MythicAmerica explores the mythic dimension of American political culture, past, present, and future. The blogger, Ira Chernus, is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity.
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A group of handguns. Credit: Wikipedia
My son was spending the night in Aurora, Colorado, when all hell broke loose just a few miles away. He wasn’t in the Century 16 theater. But he might have been; he loves those opening nights. And there wasn’t a thing I could do to protect him.
I’m a professor at the University of Colorado (though not on the campus where James Holmes studied). I’ve surely had quiet students who were deeply troubled but, like Holmes, drew no attention to themselves. So there wasn’t a thing I could do to help protect them.
I’m active in a community organization trying to improve Colorado’s abysmal mental health services: The state ranks dead-last in per capita psychiatric hospital beds, and services of every kind have suffered drastic budget cuts. I’ve had more than one family member who needed help badly and got that help only after a long wait, persistent struggle, and nasty fights with insurance companies. Lots of folks don’t have decent insurance, or anyone to fight the woefully inadequate system on their behalf.
The shooting at that movie theater in Aurora hit me personally on all these levels. It made me realize how little I, or anyone, can do to prevent such mass violence.
That’s the bottom line of the national gasp of horror. “This was supposed to be a safe space,” as Monica Hesse wrote in the Washington Post. But now it feels like, “no space is safe; maybe that’s what’s shocking.” Surely that’s what’s shocking, I’d say. But a moment’s reflection on my experience as a parent, a teacher, and a community activist tells me it’s true. We can never make our public and private spaces absolutely safe.
Yet we can make them safer.
From the first reports, it seems there’s nothing the mental health system or the University could have done to spot Holmes as a troubled young man. No one really noticed him. He was so “ordinary.” That’s what the neighbors typically say in these cases, and it’s usually true. Even when the signs of trouble are there, it’s extraordinarily hard to change a person who is so deeply disturbed.
It would be much easier to change their access to weapons of mass killing. At least easier ideally, in principle. But not in political reality, it seems. The problem isn’t just the clout of the National Rifle Association, which is real but probably over-rated. The bigger problem is that so many Americans are paralyzed on the gun issue, caught in a crossfire of competing cultural traditions, beliefs, and symbols that make it very difficult to mobilize the public in any clear direction.
Just look at the numbers:
Gallup tells us that the number of Americans favoring stricter gun laws has fallen by nearly half in the last half century. That shocking statistic reflects the long post-‘60s rightward shift in the national mood. “Gun control” is widely seen as an idea by and for liberals. By now less than a quarter of us will wear that badge. To the rest of America, liberals look more or less dangerous because they are "soft" on keeping us safe from enemies, foreign and domestic. It’s impressive that even 43% of us would support the liberal cause of “gun control.”
However, the number who want guns laws eased has risen dramatically since 1990: from 2 to 11 percent. Yes, only 11 percent of us want less strict regulation of guns. And support for specific gun control measures -- waiting periods and background checks for gun buyers (even at gun shows), banning assault weapons, registering all guns with local government -- remains very high. A slim majority even support limits on the number of guns a person can own. (Most gun owners have several, and most mass killers are caught holding many guns.)
So here’s the real political problem: Ask people about specific, common-sense gun control measures and they strongly approve. Ask them about “gun control” in the abstract, and a growing majority says no, though almost half say yes. We, the people as a whole, want controls but we don’t want them. When nations, like individuals, try to go in two directions at once they get paralyzed. That’s where we are on the politics of gun control.
The roots of our paralysis run very deep in our cultural history, where traditions about guns are equally ambivalent. It looks like Americans have a love affair with guns. “America's gun ownership rates are vastly higher than that of other wealthy countries,” according to economist Howard Steven Friedman. “Only one OECD country has a rate that is even half as much of America's gun ownership rate.” The Gallup survey found gun ownership dropping just slightly in recent decades.
But far fewer than half of American homes have guns. The General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center found a steady and sizeable decline over the last 35 years in the number of households with guns. That decline showed up in every age group and was especially sharp in recent years among people under 30.
Those numbers reflect a contradiction as old as the nation itself. On the one hand, we’ve got a tradition going back to colonial times that says: If you want to be safe, get a gun; if you want to be absolutely safe, get a lot of guns. That’s why Americans once built forts and stockades and included the right to well-regulated militias in the Constitution.
Since World War II, we’ve made our quest for absolute safety our number one national priority by far, under the banner of “national security.” That’s why we built a nuclear “shield” of tens of thousands of bombs that can each destroy a whole city. It’s also why we have a military nearly as big as all the rest of the world’s militaries combined. Now we call it “homeland security.” we’ve enshrined it as our sacred national myth.
And that’s why, with the eager help of the military-industrial complex, we are awash in a sea of military weapons -- a sea that on tragic occasions turns to blood in our own homeland.
Yet we also have another tradition as old as the nation itself, inscribed in the very first words of our constitution: to provide for the common defense, which most of us now take to mean absolute safety. The longing for absolute safety is certainly as strong, and probably stronger, among conservatives as it is among liberals. Across the political spectrum most of us want stricter specific gun control laws, which we expect will keep guns out of the hands of “evildoers” at home just as we hunt down and annihilate the “evildoers” abroad.
So we’re caught in a crossfire of competing cultural traditions and beliefs that make it very difficult to mobilize the public in any clear direction when it comes to guns. Paralyzed by our ambivalence, we can’t mobilize for political change. So we leave it easy for anyone to get weapons of mass slaughter.
The result is a growing fear that no space is safe any more, that at any moment our longing for absolutely safety could be shot to pieces. Fear is even more paralyzing than ambivalence. When Americans do manage to act on their fear, their most common response is to chase the fantasy of safety by getting another gun, or at least allowing others to get more guns. Fear will override common sense most every time.
In the movies we see the most fantastic military-style weapons deal out measureless blood and gore. Audiences applaud it all, because they trust that the good guys on the screen will end up with their absolute safety restored. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way in real life -- not even in movie theaters.
The root of the problem is our dedication to the fantasy of absolute safety and security. The sooner we recognize that as our national fantasy and stop arming ourselves to the teeth in pursuit of it, the safer we all will be.
Predator drone firing a missile. Credit: Wikipedia
Esquire magazine has just brought out their new Fall Fashion Preview issue, and they somehow thought it made sense to include an article on “Obama’s Killing Problem.” You can see that title featured on the cover, just above “29 Reasons to Watch the Olympics.”
Obama’s problem, if I understand author Tom Junod right, is that by relying so heavily on drones meting out targeted assassinations, he’s changing the face of war in ways neither he nor anyone else can predict. Whatever the U.S. does, the rest of the world is bound to follow, and those drones will probably some day come back to haunt us.
This was also a major theme in American media in the first days after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: We are now vulnerable, too. It was true then, and it’s true now.
But is this, as Junod claims, Obama’s problem? (He underscores the claim by writing his whole long article as a letter addressed to the president.) If John McCain were president, would he be less likely to use the drone technology that the Pentagon has made available to any resident of the White House? Or is any president almost inevitably seduced by the technological imperative?
The best historical accounts I’ve read of the summer of 1945 suggest that neither Harry Truman nor most of those in his inner circle ever seriously considered not using the Bomb. It was so “technically sweet,” as Robert Oppenheimer famously said. Its lure was irresistible. Why should drones be any different?
There’s certainly more to Obama’s reliance on drones than the siren call of technology. It’s just possible that he hates to kill anyone but has made a cool political calculation: The only way to preserve health care reform and have any chance of promoting his other domestic policies is to neutralize the predictable attacks from the right that he’s “soft” on national security. And he's got to give the Pentagon something in return for ordering so many troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
It seems more likely, though, that he’s driven as much or more by philosophy than by politics. By his own account he’s been, since his college days, a devoted fan of the works of Reinhold Niebuhr. He even used his Nobel prize speech -- the PEACE prize speech -- to give the world a lesson in the same watered-down version of Niebuhr 101 that shaped U.S. policy in the days of Truman, Dean Acheson, and George Kennan: Evil is out there, waiting to destroy us unless we destroy it first. And since we’re all sinners, it’s inevitable that even the best of us will fight evil with some of evil’s own means.
This doesn’t absolve Obama of responsibility for the lethal choices he has made. He has blood on his hands. As a Niebuhrian he had to expect that from the day he first stepped into the Oval Office.
But it does raise some disturbing questions: Can we, the people, expect anything different as long as we remain so enamored with “cool” technology, so enmeshed in Niebuhrian assumptions about evil and original sin, and so ready to fuse the two in our conversations about America’s role in the world? If we allow that cultural pattern to remain dominant, shouldn’t we expect whomever we choose as president to embrace it too, and act upon it? Isn’t that the way democracy is supposed to work?
These questions, and others that Junod’s article raises, are a huge can of worms. I just wanted to lift the lid a tiny bit and take a quick peek inside. No doubt I’ll be looking more deeply into it in the future. For now, it’s enough to note that Obama’s drone-driven policies bring together two old and familiar strands of American mythology, strands that we are likely to find wrapped around any American president. If those policies are problematic -- and I’d say that’s an understatement -- then it’s our problem as much as, or more than, Obama’s.
Mexican troops in a gun battle, 2007. Credit: Wikipedia
There’s a growing debate among policymakers about how to wage the war on drugs, the New York Times reports. No one doubts that the war must be waged, apparently. At least the article, in the nation’s most influential news source, doesn’t hint at any doubts. Like any mythic truth, the need to keep the war going is simply taken for granted.
But how should we fight it? That’s the question now, it seems. In one corner is the traditional “stop the flow from abroad” approach. In the other corner, a new and rising view:
The money now used for interdiction could be better spent building up the institutions -- especially courts and prosecutors’ offices -- that would lead to long-term stability in Mexico and elsewhere. ... Since 2010, programs for building the rule of law and stronger communities have become the largest items in the State Department’s antidrug budget, with the bulk of the money assigned to Mexico. That amounts to a reversal from 2008 and 2009, when 70 percent was allocated to border security and heavy equipment like helicopters. ... American officials say they are now focused on training Mexican prison guards, prosecutors and judges.
In sum, U.S. drug policy is rather confused, one expert reports: “Some U.S. officials favor building institutions; others think it’s hopeless.”
It’s a classic case of head-to-head competition between the two great mythologies that have vied for dominance throughout American history. The mythology of homeland insecurity focuses on keeping us safe from dangerous forces trying to pierce through our borders. The mythology of hope and change urges us to go out to the frontier and tame those dangerous forces by bringing them the gift of civilization, which we as Americans are uniquely suited -- some say obligated -- to bestow.
Those officials who favor strengthening the rule of law in Mexico by building institutions like courts and prosecutors are acting out the latter myth with splendid clarity. It seems obvious to them that the Mexicans simply can’t figure out on their own how to run a legal system. They’ve got to learn it. And who better to teach them than their northern neighbors?
U.S. officials have been trying to teach the Mexicans that kind of lesson for a long time. Most famously, Woodrow Wilson sent troops south of the border in 1913 to remove the Mexican president, Victoriana Huerta -- an “ape-like” man, his counterpart in Washington declared. But as Wilson explained his motives to the British ambassador to Washington, his personal dislike for Huerta wasn’t really the issue. It was mainly about Wilson’s fear that the kind of nationalist revolution which brought Huerta to power might break out in Central American nations too, places much closer to the all-important Panama Canal.
The specter of nationalists seizing control of the Canal was intolerable. So, Wilson said, those Central Americans had to have “fairly decent rulers”; that is, rulers decently disposed to support policies favoring U.S. interests. Wilson sent troops to depose Huerta in order “to teach those countries a lesson”: They had to learn to “elect good men.”
That’s not to suggest history is merely repeating itself. There’s no indication that U.S. officials are contemplating a military invasion to achieve their institution-building goals. All their means are peaceable. It’s only the interdiction fans who want to use the military -- at least so far. And if the Times has it right, the pendulum is swinging toward the advocates of peaceful means. Some would say this is real progress.
The progress looks even more significant if we expand the historical perspective back to the U.S. war with Mexico, 1846-48. Though there were strong and loud opponents of the conflict that President Polk intentionally provoked, the dominant mood of the country was pro-war. The big question that most Americans debated was: How much of our defeated southern neighbor should we annex? Some clamored for “all Mexico.” We were “pioneers of civilization,” as a prominent historian of the era, William Prescott, put it. We could regenerate the Mexican people by making them Americans.
But Prescott himself argued the other side: “The Spanish blood will not mix well with the Yankee.” Indeed, said Andrew Jackson Donelson (nephew of the president for whom he was named), “We can no more amalgamate with her people than with negroes.” The racist fear of white Americans inter-breeding with Mexicans, contaminating American blood, bringing Americans down to the degraded level of Mexicans, was one big reason -- some historians say the biggest reason -- that the U.S. took only the northern part of Mexico (where relatively few Mexicans lived).
We rarely hear such overt anti-Mexican racism from elite voices today. And of course neither overt annexation or military invasion are ever discussed. No doubt that’s progress.
Yet there are striking continuities. Wilson worried most about the Panama Canal, which was making investment in foreign trade so much safer, more profitable, and thus more attractive than ever before. There’s a similar motive at work in the move toward “institution-building” today: “We see crime as the leading threat in some countries to economic growth and the leading threat to democracy,” Mark Feuerstein told the New York Times. He’s the assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean in the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Note that democracy gets second place in this short list of priorities. Economic growth is number one. If we can teach the Mexicans to elect (or appoint) good judges and prosecutors, foreign capital will be safer. Again, the basic assumption is that the Mexicans will never figure it out on their own. They’ve got to be carefully taught.
But Americans have had to be carefully taught too -- taught to assume the inferiority of even the most elite Mexicans. Behind that teaching lies another lesson, memorably phrased by Oscar Hammerstein II in South Pacific:
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
Here the two great mythologies meet. Even if today’s “pioneers of civilization” are mainly concerned about making Mexico safe for foreign investment (and no one can know their true motives), they can’t come out and say so. The American public wouldn’t pay for that. “Hope and change” is hard enough to sell even here at home.
The best way to build public support for this new policy direction is to play subtly on two deeply-rooted strands of mythic America: the continuing sense of superiority that so many white Americans feel when they look southward, and the fear that crime, so often imagined in American discourse as a physical plague, is epidemic in Mexico and constantly threatens to spread northward across our border. “Homeland security” is still what sells best.
P.S.: Just after I posted this piece I noticed that the NY Times website had posted, very prominently, an article about the very widespread use of bottled water in Mexico, because of the perception (perhaps inaccurate, the article notes) that the water throughout Mexico is contaminated. It's probably just coincidence that this article appears right next to the "drug war" piece on the Times's site. But in the realm of mythic language and thought, everything gets connected, whether it's logical to do so or not.
First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln, Francis Bicknell Carpenter, 1864.
One hundred fifty years ago today, on July 13, 1862, Abraham Lincoln went out for a carriage ride with his Secretary of State, William Seward, and his Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. Lincoln told them (as Welles recalled it) that he had “about come to the conclusion that it was a military necessity absolutely essential for the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves.” That was the seed of conception for the Emancipation Proclamation, which came to birth five and half months later, giving Lincoln his greatest legacy: “He freed the slaves.” It’s a story everyone knows.
But it’s not quite accurate. Only the slaves in the Confederate states were emancipated. Citizens of the Union could still own slaves.
The part of the story that portrays Lincoln issuing the Proclamation simply from his deep moral concern about the evils of slavery is rather misleading, too. He had plenty of moral concern. But he stated over and over that his number one goal was winning the war. He said he would be willing to keep every slave enslaved if it would help win the war.
Fortunately, by mid-1862 freeing the slaves seemed to be the best way to win the war. Emancipation would deprive the Confederates of their main source of labor and bring much of that labor into the Union Army, where blacks served in all sorts of ways.
Lincoln knew he was taking a political risk. The vast majority of Northerners, like their president, had gone to war only to save the Union, and now they were shedding blood at an unprecedented and unexpected rate for that cause. But racism was rampant in the North. Would whites fight and die for emancipation?
There was also a huge controversy in the North over whether blacks should be allowed to fight; the specter of armed African Americans terrified many white Northerners almost as much as Southerners. And Northern Democrats played the racist card as their strongest weapon to discredit Lincoln and the Republicans.
So why was Lincoln willing to take the political risk of declaring the Confederacy’s slaves free? The military advantages were certainly the decisive factor. And he had finally given up his fervent hope that the border states would agree to a slow, gradual emancipation plan.
But historians also point to a major shift in public opinion between the war’s beginning and the middle of 1862, which diminished the political risk. Though racism still abounded, there was a large and unexpected growth of sympathy for the slaves that brought with it support for the idea of giving them freedom. Indeed, Congress had already passed the Confiscation Acts, giving Union soldiers the right to free slaves in any Confederate territory that the Northern army controlled.
Why this sudden public desire to free the slaves? Many of these congressmen and their constituents were not only racist but rather conservative by today’s standards. And the surge of evangelical piety unleashed by the Second Great Awakening was still rising. A vast number of Northerners in 1862 would have been quite comfortable with the religious, social, and for the most part political views of today’s “religious right.” Recent scholarship (Richard Carwardine, David Goldfield, and Orville Vernon Burton, among others) sees the religious factor as key to understanding the era.
The Republican Party first coalesced around a demand to keep slavery out of the western territories. Their rallying cry, “free soil, free labor, free men,” had a rather libertarian ring to it. There was little to no enthusiasm for war.
Once the Confederacy seceded, though, the slavery issue itself almost disappeared, as “the salvation of the Union” became the one and only concern. (It is noteworthy that Lincoln used this religious terminology in a private chat with his Cabinet secretaries.) A year later, limiting slavery had returned, in a new form, to join victory at the top of the Republican agenda.
It’s striking to see how quickly and easily nineteenth-century evangelicals (again, mostly conservative by today’s standards) could change their top political issues.
We’ve seen the same thing in the twenty-first century. The day after Election Day, 2004, the pundits credited George W. Bush’s re-election to the power of the religious right and its overwhelming concern for morality and social issues. A closer analysis of the exit polls showed, though, that the real key to Bush’s win was the perception that he could best win the war against terrorism.
In 2004 conservatives showed no fear of “big government.” They wanted a government strong enough to protect them from “terrorists” and “secular humanists,” so they voted enthusiastically for a president who had driven the nation deeply into debt, erasing the surpluses of his Democratic predecessor.
Now, neither social issues nor terrorism rise to the top of conservatives’ list of most important issues. Neither one gets more than about 5 percent in “What is your most important issue” polling, although 35 percent to 40 percent of Americans call themselves conservative. Even among evangelicals, the leading concern of the day is the supposedly “crushing burden” of federal debt and curbing the spending of “big government.”
We could look at any other era of American history and see the same pattern we see in the Civil War era and our own. Conservatives, evangelical and otherwise, are not defined by any single issue. Their favorite issue(s) change with the times, sometimes very rapidly.
Still, their movement does have a unity and continuity that explains its enduring strength. Burton offers an important clue when he describes the national mood in 1856, as the Republican Party was first taking the national stage:
Americans had a strong sense of failure in spite of economic prosperity. Socially, communities seemed troubled, in flux, coming apart. Culturally, all that was American seemed steadily diluted, adulterated, narrowed. Political vision seemed utterly lacking.
Fast forward five years, add the shock of massive death and suffering on the battlefield, with no victory in sight, and one can only imagine how much stronger was the sense of failure, how much more communities seemed troubled. Yet they were no longer in such flux, and America no longer seemed diluted or adulterated. Now all came together around a fixed cause to fight for, to give America meaning: a war against the evil of secession.
Add another year, and slavery joined secession in the list of evil to be exterminated. But the principle remained the same: When conservatives are plagued with those disturbing feelings, their healing balm is to divide the world into a simple dichotomy of good against evil and to join the forces of good in a war -- social, political, and military if need be -- against the evil.
Now fast forward 156 years, and we must subtract the economic prosperity of 1856. But the rest of Burton’s description is an almost exact summary of how most conservatives feel, especially the evangelicals among them. And the loss of confidence in the economy surely heightens all the other anxieties he identifies.
Now, as then, the antidote to anxiety is to find an evil to resist. Now, as then, the name of the evil is a secondary matter. The heart of the matter is a simple truth: A world starkly divided between good and evil is a world that has a firm, clearly defined structure. Psychological studies show that conservatism arises from a desire for structure, for a controlled world that offers the security of certainty.
As long as the moral boundary line seems immutable, people who are comforted by structure feel far less troubled. Their world no longer seems in flux or coming apart. As long as they can place America squarely on the side of good, they no longer have to worry about their nation seeming diluted or adulterated.
Any issue that lets conservatives draw an absolute, patriotic dividing line will do the job and inspire their passion, at least for a while. That’s why the causes they fight against can change so readily.
Unfortunately, when the world is morally divided like that, someone on the “wrong” side usually suffers. In today’s political climate, the millions who depend on government funds for their very survival are the potential victims of the conservative crusade. (Just take a look at this one sad story, out of dozens that appear every day.) In the nineteenth century, the Emancipation Proclamation was produced by the same crusading reform spirit that demanded the repression of sexuality, the prohibition of alcohol and gambling, and other such routes to “purity.” Yet in this case it produced an indisputable moral good.
Just as the nineteenth century spirit of reform produced mixed results, so the mythic tale that the Emancipation Proclamation spawned has carried mixed results. As Eruc Foner has written:
The sheer drama of emancipation fused nationalism, morality, and the language of freedom in an entirely new combination. ... It crystallized a new identification between the ideal of liberty and a nation-state whose powers increased enormously as the war progressed. ... Henceforth, freedom would follow the American flag. As Frederick Douglass proclaimed, “The cause of the slaves and the cause of the country” had become one.
As conservatives showed in 2004 -- and indeed, as they have showed since the 1940s -- they, too, want an enormously powerful nation-state, as long as it wields its powers only to fight foreign enemies and domestic moral evils, as conservatives define them. The debate in this election year is about the economic meaning of the freedom that follows the flag.
But conservatives also tend to want their government to wield its power quickly and decisively. When good goes up against evil, they see a battle of absolutes. So there’s no time for reflecting on subtle shades of gray.
That’s the way the story of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation has been told: One day, Lincoln just decided that slavery was wrong, so he freed the slaves, each and every one, with a single stroke of the governmental pen. This myth goes hand-in-hand with another myth born out of the Civil War: When American soldiers carry the flag into battle, they must win absolute victory by totally destroying the enemy -- and the quicker the better. Like the final battle of Christ against Satan in the Apocalypse (The Book of Revelation), victory should ideally be instantaneous.
This was apparently the strategic vision of General Ulysses S. Grant. Once he took command of the Union forces and achieved victory, it became what Russell Weigley has called “the American way of war,” showing its implications most clearly in Sherman’s march through Georgia.
Since the Civil War, total, instantaneous freedom -- whether by decree or by force of arms -- has been a powerful American myth. Today’s conservatives seem more likely than liberals to build their politics upon it. We shouldn’t discount its impact on liberals, too. But those who demand a clear-cut, immutable structure for their nation and their world are more inclined to be conservative, and they’re more inclined to try to put this apocalyptic myth into political practice.
Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that, in 1862, politicized evangelicals pushed a hesitant president to do what was so obviously the morally right thing, even if he did it only as a way to win the war. And Lincoln’s decision transformed the very idea of America.
Today, too, there is a small but growing minority of evangelicals who would move public policy in progressive directions. Some are deeply concerned about the environment. A smaller number of white evangelicals -- and lots of evangelicals of color -- are deeply concerned about peace and social justice.
Progressives have a dangerous tendency to stereotype all evangelicals as conservative and reactionary. It would be better strategy to engage them in conversation and treat disagreements somewhat diplomatically. No one knows what issue might engage evangelicals’ passions next year.
U.S. Air Force firefighters during a training exercise. Credit: Wikipedia
One of the advantages of a mythic approach to political culture is that it gives us a chance to put the pieces of the puzzle together in new ways, opening up new, sometimes unexpected, perspectives. Today’s pieces are wildfires in the West and politics in the Middle East.
When fire ravaged some 360 homes in Colorado Springs, federally-funded firefighters were quickly on the scene. Soon Barack Obama was there too, offering more federal aid. I expected the mayor of the Springs, a bastion of shrink-the-government conservatism, to declare indignantly that his people could take care of themselves perfectly well, thank you. In fact, local officials didn’t just take the money. They asked for it even before the president arrived.
It reminded me of the time I had a small fire in my house. The firemen were there for hours, making sure every tiny ember was extinguished. When they wrapped up to leave, I felt like I should ask for the bill. I had to remind myself that when it comes to putting out fires, we Americans are socialists. We all chip in what we can and then take what we need.
In fact that’s what we do in all kinds of emergencies, whether natural or humanly made. The heroic firefighters of 9/11 didn’t present anyone with a bill, either.
But nearly all that public funding goes for putting out the fire. What happens after it’s out and, as in Colorado Springs, whole neighborhoods must be rebuilt? There will be a bit of federal money for crisis counseling and unemployment assistance. Beyond that, Obama simply appealed for private charity and donations to the Red Cross.
Fire victims who have private insurance can probably restore their own homes pretty well. To those who were not insured, most of the good burghers of the Springs will simply say, “Well, whose fault is that? Not ours.”
And what about the roads, the electric lines, the sidewalks, the parks, and all the other public infrastructure that has to be rebuilt? In the Springs, they’ve already cut funding for all sorts of infrastructure drastically. They don’t even replace burned out street light bulbs. They call it the American way: rugged individualism, getting big government off the backs of the people (as Ronald Reagan loved to say).
Perhaps they’ll make an exception for the burned-out neighborhoods, which have evoked so much public sympathy. Is it too cynical to think that it depends a lot on how much political clout those neighborhoods can muster? If a poor neighborhood had gone up in flames, I don’t think you’d see streetlights or parks or even sidewalks there for a long time to come. And uninsured homes would remain empty lots for even longer. Look at what happened in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward.
Or look at Libya. Here’s where the puzzle pieces may seem disconnected at first. But I started thinking about the aftermath of the Springs fire just after it occurred to me that I had not seen any prominent news about Libya in ages. Most Americans had cheered when Libyans began a movement to overthrow their dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. There was scarcely a loud murmur of dissent when U.S. forces started dropping bombs on Libya to speed up the process.
In the American mythic lexicon, the link between fire and Gaddafi is obvious: He was the Great Satan of the day, one in a long line of Great Satans who deserved to spend eternity in the flames. But he had no right to inflict his burning evil on his people. In the U.S. mass media, it was taken for granted that it was a battle of the dictator versus “the Libyan people”; the Libyans who supported Gaddafi were rarely mentioned. And it was taken for granted that, like a forest fire threatening civilized structures, the dictator to be extinguished immediately, regardless of the cost.
Yet once the fire was out -- once Gaddafi was gone -- Americans rather quickly turned their gaze elsewhere and didn’t seem to look back. It was time for the Libyans to take care of themselves.
By coincidence, the day after I started thinking about all this Libya did break into the news briefly. it was election day there. The headlines trumpeted the triumph of democracy after years of Gaddafi’s autocracy.
If you read the details, though, it wasn’t a much prettier sight than the aftermath of a fire. The new government is gearing up shakily, in fits and starts, and there was plenty of violence to mark its first elections. The New York Times veteran Mideast correspondent David Kirkpatrick chalked it up to tribal rivalries: Libya has been riven for decades by recurring battles among regions and tribes.” So has the rest of the Arab world, most American readers would silently add.
However, getting democracy going is almost always a messy procedure, sort of like rebuilding a burned out neighborhood. It took the United States eleven years just to get a Constitution. And that merely set the stage for the 1790s, which many historians see as the decade marked (or marred) by the most vicious political battles in U.S. history.
In any event, news about the vicissitudes and violence of nation-building in Libya didn’t last long. (Just two days after the election, “Libya” couldn’t be found on the home page of either the New York Times or the Washington Post.) I’d bet a bundle that we won’t hear much about Libya again for a long time, except maybe for an occasional mention if there’s some massive violence.
Even large-scale violence in Iraq, which made headlines when American troops were at risk, now gets only a passing glance in our mass media. After all, the fire named Saddam, like the one named Gaddafi, has long been extinguished.
All of this is more than just ancient history because Americans face a similar scenario looming in Syria. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the spotlight at a meeting of the “Friends of Syria,” she merely confirmed the underlying assumption of virtually all American mass media reporting: The battle in the country is simple to understand; an entire nation -- all of its people -- are pitted against a single totalitarian leader. For Americans, the impulse to side with “the people” is understandable, seemingly natural, perhaps inevitable.
But it’s not natural. It’s cultural. Syria today, as most Americans see it, is one more example of a basic pattern of our national culture, summed up succinctly by the prominent historian of American religions, John F. Wilson: “A resolution is repeatedly believed to be at hand to that one special evil which, when overcome, will permit a long-anticipated era to be ushered in” -- an era far better than anything we’ve seen before, an era even, perhaps, of millennial perfection. Just put out the fire and all will be well.
From this perspective, the only question that remains is whether to support “the Syrian people” with or without military violence. Stephen Zunes makes a cogent case that in this situation, as in most situations, the rebels are less likely to suffer and die if they maintain strictly nonviolent tactics. (Abolitionist Charles Whipple made the same case, retrospectively, in 1839 about the American Revolution.)
As part of his argument, Zunes makes an even more important point:
A fairly large minority of Syrians -- consisting of Alawites, Christians and other minority communities, Baath Party loyalists and government employees, and the crony capitalist class that the regime has nurtured -- still back the regime. ... The regime will only solidify its support in the case of foreign intervention. The Baath Party is organized in virtually every town and neighborhood. ... It has ruled Syria for nearly 50 years. And with an ideology rooted in Arab nationalism, socialism and anti-imperialism, it could mobilize its hundreds of thousands of members to resist the foreign invaders
So the satisfying simplicity of “the people versus the dictator” is rather fictional here, as it was in Libya and Iraq. We are really looking at another civil war. That doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. should just stay home and mind its own business, though there is a serious case to be made for that option.
It does mean that Americans should resist the temptation to rush in and treat Bashar Al-Assad as if he were a fire to be extinguished ASAP. Even if a large majority of Syrians would like to see Assad gone, a civil war is a terribly complicated thing, as anyone who has studied American history knows all too well. When you interfere in situations you know virtually nothing about, trying to be the world’s fireman, you are actually playing with -- and probably stoking -- the fire.
When it comes to Syria, a responsible public conversation about U.S. options would take into account as many variables as possible and remember that once the fire is out, the problems are just beginning. Who will do the rebuilding? How? What complexities are likely to arise? How might we be adding to those complexities, even if we have the best of intentions?
I’d hate to have to be called on to answer those questions. The complications are so immense and unpredictable. it’s like trying to model an ecosystem: There aren’t any computers, or any human minds, big enough to handle all the variables. Indeed, that complexity may be the strongest argument for resisting the temptation to take sides and intervene.
But the American cultural tradition makes it unlikely we’ll ever see any of those questions or complications at the forefront of public discussion. Instead, we will probably push on, trying to overthrow the dictator in the name of “the people.” If we succeed, whether through diplomacy or force, we’ll leave the actual people of Syria -- as we left the Libyans and Iraqis (and soon enough the Afghans) -- to do the rebuilding alone.
If they complain that they’ve been abandoned in their hour of greatest need, most Americans would say, as most of the good neighbors of Colorado Springs would say, “Hey, it’s none of our business. Now you’re on your own. That’s what we mean when we say, ‘It’s a free country.’ That’s what we came here to give you. That’s why we put out the fire.”
Changes in the Electoral College from 2008 to 2012. Credit: U.S. Census Bureau
Come Election Day, we’ll learn two very important things: Who will be president for the next four years? What story will be told about the presidential election of 2012? I’m not sure which of those two is ultimately more important. Some presidential elections create stories that last longer than the presidents who get elected. Sometimes the stories may have even more impact than the presidents themselves.
Richard Nixon, for example, went down in disgrace. But the popular story told about his two winning campaigns -- “The people want law and order, not abortion, acid, and amnesty” -- still strongly affects our political life. So does the story that was used to sum up Ronald Reagan’s two victories: “The people want big government off their backs.”
So far, it seems like the story of 2012 will be a pretty predictable repeat of Bill Clinton's 1992 win: It’s the economy, stupid. If Obama wins, we’ll be told that most voters are optimistic; they believe the economy is generally on the upswing. If Romney wins, we’ll hear that most voters feel hopelessly mired in a seemingly endless recession.
In either of those versions, the candidates are passive victims of economic forces beyond their control. What they say or do doesn’t matter much at all. That’s what most of the pundits are saying. And there is a whole body of research in political science to support that view.
Now, though, there are hints that another story might emerge on Election Day, the one the candidates themselves seem to favor: the voters are choosing between two profoundly different visions of what it means to be an American. On the Sunday after the Fourth of July, two top political journalists in the nation’s two most influential newspapers told readers that this election really is about choosing between those visions.
In the Washington Post, Dan Balz wrote:
On both sides, it is a choice between black and white with little in between. On one side, it is seen as the threat of big government, shackles on the economy and an end to freedom. On the other side, it is seen as shredding the middle class in order to reward the rich. Swing voters in the middle are being asked to pick one side or the other.
In the New York Times, Richard Stevenson wrote:
Presidential campaigns are never just about policies or even personalities. They tend to turn as much as anything on values, and the values in this case go to central questions about the psyche of the American electorate in 2012. ... Will the long-held assumption that the United States is an aspirational society that admires rather than resents success hold true? ... Do political leaders have less incentive to put the needs of the poor and the middle class ahead of the agendas of their benefactors?
Will the commentariat turn to this view of the election as a profound choice between competing worldviews? Or will it stick with the prevailing view that only the economic statistics really matter? That’s an important question I’ll be tracking here between now and Election Day.
“For Clinton, an Effort to Rechannel the Rivalry With China.” Under that headline the New York Times’s Jane Perlez reports: “At a gathering of business executives in Cambodia this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to urge the expansion of American trade and investment across Asia, particularly in Southeast Asian nations on the periphery of China,”
Perlez explains: “The extra attention devoted to economics is intended to send a message that Washington recognizes that it initially overemphasized the military component of its new focus on Asia, setting up more of a confrontation with China than some countries felt comfortable with. ... Both sides have an interest in channeling their rivalry into trade more than weaponry.”
This story has two implicit punch lines: China poses some military threat; the only question is how much. And the Chinese military threat is essentially independent of economic issues.
If Alfred Thayer Mahan can read the New York Times in his grave, he probably can’t decide whether to roll over or laugh -- or maybe both, considering what a howler Perlez offers from the perspective of U.S. foreign policy since Mahan’s time.
Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, 1904. Credit: Library of Congress
In 1890, just as the U.S. was on the brink of its rises to global power, Mahan published his immensely influential treatise The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783. The argument in the book that impressed many future U.S. policymakers, most notably Theodore Roosevelt, was simple: A nation’s economy now depended on the volume of its global trade. To trade as much as possible, you’ve got to prevent rival nations from interfering with your trade. Since nearly all international trade in 1890 went by sea, that meant controlling the sea lanes and ports along those lanes for refueling -- controlling them by any means necessary.
When Roosevelt sent the famous Great White Fleet on its 15-month voyage around the world, he sent the clearest signal yet that the U.S. was adopting Mahan’s basic perspective: Global trade and global military power could not be separated.
That theory had its ups and downs at the highest levels in Washington. In 1916, as most Americans eagerly sought to avoid involvement in World War I, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, TR’s distant cousin Franklin D., took a different view. His great passion was the sea and sailing vessels; he was an avid reader of Mahan’s works.
In a private letter, FDR wrote that human nature itself makes every nation greedy for all the power it could gain. “I am not at all sure that we are free from this ourselves,” he added. But his conclusion was right out of Mahan: “The answer is … ‘build the ships.’” In public speeches, he warned that if the U.S. did not build up its military strength, “anybody that wishes [would] come right along and take from us whatever they choose.” And “if you cut off the United States from all trade and intercourse with the rest of the world you would have economic death in this country before long.”
Roosevelt avoided such militant words for nearly two decades after World War I; they were so unpopular that they spelled political suicide. By the late ‘30s, though, with Germany and Japan threatening U.S. access to resources and markets in Europe and East Asia, he had little trouble getting Congress to approve huge increases in military spending.
The rest -- dare I say it? -- is history. Since World War II, U.S. foreign policy has pretty much taken for granted the Mahanite theory, summed up by Thomas Friedman in these memorable words (from The Lexus and the Olive Tree): “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell-Douglas.” For those who need prose rather than poetry to get the point, Friedman told New York Times readers: “The emerging global order needs an enforcer. That’s America’s new burden.”
Of course U.S. political leaders don’t talk that way in public. Nor do most journalists, even in the Times. Typically, they tell the story the way Perlez does -- a way that denies the link between America’s military machine and its efforts to dominate global trade. Taxpayers aren’t likely to shell out such immense amounts every year to maintain overwhelming military power if it’s just to give U.S.-based multinational corporations overwhelming economic power. Some other stories have to be told.
So we get, every day, new variations and improvisations on the myth of national insecurity. China, Iran, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban: there’s no end to the list of candidates to play the role of “enemy.” Whoever gets the part, the story is always about a military threat that has no direct connection with America’s global economic aspirations.
I don’t mean to suggest that the story Mahan, FDR, and Friedman told is the only one that really moves federal policymakers and legislators to fund our extravagant military budget. There are a lot of interlocking myths that lead to the same result. I’ll be touching on many of them in future posts. And some of them do treat supposed military threats as quite separate from the economic sphere.
But it’s important to recognize how one version of the story, which portrays military and economic goals competing with each other, can mask the way those goals have work synergistically in U.S. policy and elite mythology for so many years.
MythicAmerica.us is hereby launched, with special thanks to History News Network editor David Walsh, an excellent harbor pilot who has steered this new vessel out of its dock and headed us toward the deep waters of America’s mythic narratives. Now we’re free to explore wherever we like. Welcome aboard the maiden voyage.
Most posts on MythicAmerica.us will begin with something in the news that jumps out at a myth-seeker, like this gem: The states should reject increased Medicaid funding from Washington, now that Chief Justice Roberts has given them that option. Why? because if the federal government spends more, “sooner or later you become Greece or Spain or Italy.” That explanation comes from Rich Galen, a Republican strategist who was Newt Gingrich’s press secretary when Gingrich was Speaker of the House.
You don’t have to be an ultra-conservative to fear seeing America turn into one of those Mediterranean lands. No doubt it’s a prospect that disturbs plenty of Americans across much of the political spectrum.
How else explain the constant drumbeat of criticism of those three nations in the U.S. mass media? Yes, there’s an economic argument made, which Galen compressed into this sound bite: “If you keep expanding unemployment insurance and expanding Medicaid and expanding food stamps,” eventually “the money runs out....the government cannot keep growing without fraying at the seams.” That’s what most Americans, who get their news and views from the mass media, think is happening to the Eurozone’s three southernmost members -- a stark proof of the dangers of “big government.”
And lots of Americans think they know why it’s happening: Those Spaniards and Italians and Greeks would rather take from the government teat than work hard to take care of themselves.
The only problem is that the facts don’t bear out this stereotype. There’s no correlation between how productive workers are and how well their national economies are doing. If you measure productivity by GDP per hour worked, the way the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development does, Spanish workers are more productive than those in Finland, Canada, or Australia. Italians are more productive than the Japanese or Israelis. Greeks are considerably more productive than South Koreans.
Nor is there any correlation between government support for human services and the health of the economy. Some nations are doing much better than the Mediterranean three, even though they have government-funded safety nets as generous or even more so. Places like Sweden, Finland, and Canada are hardly fraying at the seams.
Why, then, are the problems of the Mediterranean three so consistently blamed on their social safety nets? And why is this dubious explanation so rarely questioned in the American political conversation?
Much of the answer surely goes back to that fictional image of the lazy southern European who would rather lie around in the sun and drink than put in an honest day’s work. It’s a time-honored stereotype in the U.S., part of a time-honored tradition of stereotyping
For most of our history, most Americans of northwest European descent took it for granted that every nation had a distinct characteristic. In the nineteenth century and well on into the twentieth, “everyone knew” -- at least everyone who lived inside the dominant public discourse -- that Greeks love to eat and drink. Italians love to sing (especially opera) and drink, and make love.
What about Spaniards? Well, there weren’t too many folks living in the U.S. who had emigrated from Spain. But south of the border, there were those millions of Hispanics, speaking Spanish. In mythic terms they couldn’t be separated from Spain itself. And “everyone knew” that that they loved to do not much of anything at all, except drink, make love, and make trouble.
The prevailing myth of “national characteristics” arranged them in a hierarchy: Italy and Greece were somewhere in the middle, well below northwest European lands, but well above Africa and native Americans. Spain, represented by Latin American Hispanics, was a notch below its southern European neighbors.
But all three nations had two things in common, in the heyday of this mythic view: First, dark skin. Before World War I, when large numbers of Greeks and Italians came to the U.S., they were widely seen by lighter-skinned Americans as a different race. Only gradually did they become “white people.” Hispanics -- and thus Spain itself -- have remained largely outside the “white” preserve, despite the Census Bureau and other official agencies counting them as a certain kind of “white.”
Second, southern Europe was not predominantly Protestant. Now that anti-Catholic prejudice has tapered off so much, it’s too easy to forget how virulent it was for most of American history. Most Greeks were not Roman Catholic. But they practiced a form of Christianity even more foreign, mysterious, and thus intimidating to American Protestants.
The lack of white skin and Protestant faith was a literally damning combination in the mythology that prevailed at least through the mid-twentieth century. Like every myth, this one has its internal logic: White Protestants are uniquely blessed in their determination and ability to control their bodily desires. That’s why they work so hard, foregoing today’s pleasures for tomorrow’s earthly and heavenly gain.
Darker-skinned non-Protestants, lacking this capacity for deferred gratification, obviously would rather indulge now at someone else’s expense. In a word, they are lazy. In another word, they are sinners. And the wages of sin, it turns out, are plummeting wages or outright unemployment in this world as well as eternal perdition in next.
So there is no reason to take pity on their suffering. they’ve brought it upon themselves -- which is the basic message underlying the story of their economic suffering in the American mass media today.
Of course the facts of American labor history tell a very different story. Immigrants from Italy, Greece, and Spanish-speaking lands have typically done the most arduous (and often dangerous) work for the lowest pay, because they were determined to build a better life for their children. (The greatest roadblock to today’s anti-immigrant crusade is the business community’s acute awareness of this fact.)
Again, the question arises: Why has it been so easy for a mythic perception to eclipse obvious empirical truth? In this case, we should recognize that, like most myths, this one may have a kernel of truth. Southern Europeans are willing to work as hard as northern Europeans. But there probably is a significant difference in their cultural view of what people do when the working day is over.
The Northwest European Protestant traditions insist on a myth of absolute self-discipline, 24/7. To the south, there seems to be more acceptance of some degree of indulgence in sense pleasure once the work is done. (Perhaps the Catholic and Greek Orthodox theologies of confession, penitence, and indulgence play a role here, but that’s a question for specialists to debate.)
Of course Americans of Northwest European heritage knew that there was plenty of indulgence in their own communities, too. But their cultural traditions demanded that it be kept secret and largely denied. The best tool for denial is to point the finger of blame at some “other,” who is labeled, by definition, sinful. That makes “us,” the total antithesis, by definition virtuous. So a difference in cultural orientations got blown into a dichotomy of saints against sinners.
This dichotomy dominated the discourse of white America through the early twentieth century. Only gradually did it fade in the last six or seven decades. the Latino community, along with the African American and native American communities, still suffer from it in quite overt ways.
Does this mythic heritage directly affect the way American media report, and American people perceive, the economic situation in southern Europe? There’s no way to prove it. But the disparity between perception and empirical economic facts, plus the scarcity of discussion about that disparity here in America, suggest that some unrecognized factors are at work beneath the surface of our political culture. The mythic tradition I’ve sketched here must surely play a part.
Whatever those X factors are, they have very real consequences in the real world. A headline in the New York Times (mobile edition, July 5, 2012) sums it up: “Washington’s New Austerity Spreads Around the Pain.” Of course the pain isn’t spread evenly. As always, the lower down you are on the economic ladder, the more it hurts. But if most Americans are persuaded that they need more austerity to avoid the dread fate of becoming Greece or Spain or Italy, the pain will only get worse.