Thursday, January 8, 2009

The New Leviathan

On 9/11, America was shocked to discover that there was an outside world with many, many people in it who quite simply hated America’s guts – and this discovery scared the hell out of America. If the last several years are an indication of what America’s future holds – and I believe they are – then 9/11 will haunt and infest American cultural life for many years to come. Everything that Americans think, write, do and believe will be refracted through this enormous funhouse lens. This event, which contained so much potential to inspire serious-minded reflection and subtle analysis, instead inspired America to do what it does best: unleash its power.

Michel Foucault wrote of:

A power that presented rules and obligations as personal bonds, a breach of which constituted an offense and called for vengeance; of a power for which disobedience was an act of hostility, the first sign of rebellion .. of a power that had to demonstrate not only why it enforced its laws, but who were its enemies ... of a power that was recharged in the ritual display of its reality as ‘superpower.’

America’s favorite ritual display is war, something that seems to have an almost addictive power over Americans. America spends as much on war as the rest of the world combined. This is beyond any sane concept of “security”; this is the behavior of a junkie.

I do not describe this behavior as “addiction” lightly. As writer Chris Hedges pointed out (at a college commencement address at which he was shouted down by an auditorium full of fresh-faced, patriotic young Americans), “the seduction of war is so insidious because so much of what we are told about it is true – it does create a feeling of comradeship which obliterates our alienation and makes us, for perhaps the only time in our life, feel we belong.” This is why America – a country full of people who are so un-alike in so many ways – embraces this addictive new chapter in its love affair with war, the “Global War on Terror.” Because as soon as that warm, patriotic glow of togetherness starts to dim (as it appears it is now doing with the “Iraq front in the war on terror”), a new battle in this war without end is served up: pure, uncut, expensive as hell but cheap at twice the price, ready to be mainlined by an eager nation.

America does not view its decades-long string of foreign-policy disasters (most recently the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) as failures of diplomacy and policy. War replaces diplomacy and defines policy. War is the point: so easy, so unambiguous, so damned glamorous compared to the mundane tedium of building consensus and displaying moral leadership.

But what is this frantic, almost compulsive resort to the military option as the default response really in aid of?

I recently found myself re-reading Hobbes’ Leviathan, and I was struck by how easily one can map Hobbes’ mythical authoritarian/submissive society to America in the 21st century. Hobbes believed that a society’s function was to accrue more and more power, to strive constantly to seize the upper hand, all in aid of defending a passive and cowering populace from a world full of evil enemies. Hobbes argued that humans are always willing to accept submission to a strong and domineering leadership in exchange for protection from evildoers. Protection from fear itself, in effect. The citizens of Leviathan were so riddled with fear and doubt that they surrendered their freedom with breathtaking eagerness. America’s default attitude since 9/11 can best be summed up by Derrida’s wonderful phrase: “manic triumphalism.” However, this is mere posturing, intended to cover a deep core of dread. Underneath all the testosterone-laden, Hoo-Rah bravado, America in the 21st century is the new Leviathan, in which the citizens cower like whipped dogs.

Still, the unabashed willingness with which Americans surrendered their freedoms must give us pause. Because at the end of the day, that is the fundamental question: why did so many Americans toss off the burden of freedom with such eagerness? I would like to propose at least a partial answer. America is a country where 90% of the people describe themselves as “religious” and 46% describe themselves as “evangelical.” Eighty-six percent of Americans believe in miracles; 83% believe in a real, literal Virgin Birth. Over 40% of Americans believe the world will end in an actual battle of Armageddon, and a stunning 45% believe in a real, anthropomorphic Devil. To the majority of Americans, those who live and die within such a belief system, America’s vaunted “freedom” – and, more importantly, the consequences of that freedom – is, quite simply, horrifying. Profanity and nudity on TV, gay marriage and adoption, “Feces Madonna” and “Piss Jesus” and Mapplethorpe’s photos of men with bullwhips jammed up their asses, on and on and on. They look at America’s free society, they look at the things that this free society permits to happen and they hate what they see. They absolutely hate modern America, and they believe that surrendering their freedom is a very small price to pay in order to make it stop. These Americans have more in common with Muslim fundamentalists than they can ever admit to themselves. This is the secret heart of darkness in 21st century America. America will have another Bush some day, because it is what so many Americans want and need.

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