Wall of Jericho and Woody Guthrie

"The Taking of Jericho" by Jean Fouquet, oil on canvas, c. 1452-1460. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

“The Taking of Jericho” by Jean Fouquet, oil on canvas, c. 1452-1460. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

And it came to pass at the seventh time, when the priests blew with the trumpets, Joshua said unto the people, Shout; for the Lord hath given you the city….

And it came to pass, when the people … shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat.

Joshua 6: 16-20

A recent article in USA Today commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall characterizes the event with this headline: “Presidential words helped bring down Berlin Wall.” The sub-headline of the article declares that speeches at or near the wall by JFK and Ronald Reagan “proved the power—and the limits—of rhetoric in putting Cold War on ice.”

The article reflects the conventional narrative that has been adopted by U.S. political culture: Kennedy acquiesced to the building of the Berlin wall with words that seem quite sane: “A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” (more…)

Democracy’s Heroes

LOS ANGELES (April 14, 2009) Sailors and Marines unfurl a football field-sized American flag at Dodger Stadium during the pre-game activities before a Major League Baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class David McKee/Released)

LOS ANGELES (April 14, 2009) Sailors and Marines unfurl a football field-sized American flag at Dodger Stadium during the pre-game activities before a Major League Baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class David McKee/Released)

“The world needs better villains,” says David Masciotra. The subtitle of Masciotra’s provocative essay on obligatory troop worship and compulsory displays of patriotism declares that “our childish insistence on calling soldiers heroes deadens real democracy.” So what does getting better villains have to do with fostering real democracy? And what is the meaning of a hero if he or she isn’t a member of the United States military?

For starters, it’s kind of obvious, once Masciotra points it out, that not everyone wearing the uniform is a hero. Some soldiers do bad things (sexual assault, for instance, is a major problem within military ranks). Moreover, calling all the troops heroes “insults those who actually are heroic—the soldier who runs into the line of fire to protect his division,” for example.

Also, our military hero worship is a bit cynical. (more…)

The Ebola War

Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby describes the latest Defense Department developments in the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and deployments to Africa to help contain the Ebola crisis during a press briefing at the Pentagon, Oct. 3, 2014. (DoD photo by Glenn Fawcett)

Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby describes the latest Defense Department developments in the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and deployments to Africa to help contain the Ebola crisis during a press briefing at the Pentagon, Oct. 3, 2014. (DoD photo by Glenn Fawcett)

Linguistic habits make strange thoughts seem normal. When we go to the grocery store, we shop for cuts of meat, not pieces of flesh. We’re not perverse flesh eaters.

Likewise, we are not warmongers. Yet, language gives us away from time to time, if we take notice, which is rare.   We routinely structure our thoughts about the world with fighting words.   Couples don’t argue; they fight. We declare war on poverty, on crime, on illegal drugs, on just about any problem that comes to our attention. Our police forces are militarized.

9/11 triggered the ubiquitous war on terror. Hijacking commercial airplanes and flying them into buildings wasn’t just a heinous crime. Even if it were, we fight wars on crime. After 9/11—but really well before—everything was a national security issue. President Bush spoke not only about homeland security but also border security, economic security, health security, retirement security, energy security, and more. There is no conceptual limit to the purview of the National Security Agency. NSA might monitor anyone saying anything.

So we’re not surprised when our government responds to a rogue virus as if it is an invading army. (more…)

The Lessons of Blanco Posnet (Scene 2)

Cowboy (1887), by John C.H. Grabill.  (Trycatch / Wikimedia Commons)

Cowboy (1887), by John C.H. Grabill. (Trycatch / Wikimedia Commons)

Blanco Posnet stole the Sheriff’s horse, but as he was riding away from town he encountered a Strange Woman in the desert who was holding a child sick with the croup. She put her child in Blanco’s arms, and cursing his fate and his own weakness, Blanco gave her his stolen horse so she could ride into town and save the child.

Blanco sits to observe a magical rainbow that appears in the horizon and is captured by the posse chasing him. Before reaching town—the Rainbow Woman declares at Blanco’s trial—the child was “like lead in my arms.” Blanco laughs hideously: “Dead! The little Judas kid! The child I gave my life for!”

In spite of the death of the child, Blanco’s selfless action triggers a wondrous series of events: (more…)

The Lessons of Blanco Posnet (Scene 1)

George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, Dec. 6, 1934. (Credit:  Davart Company, New York City, USA)

George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, Dec. 6, 1934. (Credit: Davart Company, New York City, USA)

An Irishman who lived in the entrails of the British Empire, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) wrote two plays that are still lucid commentaries on the United States.

The Devil’s Disciple (first produced by Richard Mansfield in 1897) is set in the American Revolution, and tells of a Diabolonian hero who is more religious than his Puritan contemporaries.

The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet, a one-act play subtitled “A Sermon in Crude Melodrama,” was banned by the Lord Chamberlain in London, and was first produced at the Abbey Theatre in Ireland by Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats in 1909. In a letter to Shaw, Tolstoy criticized the play: “The problem about God and evil is too important to be spoken in jest.”[1]

In cowboy melodramas and Western films, the Old West has been a constant metaphor for the nation at large. (more…)

Demonolatry

"The Golden Calf" by Esteban March (1610 - 1668).

“The Golden Calf” by Esteban March (1610 – 1668).

Ebola outbreaks, Islamic State beheadings and crucifixions, Putin’s provocations, school shootings, cop-killing snipers: demons everywhere.

Are we a nation of demoniacs, a people preoccupied with demons? We should hope not.   Demonolatry is an obsession with evil spirits. It entails sacrificial acts of appeasement and atonement. The war state thrives on a diet of monsters, fiends, and devils.

Some say our identity as a Christian nation reduces to pathology. Conservative Christianity can warp the mind, according to Marlene Winell (a human development consultant) and Valerie Tarico (a psychologist). Evangelicals and fundamentalists—those who literalize the Bible—insist on conformity, focus on the spiritual world, and seek salvation. They are inclined toward authoritarianism, a pervasive fear of sin, hell, and heathens, and an expectation of apocalypse. They operate in the subconscious realm of metaphor, symbol, imagery, emotion, and supernaturalism, which short-circuits their capacity for rational analysis. This pathology goes unacknowledged because it is respectable in a land that sees itself as blessed by God and where our currency declares our trust in God. (more…)

Dialogue with the Enemy

"DESTROY THIS MAD BRUTE - Enlist U.S. Army" is the caption of this World War I propaganda poster for enlistment in the US Army. A dribbling, mustachioed ape wielding a club bearing the German word "kultur" and wearing a pickelhaube helmet with the word "militarism" is walking onto the shore of America while holding a half-naked woman in his grasp (possibly meant to depict Liberty). This is a US version of an earlier British poster with the same image. Dated ca 1917.  (Credit:  Sus scrofa / Wikimedia Commons)

“DESTROY THIS MAD BRUTE – Enlist U.S. Army” is the caption of this World War I propaganda poster for enlistment in the US Army. A dribbling, mustachioed ape wielding a club bearing the German word “kultur” and wearing a pickelhaube helmet with the word “militarism” is walking onto the shore of America while holding a half-naked woman in his grasp (possibly meant to depict Liberty). This is a US version of an earlier British poster with the same image. Dated ca 1917. (Credit: Sus scrofa / Wikimedia Commons)

Atrocity stories are a staple of war propaganda. Harold Lasswell, writing in 1927, understood that they are a necessary ritual to motivate an otherwise reluctant public with images of a murderous aggressor. For the enemy to be perceived as satanic, he must be represented as “atrociously cruel and degenerate in his conduct of the War” (Propaganda Technique in World War I, MIT Press edition, p. 81).

Accordingly, beheadings of captive Westerners by the Islamic State provoked the public to support the Obama administration’s bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria.

The logic of war reduces to the premise that you must destroy such an enemy by military force. You cannot negotiate with evil. (more…)

Witches

Scene from Macbeth, depicting the witches' conjuring of an apparition in Act IV, Scene I. Painting by William Rimmer

Scene from Macbeth, depicting the witches’ conjuring of an apparition in Act IV, Scene I. Painting by William Rimmer.

Back in the day, at the corner down the street from my grandmother’s house, there lived a grim, wiry and solitary Old Lady who was wrinkled with age. To our horror, she could usually be found every afternoon sitting on the porch before her garden, leaning on her cane and smoking a cigar.

To our minds—we were a gang of seven-year olds playing in the street—that was evident proof that she was a witch.

Sometimes an adventurer among us would dare to approach her garden and pick a flower or a leaf. That would set her off. She would chase us away brandishing her cane, spewing tobacco fumes and shouting curses in a loud screech: “Look here, you damned little…” What was always surprising was that our parents and elders, instead of complimenting us for giving a witch her just deserts, would sternly reprimand us: “Don’t bother that Old Lady. She means no harm.”

This was puzzling to us until one day when we were being bullied by a gang of eleven and twelve-year olds who would not return to us our baseball. (more…)

Clown Dynasty

Postcard photo of the main cast of Chicago's Bozo's Circus. From left: Ringmaster Ned (Ned Locke), Mr. Bob (bandleader Bob Trendler), Bozo (Bob Bell), Oliver O. Oliver (Ray Rayner), Sandy (Don Sandburg). (Credit: WGN-TV via Wikimedia Commons)

Postcard photo of the main cast of Chicago’s Bozo’s Circus. From left: Ringmaster Ned (Ned Locke), Mr. Bob (bandleader Bob Trendler), Bozo (Bob Bell), Oliver O. Oliver (Ray Rayner), Sandy (Don Sandburg). (Credit: WGN-TV via Wikimedia Commons)

We have had occasion in this this space (see “American Exceptionalism” post) to conjure up the name of H.L. Mencken, and to celebrate his insight on U.S. society: “Here in the very citadel of democracy, we found and cherish a clown dynasty!

We find that from the very beginning of the Republic, clowns have been an enduring element of our social fabric. Frederic Jackson Turner, in his essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” relates that “backwoodsmen” from across the Alleghenies petitioned for statehood by advancing the following argument:

Some of our fellow-citizens may think we are not able to conduct our affairs and consult our interests; but if our society is rude, much wisdom is not necessary to supply our wants, and a fool can sometimes put on his clothes better than a wise man can do it for him.

This argument is based on faulty premises: 1) it assumes that the fool understands what “clothes” are; and 2) it assumes that the fool has learned the proper way of wearing clothes. “This forest philosophy,” Turner concludes “is the philosophy of American democracy.”

Truer words were never written. (more…)

Fool’s Errand

"The Fool," Stratford-Upon-Avon, Great Britain (Credit:  Irene Ogrizek / Wikimedia Commons).

“The Fool,” Stratford-Upon-Avon, Great Britain (Credit: Irene Ogrizek / Wikimedia Commons).

Andrew Bacevich, historian of American militarism and empire, has declared the U.S. war against the Islamic State a fool’s errand. His argument is captured in the title of his Washington Post opinion piece, “Even if we defeat the Islamic State, we’ll still lose the bigger war.”

The U.S. is involved in a decades-old enterprise to bring order and stability to the Middle East, which is both costly and counterproductive. “Regime change has produced power vacuums.” The Islamic State is the most recent iteration of “America’s never-ending Middle East misadventure.” We are “inadvertently sowing instability” and thus digging the hole we’re in even deeper.

Bacevich’s critique invokes the mythic force of the archetype. The fool’s errand, as an idiom of war, places the U.S. under the spell of a heroic quest. It is a grand undertaking that has no chance of success, a pointless task carried out against our better judgment.  (more…)