Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tea Parties, 9/11 and 'American exceptionalism'

What an insightful and refreshing meditation on 200 years of American history, and meanwhile, Americans' psychological relation to their history!  

To give you an example: Smith's fascinating recognition of the unlikely affinity of two American "losers" who could have re-shaped America's relation to the world: Republican Wendell Wilkie post-WWII; and Democrat Jimmy Carter post-Vietnam.

Now to summarize....

First, Smith argues, as I have, that the Tea Parties are about perpetuating a certain myth about American history, but he goes even further [emphasis and italics mine]:

Whatever the Tea Party’s unconscious motivations and meanings—and I count these significant to an understanding of the group—we can no longer make light of its political influence; it has shifted the entire national conversation rightward—and to an extent backward, indeed. But more fundamentally than this, the movement reveals the strong grip of myth on many Americans—the grip of myth and the fear of change and history. In this, it seems to me, the Tea Party speaks for something more than itself. It is the culmination of the rise in conservatism we can easily trace to the 1980s. What of this conservatism, then? Ever since Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign slogan in 1984 it has purported to express a new optimism about America. But in the Tea Party we discover the true topic to be the absence of optimism and the conviction that new ideas are impossible. Its object is simply to maintain a belief in belief and an optimism about optimism. These are desperate endeavors. They amount to more expressions of America’s terror in the face of history. To take our country back: Back to its mythological understanding of itself before the birth of its own history is the plainest answer of all.

The Tea Parties' constant harking back to a mythical point in time that never existed is a mark of fear of the future, Smith believes, a fear that all Americans share to some extent, and yet to "win the future" (to stupidly quote Newt Gingrich) we must face this fear:

I do not see that America has any choice now but to face this long terror. America’s founding was unfortunate in the fear and apprehension it engendered, and unfortunate habits and impulses have arisen from it. These are now in need of change—a project of historical proportion. Can we live without our culture of representation, our images and symbols and allusions and references, so casting our gaze forward, not behind us? Can we look ahead expectantly and seek greatness instead of assuming it always lies behind us and must be quoted? Can we learn to see and judge things as they are? Can we understand events and others (and ourselves most of all) in a useful, authentic context? Can we learn, perhaps most of all, to act not out of fear or apprehension but out of confidence and clear vision? In one way or another, the dead end of American politics as I write reminds us that all of these questions now urgently require answers. This is the nature of our moment.

Smith thinks we Americans must face our psychological defeat suffered on 9/11/2001, the realization that they did not like us, and did not want to be like us:

What was it Americans reiterated through all the decades leading to 2001—and, somewhat desperately, beyond that year? It was to remake the world, as Condoleezza Rice so plainly put it. It was to make the world resemble us, such that all of it would have to change and we would not. This dream, this utopia, the prospect of the global society whose imagining made us American, is what perished in 2001. America’s fundamentalist idea of itself was defeated on September 11. To put the point another way, America lost its long war against time. This is as real a defeat as any other on a battlefield or at sea. Osama bin Laden and those who gave their lives for his cause spoke for no one but themselves, surely. But they nonetheless gave substantial, dreadful form to a truth that had been a long time coming:The world does not require America to release it into freedom. Often the world does not even mean the same things when it speaks of “freedom,” “liberty,” and “democracy.” And the world is as aware as some Americans are of the dialectic of promise and self-betrayal that runs as a prominent thread through the long fabric of the American past.

Look upon 2001 in this way, and we begin to understand what it was that truly took its toll on the American consciousness. Those alive then had witnessed the end of a long experiment—a hundred years old if one counts from the Spanish war, two hundred to go back to the revolutionary era, nearly four hundred to count from Winthrop and the Arbella. I know of no one who spoke of 2001 in these terms at the time: It was unspeakable. 

9/11 wasn't about killing, or even creating terror; it was their way of screaming, "We reject you!"

Does America have a democratic mission?  Was it meant to be a shining City on a Hill?  It never did; it never was, argues Smith, convincingly. Which seems obvious to most non-Americans, but a bit frightening for us born-and-bred Amuricans to mull over.  If we were not chosen, if we are not special, if we do not have any special mission -- and with it, special prerogatives -- then what about all that "bad stuff" in our history?  Didn't it mean anything?  Wasn't it all for a greater purpose?.... No, it was just about Power.

And here's what Smith has to say about U.S. power:

Power is a material capability. It is a possession with no intrinsic vitality of its own. It has to do with method as opposed to purpose or ideals—techne as against telos. It is sheer means, deployment. Power tends to discourage authentic reflection and considered thought, and, paradoxically, produces a certain weakness in those who have it. This is the weakness that is born of distance from others. In the simplest terms, it is an inability to see and understand others and to tolerate difference. It also induces a crisis of belief. Over time a powerful democracy’s faith in itself quivers, while its faith in power and prerogative accumulates. 

Power and strength are not the same; we should resolve to possess the latter, Smith avers:

To reflect upon those final years before 2001, it is not difficult to understand in our contemporary terms the distinction between a powerful nation and a strong one. Strength derives from who one is—it is what one has made of oneself by way of vision, desire, and dedication. It has nothing to do with power as we customarily use this term. Paradoxically, it is a form of power greatly more powerful than the possession of power alone. Strength is a way of being, not a possession. Another paradox: Power renders one vulnerable to defeat or failure, and therefore to fear. Strength renders one not invulnerable—no one ever is—but able to recover from defeats and failures. The history of the past century bears out these distinctions very clearly. Most of all, a strong nation is capable of self-examination and of change. It understands where it is in history—its own and humankind’s.

And here's Smith's call to action at the end of his remarkable essay:

I propose the taking of an immense risk. It is the risk of living without things that are linked in the American psyche: the protection of our exceptionalism, the armor of our triumphalist nationalism, our fantastical idea of the individual and his or her subjectivity. For Americans to surrender this universe of belief, emotion, and thought may seem the utmost folly. A century ago Americans flinched at the prospect. What followed was often called heroic, but in many cases it was just the opposite, for the American century was so often an exercise in avoidance of genuinely defined responsibility. True enough, it ended as it began, with uncertainty and choices. But the outcome need not be the same now, for there is too much more to be gained than lost this time.

Are we brave enough to change, or do we prefer to revert to a mythical childhood of ourselves that never was?

By Patrick Smith
May 26, 2013 | Salon

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