America’s Cultural DNA

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Plaza España. Madrid, Spain. (Credit: Osvaldo Gago / Wikimedia Commons)

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Plaza España. Madrid, Spain. (Credit: Osvaldo Gago / Wikimedia Commons)

We think of American exceptionalism as a phenomenon of political culture. Deep historical roots nourish the contemporary sway of this mythic formation in US war culture. It is a powerful force for military interventionism, John Feffer suggests, that is “inscribed in the genetic code of the country.”

The DNA metaphor for a cultural construction may seem like a contradiction in terms if it is taken literally. Otherwise, it indicates the stability of a worldview regardless of changing times and punishing consequences.

Going boldly forward is a mythic mantra seemingly immune to the hard lessons of experience. Indeed, it transcends experience. It serves as a heroic call to persistence in the face of imminent disaster.

Whether it is Columbus boldly going forth to discover the Americas, pioneers boldly settling the western frontier, imperialists boldly civilizing the world, military missions boldly sent to Afghanistan and Iraq and hundreds of military bases boldly established around the world to defeat terrorism, Star Trek’s Enterprise boldly exploring the universe, or Elon Musk’s SpaceX boldly striving to send humans to Mars, the story is one of inspired heroism.

Perhaps, Feffer argues, the spirit of going boldly forward is more an expression of hubris than heroism, more a fatal flaw than a sign of a dynamic civilization. It does not matter “how malign our recent interventions have proven to be,” he observes. We persist because that is what the good guys do in the face of adversity. Meddling in other people’s affairs is a good excuse for ignoring and not fixing our own messes at home. “The focus on setting up a colony on Mars,”—that is, of escaping to Mars—“instead of getting serious about climate change on Earth, is the functional equivalent of devoting close to a trillion dollars a year to the US military instead of using that money to fix all that is broken at home.”

What Feffer sees in the notion of “human intelligence” is an oxymoron—a logical contradiction. Humans are irrationally going forward “into the cul-de-sac of impending self-annihilation.”

The problem he poses is usefully understood mythically as the “quixotic quest.” Seeing the problem of heroic US exceptionalism in mythic terms entails a “different kind of intelligence.” Seeing an imperialist project of “democracy promotion, terrorist suppression, and market-access preservation” mythically suggests being driven onto the rocks by “a siren song.”

Mythic sensibility and an appreciation for its metaphors could be a way to refocus our energies. Feffer’s closing vision is itself, intentionally or not, just such a gesture:

With each nuclear weapon, jet engine, and space rocket we deploy, we venture further into the Orange Zone [of potential nuclear holocaust and impending ecological destruction], heading blindly, if not boldly, toward the point of no return. Like those would-be Mars explorers, whether we know it or not, we are all on a one-way trip into the unknown, except that our rocket ship is our planet, which we’re about to destroy in a suicide mission before it can ever arrive at a safe and secure place.

RLI

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