not become part of the spirit of the age, for when the Constitution came into existence a decade later, “the Ladies” were not remembered. The sins of the “ancestors” were planted in fresh soil and the addiction cycle continued.  

We step forward to 1837 and read the righteous anger of Angelina Grimke as she rails against the reality that “…people are so diligently taught to despise us for thus stepping out of the ‘sphere of woman!’”  This frustration found a collective voice in the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848. We could continue this march for quite some time but allow me to end in a less historically significant event, the packing up and cleaning out of my Grandmother’s apartment.

Quite a few years ago my grandmother died and the ritual of cleaning out her side of the duplex she had owned for so long began. Gram was not one to part with…well…anything so there was MUCH work to be done. In the course of cleaning a box of old report cards was discovered. My Grandmother must have been a pretty good student as her eighth grade report card was all A’s…nice job! There were no other report cards and I wondered if they had been lost. Not exactly. What was lost was opportunity. 

Gram went to work in a factory in her mid- teens, a job she held until retirement. Education beyond 8th grade would not be part of her life’s experience, but it would be part of her daughter’s, as my mother graduated college and became a teacher and her daughter is now a college professor. Our stories are often generational with progress and struggle existing in the same moment by different players on our trembling American stage. 

Finding Hope in the Metaphor

The educationalist and writer Parker J. Palmer posits that there needs to be more attention paid to the human “heart and soul,” both in education and in life. Here is Palmer’s explanation of what he means by this proclamation:

First, the core human reality that “heart and soul” language points to has been given many names by diverse traditions. Hasidic Jews call it the spark of the divine in every being. Christians may call it spirit, though some (e.g., the Quakers) call it the inner teacher, and Thomas Merton (a Trappist monk) called it true self. Secular humanists call it identity and integrity. Depth psychologists call it the outcome of individuation. And there are common idioms for it in everyday speech, as when we say of someone we know and care about, “He just isn’t himself these days”, or, “She seems to have found herself.”

What one names this core of the human being is of no real consequence to me, since no one can claim to know its true name. But that one names it is, I believe, crucial. For “it” is the ontological reality of being human that keeps us from regarding ourselves, our colleagues or our students as raw material to be molded into whatever form serves the reigning economic or political regime. (http://www.couragerenewal.org/parker/writings/heart-and-soul/)

In these words I hear the hope of the addiction model of US History. I have read accounts of addicts feeling a deep pull from within to become more than they were allowing themselves to be. Perhaps it was their “inner teacher” or the desire to embrace a fuller “identity” that dragged them towards sobriety. As Palmer states, I don’t care what we call that drive, I merely recognize the fact addicts have shared the experience of an inner call to improvement. 

Independence. Liberty. Freedom. Rule of Law. Perhaps these time-honored ideals comprise the inner voice of the United States that can pull the nation from the throes of addiction. They have been here from the beginning as well. Could understanding and embracing these national virtues – the glory striding alongside the shame – be the keys to a more sober nation? Wouldn’t that be exceptional?

I often hear people speak of what America “is.” Their proclamations often sound stagnant; creating a nation that cannot shift for fear of the very earth beneath our feet opening to an abyss. Others simply sound arrogant, placing themselves on a moral high ground as they trumpet their superiority over their fellow citizens and nation of origin. Yet, if this nation was all vice and no virtue, how could so many (both famous and unknown) exemplars be a part of the fabric.  I say America is a crack baby. An addict who will frustrate and enrage…but can also find sobriety. An addict that can be liberated from the depth of addiction if provided the right combination of support, love, community, heart, and soul. 

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