Thomas Merton on American (white) nationalism

Introduction: Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Image Books, 1966) offers his own selection of notes, opinions, experiences, and reflections.

“Thomas Merton,” by John Jacob Niles (The John Jacob Niles Photographic Collection, University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center)This essay was written in Kennedy-Johnson era, during the build-up to full-fledged war in Vietnam.  It is perhaps even more relevant now, when those who cling to white nationalism are so publicly aggressive about reinstalling the dangerous American myth.


A daydream is an evasion

When a myth becomes a daydream it is judged, found wanting, and must be discarded. To cling to it when it has lost its creative function is to condemn oneself to mental illness.

I do not say we must learn to live without myths (such an idea is dangerous self-deception: it is itself a false myth, or a daydream), but we must at least get along without evasions. A daydream is an evasion.

When a myth becomes an evasion, the society that clings to it gets into serious trouble.

What is the conventionally accepted American myth? Is this myth still alive, or has it expired and become an evasion? Is the present crisis—in race relations, delinquency, etc., a judgment of our public daydream?

“America is the earthly paradise.”

A world without history

To say that this was once a valid and creative myth is not to say that there was no basis of truth in it. On the contrary, this belief in the obvious possibilities of an immense new continent, a place fabulously endowed and blessed, had fantastic potency. The discovery of America (and you should read the first descriptions of Hispaniola!) galvanized and inebriated the Western World. It did more than anything else—even Copernicus and Galileo-—to overturn the world-view of the Middle Ages.

It revolutionized the thought of Western man. He was now convinced that human society was getting off to an entirely new start. This was a much more potent and influential myth than that of Holy Russia, for example, which has never had, and now can never have, the same universal effect. Russia, after all, is Russia. It is inexorably rooted in its peculiar history, and no matter what new forms it may assume, no one is fooled: before Khrushchev was Stalin, before Stalin was Ivan the Terrible.

But the New-Found-Land was a world without history, therefore without sin, therefore a paradise. To this world came the victims of a Europe grown old in wickedness, with its history of arbitrary authority. To escape from history, that is to say from Europe, to escape from the burden of the past, to return to the source, to begin again a new history, starting from scratch, without original sin.

This was what America offered to the oppressed, the persecuted, the unsuccessful, the disinherited—or the merely discontented. To be “baptized” by emigration, to leave one’s sins and one’s past in the Atlantic, to start out for a new life in the wilderness with one’s hand in the hand of God …!

For four hundred years American horizons kept widening. There were no limits. There was always a frontier beyond which there was still more paradise, even though on this side of the frontier there was now history, there was sin, and paradise had begun to close down. Yet it did not close down altogether, as long as there was a frontier. There was always a new start, over the mountains, over the plains.

Then there was the ocean—a permanent barrier against the “old world” of sin and history. As long as our “history” was self-contained, we could regard it as a series of paradisiacal incidents—or of innocent excesses. It took place in the great unlimited garden where, in some mysterious way it was not judged because it did not have any part in the ancient inscrutable intrigues of the Old World. Europe after all had roots in a past so ancient it could never be remembered: as far back as Egypt and Babylon and Ur.

America was cursed with no past that could not be remembered, explained, justified. Everything was clear. Everything was well meant. Since there were no hidden meanings, no implications dictated by the past, no reservations in view of agreements that might be violated, everything was considered sincere.

There was not yet a heritage of official and known duplicity to poison the national memory. Even though there were distressing episodes, we were honest about them, and if they happened on our side of the ocean they were regarded as without sin because well meant. At any rate there was always another frontier; one could begin again.

Thus the word “frontier” became the symbol not only of adventure but of clear-eyed innocence—pathetic overtones, in Kennedy’s “new frontier,” when the frontiers are closed forever! Kennedy is trying to keep the myth alive in spite of everything.1

The myth becomes an evasion

When there were in reality no more frontiers, America gradually became the prisoner of that curse, the historical memory, the total consciousness of an identity responsible for what had happened to the Indians, for instance.

(As long as there was merely the frontier, and one camp of pioneers here, another there, what happened to the Indians was, in a way, happening to the devil. It was at any rate heroic—and well meant. The Indian could somehow seem to be the serpent in Paradise, because he was outside the myth.

(For the greatest of the pioneers, for people like Daniel Boone, the Indian remained part of the myth because someone like Boone had a heart and a mind broad enough to embrace both sets of opposites at the same time. He could accept correlatives. Others, however, had no way of conceiving “pioneer” and “Indian” as correlative.)

The South, too, was an earthly paradise. Not of course at all times, for all its inhabitants. There were the slaves. Yet the South, before the War between the States, had this of paradise left to it: it still had the wholeness that embraced white and black in an apparent unity, even though the relationship was out of order.

This unified feudal society was nevertheless conceived as a realistic possibility that did not conflict with the living and efficacious paradise myth. For the South, on the contrary, it was paradise, in which the benevolent and cultured planters paternally loved and protected the joyous, singing “darkies,” etc.

The brutal national trauma of that war destroyed the myth for the South, and in doing so (though no one realized it at the time) destroyed it for everybody.

Since the Civil War, the whole nation has been “in sin,” and the sin has been inescapable. The pioneer child, or the plantation child if you prefer, had been cruelly awakened. And he has faced in himself the cruelty that he did not realize was there: the meanness, the injustice, the greed, the hypocrisy, the inhumanity! He knows there is a mark on his forehead, and is afraid to recognize it—it might turn out to be the mark of Cain!

Rather he has consistently refused to accept his expulsion from “Paradise.” He has insisted that he is what he has always dreamed he was—gentle, kind, fair, noble, courteous, yet simple, with the clear-eyed simplicity of the frontiersman—or the noble directness of the Confederate gentleman: the frankness of General Lee.

At this point, the myth becomes an evasion. The refusal is culpable. The beautiful story we are telling ourselves is no longer much more than an ordinary lie.

The same serpent: the foreign type

There have been foreign wars, in which America has been persuaded to take part only when convinced that we would ride into battle as cowboys. We took over Cuba from Spain. Why? Because we were roughriders, of course. Clear-eyed, independent, with the honesty that is bred by gazing out over great plains, we jumped on our horses and rode up San Juan Hill, to liberate the poor, defenseless, nonindependent Cubans. They, too, have plains, of course. But looking out over the small plains of Camaguey is somehow different.

We strode into World War I no longer busting broncos as we went: but we still had cowboy hats.

And today? All we do is watch ourselves in the mirror of TV. Yes, that is you and me, pardner. Tight-lipped, straight-shooting, hard- hitting, clean-loving: we are still on the frontier, we are still in paradise. There has really been no history. There is not even a change in the script: same mesquite, same arroyo, same dead man’s gulch, same forty-niners, and is the daughter’s name Eve or Clementine?

And the same serpent: the foreign type, the man with a record (for sin, remember, equals history), the man with roots in Europe or Mexico … or perhaps the same Indian. The Indian, too, is serpent, for he is older, he was there before, he had roots in the ground when we arrived. He did not have any history, but at least he had a past (and as time went on we traced him back to Asia, to China: what a record that turned out to be!

(He was a criminal before he got here, and he brought it all with him, because he obviously came by gradual stages. There was continuity. Whereas we arrived suddenly, we stepped off the Mayflower in perfect innocence, for we had left all our sins in the ocean. Indeed, the fact that we were persecuted meant that we were sinless in the beginning.).

After every war (which we, being the good guys, have always won) we have, with the utmost sincerity, exported just a little bit of our innocence, just a little bit of our paradisaical idealism, to the lands sunken in history and sin. Wilson was still a creature of another world, and they almost believed him for a while. The Marshall Plan: surely a thought born of a simple and magnanimous mind. (The Alliance for Progress—the bare ideal remained for a while.)

Yet more and more the lands of sin, the countries of history, have tended to observe, with ever greater malice and with ever more intolerable arrogance, and with manifest satisfaction, that we, too, have a history, that we are no longer the earthly paradise! They claim now to be able to see this clearly, and they never hesitate to offer what seems to them to be convincing evidence. They proclaim the fact tirelessly from day to day. We know, of course, that they are devoured with jealousy: but ought we, perhaps, to ask ourselves if they have something?

Yankee go home

They tell us: Yankee go home. And we would gladly go: but somehow when we get back, we find we don’t have a home any more. We have fallen into history like everyone else; we are involved, beyond repair, in the fantastic problems of everybody, and we are part of their accursed history. We go home, and when we get there we find—revolution! Home is not home any more. It is no longer paradise.

There is a great depth of cruelty in that taunt: Yankee go home!

The people who yell that at us exult with hate because they see the flaming sword and the locked gate behind us. We do not look around because we are afraid to see them too. What will we do when we finally have to realize that we are locked out of the lone prairie and thrust forth into the world of history along with all the other people in the world: that we are just as much a part of history as all the rest of them?

That is the end of the American myth: we can no longer lean out from a higher and rarified atmosphere, and point down from the firmament to the men on earth to show them the patterns of our ideal republic. We are in the same mess as all the rest of them. And what is worse, there are even some people (Pope John, for instance) who seem to think that it is our duty, along with everybody else’s, to cooperate in solving common problems, problems of history, problems of sin, problems of crime….

Shall we turn our backs on all that? Shall we open another can of beer and flip the switch, and find our way back to the familiar mesquite, where all problems are easily solved? The good guys are always the straight shooters and they always win. The bad guys are always shifty because they have a history.

What is history?

If you mean a personal history, it is perhaps what one would most like to forget.

Back to the rancho! Back to the old mesquite!

But now, even supposing that we could stay at home, and mind our own business: even though we have “the deterrent” (our own kind of flaming sword to hold history at bay) what happens? We have Negroes at home, disturbing the peace of paradise, and trying to force us, against our own best judgment, to move, to change, to make history, instead of going back, over and over again, to what can never be a new start any more. (26-32)

Image Source and Note:

Thomas Merton,” by John Jacob Niles (The John Jacob Niles Photographic Collection, University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center).

  1. Johnson’s Great Society is another variation, but the overtones of innocence are slightly different. We are innocent not because we are new, but because we are a success, and this justifies everything.

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