American culture is structured by violence and power. I suppose this assertion will tend to be met with two alternative responses: “Duh!” … or, “How could you possibly claim that about such a free and democratic country–indeed, possibly the freest and most democratic the world has ever known?” What I’d like to offer is an anthropological explanation of how power and violence structure American culture. This explanation is probably rather different than what readers reacting with either response expect. Basically, American culture perpetuates values of violence in ways that make for compelling stories about power relationships and–ultimately–the sources of sovereign power, and through the drama inherent in participatory ritual and symbolically redundant cultural structures, these stories overwhelm us and simply blind us emotionally.
And the American structure of power production through actual violence against people, as well as symbolic representations of violence–well, it’s surprisingly similar to what David Graeber has recently described as the symbolic and practical engine for the cultural perpetuation of royal power in traditional and colonial Shilluk society in southern Sudan. The ruler is in constant antagonism with his ruled. The ruler strategically uses violence against the ruled in arbitrary ways, mimicking the incomprehensible arbitrariness of divine judgment, a belief in which is profoundly central to Shilluk theologically articulated beliefs in God. The ruler also uses warfare, not just to protect the kingdom or avenge violence by other groups or polities against the kingdom. He uses warfare to accumulate material resources AND to reproduce mythic stories of victory. As the ruler’s strength begins to wane, members of the court may move to remove him from power, the ritual process of which has been the focus of much anthropological discussion, going back to Frazer’s discussion of the Shilluk Kingdom in a later edition of the Golden Bough. (I won’t go into details. Some readers will be familiar with the Shilluk. For the rest of you, I strongly encourage readers to work their way through Graeber’s instructive and comprehensive review and discussion of Shilluk kingship, along with the anthropological scholarship on this ethnographic and ethnohistorical case. In either instance, familiarity with Shilluk society and culture over the past few centuries will challenge you to think about the similarities–despite apparent differences–with American culture.) Once the Shilluk king is removed from power, a year of ritual jockeying among eligible royalty begins. This involves the combination of actual lobbying and gift giving around the kingdom, demonstrations of power through the exercise of violence by and against candidates, and a ritual process of re-enacting mythical battles and wars prosecuted by the founding royal family several centuries ago. The story of bringing the country together through violent warfare involves charismatic rulers who exhibit the contradictory abilities of–at one moment–mimicking Divine arbitrary violence and–at the next moment–accomplishing heroic human achievements in the face of Divine natural forces … and–at the next moment–actually exhibiting concern for social order or fairness or well-being of the ruled. When a new king is finally installed, the mythic stories of Shilluk origins have been recapitulated through an intense social experience for all people in the kingdom. In many ways, the country is reborn, and the story reinforced as fundamentally relevant to the very existence of the ruled. The symbolic representation of warfare as similar but subordinate to divine arbitrary violence gets amplified; the origins myth gets retold, and the society sees how the polity’s position in the cosmic order gets recreated again and again, even as kings die and are replaced.
What is worth pointing out is that American culture is also favors violence in creating stories about political power, despite the notion that democracy should be peaceful. I don’t mean the obvious contradiction that the democratically focused US Constitution was approved with slavery legal and democratic participation strikingly limited, a historical legacy still influencing inequality and political division in American society. Rather, over the course of the later 20th century–and even more so after 9/11–external warfare and internal structural violence has coincided with an increasingly ritualized process of political succession, in which political strategizing–and media representations of political strategizing–have become ever more infused by sports and military symbols. The result is, further, that those in power may not be royalty who inherit their eligibility to rule by virtue of their genealogical lineage and kinship relationships (although that seems to help a lot, too, for the office of President). But while in office, they nevertheless are encouraged to allocate wholly arbitrary levels of power for the police and military forces to punish or kill, within the United States borders and without, all the time emphasizing values of decisiveness. Yet, when it’s election time, ritualized symbolic battle is the order of the day. We are often more diverted by political strategy and scorekeeping over the media successes and blunders of the candidates. The losing candidate is not dismissed, of course, in the dramatic Shilluk ritual way. But increasingly, losing an election may be especially difficult symbolic baggage to overcome.
The surprising effect on our political culture is that we valorize this political theater as being the democratic process itself, believing that it inherently maintains the values of peaceful representative decision-making, itself legitimized by electoral accountability. In the process, simply holding elections–whatever the systemic flaws in basic education, campaign finance law, voter registration, and voter participation–constitutes a re-enactment of bringing the country (or the school board or county commission or state government) into being through heroic, mythic battle.
Unfortunately, the violence that American culture tacitly–or sometimes very openly–values so much … well, it involves asserting social inequality as natural and legitimate. Winners are very often seen as naturally better, whether the victory was fair or unfair, a fluke or a real demonstration of inherent superiority. Yet, especially ambiguous victories are important, too. Was George Zimmerman asserting his legitimate right to use lethal force in self-defense, or did he really go too far in seeking to flaunt his power advantage over Trayvon Martin? Everyday occurrences of violence symbolically reinforce the role of violent conflict in bringing society together. And it is a society in which inequality is at once created, legitimized, and all-to-often willfully ignored by those who successfully use violence to institutionalize their power. One of the biggest challenges that American society faces is in recognizing this underlying problem. When we elect and inaugurate a powerful official, are we getting swept up in the drama and emotion of getting through the symbolically violent election process, consequently accepting an unfair social order? Or do we actually pay attention to underlying values of justice, well-being, tolerance and sustainability to inform our democratic participation and decision-making? When George Zimmerman is prosecuted (and the jury is literally out, with closing arguments by Zimmerman’s defense having been presented yesterday) over his violent victory over Trayvon Martin–a victory of only ambiguous political and legal legitimacy–do we end up thinking about and valuing tolerance more? Or are we just emotionally focused on restoring order or ritually overturning that order (which is what riots would amount to, if they did follow an acquittal of Zimmerman)?
The anthropological lesson, I think, is that rituals and stories dramatize our world in such a way that it makes completely clear symbolic sense, but by focusing our emotions on certain, truly dramatic values–“wow, it’s really nice to be on the winning team, which I deserve to be on, anyway,” or, “I sure got a raw deal, but at least society has a system in order, and anyway, that’s just the way such systems work … someone has to be the loser”–ritualized, symbolically intense discourse really diverts our attention. We don’t clearly see what the best actions for us–and others–might be for a sustainable, just, inclusive world over the long-term.