“America” as fetish

20 06 2010

The idea for this entry came from this conversation.

I thought the underlining article had some interesting insights, though it painted things with too broad a brush. I know little of the Tea Party other than I despise all forms of political extremism (though I find some more endearing than others.) The premise that much political malaise on the right is due to an exposure of our co-dependence in modern life is one I think worth contemplating. However, I would take such perceptions to the macro-societal level and say that much of it has to do with an idea of the United States of America as an absolutely autonomous and idealized entity.

Having lived and studied in Latin America, I can say that American right-wing patriotism is a strange animal indeed. In Argentina, I had friends who despised the government, social order, and even the national anthem itself, but still felt themselves to be patriots to the point of being nationalists. Similar disassociation between the country and its institutions could be found amongst many people in most countries. They do not perceive their social order or government to be God-given, absolutely righteous, or worthy of emulation everywhere. Such bizarre hubris seems to be the exclusive reserve of American imperialism. Even the name “America” is a significant misnomer. As most Latin Americans would tell you, they are just as “American” as we are.

One significant rhetorical myth of the United States is that it needs no one else and has acquired its power “fair and square”. Never mind that Latin America has been its de facto colony since the statement of the Monroe Doctrine in 1820. Or that the origins of the political order lie in an internal colonialism and imperialism against indigenous peoples and African-Americans. The real story of “America” is that a God-given document known as the Constitution has magically bestowed on us the status of the shining city on the hill. And those who would criticize this social order are “un-American”. In other words, “I’m right, and you’re a communist”.

It is no wonder then how jingoism and noble ignorance are often the mark of the religious right. Americans don’t need to learn another language or about the history of people outside of our borders. The fact that we are here and doing well means that they have failed and we have succeeded. People should be looking to emulate us. After all, they watch our movies and eat our food. Heck, they even watch the Super Bowl even though they don’t play football.

I am in no position to analyze the significance of the “Tea Party” movement. Like most popular movements in postmodernity, the bullhorn of the popular media digging for a story magnifies extremist voices by several times more than their actual significance. (Here I think of the 1960’s guerilla theatre of the relatively small Black Panther Party.) But if it is indeed a signifier of the popular malaise of our society, it speaks more to the decline of an empire, and not to its ascendency. Paranoia is the mental disease of the desperate, not of the secure. And people do all sorts of beastly things when they are afraid.

Somewhat on an unrelated footnote, I was in New York City recently when I drove by what I think is the headquarters of Fox News. Their motto was “we report, you decide”. Another title it assumed for itself was something like: “America’s only unbiased news network”. I suppose one characteristic of right-wing rhetoric is to pretend to not be biased even though it knows its own agenda in the back of its mind. Because really balanced punditry is screaming absurdities for the benefit of giving “equal time” to all points of view.


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16 responses

30 06 2010
Lucian

Well, here’s something to help dispell that fetish:

🙂

24 06 2010
Henry Karlson

While I agree that we cannot always convince the stupid (and I can understand some of the positions Augustine held about them), I fear if no one says anything, it will stand and gain support, which is why I try to say something, if for no other reason than someone else might not be conned by these tricksters.

24 06 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Henry,

You can’t argue with stupid. It’s just not worth the time and the effort. Zmirak is an overgrown child with the gift of gab, and it is no wonder that he is still single. Left out of right-wing Catholics’ grand narratives of Anglo-Saxon “success” is the colonialism and imperialism that backed all of this up. Read the first part of Marx’s Capital, it really is an eye-opener: the stripping of lands from the Church, the mass pauperization of the peasantry, debtors’ prisons, etc. In this country, of course, you have slavery, the stripping of indigenous and Mexican land, the Monroe Doctrine, Jim Crow etc. These people like to project how they would like to see themselves into history. That makes them blind to how history actually played out.

And of course, people with the last name of “Zmirak” praising Anglo-Saxon political order is about as ironic as the Dave Chappelle skit of the blind black Klansman. The dream of good, red-blooded, Anglo-Saxon Americans throughout history is to run the Papist church into the ground. That of course is behind his whining of, “why can’t we be more LIKE THEM?!” when pointing to the clean-cut, politically conservative evangelicals who flutter around the megachurches every Sunday. Like I said before, some people like (their idea of) Catholicism, but hate actual Catholics. Kind of defeats the idea of communion now, doesn’t it?

But if Zmirak still wants to uphold the jingoist prosperity gospel that drives the Evangelical movement (only this time with lace and incense), I suppose someone should tell him that not only can you not argue with stupid, but you can’t baptize it either.

24 06 2010
Henry Karlson

You should also find it amusing he is trying to use the example of Ricci to justify his turn towards anti-Catholics to save Catholicism. As I pointed out, it is one thing to look to the non-Christians who have the seeds of the preparation for the Gospel. It’s another to look to the post-Christian traditions and those who helped originate them (Protestantism). I wonder if I should point him to Steucho or not.

And as I told him, it is not that I cannot study and learn from Protestants, it is how we do it and what our interest is. If it is done to help justify anti-Catholic cultural practices, such as rampant individualism, then it is indeed a problem. If it is to help justify the perennial philosophy and what unites beyond the differences, sure, go ahead and add the Protestant voices (as I do) — but one must be weary of his “we need to adapt to the Protestant Evangelical Culture.” And his examples are — well, quite telling.

“1. Evangelicals dress up, not down, for church. I never met any Protestants growing up, but when I moved to Baton Rouge for grad school, Sunday mornings were an education. ” Yes, that’s the spirit.

“2. Evangelicals are willing to attend long and involved services and don’t resent the time commitment involved.” Not true.

“3. Evangelicals make sacrifices to support their churches financially. Some of them actually tithe — giving ten percent of their income to their churches. However, they also hold their pastors firmly accountable for service and orthodoxy. A preacher who starts watering down the Old Time Religion is likely to find himself either out of a job or facing an empty church.” Yes, money money money combined with heresy hunting laity.

“4. Evangelicals embrace and try to continually Christianize the culture we inherited from our country’s founders. A prickly individualism and localism survived in England as a result of its half-baked Reformation and the failure of modernizing British monarchs such as James I to revoke the medieval liberties of Englishmen. ” And there it is.

24 06 2010
Henry Karlson

I don’t know if you noted, but John once again on InsideCatholic basically tried another tactic to justify his turn towards anti-Catholicism…

21 06 2010
rusty beltway

With the Tea Party I think there are 3 perceptions: the so-called conservative media (Fox etc.) paints them as fellow neo-con Republicans (the Sarah Palin co-opting), the so-called left (MSNBC etc.) portrays them as racist rednecks, and what I think was the original concept which was a grass-roots anti-big-federal govt, states rights movement.

The existing power structure, via both major parties and mainstream media voices, has a vested interest in keeping grass-roots movements from getting too big, and they love to keep us polarized in a contrived left/right battle bogged down w/ bullshit straw-man arguments to ever effect any political change in the U.S.

21 06 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Having been run through various societal theories in my classes on political economy, I came to the conclusion that libertarianism was a really dumb idea. It leaves certain things out, like, I don’t know, original sin and the need for public roads. I know the objection usually goes along the lines that we could govern ourselves better than any government. I have to cite here one phrase that I read somewhere on the Internet, that you should be all for monarchy because if your king is a tyrant, at least there is only one of him. Having to deal with 250 million tyrants who think they know best how to govern the country when they are really as docile as cattle just looks bad even on paper.

Nor can I find how any of this links up to any Biblical or classical concept of virtue. St. Paul seems to be saying that we must submit ourselves to the powers ordained by God. These people say that we must only subject ourselves under the power that we choose. That is like your three year old saying that she will obey you as to what she should eat, but not necessarily on when to go to bed, and won’t obey you at all on Saturdays.

All I know is that I am smarter than the average bear, and I don’t feel capable of making decisions on how to govern a country. I can barely govern my closet.

21 06 2010
Vito

It’s lengthy but I think this article by Mark Lilla is worth reading:
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/may/27/tea-party-jacobins/?pagination=false

20 06 2010
Visibilium

Being American is a set of values rather than a race, but I’d throw in the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation as well. The latter is especially important for the more secessionist-oriented Tea Baggers, a movement with which I have decided sympathies.

Orthodoxy has rather a mixed history with respect to political economy, and a rather famous school of icon painting emerged from an Orthodox republic. I prefer to think that Orthodoxy was distracted by absolutism, and I’m grateful for the effort that the Protestants, Anglicans, Deists, and Masons invested in creating the American experiment.

20 06 2010
Mr. Crouchback

Or as Chesterton said, America is a a nation with the soul of a church. Everyone is welcome, so long as you believe certain things.

In this sense, I buy into American exceptionalism. There are other countries that don’t fit the nation-state model and have a remarkably diverse citizenry. But none have cultivated this creedal-model quite like the United States.

The problem, of course, is when the creed of the citizen doesn’t square with the Nation’s creed. If you don’t believe those things, you’re not just wrong, you ain’t American. You’re excommunicated.

20 06 2010
Walt

Miguel, I served an enlistment in the Marines and you’ll get nothing but agreement from me.

20 06 2010
Jason C.

In Argentina, I had friends who despised the government, social order, and even the national anthem itself, but still felt themselves to be patriots to the point of being nationalists. Similar disassociation between the country and its institutions could be found amongst many people in most countries.

I’ve always seen America as being an inherently artificial identity. What unites Americans is not being a people, but rather, what unites Americans is a political experiment. The Constitution is the essence of America; without the Constitution, “America” as we know it does not exist. It seems to me that people from Latin America (and other countries) relate as a people. The British are the British, with or without a king. But Americans cannot be Americans without the political experiment that defines the United States.

20 06 2010
Manuel

I have always found it very weird how US patriotism has been unable to seperate country, people, and government from each other.
Still, other countries fall into the same trap to some extent but it definitely is different in the US.

20 06 2010
Henry Karlson

Obviously, I agree with the general sentiment with this post (and your comments on InsideCatholic as well). I wanted to thank you for your comment there on the Tea Party thread, because I felt like I was the only one there who saw the danger of what was being said. This kind of post is one of conversations Catholics seriously need to engage in now, before we see more of the “thank God for Protestantism because Catholics got it all wrong” comments from Catholics (and it is not because there might not be elements we can find in Protestantism, but not to the level of content I saw on IC).

20 06 2010
Miguel

I never did like the idea that the United States is somehow “God’s Country.” We should also remove the US flag from Catholic church sanctuaries. (FWIW, I am a veteran who spent 24 years in uniform; please don’t lecture.)

20 06 2010
A Sinner

“Such bizarre hubris seems to be the exclusive reserve of American imperialism.”

Perhaps of imperialisms and hegemonies in general.

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