Skip to comments.We, the people are violent and filled with rage: A nation spinning apart on its Independence Day
Posted on 07/04/2014 1:39:46 PM PDT by 2ndDivisionVet
School shootings, hatred, capitalism run amok: This 4th of July, we are in the midst of a tragic public derangement.
By the rude bridge that arched the flood, Their flag to Aprils breeze unfurled, Here once the embattled farmers stood And fired the shot heard round the world. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Concord Hymn, 1837
For centuries most Americans have believed that the shot heard round the world in 1775 from Concord, Massachusetts, heralded the Enlightenments entry into history. Early observers of America such as G.W.F. Hegel, Edward Gibbon and Edmund Burke believed that, too. A new kind of republican citizen was rising, amid and against adherents of theocracy, divine-right monarchy, aristocracy and mercantilism. Republican citizens were quickening humanitys stride toward horizons radiant with promises never before held and shared as widely as they were in America.
The creation of the United States really was a Novus ordo seclorum, a New Order of the Ages, a societys first self-aware, if fumbling and compromised, effort to live by the liberal expectation that autonomous individuals could govern themselves together without having to impose religious doctrines or mystical narratives of tribal blood or soil. With barely a decorous nod to The Creator, the founders of the American republic conferred on one another the right to have rights, a distinguished group of them constituting the others as We, the people.
That revolutionary effort is not just in trouble now, or endangered, or under attack, or reinventing itself. Its in prison, with no prospect of parole, and many Americans, including me, who wring our hands or wave our arms about this are actually among the jailers, or weve sleepwalked ourselves and others into the cage and have locked ourselves in. We havent yet understood the shots fired and heard round the world from 74 American schools, colleges and military bases since the Sandy Hook School massacre of December 2012.
These shots havent been fired by embattled farmers at invading armies. They havent been fired by terrorists whove penetrated our surveillance and security systems. With few exceptions, they havent been fired by aggrieved non-white Americans. Theyve been fired mostly by young, white American citizens at other white citizens, and by American soldiers at other American soldiers, inside the very institutions where republican virtues and beliefs are nurtured and defended.
Theyve been fired from within a body politic so drained of candor and trust that, beneath our continuing lip-service to republican premises and practices, weve let a court conflate the free speech of flesh-and-blood citizens with the disembodied wealth of anonymous shareholders. And weve let lawmakers, bought or intimidated by gun peddlers and zealots, render us helpless against torrents of marketed fear and vengeance that are dissolving a distinctively American democratic ethos the literary historian Daniel Aaron characterized as ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.
Many Americans are adapting to living with variants of force and fraud that erupt in road rage; lethal stampedes by shoppers on sale days; security precautions in their homes against the prospect of armed invasion; gladiatorialization and corruption in sports; nihilism in entertainment that fetishizes violence without context and sex without attachment ; the casino-like financing of utterly unproductive economic activities such as the entertainment Ive just mentioned and the predatory lending that has tricked millions out of their homes; the commercial groping and goosing of private lives and public spaces, even in the marketing of ordinary consumer goods; and the huge, new prison industry that Americans have created to deter or punish broken, violent men, most of them non-white, only to find schools in even the whitest, safest neighborhoods imprisoned by fear of white gunmen whove often been students themselves.
Abroad, meanwhile, thousands more shots, fiendish and celebratory, are being fired into the corpses of American national-security and nation-building projects by terrorists and fanatics we were told had been decimated. These projects cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, limbs, homes and hopes, including those of American soldiers, contractors and idealists. Their sacrifices cant justify retroactively what shouldnt have been undertaken in the first place.
Stressed by all this republican derangement, millions are spending billions on palliatives, medications, addictions and even surveillance designed to protect them from themselves. All those vials, syringes, security systems and shootings reflect the insinuation of what Gibbon called a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire until Roman citizens no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honour, the presence of danger, and the habit of command. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign, and trusted for their defence to a mercenary army. Only a few late-Roman republicans, recalling their old freedoms, concluded, with Livy, that We have become too ill to bear our sickness or their cures.
What went wrong?
You might argue, and quite rightly, that We, the people have always subverted the truths wed held to be self-evident, beginning with slavery and continuing with plutocracy. Yet somehow the republic kept experiencing what Lincoln called a new birth of freedom, thanks only partly to the fortuitous confluence of two oceans protection, a vast continents ever-alluring frontier and unending streams of aspiring immigrants:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame With conquering limbs astride from land to land, Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates will stand A mighty woman with a torch Whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, And her name: Mother of Exiles
True enough, the republic thus limned by Emma Lazarus in The New Colossus, her poem for the Statue of Liberty, needed those exiles for its labor market. And it still had a guiding aristocracy of sorts, but supposedly only an aristocracy of talent and virtue, as Jefferson put it, and not one of blood and ill-gotten wealth. True, too, certain lingering Puritan beliefs had nourished in the embattled farmers (and, even long before 1775, in some of the Puritans themselves) a conviction that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God. That injunction to defy worldly power sometimes in the name of a Higher Power legitimated individual conscience and autonomy right up through the nonviolent defiance of the best of the civil-rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.
But the American emphasis on individual conscience and autonomy also gestated a liberal capitalist republic that has reduced individualism to market exchanges in ways that are now destroying both individuals and the society.
A liberal capitalist republic has to rely on its citizens to uphold voluntarily certain public virtues and beliefs that neither the liberal state nor markets can nourish or defend. The liberal state isnt supposed to judge between one way of life and another, after all; and markets reward you as a self-interested consumer and investor, not as a citizen who might put such interests aside at times to advance a greater good that self-interest alone cant achieve.
The moral silence and often bankruptcy of states and markets leaves citizen-leaders to be nourished and trained all the more intensively in institutions that stand somewhat apart from the state and markets. The Puritan founders of Americas oldest colleges understood this, but they expected that those colleges graduates would serve a theocratic state that would control markets and everything else. Were right to dismiss the Puritans theocracy because it was repressive and hypocritical. But were wrong to have lost a side of its animating spirit that would have kept markets from controlling and devouring republican government and even our bodies and ourselves.
Symptoms and scapegoats hide the disease
Having miscarried republican self-discipline and conviction so badly, we find ourselves scrambling to monitor, measure and control the consequences, such as the proliferation of mental illness and the glorification and marketing of guns, as if these were causing our implosion.
They arent. Theyre symptoms, not causes reactions to widespread heartbreak at the breakdown of what Tocqueville called republican habits of the heart that we used to cultivate.
Equally symptomatic, not causal, are self-avowedly deviant and transgressive gyrations by people who imagine that the sunset of civic-republican order heralds a liberating, Dionysian dawn. Sloughing off our bad old repressions, weve been swept up by the swift market currents that turn countercultures into over-the-counter cultures and promote a free-for-all thats a free-for-none as citizens become customers chasing freedoms for sale.
Even our war-makers and -mongers grand strategies and the growing militarization of our domestic police forces are more symptomatic than causal of the public derangement thats rising all around us.
But turning the bearers of such frightening symptoms into our primary villains or scapegoats would only deepen our blindness to the disease, which is as old as the biblical worship of the Golden Calf and as new as Goldman Sachs. It runs deeper than anything that anyone but the Puritans and their Old Testament models tried to tackle.
Im not suggesting we can or should return to Puritanism! Anyone expecting to recover that faith and way of life is stumbling up dry streambeds toward wellsprings that have themselves run dry. But we do need wellsprings that could fortify us to take risks even more daunting than those taken by the embattled farmers. Wed somehow have to reconfigure or abandon empty comforts, escapes and protections that both free-market conservatives and readers of Salon are accustomed to buying and selling, sometimes against our own best hopes and convictions.
Our cure would also require reweaving a fabric of public candor and comity strong enough to resist the rise of ressentiment, a public psychopathology, once associated with the rise of fascism, in which insecurities, envy and hatreds that many have been nursing in private converge in scary public eruptions that diminish their participants even in seeming to make them big. Ressentiments little-big man seeks easy targets for frustrations borne of exploitation by powers that hes afraid to face and reckon with head-on. Blaming scapegoats warps his assessment of his hardships and options and drives him to wreak vengeance on them as soon as there are enough little-big men (and women, of course) to do so en masse under a Glenn Beck or a Sarah Palin.
Whether ressentiment erupts in racist violence, sectarian fanaticism, anti-Communist witch hunts, totalitarian show trials, politically correct cultural revolutions or sadistic escapism, its most telling symptoms are paranoia and routinized bursts of hysteria. Under the ministrations of gifted demagogues, its grievances and pain assume a fleeting brilliance that soon collapses, tragi-comically or catastrophically, on its own cowardice and lies.
Its targets often shift. The 9/11 attacks brought a reprieve of sorts to African-Americans, the republics most enduring scapegoats, when the burden of white censure pivoted toward Muslims. Louis Farrakhans Nation of Islam lost credibility, but so did whites such as the neoconservative Daniel Pipes, who kept on insisting years after 9/11 that the first black president was a Muslim and a friend of terrorists.
The slipperiness of scapegoating became clear to me in 1993, as I wrote about a deranged black gunman, Colin Ferguson, whod opened fire in a Long Island Rail Road car, killing six passengers. Even while holding him responsible, I saw him bearing symptoms far more widespread than his private demons. Noting Fergusons enthusiasm for a politics of rage, paranoia and death threats then prominent on a black radio station and in demagogic street politics, I warned that even deranged loners are sometimes better attuned to our subconscious hatreds and fears than we care to admit. That was true, too, of Jared Loughner, >the white paranoid-schizophrenic and anti-government fantasist who killed a U.S. District Court judge and six other people while trying to kill but severely wounding U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 13 others in 2011.
While apocalyptic religious and racist ranting can provoke emotionally disturbed people, so can journalism and entertainment that massage hatreds too diffuse to be called racist, religious or ideological. Some school shooters nursed the depictions of violence and lust that are pumped incessantly into young Americans horizons with the help of new technologies and investment strategies that ride reckless misreadings of the First Amendment. This hasnt been done with malevolent intent as often as its been done in a kind of civic mindlessness by media corporations incentivized and indeed forced by market pressures to bypass our brains and hearts on the way to our lower viscera and wallets by exaggerating fears of armed home invasion, government takeover and vengeful victory by gunplay.
The invisible disease
Even though relatively few young Americans follow these siren songs into acts of destruction, the public fetishizing of sex and violence without context or caring dampens many others faith in society during their formative years. You dont need to know a lot of developmental psychology or anthropology to know that children crave culturally coherent tests of prowess and loyalty in symbolic rites of passage that ratify their communal belonging. When such rites and symbols fail, some flail about, seeking order in private delusions, Dartmouth College fraternities and public orchestrations of ressentiment.
In 1775, most American communities still filtered such basic generational and human needs through traditions that encompassed kinship bonds and seasonal rhythms. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine could urge readers to take their recent experiences of monarchy to the touchstones of nature and decide whether they would abide the empires abuses. Today, those touchstones of nature and with them, republican convictions about selfhood and society have been torn up by runaway engines and developments in technology, communications and even intimate biology that would terrify Paine, Adam Smith and John Locke, not to mention those who fired the first shot at Concord. This time, were all in bed with the enemy. In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism 40 years ago, Daniel Bell no anti-capitalist, but prophetic enough about the worship of Golden Calves argued that free markets no longer make free men because economic liberalism has become corporate oligopoly, and, in the pursuit of private wants, a hedonism that is destructive of social needs.
He warned that consumer capitalism displaces the needs that the early republic filtered through natures rhythms and kinship traditions. It displaces those needs with ginned-up wants that by their nature, are unlimited and insatiable . [T]he rational calculation of efficiency and return displace the principle of the public household, strip-mining and selling off fragments of cultural narratives.
Without civic wellsprings and narratives deep and compelling enough to strengthen a societys adhesives and disciplines in the hearts of its young, neither free-market conservatives nor world-is-flat neoliberal cosmopolitans can reconcile their professed commitments to ordered, republican liberty with their knee-jerk obedience to riptides of destructive investment that are dissolving republican virtue and sovereignty before our eyes.
No wonder were losing our vision, in both senses of the word:
▪ Our foreign-policy savants across the ideological spectrum were too blind see that the Soviet Union was so much weaker than American Cold War propaganda and hysteria insisted that it imploded in 1989. The fabled missile gap that John F. Kennedy ran on in 1960 was as imaginary as Saddam Husseins WMD, but anyone who tried telling either of those truths was charged with a failure of nerve or worse by the blind war-mongers in our midst.
▪ Our business press was too blind to see that a tsunami of predatory lending would wreck the national economy and throw millions from their homes.
▪ Our market-addled Congressional committees and blue-ribbon commissions on national intelligence couldnt discover, until Edward Snowden revealed it, that public surveillance had taken on an all-devouring life of its own.
▪ Neo-conservative and Vulcan conservative advocates of using American military force to spread democracy abroad couldnt see that their strategy was doomed because democracy isnt woven that way and because it was destroying democracy at home in ways that, if unchecked, will destroy the republic whose strengths theyve so badly misconstrued and betrayed.
▪ Our consumer society, addicted to cheap comforts and quick fixes, cant see its own Orwellian ensnarement by commercial censors, and it couldnt take Al Gores Inconvenient Truth about global warming seriously enough to offset the onrushing damage with the serious sacrifices we have yet to make.
▪ Our gilded political consultants, pollsters and campaign donors were too blind to see the boiling undercurrents that have swept away House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Nor can they see that Cantors political demise presages an inflammation of ressentiment so wild that the coming, specious, Who Lost Iraq? debate will be accompanied by the shot that some military veteran who feels betrayed will fire at a politician whos been left holding the empty bag of our civic-republican hopes.
So we are flying almost totally blind, punched bloody by a Hand that we keep insisting is Invisible. We can see only the sickness of the gunmen and of the proliferation of their guns. Treatment of those symptoms is urgently needed, but it will be insufficient to curb the wrecking ball that global capitalism has become on our willfully blind watch, and triage wont renew the civic fabric.
Exemplary defiance has its place
Whenever republican candor and courage have seemed about to succumb like this to tribal and theocratic delusions or to force and fraud in the past, some citizens have roused others to fend off threats to republican premises and practices:
▪ In 1776 a young schoolteacher named Nathan Hale was caught trying to track and expose the military and intelligence operations of the only established, legitimate government of his time. But just before his hanging he said, I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country and became an incarnation of a nascent republic.
▪ Hales dignity in adversity, unfathomable to many of us these days, anticipated that of Martin Luther King, Jr., and black churchgoers who walked unarmed and trembling toward armed men and dogs with nothing but their faith and their long-shot strategy to delegitimate the seemingly impregnable segregationist establishment of their time by appealing to republican principles and an American civil religion whose theology was as vague as that of the founders.
▪ Hales dignity also anticipated that of three Yale seniors I came upon one wintry morning in 1968 as they gave university chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Jr., their military draft cards to announce their resistance to the U. S. Government on behalf of the American republic.
The government says were criminals, but we say the government is criminal for waging this war, said one of the seniors, struggling to find his voice. For all we knew, these guys were about to be arrested on the spot, and some of us felt arrested morally by their example because they were ready to pay the penalty of law in order to affirm their commitment to honest law itself.
Coffin, who held to a Calvinist theology that, like Kings, saw resistance to tyranny as obedience to God, was present to bless a courage that few national-security state conservatives understand, in the idiom of an American civil-religion few neoliberals and post-modern leftists understand. When he quoted Dylan Thomas Do not go gentle into that good night; rage, rage, against the dying of the light, that civil religion seemed to awaken briefly and to walk and talk again, re-moralizing the state and the law, and the silent, wild confusion I was feeling gave way to something like awe. (I described this experience in The Washington Monthly in 2000, during the protracted election of George W. Bush.)
▪ Hales courage also anticipated Edward Snowdens. Both young men may have been impetuous and otherwise flawed in some respects, but they showed that resistance to corrupted power requires not only prowess, means, and will, but an elusive, republican sensibility thats cultivated in civil society and confirmed in little daily interactions long before it emerges in demonstrations of civic courage that startle and move other citizens.
With a wonderment somewhat like Hegels, the German political philosopher Jurgen Habermas marveled at this constitutional patriotism in American citizens who possessed what Gibbon described as that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command.
When I tell young millennials these stories, though, many of them listen pretty much as they would to tales about knights in shining armor, long ago and far away. Much closer to them are the school shootings and Internet mayhem that make brave citizenship seem archaic, implausible, and irrelevant to self-discovery and social change.
Yet republican expectations do have ways of resurfacing whenever We, the people begin to imagine what our lives would be like, singly and together, if we had to live without them. Not everyone can be seduced or intimidated away from them.
Still, so many Americans are generations removed from any easily recoverable religious or ethno-racial identity or other adhesive that we have to ask: Where are the touchstones or narratives strong enough renew public virtues and beliefs that neither markets nor the liberal state do much to nourish or defend?
Nourishing a new liberal order
The question should prompt a quest for a political culture that isnt too commercial and vapid and that isnt held together only by demagoguery and delusion. No reconfiguration of todays capitalism will be possible without something better than that. Yet no think tank, legislature or foundation can carry that quest or that reconfiguration to a just conclusion. Nor can an Occupy Wall Street that isnt grounded in something deeper than its own noble effort to be the change it wants us all to make.
Nor can our illness be cured by champions of a new foreign-policy realism such as Robert Kagan, who urge us to face the inevitable challenges of a world where only willpower and force can sustain the liberal order that many Americans take for granted. Thats right as far as it goes, but it begs the question of where willpower comes from and what, within the liberal order itself, is sapping that willpower.
Quoting Michael Ignatieff, Kagan speculates candidly that liberal civilization itself runs deeply against the human grain and is achieved and sustained only by the most unremitting struggle against human nature. Perhaps, Kagan adds, this fragile democratic garden requires the protection of a liberal world order, with constant feeding, watering, weeding, and the fencing off of an ever-encroaching jungle. But he cant seem to face the challenge posed by the new shots heard round the world from America: The jungle and its encroachments begin.
What seems our greatest weakness could be one of our greatest strengths, although it, too, wont be enough: Even 150 years after the founding, the philosopher George Santayana wrote that Americans still heralded the Enlightenments entry into history precisely because theyd all been uprooted from their several soils and ancestries and plunged together into one vortex, whirling irresistible in a space otherwise quite empty. To be an American is of itself almost a moral condition, an education and a career .
Although theres plenty to regret and respect in the traditions weve lost, theres no turning back from the moral condition and career we face as citizens. We have no choice but to keep faith with the republic and one another. If Americans have a manifest destiny now, its to lead in weaving a new republican fabric that markets can serve but not subvert.
In 2008, Barack Obama seemed to incarnate so brilliantly the promise of weaving our diversity into a new republican discipline he even invoked Puritan and biblical wellsprings in some of his speeches that many people round the world considered him a prophet who would satisfy their hunger for new narratives. Probably no national political leader ever can do that.
The narratives the world needs now will have to come from other prophets and leaders yet unsung. I do think that Americans will be strong among them, if only because weve had so much experience generating that hunger by generating the civic-republican-capitalist effort that has failed.
Jim Sleeper is the author of Liberal Racism (1997) and The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (1990)
“Vulcan conservative advocates”?
Another sign of American decline: American writers can’t write anything that isn’t under 40,000 words. Phew!
P.S.: Vet, thanks for all the posting you do. How you do it, I don’t know but I thank you.
“Capitalism run amok”?
What Horse manure. Capitalism (the economic dimension of freedom) stymied is part of the problem. The takeover of our educational system and media by socialists is the rest.
Resistance is the answer, just like it was in 1770-1776.
I guess I sort of agree, in the sense that crony "capitalism" where the most leftist-schlong-sucking, most PC-fascist companies get the playing field tilted in their favor by a government that has no business being involved in the first place. That's certainly a sick, twisted form of capitalism if one can even call it such. But if he means "unfettered", as I'm sure he does, then I want to know where he lives so I can go there. Our present form of capitalism is about as unfettered as a mob hit-victim poured into the concrete of some building.
I believe they are mostly democrats but where are the Tsarnaev brothers?
No surprise, really, that the Country is headed down the tubes. Those in authority have long been laboring and conniving to expunge any mention of God from our memories and daily concourse; and to forbid any recognition of Him by our military, etc. IMHO
“salon”. What more do we need to know? Maybe an endorsement from huffpo for the daily koz?
“Capitalism run amok?”
Yeah, that caught my eye too. I would say “socialism run amok is more accurate.
Salon betrays their ideological bent in the very first sentence.
Rest in peace Eli. Thanks for the pic Tijeras_Slim.
I thought it appropriate.
“...if you’re gonna shoot...shoot, don’t talk”. Coming.
Look in the mirror, Sleeper. Are you saying the solution is more of this 1960s Marxist-Alinsky campus radical, psycho spoiled brats and their ideological litters?
Abe will explain from "the other side."
[America] initiated a policy to tolerate the Marxist-Alinsky radicals and let them rant; not only has it not ceased but was constantly augmented by decades of infiltration and indoctrination. You now have two Americas. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half statist and half free; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.
Lock, Load and Rock and Roll!
Few will go here. At the root is the rottenness of the political and cultural establishment and the rotten fruit that are the products of their actions. The people who lead this nation literally despise the people they supposedly lead. I mean this as a literal truth. The political and much of the commercial and military establishment disdain the likes of those who post here with a true visceral loathing. The blackamoors and the illegals and Latinos are considered much more favorably . Not because the K Street types identify with them (a good many in academia and a fair number of second tier types in the government do also. Eric Holder seems to be the only member of the Permanent Inner Party to be one who identifies with these people and wants as much harm as possible to come to white Americans out of true racial hatred) . But because the mostly white middle class still gives the ruling class outback and constantly slows the creation of the New World Order of a borderless world where capital and labor can be shifted around to give the greatest marginal returns to the oligarchs of the ruling class. In order to achieve their goals the mostly white middle class has to be broken culturally, damaged significantly economically and its demographic power greatly diminished by flooding the country with low skilled dark skinned immigrants from cultures that are the most difficult to assimilate, and then making sure a majority never assimilate and become a permanent angry antagonistic under class that can be used to terrorize the remaining white middle class.
“individuals could govern themselves together without having to impose religious doctrines or mystical narratives of tribal blood or soil”
lol, no mention of what it was actually about... big government
Whoa! Does this Salon scribbler wrap his head in duct tape every night before donning his tinfoil helmet?
IMO he’s describing caliphated Iraq or central Mexico, not this country. Sure we’ve got deep societal problems, but when I drive twice a month across three states & back, I don’t feel the need to arm up like Mad Max.
Los Angeles County or East New Jersey or Detroit, maybe, but there’s lots of relatively peaceful hinterlands out there.
The author doesn’t like “gun peddlers”. That means he doesn’t like lawful gun owners very much either.
Wants the culture war to get a lot worse, I believe.
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