Friday, June 24, 2005

The Spider and the Fly

The continued presence of Karl Rove in public, after 5 years of private dealings, proves to me that the issue for this Administration has become one of identity, and the only identity they have, politically, is to be in opposition to an "enemy."

America has always functioned with a public identity that "we" were better than "them." It's the necessary concommitant of an immigrant culture: we have to cut ties with the "old country" (and become "Americans") even as we idealize the "old country" and want it preserved in amber (and are appalled at the decay of the society we left behind, as it dared change without our presence; it dared, in other words, to continue without us. There's a question of death here, too. As Derrida asks: "My death; is it possible?" We can't really imagine it, and the fullest experience of death-in-life is the experience of the immigrant, who learns that the culture he left goes on without him, indeed changes like the living thing it is, rather than staying true to the memories the immigrant carries to the "new world."). But that identity, where we sever ties with our memories even as we idolize them, creates a dissonance that is usually resolved by violent contradictions.

Charles Dickens recorded them in Martin Chuzzlewit, where the Americans assure Chuzzlewit that they know better than he the condition of British culture, though none of them have ever visited England, and are equally assured of the superiority of American culture. American identity can only be understood in relation to European culture; the definition based on superiority is a definition of what we are not. Not the whole of American identity, certainly, but the one called on to create a "national identity" whenever the states need to band together to face a common problem.

But the use of this "enemy" is even subtler. It allows some Americans to exploit and denigrate others, all in the name of the "enemy" that would destroy our "American way of life" if the exploitation were not allowed. When slavery collapsed in the American South, it went from de jure to de facto by pitting poor whites against poor blacks. The rich whites, few in number, kept the vast majority of poor whites in check by telling them their real enemy was the even poorer blacks. Racial hatred was easily stirred, and kept alive for generations to serve economic interests. Never forget "it's money that matters/in the USA".

Immigrants were always pitted against citizens, the threat always coming, not from those who controlled the engines of democracy and the economy, but from the poor and dispossessed and marginalized. That, at least, was the consistent story. It was not the military-industrial complex Dwight Eisenhower named and identified that was seen as the threat; that was the shield against the threat of Communism. Always that which is the real threat, which maintains the real power over the lives of ordinary Americans, is explained as the only salvation, the only hope for liberty, freedom, and civilization. And always the threat is portrayed as that which opposes this shield, that which would take it away. In America, that means liberals, progressives, social critics, activists.

This is almost precisely the Pax Romana maintained by the Roman Empire for centuries. It is one of the reasons Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. His followers proclaimed him "savior." But you cannot serve two masters. There can be only one "savior," and in 1st century Palestine, that savior was Caesar.

The American variation depends on memory and fear. We idealize the past, especially the country and culture we left in the past. We came here, by and large, as reformers, seeking to redeem that culture we left, and shocked and saddened together at what "it" has become without us, and convinced that we should not partake of it lest we, too, be corrupted (the root of American "isolationism," which extends beyond political entanglements to spiritual and emotional isolation, as well). So we remember, and we fear; we fear the "outsider" will come and corrupt us, will assail us with the very evil we hoped to escape. Now that such threats are possible in the 20th century (Pearl Harbor; 9/11), we are easily stirred into violence against the "enemies" we are told threaten us.

But now Bush & Rove have run out of enemies. The "insurgents" in Iraq are as ubiquitous as cockroaches, and as hard to eliminate. With no strong opposition to blame failure on, with no domestic "enemy" to blame for foreign policy failure (the "true enemy" must always be domestic, the "fifth column" that undermines us from within, threatens our resolve, endangers our security. The domestic enemy must always, in other words, be reachable, because the foreign enemy is almost always just beyond our grasp, and certainly not close enough to put a face on. This is America, after all; what care we for foreigners?), Bush & Rove are flailing. So they are trying to generate one. As Josh Marshall said: "Don't forget that these statements are meant to outrage you. You're a targeted audience. They're meant to perpetuate a state of maximal polarization in this country -- the state of affairs most suited for vampires like Mr. Rove to suck the nation dry."

The difference is between ontology and teleology. Are you a "good person," who acts on your convictions, who lives as you believe? Or is your goal simply to oppose a politician, to prevent his goals from coming into fruition? The demonization of the other is always teleological: there is always a goal involved. Teleology opposed with teleology leads only to becoming more and more like that which you oppose. Teleology is about what you hope to obtain.

Ontology is about who you are.

Don't let them outrage you. They have built this web of lies. Let them be caught in it.

Addendum: if you prefer a more concrete reason, and supporting what Josh Marshall said.

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