The attitude of war is so deeply ingrained in US political culture that rhetorical combativeness itself is considered to be praiseworthy. Donald Trump is an icon of combativeness. His run for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination is downright militaristic. He boasts that he is the “most militaristic guy ever.” To back it up, he labels China an “enemy,” who is “destroying your children’s and grandchildren’s future,” and he professes his love for America by saying that “when you love something, you protect it passionately—fiercely, even.”
War culture has progressed to the point, as Tom Engelhardt notes, that there is no longer a significant American antiwar movement. It has been demobilized in the endless war on terrorism: “Since 9/11, this country has engaged in a military-first foreign policy across much of the Greater Middle East and northern Africa, launching an unending string of failed wars, conflicts, raids, kidnappings, acts of torture, and drone assassination programs.” The war state has been privatized, the general public has been removed from the actual fighting, and the citizenry has been reduced to a “surveilled and protected populace.” Americans, who have been “inoculated . . . against serious protest,” are content to tune in to a spectacle of slaughter. “Don’t consider it a fluke,” Engelhardt says, “that the war culture hero of the period—on the bestseller lists and in Hollywood—was an American sniper.”
Americans applaud combativeness and militarism, seemingly with little regard for the consequences, but with a telling measure of nervousness. Taking pleasure in a candidate’s assertiveness and aggressiveness can be taken as a sign of collective uncertainty and insecurity. The political ritual of invoking a devil image is a pernicious but unstable cultural practice. As we observe in Hunt the Devil (pp. 111-113), the instability of rigid distinctions between good and evil is a constant pressure to conform to the war state’s projection of evil, but it is also an incentive to slip out of the trap of lethal polarities by invoking the mythic figure of the trickster.
Unlike the petrified archetype of the devil myth, trickster is the mythic figure of fluidity and ambivalence through which, Carl Jung suggests, “the conscious mind is able to free itself from the fascination of evil and is no longer obliged to live it compulsively” (see C. G. Jung, Four Archetypes, Princeton University Press, pp. 140, 142, 144).
To follow the ways of trickster is to become momentarily disoriented, but the vertigo of seeing double eventually resolves into what we call in Hunt the Devil a stereoscopic gaze, which allows for added depth of perspective. “The stereoscopic gaze is a way of glimpsing oneself in the reflected image of a despised enemy and seeing the irony of displaced evil.” It is “an enactment of critical reflexivity,” a “creative exercise in attributing human qualities to otherwise demonized enemies,” which facilitates an oblique act of self-critique from the assumed perspective of the Other.
“The first gesture of this double articulation elevates the image of adversaries above the base level of sheer evil by attributing subjectivity to them and speculating on their motives from what is postulated to be their point of view, thereby imagining from a constructed vantage point how one’s rival might interpret the matters in dispute.”
“The second gesture is to speak of oneself critically from the postulated perspective of adversaries (and of allies and bystanders by extension) as a hedge against self-deception.”
“The stereoscopic gaze serves to humanize the parties in conflict by elevating the image of the damned enough to lower the conceit of the self-righteous.”
“Out of this perspective-shifting process can emerge a glimpse of points of interdependency between rivals to complicate the frame of good versus evil. Perceiving differences in complementary relationship to one another (rather than treating differences as inherently opposite and antagonistic) allows room to maneuver out of a tight corner and to muddle through difficult circumstances less violently.”
The stereoscopic gaze is a model based on our observations of fleeting episodes of dissent inside and outside the mainstream of US war culture. It indicates a largely untapped potential to deliberate differences with one another and the rest of the world more thoughtfully and constructively.