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Americans are Tourists of History

Over the past few weeks we have seen another round of fact-finding assertions and denials about the fact that the United States engages in and sanctions torture.   The debate is revealing not only in its déjà vu quality, but also in the stunning fashion in which it indicates an inability to reconcile such practices with our national identity as a country of moral superiority. 

One way to begin to understand the broad capacity to deny not only the current practices of our government but, of course, the history of torture as practiced by the U.S. government throughout many foreign engagements over the last century is to see it in relation to the deep investment in innocence in American culture.  This is an innocence that proclaims that we don’t know (even in the face of evidence), that we are not responsible, an innocence that is constantly perceived to be “lost” at various moments in American history.  Thus, most national crises of recent history, from the Vietnam War to to 9/11 to the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib, have been popularly described as moments of the loss of national innocence.  And, we can safely predict that any future terrorist attacks within the United States will give rise to new assertions of a loss of innocence (one that must constantly be reasserted after the fact so that it can be “lost” again).  In this narrative, the United States never provokes, is never the cause of its crises, these are just events that, as was asserted about 9/11, came “out of the blue.”

Such an innocence is, of course, a kind of disavowal.  It is not that we are unknowing, we do largely “know” that our government does these things. Yet, in order to feel at home with our national identification, we deny this knowledge.  The disavowal that we engage in today in the United States has reached new depths—a disavowal of the United States’s imperial project, a disavowal of the prison nation we have become, a disavowal of the bankrupt state of U.S. democracy, a disavowal of the ways that our political acquiescence has allowed for the reduction of our civil rights and an increase of our vulnerability to terrorist attack. 

This disavowal is aided by many aspects of American culture, not only a belief in national innocence but also a comfort culture of kitsch patriotism and a consumer culture that sells security and comfort.  National innocence must be actively, constantly maintenanced by narratives that reinscribe it—in order to be shocked when teenagers pick up guns that they have ready access to and kill their classmates, we must ascribe their acts to popular culture; in order to be shocked about the fact that our country sanctions and engages in torture, we must think it was the work of a few “bad apples.”  Innocence is a position from which such acts of aggression are easily screened out. 

I see this position, which characterizes the U.S.’s dominant way of thinking about the nation in relation to world history, as a uniquely American kind of tourism of history.  In the United States, our capacity to see ourselves as innocent and our view of our nation as an exceptional model for the rest of the world to follow, is a kind of  “tourism”—a national tendency to see the United States as somehow distanced from and un-implicated in the troubled global strife of the world. Thus, the mode of the tourist, with its innocent pose and distanced position, evokes the American citizen who, for instance, participates uncritically in a culture in which notions of good and evil are used to define complex conflicts and tensions.  The mode of the tourist can be as easily seen in the hysterical preoccupation with duct tape that distracted Americans on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  The mode of the tourist can also be seen in the purchasing of souvenirs at sites of loss, such as Ground Zero, as a means of expressing sorrow at the lives lost there in a way that effaces the context of volatile world politics (and the U.S. role in them) that produced the attacks of 9/11.

Ironically, we could argue that it is in the seemingly most “innocent” aspects of American culture where we find a comfort culture that sells innocence—in the production of kitsch in American political culture and around sites of loss, such as Ground Zero in New York.  Such kitsch conveys a kind of deliberate and highly constructed innocence, one that dictates particular kinds of sentimental responses and emotional registers.  It encourages predetermined and circumscribed emotional responses, pathos and sympathy, not anger and outrage.  A kitsch object, such as, for instance, a World Trade Center snow globe or an Oklahoma City National Memorial teddy bear, can rarely be an incitement to historical reflection or political engagement. 

Kitsch does not emerge in a political vacuum, rather it is more often than not a style that responds to particular kinds of historical events.  Milan Kundera once famously wrote that “kitsch is the absolute denial of shit” and the primary aesthetic of totalitarian regimes, in which it facilitates a false sense of community and the idea of a universal “brotherhood of man.”  It is no coincidence that we have had an extraordinary embrace of kitsch in this country in the wake of 9/11 and coincident with the rise of broad censorship of political debate, the enactment of the USA Patriot Act and its broad restriction of civil rights, and the selling of a war of aggression to the American public on the false premise of national defense.  Thus, an American public can acquiesce to its government’s aggressive political and military policies when that public is constantly reassured by the comfort offered by kitsch patriotic objects, security consumerism, and the narrative that we are innocent and unknowing.  In the comforting world of kitsch and in our tourism of history, torture cannot exist.