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On Hating America

Yeah, we're basically Babylon -- but America is the only country in the world that could have produced Louis Armstrong


Well, let’s unpack this. From McCarthy’s column:

What does “racist” even mean anymore?

Racism is the headline on President Trump’s Sunday tweets — the media-Democrat complex assiduously describes them as “racist tweets” as if that were a fact rather than a trope. I don’t think they were racist; I think they were abjectly stupid.

Like many Americans, I am tired of being lectured about racism by racists and racialists, individuals whose full-field explanation for all life’s issues is this matter of genetic happenstance that should be increasingly irrelevant in a pluralistic society.

I, too, am tired of the all-purpose smear “racist,” and of “racism” deployed as an all-purpose insult for opinions, events, and outcomes that liberals and progressives dislike. But just because the other side cries wolf all the time does not mean that there are no such things as wolves. More McCarthy:

Is it “racist” to tell people who have contempt for the country — who abhor the common culture that makes us American — that they ought to go back to where they came from? It has nativist and reactionary overtones, but I don’t think it is racist. I’ll grant this much, though: It is closer to actual racism than the Left’s usual demagogic claim: I am a racist if I extend to a non-white nincompoop like Ilhan Omar the courtesy of taking her seriously as an individual and a public official, as if it were her race rather than the idiocy of what she says that moves me to dissent.

It would be racist to tell the progressive “Squad” that they don’t belong in our country because of their race or ethnic roots. I don’t understand Trump to have done that. He is attacking their radicalism, which they wear like a badge of honor.

I think it’s perfectly legitimate to go after the Squad for their politics. Some people called Trump racist because any attack on a Person Of Color by a white person, in their deranged minds, is “racist.” But people (including me) were calling the Trump tweets “racist” because he assumed that all these radical women were foreigners, presumably because they were black — “presumably” because if not that, then why? As we know, three of the four were born here in the US. McCarthy:

Yet, Trump said they were from “countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they have a functioning government at all).” This is indefensible jackassery. It is not an excuse that the president would have been on solid ground if he had said the congresswomen were apologists for such countries. He said they were from such countries and ought to go back to them.

Presidents can’t make mind-blowing errors like that and expect to remain politically viable. Trump so basks in the huzzahs of his blindly loyal base that he appears blind himself to the fact that even people who support many of his policies, and who find today’s Democrats unacceptable, do not want to be embarrassed — do not want to be put constantly in the position of trying to rationalize his antics.

Truer words will not be spoken anywhere today!

From Conor’s tweet, I expected McCarthy’s column to be a full-throated defense of the idea of “a common culture that makes us American.” It’s really not. It’s a harsh criticism of Trump, the gist of which is, “look, you idiot, a lot of us fear and loathe what the Democratic Party and the cultural left stand for, and we’re afraid of them taking political power, so quit being such an idiot and a jackass and making it easier for them to win — and stop embarrassing your allies.” 

This is true and necessary to say.

But I want to take up the claim that there still is “a common culture that makes us American,” because I think Conor Friedersdorf is right to point out that many of us on the political and cultural Right are as critical of what America has become as left wingers like the Squad.

By the way, many of us on the Right might think that Ilhan Omar is some sort of Islamist. From Rep. Omar’s website, here are her LGBT policy stances:

  • Fight against any efforts to undermine LGBTQIA+ rights in the name of religious liberty
  • Strengthen national protections against discrimination for both gender identity and sexual orientation
  • Ensure that care specific to the LGBTQIA+ community, such as gender-confirmation surgery, is covered by health insurance plans
  • Enact protections for LGBTQIA+ individuals who are incarcerated, and ensure transgender people who are incarcerated are placed with their gender identity

If you are a Muslim who worries about your Islamic school being compelled by the state to accept gender ideology, and to queer the locker rooms and bathrooms or lose your tax exemption, then you’re not going to want to vote for Ilhan Omar.

Omar seems to be one of those Muslims who takes her Islamic identity in a wholly political, intersectional way — in other words, not as an affirmation of particular religious beliefs, but rather as an Other that defines her against white, heteronormative, Christian identity.

Anyway, though I affirm most of what Andy McCarthy wrote in his column, I do want to push back, along Conor Friedersdorf’s lines, against the idea of a common American culture — and I want to do this from the religious right.

I think I know in my gut what McCarthy is saying, but I really don’t think that it’s an accurate description of America any longer. If by “common culture” he means the American ideals of fair play for all, equality under the law, respect for dissent, and so forth, then yes, I think it is hugely important to affirm these things. But there are so many aspects of the majority culture that people like me — conservative Christians — cannot affirm, and not only cannot affirm, but actively reject.

The Sexual Revolution, for example, has been thoroughly embraced by the American mainstream. I hardly need to list the ways, but let me mention a couple of things that show its ubiquity — things that are so common most people don’t see them. I haven’t been a network TV watcher since 1983, when I left home for school at 16. We didn’t have TVs in our dorm at school, and when I went to college, I was out of the habit of watching TV, and didn’t return to it, ever. As an adult, I had cable in most of my apartments, but I only used it to watch the news; my TV I used almost exclusively for watching movies on video and then DVD. Today, we have a TV, but only use it for videos, and for streaming content from Netflix and Amazon that we’ve chosen.

I tell you this to say that I’m not one of those “I have no television” people — it wouldn’t be true — but to say that for most of my life, I’ve been cut off from the common culture of network television.

A few years back, I joined a gym. On the elliptical trainer, I started watching that Charlie Sheen sitcom that was one of the top-rated TV shows of its day. I guess it was in syndication. I was genuinely shocked by how coarse, vulgar, and sexual it was. Mind you, it wasn’t encountering sexual material that shocked me; for heaven’s sake, I was a professional film critic for a number of years. It was encountering material like this on a massively popular network sitcom. I was a sort of Rip van Winkle of network television, who woke up after thirty years and found that the world had radically changed.

I wouldn’t let guests in my own house talk like that in front of my children. But I knew people — self-identified conservatives — who watched that show with their children and grandchildren, and didn’t give it a second thought. I wouldn’t want to sit around my living room talking with people who talked like the characters in that sitcom. So yeah, call me a prude. By today’s majority-culture standards, I am. I don’t apologize for that. But I also know well that I am in a dissenting minority. If this is the common culture, then I want no part of it.

That’s a small example, but there are plenty more important ones that hardly need belaboring here. I think the network TV one is more important than you might think, in this way. Around the time I stepped out of TV Land — 1983 — cable TV was already a big thing, and satellite TV was just coming, but the three networks still dominated the television landscape. Throughout my 1970s childhood, network TV really was a common culture. At school, everybody talked about the previous night’s episode of “Happy Days” or “Welcome Back, Kotter.” For us kids, one of the highlights of the year was the Saturday morning in early autumn when the networks debuted their new cartoon lineups. Heck, Saturday morning cartoons was must-see TV (and if you remember the phrase “must-see TV,” congratulations, you’re a Gen Xer).

Network TV might have been stupid, but it was something we all had in common. It broadly reflected values held in common. Here’s something quaint: I’m old enough to remember when pastors urged congregations to write to the local ABC affiliates to protest “Soap,” the racy prime-time parody of soap operas, which debuted in 1977. It didn’t work. The moral boundaries of what was still considered the common culture were already radically shifting.

There is a certain sort of tiresome person who, whenever you bring up the steep and consequential decline of cultural standards, can be counted on to say, “People used to think Elvis was evil.” If a cable network ever stages live executions or barnyard orgies, these same people will turn up mouthing the same cliche. This line is not an aid to thinking clearly, but is an obstacle to it. It’s meant to assuage the consciences of those who say it, and to grant them permission not to think about the troubling thing in front of their noses.

Anyway, I find that in locating myself outside much mainstream American culture — the worship of sex, money, and fame — I have a lot in common with a certain kind of secular liberal. I imagine some of these liberals read this blog, even though some of the things I say infuriate them. They recognize, as do I, that at some basic level, we are outsiders. And this is why I believe it is really important to protect dissenters, even if I reject what they stand for. In many ways, I — white, heteronormative, conservative, Christian — am a dissenter from the American mainstream.

Psychologically, it’s very difficult for conservatives to recognize that America has gone from being a “shining city on the hill” to being Babylon. I’m thinking this morning of this passage from Sam Quinones’ great book Dreamland, about the opioid epidemic. If there was any justice in this world, Dreamland would have been as massive a seller as Hillbilly Elegy. If you haven’t read it, my God, please do. It’s a book about a drug crisis, but it’s really a book about the American dream. I read it four years ago, and as you can see, it still haunts me. (I see that it’s only four dollars on Kindle today — go ahead, take a chance.)

Here’s a post I wrote about Dreamland in 2015. Excerpts:

It’s the story of the contemporary heroin epidemic nationwide, especially in small cities and towns that had never known the presence of heroin until now. What it’s really about, though, is a culture that opened the door for this catastrophe, in complicated but all too familiar ways.

I wrote that most fascinating part of Dreamland is how Quinones examines the cultural roots of the opiate epidemic. He writes:

In heroin addicts, I had seen the debasement that comes from the loss of free will and enslavement to what amounts to an idea: permanent pleasure, numbness, and the avoidance of pain. But man’s decay has always begun as soon as he has it all, and is free of friction, pain, and the deprivation that temper his behavior.

In fact, the United States achieved something like this state of affairs … in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century. When I returned home from Mexico in those years, I noticed a scary obesity emerging. It wasn’t just the people. Everything seemed obese and excessive. Massive Hummers and SUVs were cars on steroids. In some of the Southern California suburbs near where I grew up, on plots laid out with three-bedroom houses in the 1950s, seven-thousand-square-foot mansions barely squeezed between the lot lines, leaving no place in which to enjoy the California sun.


Excess contaminated the best of America. Caltech churned out brilliant students, yet too many of them now went not to science but to Wall Street to create financial gimmicks that paid off handsomely and produced nothing. Exorbitant salaries, meanwhile, were paid to Wall Street and corporate executives, no matter how poorly they did. Banks packaged rolls of bad mortgages and we believed Standard & Poor’s when they called them AAA. Well-off parents no longer asked their children to work when they became teenagers.

In Mexico, I gained a new appreciation of what America means to a poor person limited by his own humble origins. I took great pride that America had turned more poor Mexicans into members of the middle class than had Mexico. Then I would return home and see too much of the country turning on this legacy in pursuit of comfort, living on credit, attempting to achieve happiness through more stuff. And I saw no coincidence that this was also when great numbers of these same kids — most of them well-off and white — began consuming huge quantities of the morphine molecule, doping up and tuning out.

This book hits hard. What Quinones shows is the connection between a rich, decadent America, where people want to do anything to relieve themselves of the pain and anxiety of living, and dirt-poor Mexico, where people are willing to do anything to relieve themselves of the pain and anxiety of living in poverty — including selling opiates to those Americans, who use them to destroy their lives.

One more from that post:

Reading Dreamland, you can see why unemployed former mill workers could fall into this kind of addiction, but it’s harder to see why the kids of the rich do. Quinones shows that the specific motivations may be different, but the basic motivation is the same: wanting relief from the perceived pain of living. For the middle class and the well-off, it’s a matter of boredom, of believing that life should be pleasurable all the time, and that instant gratification is their birthright as Americans.

The book is full of sad stories, but the saddest is the tale of Russian Pentecostals in Portland, Oregon. Massive number of these persecuted Christians emigrated from the Soviet Union to the US, and settled mostly on the West Coast. They were religious, conservative, and strict churchgoers. But their kids went to school with other Americans, and came to see church life as boring and too restrictive. They tried OxyContin, and moved into heroin. Hundreds of these Russian Pentecostal kids became addicts. Their parents did not know what to do. In one family’s case:

Two decades after Anatoly and Nina left the Soviet Union for the freedoms of America, each of their three oldest children was quietly addicted to black tar heroin from Xalisco, Nayarit. … [T]heir American dreamland contained hazards they hadn’t imagined. Remaining Christian in America, where everything was permitted, was harder than maintaining the faith in the Soviet Union where nothing was allowed. Churches were everywhere. But so were distractions and sin: television, sexualized and permissive pop culture, and wealth.

Think of it: these Pentecostals were better off in the USSR than in America, because American freedom led to extreme decadence.

And this, right there, is why I want no part of the “common culture” of American Babylon. I think I know what Andy McCarthy is talking about when he calls on us to be patriotic by loving “the common culture that makes us American.” What I don’t agree with is that we have a common American culture anymore, or to the extent that we do, that it’s something that we can and should affirm.

I was talking with a Christian friend not long ago. She sends her kids to public school, in a good school district. She told me that the common culture there for the kids is marked by pot, booze, promiscuity, homosexuality, and gender fluidity. It’s a real struggle for her and her husband to shepherd their children through that. The pot, the booze, the sex — it was all present when I was in school in the 1980s, even in my small town. Open homosexuality and gender fluidity are new, granted, but it’s not like a crisis descended on America when high school kids started coming out in the 2000s. The crisis goes much deeper (see Quinones), and farther back in history, to the Rubicon of the 1960s, when America truly became post-Christian. This is a much longer discussion, though.

So, when conservatives say that members of the Squad “hate America,” what are they saying? What is America to these conservatives? Is it a false idol? When we say we love America, what do we mean? Can there be a restoration of a common culture — and if not, where does that leave us?

I’ll leave you with this. It sounds silly, but there’s something in it. Earlier this week, I flew home from ten days in Poland. I had a great time, but like every time I return to the US from overseas, I am sentimentally thrilled to be back. When I land in the Atlanta airport, I always make a beeline for the Chipotle near gate D28, to have tacos and a big-ass diet Coke, with lots of American ice. When I got there this past Monday, my checkout clerk was a tall, big-shouldered young black guy named El Shaddai Cooper. He was really friendly, and we joked with each other in that way that Americans do (and, to be precise, the way Southerners do). That kid has no idea how much good it did me to see him and talk to him.

When I walked away with my food, and went looking for a corner to sit down in and eat it, I thought, “I love El Shaddai Cooper!” I laughed at myself for it, but it’s true. A new Polish friend had said to me the day before, “I love how you Americans allow yourselves to imagine things in new ways.” After ten days in Poland, I understood what he was saying. There is a gravity to Polish culture that we just don’t have here. Sometimes it is lamentable, but sometimes it’s a real blessing. One thing I have learned over the years by extensive travel in Europe is that whenever you, an American, meet another American there, I don’t care whether that American is white, black, Latino, Asian, or whatever, you have more in common with him than you do with the Europeans. I say that as a deep Europhile. It’s just true.

My DNA says that I’m 100 percent northern European, but in truth, I have a lot more in common with the black guy selling me tacos than I do with all the Europeans I know and love. Because we are American. And if El Shaddai Cooper went to Africa, he would discover that he and I have a lot more in common than he does with native Africans.

Why is that, given that the lives Cooper and I lead are probably very different? What gives us that commonality? Is it something we can identify, and find a way to affirm, across our differences? I’ll tell you this: it’s not political, no how, no way.

If I were sent in exile to Europe tomorrow, and was told that I could never come back to the US, I could have a good life, in spite of that. I love Europe, and love Europeans. Some of my dearest friends are Europeans, and some of the deepest conversations I’ve ever had have been with these men and women I love. And yet, I would know for a fact that I could never have the kind of conversation I have every single day with fellow Americans like El Shaddai Cooper, when I go out to do my shopping here in Baton Rouge. Isn’t that strange? There are lovely people in every country in the world, but the pleasure I take in the silly banter with the sweet lady at the CVS pharmacy — that’s something only we Americans can share with each other.

There must be something in that, something to build on. There has to be. There has to be more there than to insist on an idolatrous view of America.

It’s like this: America is the only country in the world that could have produced Louis Armstrong, one of the greatest artists in the history of the world. There’s something in that. I’m serious. If you hate Louis Armstrong, you hate America. If you don’t hate Louis Armstrong, then ask yourself what it is about him that you love, and build out from there to your neighbors. I’m going to try this myself.



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