Americans are Tourists of History


Marita Sturken is a professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University and the author of Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero.

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. 

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Clare Lois Spark - 10/29/2007

My only regret about the posting that Ewener mocks is that it was so short. If he is sincerely interested in a more detailed elaboration of my point, I direct him to my book on the Melville Revival (Hunting Captain Ahab) and to my HNN article on multiculturalism and its indebtedness to German Romanticism and organicism (www.hnn.us/articles/4533.html.
In my previous post I should have added that the enemy, according to many cultural studies professors and their forebears, is a "Hebraic" master narrative that programmatically destroys "community." The antisemitic subtext of American Studies is there to be discerned for those with eyes to look, and if Ewener doesn't buy it and wants to mount a persuasive rebuttal, I suggest that he summon a scholarly apparatus to refute my claim.

Jeffery Ewener - 10/29/2007

Really excellent name-calling, Ms. Spark. First class. Except, of course, for your awkward capitalization -- "blame America First" -- which seems to accuse the author of attributing culpability for her contemporary concerns to a 1930s reactionary nativist organization. Bit odd, that.

Still, it might have been nice if you'd offered some criticism with a little -- oh, I don't know -- substance? Point? Meaning? You know the sort of thing I mean. Perhaps you're wise to avoid it altogether. It certainly won't win you any whoops of approval from the right-wing rent-a-crowd. And it sure won't win you any media time. Better to stick with what you know, which by the evidence of this piece is nothing but vapid rhetoric. Well done.

Maarja Krusten - 10/29/2007

I don't know if Ms. Sturken's book contains as many generalizations as does the essay. Americans are not divided into two groups, only: those who buy Ground Zero souvenirs and seek comfort in shared actions or activities and those who study history and current events and reflect on what is happening and why. The two actions are not mutually exclusive.

Americans have differing sensibilities and a broad range of motivations for what they do. That's ok with me. I generally like my countrymen. I like the fact that people in this democratic nation, the United States of America, can be very different in terms of ideology and temperament but still share certain bonds. I certainly feel no shame in sharing a bond with those who buy patriotic souvenirs. Having lived through 9/11 in one of the target areas, I took great comfort in the sense of "we're in this together" that I felt on the subway in the weeks after the attack. I dare say the people I rode with took away varying lessons from what happened. That's what you do in a country that does not impose group think. That we probably differed in our level of introspection or our experiences in dealing with the complexities of governance doesn't diminish the bond we felt after the attacks.

Myers-Briggs testing suggests that more people are extroverts than are introverts. But even with such tools, I don't think that you can divide people into simple stereotypes. It is entirely possible to be introspective and to be very interested in world events and how things happen and why, and still feel a common bond with one's fellow Americans and to buy patriotic souvenirs occasionally.

As someone who spent 14 years as an employee of the National Archives, screening Richard Nixon's White House tapes to see what required restriction and what could be released, I'm very interested in how leaders handle their jobs. I also wish that Americans had more interest in foreign news than they do. (I recommend Tom Fenton's book, _Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All_). Having some awareness of world events and historical context did not stop me from putting out a U.S. flag as soon as I got home from my job in Washington, DC on that difficult and harrowing day on September 11, 2001. Or buying two 9/11 themed ornaments to hang on my Christmas tree in December 2001. (Yep, I still use them every Christmas.)

Some of what Ms. Sturken describes may relate generally to human psychology and not be uniquely American. Actually, Shankar Vendantam does a good job explaining similar issues in his columns on "The Department of Human Behavior" in the Washington Post.

On July 9, 2007, Vendantam noted that "Psychologists once conducted a simple experiment with far-reaching implications: They asked people to describe an instance in their lives when they had hurt someone and another instance when they had been hurt by someone else. The incidents that people described were similar whether they saw themselves in the role of victim or perpetrator -- they were familiar betrayals, lies and acts of unkindness."

In cases where people caused harm to others, they often said the acts could not be avoided or were justified. When they were victims, they tended to view what happened to them as senseless or immoral. Vendantam goes on discuss a book, "Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)." He notes that "When we do something that hurts others, there is a part of us that recognizes our action as despicable. But that comes into conflict -- into dissonance -- with our belief that we are good people. The solution? We reinterpret our hurtful actions to minimize our responsibility and downplay the pain we have caused.

When we are victims, on the other hand, it would feel dissonant to empathize with our wrongdoers. No, it is much easier to see their actions as inexplicable and immoral."

From what Vendantam describes, such tendencies are not limited to people living in any one nation or centered necessarily in a belief in exceptionalism. . They are part of the coping mechanisms that some -- but not all -- people use. How people handle introspection and cognitive dissonance is going to vary greatly across a broad spectrum in any population. Given how very complex people are -- at least the ones I know personally or have studied as an historian -- I myself tend to shy away from very broad generalizations.

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Clare Lois Spark - 10/29/2007

Historians and political scientists should read this piece and be advised that such unsupported generalizations about American national character ("identity") are not only widely published in academe, but are typical in the dominant liberal media.
It is simply one more uninformed "blame America First" statement, unembarrassed by knowledge of what is actually "out there" in favor of a line that has been increasingly handed down since the 1960s took charge of the humanities. But even before that, such as Ernest Tuveson were assigning the label of millenarian to "America," while platoons of other professors were denouncing New England puritans and other Indian-killers as progenitors and exemplars of typical American aggression.
Students of Nazi and Soviet anti-American propaganda should recognize these tropes. Sadly, students who will go into the media will carry such stereotypes with them and will view their crude and ahistoric characterizations as ideologically pure and correct.
According to her biography, the author is prolific, successful, and was trained in the History of Consciousness, not in diplomatic, political or any history requiring archival research and engagement with the controversies she so hastily summons and compresses into sound-bites.

Ed Rader - 10/29/2007

A brilliant analysis, particularly in Ms. Sturken's description of the use of kitsch as a substitute for introspection and deep thought in American culture. I immediately conncected her thinking to the discomfort I feel when I read about another " roadside memorial" being constructed at the site where a drunk teenager driver killed themselves or others, or where a young person was killed.
I don't doubt the genuine grief on the part of the young people who leave the teddy bears and ballons and such. The discomfort I feel comes from the "formalization" of this type of behavior, the sense that these young people have somehow gotten the idea that this is what they are suppossed to do.. and that this new ritual behavior too often takes the place of, or at least circumvents to an extent, genuine reflection and the absorbtion of lessons learned.