In lieu of actual journalism, Facebook is pretty good. There are a fair number of people out there who are trying to keep things real and pay attention to things that are actually going on and they cobble together the few sources of online writing that are actually providing actual insights and thoughts these days.
And one of the things that has been making the rounds the last few days is this article about what it’s like to get some perspective on America having spent some time away from it. One of my first thoughts when reading this was to redouble my excitement about going to France at the end of the month because it made me feel like there would be breaths of fresh, sane air and the kind of isolation I talked about yesterday may not have to be constant if I spend some time abroad.
You should go read that article. While not perfect, it’s interesting and insightful in its own right and I’m going to talk about it a bit and that will provide context. If you really don’t want to, I’ll try to sufficiently quote so that you can still follow what I’m saying without reading it.
So what struck me most about this article, after the France thought above, is how many pains the author took to avoid saying that he didn’t love America. Despite the fact that he enumerates in scorching detail what is wrong with the country and how broken our way of looking at the world is from within these borders, he constantly distances himself from dislike of the nation. He says, among other things:
“I will always love [America].”
“And that’s OK. Because that’s true with every culture.”
“So as you read this article, know that I’m saying everything with tough love, the same tough love with which I’d sit down and lecture an alcoholic family member. It doesn’t mean I don’t love [America]. It doesn’t mean there aren’t some awesome things about [America].”
“There are things I love about my country. I don’t hate the US and I still return to it a few times a year.”
And while a lot of the rest of the article is excoriating, or at least excoriating by standards from a blog that isn’t this one, there’s something about the above series of disclaimers that reminds me of the prerequisite that all candidates for high office in this country must constantly affirm that this is the greatest country that ever was, is, or will be. I know why he made these claims, and it’s the same reason that candidates who ostensibly must have studied history or logic for at least five minutes of their lives still make such outlandish proclamations. They want an audience. They want to be taken seriously. They want views/votes. They don’t want to be instantly disregarded by a society so in love with itself that it can’t even hear criticism that is not bathed and sandwiched in announcements of love.
There is something damning and fascinating about an article whose main purpose is to call attention to a country’s self-absorption and inflated sense of itself still couching itself in declarations of that country’s greatness and, above all, lovability.
I’m not criticizing author Mark Manson’s decision to take these steps, exactly, so much as asking people to ruminate on them. They are all the more understandable in the modern era of the Terror State, where a lack of deeply held patriotic fervor is associated not merely with neglect but with the possibility of actual treason. The assumption has increasingly become than anyone who is not actively out there waving the flag (right-side-up) is inclined to be building bombs in their basement. It’s the same love-or-hate mentality that Manson outlines in the first two points of his ten things we don’t know about ourselves. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. There are no sidelines in today’s America. There are patriots and there are traitors.
Which is why, for example, the media can only process Edward Snowden as one of those two and is taking such efforts to portray this binary as the interesting question of his leak (rather than, say, what he actually leaked and what that might say about our society). Or why the anti-war movement, as discussed yesterday, insisted on “supporting the troops.” Why “peace is patriotic” was another plaintive cry you would hear, as the movement ran in fear of its own shadow from associations with Vietnam, spurious allegations that protesters spat on returning Vietnam vets, and only slightly less spurious aspersions that same were rooting for North Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh. The modern climate of the United States has so successfully made everyone who dissents so concerned with how they are perceived that they, essentially, cannot say anything at all.
In David Foster Wallace’s extremely popular commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005, later printed in full as This is Water, a short book designed to be purchased for similar occasions, he outlines just how hard it is to understand the context of the place where one lives. This notion is more dramatically stated as the idea that “one can never see the prison from the inside,” the production concept of my one-act play, Before They’re Allowed to Be Free, which was performed at my high school in late 1997. Like a prisoner born in the cage and unable to see the bars and imagine another way of living or a fish asking “What’s water?,” America’s approach to everything is so American that we can’t see the brokenness in it. We can only assume that everyone is swimming in this self-aggrandizing ether, that the whole world is as high on America as the nation is on itself. And that such an environment, far from being artificial, is beyond expected, is the unquestioned norm.
But the context we take for granted is clinically insane. Let’s imagine that America were not a nation of 300 million people, but rather a person. We’ll envision a society of about 200 people, one for each country, a new village constructed from one holistic representation of each current nation-state. The UN General Assembly, without the wrangling and the representation and the geopolitics.
The United States would be unable to stop talking about itself. And would talk about itself in only the rosiest, most glowing terms. The US would brag and exaggerate, would insist on its fellow villagers paying homage and respect, would walk about assuming that everyone had the same kind of adulation for it that it constantly insisted on saying it had for itself. You guessed it, folks. The US is totally that guy.
We’ve all known people who are a little like this. Whose every conversation point wends back to how awesome they are, whose every story is a self-serving little vignette on their triumphs or plucky accomplishment in the face of adversity. Who tell you how much other people like them. These people are terrible listeners, are genuinely uninterested in you or what you have to say or think. They are tireless self-promoters who wonder, laying awake at night, why they are so ineffective at actually forging real friendships or making actual connections with human beings.
That’s America. But even worse, most of the people I describe still have moments. They may be confronted about these issues and try to recant, try to listen and empathize for a new experience. They may let their guard down occasionally and let go of the constant buzzing need to build up their ego and image. But not the US. The US is listening only for whispers of something other than the chorus of unending adulation so they can pounce on the potentially traitorous naysayer. The US not only insists on constantly talking itself up, but it expects a ceaseless drumbeat of same from all its constituents.
My friends, this is pathological. It’s nuts. We would never tolerate it in a human being. Why on Earth would we accept it in what is supposed to be the amalgam of all our efforts, that which represents our collective will?
And I hear you out there, those who still enjoy and join this chorus of adulation, saying “Hey! Look! You have the right to say things like this on a blog, no matter how treasonous I may think they are. In North Korea, you’d just be shot. In Iran, you’d disappear. But here, you can get hits and pageviews and discourse! And that’s why we unflinchingly love America!”
So, okay, maybe. But there are an increasing number of counter-arguments to this starry-eyed self-perception of our little fifty-state empire. The Red Scare and the subsequent era of McCarthyism were hardly eras when you could say anything you wanted about the state of the States. And while the sixties and seventies may have afforded a more holistic liberalism, the Reagan era and especially the 9/11 era have taken substantial steps away from unmitigated speech. There’s Aaron Swartz to consider. And Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. But also what happened to Michael Hastings, the journalist who broke the story on Stanley McChrystal that brought the American military to another series of shameful disgraces. How many people do you know that would be described this way in our society?:
“Michael was a great, fearless journalist with an incredible instinct for the story and a gift for finding ways to make his readers care about anything he covered, from wars to politicians. He wrote stories that would otherwise have gone unwritten, and without him there are great stories that will go untold.”
-BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith
I’m not the only one wondering who might want those stories to go untold. The only possible explanation for him driving as fast as he did at the time that he did was a suicide, and contacting lawyers about his rights when breaking a huge story don’t sound like the actions of someone who is suicidal. Hastings was 23 days older than I was the day he died.
Oh, and who did he do that whistleblowing profile of McChyrstal for? Rolling Stone. Yes, the same magazine now in all kinds of national hot water for daring to even discuss the alleged Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. While it’s obvious that the primary goal of Rolling Stone‘s decision to put Tsarnaev on the cover was to drive controversy, notoriety, and sales, at least a little credibility must be given to the people who both printed Hastings’ McChrystal story and continue to run Matt Taibbi exposés on Wall Street. Arguably, Rolling Stone is trying very hard to be the last offline journalistic outlet in the country willing to lend America an unvarnished mirror.
And while not everyone has embraced the outrage levied at RS in the last 36 hours, the tirade they’ve suffered is quite similar to that which anyone can expect for being unpatriotic. They’ve been accused of glorifying Tsarnaev, elevating him to rock-star status, declaring him a hero and potential martyr. All for an article that declares an only alleged terrorist to be a “Monster” on its cover. The presumption of innocence has, after all, become pretty passé in a world of Guantanamo Bay.
But the point that Rolling Stone is trying to make, other than that controversy sells, is that understanding Tsarnaev is actually the best way to “fight terrorism,” whatever that means. And this is the most dangerous idea of all. For just as America shudders at the idea that anyone might not love it, it is equally incapable of giving credence to the reasons why. It is absolutely essential to the American idea that there is no reason one could not love the US, let alone want to hurt it. Acknowledging the reasoning, even in an attempt to better understand and thwart it, of a terrorist, is unthinkable.
This is why acts of terror are chronically called “senseless,” “insane,” “unfathomable,” and other similar words. You may mistake all these synonyms for just being characterizations of duress and grief, but they are far more insidious than that. These words are carefully chosen to illustrate that the only cause for terrorism is not misused anger or understandable, if abhorrent, desire to stand up and kill for what someone thinks is right, but total incomprehensible craziness. Even though the news also begrudgingly (though decreasingly) reports our many actual crimes against humanity abroad (Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, drone strikes, civilian casualties, military rapes, etc.). Even though we use the exact same means as the terrorists in killing other people, often innocent people, for a broader self-interested cause. When we do it, it’s righteous. When someone else does it, we can’t even think about why.
And this is the real issue people are taking with the Stone cover. It asks why and even attempts to explain it. It attempts to apply human logic to human behavior, something we attempt to explore and extoll in every human pursuit other than anti-American terrorism. This is why so many people are arguing the article should instead have been about victims or first-responders. Those articles, already done to the max, are not efforts to explain why these things are happening in the US. This is why the Time Man of the Year in 2001 was Rudy Giuliani, the man who ordered fire crews to head upstairs in collapsing towers and thus increased the death toll of that day by 16%, instead of Osama bin Laden. America wants heroes and villains, but the latter with less sophistication than those in a summer Michael Bay explosion-fest. They want a monster to fear, to demonize, to shroud in mystery and terror, rather than having to think critically about why anyone would feel something less than adoring love for America.
And it is absolutely critical to understand, lest I too be hauled off to Gitmo or the pre-dawn streets of LA, that to explain why is not to advocate. Just as I can spend this whole post explaining why America is obsessed with being in love with itself without advocating such behavior, understanding something is actually at the root of breaking it down and unpacking it so it can lose its fuse. Again, maybe this is more intuitive from a debate perspective wherein the hardest skill to develop is understanding opponents’ arguments well enough to sufficiently deconstruct them. But bad listeners make lousy debaters. You must listen to and understand the opposition’s argument to beat it. And arguments, ideas, concepts, notions, these things are never beaten with force. They are beaten with countervailing arguments, ideas, concepts, and notions. That was supposed to be what this nation’s whole experiment was about in the first place.
I know it’s scary. I know it’s scary to think that someone could hate this country so much that they kill its people (even though you probably don’t think anyone in America really hates Afghanistan or Yemen, even though we do slaughter their people). I know it makes you want to say that any criticism of America may be shielding this kind of hatred, the killing bombing maiming shooting kind. Fear will do that. Look at Mark Manson’s point #7. We’re paranoid. We’ve been raised to fear and fear alike. The world beyond our doors will kidnap us, rape us, kill us, jump us, attack us. It’s this fear that created George Zimmerman (damn, I almost made it through the whole post without talking about him). It’s this fear that created the Patriot Act and the NSA’s current perspective and the collapse of real journalism, especially in wartime.
And there is something to this fear. There are muggings and rapes and murders, every day. There are terrorist attacks, even if they kill fewer people than bees or peanuts. But the key to preventing these things is understanding them. If we had a frank discussion about crime in our society, a lot of it would raise issues of power and equality and especially poverty and then we might feel compelled to do something about those things, to improve life for everyone, not just the paranoid and the wealthy. If we had a frank discussion about terrorism, our next reaction to an attack might be to change our policies, to open up to the world rather than invade it. These things are far less profitable than fear, far less empowering of those who already have done all they can to maximize their power. But they are also more right.
Does America even want to be right anymore? I’m not convinced. It seems, more and more, that America just wants to be America. And mighty. And that the distinction between what those concepts mean and some sense of doing the right thing is getting less interesting to people. But our process and our beliefs about ourselves only have any merit, even in their most optimistic and abstract manifestation, if the end goal is being right and doing what’s right. If the goal is anything else, we will fall down a perilous well of solipsism so deep and self-delusion that no one outside will be able to hear our cries.