Strike me, but listen!
America is not the answer. This statement does not constitute sacrilege, as we’ve been conditioned to believe. Yet its opposite assertion, the prevailing sentiment of our times, is taken for granted and only rejected by the remnants of the sixties radical Left who haven’t yet gone mainstream, mad or over to the neoconservative Right, where the business of quasi-religious global revolution, still, is so much better.
But this sentiment, that American values and institutions, that is to say America, are the answer to the ills of the world, is sacrilege in the literal religious sense, as well as loosely speaking–against decency, good sense, modesty, those tragically under-appreciated values that compel us to, for instance, recognize the rights of nations to self-determination and liberty. This widely held if little examined faith works through the same means of cultural intimidation as political correctness–is becoming intertwined as an article of political correctness–and is how liberal interventionists and neoconservatives alike have become the useful idiots of adventurous practitioners of a vicious machtpolitik–Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush, et al. It’s illustrative that there’s not an ideologue in this unsavory triad.
We have become incapable of recognizing the tragic pride of this attitude. This, the closest thing we have to a national religion, is a faith that cannot rise to the level of religion because it requires nothing of us–other than nodding, unthinking acquiescence to power. It combines the worst aspect of religiosity–resistance to contradictory reality, with the worst consequences of secularism–immodesty, intellectual and moral sloth, decadence. We forget ourselves.
Espousing this faith is a requirement for those who seek elective office in America, as well as their most useful demagogic tool. The rhetoric of this exceptionalism is deployed as a means of intimidation by those across the spectrum, whether it is the welfare or the warfare state in which they are invested–of course it is often both, now. On this Independence Day, 2008, America is under siege from Right and Left, two enemies that aren’t so much diametric opposites as they are competing coalitions, factions that share the same thinly veiled contempt for the straight and double-edged sword that is the Constitution. Individuals move back and forth between these groups with ease and no real qualms or difficulties beyond those presented by their particular networks of individual and group alliances. Exceptionalism, hollow, fatuous and vain, is the enemy, ironically, of the people and the republic that it flatters. America is not the answer is not a criticism of America, but a defense of her.
A republic is above all about limits on ambition and power, about containing them, checking them, mitigating them through division. No ambitious man can serve in a true republic without conspiring against and disdaining these limits. The more ambitious the individual the more he feels this disdain, the more he conspires against them, sometimes in collusion with his political opposites. The longer he serves the greater his contempt. This contempt has become a requirement of power. Personal ambition is the continual, perpetual corrosive that will always, in the end, erode a democratic republic. This is the neverending struggle. Seeing as ambition is a value unto itself in a country that elevates a Donald Trump or the various growling, sulking absurdities that have taken over hip hop, ambition seems to have gained an irreversible advantage.
This vain conceit of exceptionalism is the American tragedy, the mass self-delusion by which we conceal our motives and crimes, for which we are squandering our inheritance, consuming institutions we’ve allowed to lapse into decrepitude and burning liberties for the paltry warmth of “security”–as if freedom from state power hasn’t always meant sacrificing security (it was a braver nation that accepted this); this delusion could only resolve itself in the hallucinatory paranoia that now has us flailing away at enemies, some petty and weak, some wholly imagined, destroying entire nations and frantically trying to build them back up. Our assault on history even includes its physical artifacts as we degrade the ruins of Ur. Unwilling to accept the limits of morality on the ordinary, we declare ourselves extraordinary, determined that America be the answer and all before and outside of it the question, that history no longer applies to us.
Our cathedral is the cinema; its language is cinematic. In this alternate reality that we have the tragic power to will, for a time, upon the world, not only does history end, it has a happy ending, our happy ending, inevitable but somehow still necessitating that we will it into being, no matter how much wealth is expended, how much blood, innocent or not, is spilled, no matter how much capital of freedom and liberty must be spent. America now flatters itself with the ridiculous conceit that it is the hero of the piece that is human history, late in act three and poised to enjoy the denouement of a victorious resolution.
I prefer the nation that accepts the uncertainty of the question to that which preens as the answer. I prefer the bravery of the free to the arrogance of the powerful.