On 28 January 2000, Nigel Jones, Member of Parliament for Cheltenham, was holding one his regular surgeries (sessions where constituents could bring their problems to him) when a member of the public (who turned out to be mentally ill) attacked him with a samurai sword. The attacker severely injured Mr Jones and killed a local councillor. This was a tragedy for those involved and their friends and families, and created a nine-days wonder in the local press. Nationally it caused scarcely a ripple; life continued just as before.
On 8 January 2011, representative Gabrielle Gifford was holding a similar event in Tucson, AZ, and was attacked by a member of the public (also alleged to be mentally ill) wielding a gun. The attacker severely wounded Ms Gifford and thirteen others and killed six more individuals. Again, this was a tragedy for those involved and their friends and families. What is different is the reaction. The United States seemed to enter into a collective emotional melt-down.
From an outsider’s perspective, the reaction to this event seems excessive. In what is one of the most violent societies in the developed world, surely it should be expected that sooner or later someone would empty a magazine in the direction of an elected representative? And yet, what is even more unusual is the rhetoric that has emerged in the days since the shooting. If we set aside the political point-scoring, then there has been a striking common thread in what has been said by all involved, from President Obama down. There has been a general agreement that this event is the collective responsibility of the whole American people, that it belongs to all of them, and that they must (in some undefined way) purge themselves so as to make the United States into a better place, where this kind of event cannot happen again.
This speaks of politics at a far deeper level than the recriminations as to whether Mrs Palin did or did not stoke up hatred, or which party Mr Loughner supported. It speaks even at a level deeper than the (necessary) debate over gun ownership and treatment of the mentally ill. It suggests a strongly collectivist conception of nationhood, an idea of political perfectibility that is crucial to the idea of American Exceptionalism, which claims that the United States is, or should be, unique and best among nations. It is this idea that I wish to discuss.
As a final point before I get going, I should point out that though this piece is highly critical of the current establishment of the United States (both in government and opposition) it should not be seen as anti-American. Americans stand proud among the world’s artists, scientists and thinkers. Rather, by analysing and attempting to understand that which makes the United States see itself as unique, and which seems to hold back its development as a nation, it should be seen as a small means of helping the great American nation to find its equilibrium and so play its proper part as a leader among nations (rather than as an exception differing from other nations).
2 Source material
I am now going to quote a certain amount of commentary on the attack. It comes from the US media and, primarily and most importantly, President Obama’s speech in Tucson. That speech is critical, not only because it sets out the mythic framework within which discussion of the event exists, but also because of the extraordinary reaction to it by the US media.
I am aware that the media sources I have picked come from the left end of the spectrum. I picked them because they said most succinctly what was inherent in all of that part of the reaction that was not concerned solely with political infighting. However, it is critically important to note that reaction to President Obama’s speech was uniformly positive; for example Glenn Beck observed (somewhat obtusely) that Mr Obama truly became President by virtue of making it. Thus, though commentators may have differed in detail, there was general approval of and agreement with Mr Obama’s words.
Therefore, I shall treat Mr Obama’s speech as the key source, using it to derive my thesis. The commentary material is used to bring out specific points from the speech and to examine the shape of the larger partisan debate, going beyond gun control, campaign propaganda or Mrs Palin’s bizarre rhetoric, turning instead into a debate on the nature of the United States.
I present the material as a series of numbered quotations without commentary: that will follow in the next section. Italics are mine.
2.1 President Obama’s speech
(1) As Scripture tells us:
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
(2) On Saturday morning, Gabby, her staff, and many of her constituents gathered outside a supermarket to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and free speech. They were fulfilling a central tenet of the democracy envisioned by our founders – representatives of the people answering to their constituents, so as to carry their concerns to our nation’s capital. Gabby called it “Congress on Your Corner” – just an updated version of government of and by and for the people. That is the quintessentially American scene that was shattered by a gunman’s bullets. And the six people who lost their lives on Saturday – they too represented what is best in America.
(3) The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives – to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. [ . . . ] It should be because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.
(4) I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here – they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.
(5) That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. [ . . . ] I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations [ . . . ] And here on Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit.
2.2 Media commentary on the speech
First from the Huffington Post:
(6) Judging from most news coverage, it appears we’ve failed to recognize the impossibility of separating the killer from the rest of us. If we just blame Jared Lee Loughner, we’re committing what psychologists call an “attribution error”. That’s when an incident is blamed on the individual instead of the situation — or the system.
(7) Arizona is a laboratory of today’s USA, it has a large population that mixes politics, race, poverty, wealth, urban and rural lifestyles. It is probably the state with the most potential to create a new American myth. Or destroy it. Will Arizona succeed or fail? More precisely, will America become a modern and prosperous democracy?
(8) At the present moment, we all live in Tucson. Our country is the Arizona of the world: scared, tense, armed and not communicating well. Can our system integrate the vast pressures pulling it apart? Can we be present and powerful in a different way in the world? Our challenge on the road from Tucson is not just wither America?… but whether America.
Now from Religion Dispatches:
(9) In this sentiment, the president accentuates the best of an American idealistic tradition that acknowledges the existence of evil while maintaining hope that the nation can find the collective will to gain a higher moral ground and eradicate it.
(10) For Palin and others on the right, there is an acknowledgement of the losses in Tucson, but these events are just minor blips on the radar that requires only that we carry on believing in the inherit goodness of individual liberty. No doubt this rhetoric appeals to the conservative ethos of freedom and individual responsibility, but it is a rhetoric that lacks any sense that some collective response is required of us—some sense of repentance. Although many conservatives praised Obama’s Tucson speech for not associating the violence of Tucson with the contemporary political climate, they missed the ways Obama attempted to set a penitent tone, calling Americans to a higher level of moral accountability.
(11) Some commentators on the left might be taking the argument too far when they lay the blame for the shootings on the politics of conservatives like Sarah Palin. Yet the angry responses of the Palins, Glenn Becks, Mike Huckabees, and Rush Limbaughs after such a tragedy accentuate a divide that goes beyond any particular political perspective—they reflect a moral worldview that makes no room for collective culpability or a language of national repentance.
3 The theocratic state
3.1 The President’s speech
3.1.1 Quote 1: the city on the hill
Quote (1) is clearly critical for two reasons. First, because it is the only explicitly religious reference in the entire speech (not counting some cursory mentions of heaven and the final invocation of God’s blessing) and certainly mention of scripture. Second, because if its context: it doesn’t have one. In the text of the full speech, it appears out of nowhere, being unrelated to the preceding paragraph, and the next paragraph does not depend on it in any way. Thus it stands apart as a significant statement of some truth, backed by the authority of scripture.
For ease of reference, here it is again:
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Why would President Obama quote these particular verses, which affirm that the city of God will not fall, but will be helped by God? The only conclusion, given the context whereby he is speaking at a ceremony commemorating what he has turned from a local to a national event, is that he is identifying not Tucson but the United States with the city of God, the dwelling place of the Most High.
That this could be said by the leader of a modern state, and with no significant voices raised in opposition, may seem strange. Certainly all countries have their own millenialists (e.g. Blake with ‘Jerusalem’) but they are seldom so firmly in the mainstream. And the mainstream is what this is, for we have just tapped into a rich vein of American mythology, the idea of the city on the hill, that America is a shining idea for humanity, in a sense the ideal state. This American Exceptionalism (as it is known) runs throughout the speech and the media response and will be critical to my argument.
3.1.2 Quote 2 : mythologisation of the state
I included quote (2) mostly for its humorous qualities, but it does have something valuable to say. Humorous, for what else can you say when an ostensibly educated man speaks of the ‘democracy envisioned by our founders’, when it is a matter of historical record that the Founding Fathers feared democracy, or that he should believe that a scene of rulers meeting the ruled is ‘quintessentially American’. But in fact we can draw some critical points even from this.
First, there is mythologisation: Mr Obama does not refer to the real Founding Fathers, who were, in essence, oligarchs, but the Founding Fathers of myth, who set out to create the greatest democracy on Earth. The mere fact that he speaks of ‘our founders’ involves the mythologisation of complex politics into a quasi-magical founding event, like the crossing of the Jordan. So the American state is given a mythical status, with appropriate foundation myth, and hence set apart from mere ordinary states, subject to the vagaries of history.
Second, note the way that he takes what is a rather humdrum part of politics – the petitioning of ruler by ruled – and turns it too into myth. Ms Gifford meeting her constituents, it is clear, is nothing so mundane as what happened when Mr Jones met his. Mr Jones was just doing his job, while Ms Gifford is made to play a role in what almost feels like a sacred drama. Once again, American Exceptionalism comes into play: events that to non-Americans seem everyday, are in the the United States given an almost numinous quality.
Hence we can recast the often rather infuriating American habit of claiming that the United States is best at this that and the other (consider, for example, then Senator Obama’s frankly bizarre claim that his story could have happened in no other nation on Earth) as being the sacralisation of history; it does not matter if the claims are made are not historically accurate, for they have the truth of myth.
3.1.3 Quote 3: the American dream
In quote 3, the crucial words are these:
our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.
The idea of a national task or destiny was relatively widespread in the nineteenth century (‘the civilising mission’) but has rather gone out of fashion on this side of the Atlantic, and it is rather surprising to hear the head of state of a major modern nation using it today. But think about what it means. It means that the nation is not the servant of the people. Rather the people are servants of some some undefined master that has set them a task, and they will be held accountable (again, by whom it is not clear) if they do not deliver accordingly. And it seems that the master is the state, created by its Founders with a specific goal in mind, that is for its people to work to create a ‘more perfect union’.
Now, setting aside its ahistorical aspects, this is, when considered dispassionately, quite a strange idea. Apart from anything else, it implies a strong belief in the concept of progress, a strong attachment to the rightly derided Whig view of history as a constant and purposive progression from worse to better. It also means that when anything bad (like, say the Tucson shootings) happens, then it cannot be dismissed as being simply an unfortunate event of the kind that are bound to happen even in the best run societies, because to say that would be to admit that there is no progress, there are just events. So the bad event must itself be purposive, a result of a failing of the people in their mighty task, to which they must therefore be rededicated, suitably chastened.
So what is the task? It is the protection of an idea: the American dream. Now I do not want to get drawn into a discussion of the American dream, as reams of print have poured over it with little enlightenment emerging. I will note merely some key points. First, the American dream is a concept that seems to be meaningful to all Americans and largely incomprehensible to everyone else, which we should take as suggestive. Second, it is clearly not a thing, but an idea, an article of faith; one that somehow has power to grant to believers some ill-defined benefit (that this is not always positive is trenchantly pointed out in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins). And third, it is somehow up to the people of the United States to ensure that it remains intact, which means that it is not an ordinary idea. Putting all of this together, it is clear that what we have is a sacred task: to preserve the faith and pass it on. And if the people do this then good things will happen to them.
3.1.4 Quotes 4 & 5: belief in perfectibility
In quote 4, President Obama says that he believes that the American people can be better. Now what does that mean? Better than what? Measured how? And by whom? This is not just an espousal of the Whig view of history, this is an outright statement of faith in its central tenet of purposive progress. There is no room here for doubt, or for the possibility, say, that sometimes bad things just happen, because to accept that would be to deny the American dream.
Then in quote 5, he speaks of forging a worthy country. Once again we see the imagery around progress, and the task of the American people to build this uniquely special state, one worthy of children, and worthy of the American Dream.
Thus again, the American people are set apart. Other peoples labour in service to an idea, so it is necessary to distinguish why the American idea is right, while (say) an Islamic theocracy, is not. American exceptionalism comes to the rescue again: the American idea is the right idea simply because it is American, and America is not like unto other nations. It is therefore not surprising that events mundane in the rest of the world have special significance in the United States, and the idea of America is held so high. For if the United States is not the city on the hill, is not the shining example that all else wish to emulate, then this whole cult of the state will come crashing down.
3.2 Underpinnings of the President’s speech
3.2.1 The United States as theocracy
Let me say immediately the word that was held back throughout the last section. What we clearly have here is a secular religion, with the President as high priest, and the deity being represented by the great idea that the people must serve. We do not have to look very far for sacred texts either. The extraordinary reverence with which Americans treat their Constitution is always very noteworthy.
Consider, for the example, the debate (if such it can be called) over gun control in the United States. Sooner or later (generally much sooner) it comes down to this: person A makes the case for gun control, person B cites the Second Amendment and then person A either plays word games with the Amendment’s text (which, though they may be valid, is not a winning strategy) or gives up discomfited. It never seems to occur to person A to make the riposte that perhaps the Founding Fathers got it wrong. And yet that is such an obvious thing to say, or rather it is if you have not been indoctrinated to see the Founding Fathers as eternally wise guardians of truth and liberty, and the constitution as not an instrument of the state but as a perfect blueprint for the perfect state (apart from the bits about slavery, of course).
This is not a normal attitude to constitutional law, but it is the normal attitude to scripture. Realising this, so much makes sense. The refusal to accept that the Second Amendment no longer works comes from viewing it as holy writ, rather than simply as a law which is hence infinitely malleable. Similarly, the regular impasse over whether to legislate on such and such or so and so could easily be circumvented if only it were possible to accept that laws founding a small, predominantly agrarian and static society may no longer work for a huge, increasingly post-industrial and highly dynamic society. Or if legislators could bring themselves to accept that gridlock is endemic not because their opponents are bad, but precisely because the Founding Fathers deliberately designed it into the Constitution in a bid to prevent change. For that would require accepting that the Founding Fathers were men with their own political agenda (to ensure their own hegemony) and not demigods serving a higher purpose.
3.2.2 The nature of the theocracy
In fact we can say more about the theocratic regime I have just described. It is a very specific form of theocracy: that is to say, it follows the form of scriptural Judaism. A group of people (usually the children of Jacob, here the people of the United States) are set apart from the rest of humanity by virtue of their being chosen as worthy of the beneficence of a god (usually JHVH, here the idea of the American Dream). A group of mighty culture heroes (usually Moses and the early prophets, here the Founding Fathers) create the law (usually the Torah, here the Constitution) that the people must obey in order to continue to be smiled on by the god. They are told that other peoples are lesser than them, and the world is theirs to exploit, but that they must keep the law. And there is a covenant: so long as they keep the law, the god will give them good things, but so soon as any one of them breaks the law, then the wrath of the god shall be visited on (crucially) the whole people. When this happens, what is required is an act of collective penance, and reaffirmation of the law.
If we look at the narrative of the historical books of Scripture, we see this pattern over and again. The people of Judah or Israel do bad things in the eyes of the Lord (usually by worshipping foreign gods, which perhaps have as their analogue ‘un-American’ ideas), generally under the rule of a bad king. Then the king is deposed, a good ruler appears, leads the people in penance and a return to primitive values, and the Lord’s blessing is restored.
Looking at the American model, and specifically at the events at Tucson, the parallel is disturbingly clear. We clearly have the idea of the United States as different, set apart, special, better, a land in which concepts that work perfectly well in the rest of the world simply do not apply (e.g. the observation that more guns make more murders) or cannot possibly work (e.g. comprehensive tax-fuelled health-care). In fact, they cannot work in the United States precisely because they do work so well in the rest of the world, for that marks them out as being un-American (just as anything non-Jacobite peoples did was bad in the eyes of the Lord and should be shunned).
And now, in Tucson we have an event that is clearly incompatible with the American Dream, which obviously doesn’t involve guns bought over the counter from actually being used to, well, kill people. And, exactly as we would expect, given the Scriptural analogy, the reaction was incomprehension followed by a national collapse. The extraordinary national reaction to what should have been just a tragic local event follows because it cannot, within the Scriptural analogy, be seen as a random bad event, a sign that we live in an imperfect universe. To accept that would be to deny the ultimate perfection of the universe, and hence deny the god / American Dream, which is unthinkable. The shooting had to be of significance: it was a sign that the god had turned on the people, and that the people as a whole were being punished for some infraction of the law.
And so the people sinned and must make penance. Now, this is what the right had been saying for some time (e.g. the touchingly naive claim that Obamacare is socialist, and hence un-American), and from them we heard the call for a return to the virtue of strict adherence to the Constitution (except for the bits about slavery). This is little different from the perpetual plaint of the Prophets that children of Jacob must turn again to the Lord. President Obama obviously had to make the case that he was the true prophet, and very cannily, in language reminiscent of a preacher, he, as we have seen above, recounted the founding myth of the United States and made a case that by following him in an act of mass repentance, the people could regain the blessing of the American Dream.
So, the narrative underlying the Tucson shooting is that of a chosen people who see in a bad event the sign that the blessing of the idea they follow has been withdrawn, and who are seeking a way to regain it. The centre and the right may disagree on what constitutes the best way forward (President Obama’s agenda of masterful inaction or the right’s constitutional fundamentalism), but they clearly agree on the covenantual American myth, and the need to renew the covenant through a collective act of the American people.
3.2.3 Implications of the model
It’s instructive to look at implications of the model of covenantual theocracy, to see if they match with what we know of the United States, both as a test for the theory, and as a way of explicating aspects of American culture that may seem baffling to outsiders.
Consider the mythologisation of virtually every aspect of American life, and the urge to ritualise everyday events. For example, sporting events acquire a whole penumbra that makes no sense whatever if they are viewed just as sporting events, but which makes a lot of sense if they are instead to be seen as ritual actions. So whereas in the rest of the world, on the whole teams are content to get on with playing the game, in the United States the players are only part of the team: there are the mascots and the cheer-leaders, and they have by now become an integral part of the event itself. Sport, is, of course not the only ritualised aspect of society. So apparently ordinary an event as the spring vacation has acquired a special cultural status and the life of a student consists of negotiating a succession of rites which are hallowed because, well because they are.
This makes perfect sense in terms of the model. If a people is sacred, then all its acts must have significance, and its collective activities are essentially religious rites. Also now explicable is the idealisation of certain aspects of American social history. So we have the recurrent cultural image of the small town and Main Street, where everyone knows everyone else and no-one has any ambition for change. This is one aspect of the curious strand of anti-modernism inherent in much American thinking, and most clearly expressed by Thoreau, which leads to another archetype: the self-supporting yeoman farmer, an ideal going back to Jefferson which is extremely important to the modern right.
These archetypal ideals make no sense if the United States is an ordinary culture: they root it in an unreal past which can only hinder any attempt to accommodate to current reality. However, in terms of the covenantual theocracy they are easily comprehensible. Just as the inhabitants of Israel and Judah looked back to mythical times when things were better and the Lord smiled on them, the people of the United States mythologise the ideal society in which the American Dream is achieved. Thus being anchored in the mythic past is precisely what is desired, and accommodation to current reality is shunned, as that would entail accepting that the law is other than perfect. There is even a clear parallel between the myth of the stout yeoman, who lives at peace with his neighbour and is unbeholden to government, and the myth of the time of the Judges, when Israel and Judah had no monarchy and the people lived in harmony.
This line of thought chimes with a long-standing theme in American political culture which asserts that the state essentially has no business getting involved in the lives of individuals. It firmly rejects the notion that the State acts as guarantor of their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, seeing these rights as inherent in the individual, and seeing it as the individual’s duty to protect them. As I said above, this idea enters American political discourse at the very outset of the Republic, with Jefferson’s vision of the yeoman farmer, and it continues to this day, as motivation for those groups that believe that the United States government is illegitimate, and has entered mainstream political discourse: an oft-cited justification for gun ownership is for protection of the individual from the overweening power of the state; similarly, one argument put forward as to why universal free health-care is a bad thing is that it infringes the individual’s liberties.
All this means that the state is seen as a bad thing, as it stands between the individual and the realisation of their rights as guaranteed by the Constitution. And this is exactly paralleled by the attitude to the state found in the books of Judges and Samuel: the state takes upon itself the role of leadership that is the Lord’s alone, and so it is illegitimate (until the Lord specifically says otherwise); hence the divine anger at Saul. The analogy extends even to the belief that individuals should protect themselves rather than rely on the state (police-forces or armies) to do so. So once more there is an exact parallel between one of the (many) mystifying features of American culture and the scriptural theocracy, with JHVH replaced by the nebulous ‘American Way’, and the Constitution as the Law. This renders any man-made law an abomination, for divine law – in the form of the Constitution – is the sole law, and human law-making is encroachment onto the prerogative of the divine, as expressed through the Founding Fathers / prophets.
Thus we see one of the deep paradoxes at the heart of American culture (and indeed, Biblical Judaism): a culture that emphasises the role of the collective, in that crimes against the law lead to collective retribution and require collective penance, and which emphasises that the people as a collective are set apart, also emphasises that any attempt by the people to define their own collective structures is trespass upon the prerogatives of the divine (and will itself be punished). So the theocratic culture is at once deeply conformist (one must obey the law in all things) and strongly anti-statist. In the case of the United States this paradox is only deepened by the fact that the role of the divine is filled by the American Dream, which is not a dream of social harmony, but one of individual fulfillment. And so, just as the Old Testament praises those heroes who took the law into their own hands in defence of Israel and Judah, as we shall see below, American society has always contained self-empowering defenders of the law, from the rough justice of the old West to the anti-statist terrorists of today.
Moving on, American society’s deep-seated xenophobia coupled with the urge to say, as regards any topic, that the United States did it first, does it best, is better than the rest of the world and so on and so forth (even, indeed, especially when it is not true) is quite mysterious if the United States is viewed as a normal modern state. But if it is a sacralised theocracy everything changes. Foreigners then become not just other people, but those who deny the truth of the law and god. And clearly no unbeliever can do anything better than the anointed people; in fact it is impossible that they could.
This mind-set is set out clearly in the Old Testament, and is found in theocracies around the world today. So it is not surprising that we have on our hands a state even whose most liberal thinkers seem unable to conceive of the fact that international law applies to them too. Indeed, the universal horror at the idea of American soldiers being tried for war-crimes in a foreign court becomes much easier to understand within this context: for how can those who are doing the work of the god be held to account by the god’s enemies? Similarly, there can be little benefit from working with foreigners, as is seen, depressingly clearly, in the pay-off phrase of President Obama’s recent State of the Union Address: ‘We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the world.’ Obviously the idea of mutually beneficial co-operation is unthinkable: what can unbelievers have of value to offer to the chosen people? And equally obvious, America must be first or nothing, for to not be first would mean that the favour of the god has been withdrawn.
Which leads on to the most unpalatable consequence of the model. Any act undertaken by one of the chosen people in the name of the god is justified if it serves the god’s purpose. Thus the Old Testament repeatedly tells of atrocities committed by the children of Jacob as a whole or by individuals which, had they been committed by foreigners, would have been considered abominable. And, very regrettably, we see only too clearly in the modern world, evidence of the belief that anything that an American does in defence of the American way of life is considered acceptable. Thus indefinite internment without trial is acceptable if the individual interned is foreign (Guantanamo detainees) or has made himself an outcast (Bradley Manning).
And, most pathological of all, the actions of Jared Loughner, the Tucson shooter, most if not all of those who have attempted or succeeded in political murder in the United States, and terrorists like Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber, are based in precisely this belief coupled with the radical anti-statist strand of American thought noted above. The state has rendered itself outcast by passing laws contrary to god’s law, and following false gods, and so it is the individual’s right and duty to strike against it. Thus the myth of the upstanding individual and group casuistry result in the American polity devouring itself.
3.3 Reaction to the President’s speech
Looking at the reaction to President Obama’s speech from the left, we see that it conforms absolutely to the theocratic model.
3.3.1 Quotes 6, 7 and 8: collective penance
Quote 6 deserves to be reproduced again in full:
Judging from most news coverage, it appears we’ve failed to recognize the impossibility of separating the killer from the rest of us. If we just blame Jared Lee Loughner, we’re committing what psychologists call an “attribution error”. That’s when an incident is blamed on the individual instead of the situation — or the system.
This can be read in several ways. Surely, Loughner was influenced by the commons of ideas within which he existed, and, whatever the NRA may say to the contrary, such crimes as his would be much harder to commit if firearms were not so readily available. And yet to deny him individual responsibility for the act, to (as this author seems to) ignore the fact that he suffers from severe mental illness and had of his own free will entered into that nexus of ideas that forms the extreme anti-statist part of American culture, is to convert him from a human being into an empty vessel into which one can pour ones own obsessions and beliefs about what is wrong with America. In other words, it is to do to him precisely what he did to Ms Gifford.
But we can read more from this quote, for its author clearly wants us to accept that guilt for Loughner’s act belongs to each and every American, and that ‘the system’ is responsible. This is precisely covenantual thinking. ‘The system’, which I take the author to be the state of affairs in the American polity today, and the people have sinned in deviating from the way things should be in America, and Loughner’s crime and the dead innocents are the punishment of heaven for this deviation. And so America must do penance, reform and return to the true path.
Quotes 7 and 8 make this quite clear: quote 7 says ‘More precisely, will America become a modern and prosperous democracy?’ and quote 8 says ‘Our challenge on the road from Tucson is not just wither America?… but whether America.’ In both cases the survival of the Republic as a whole is linked to a proper response to Tucson, and this precisely parallels the way that the Lord allows Judah and Israel to fall because they have turned from him, and only allows the restoration after a suitable period of penance.
So, there is clear evidence here for a theocratic narrative. It is the only way of making sense of what must otherwise seem wildly hyperbolic reactions to what, in a nation where there are tens or murders every day, was not a particularly unusual crime. For to link the future of the republic to this shooting seems a gross over-reaction. Unless, that is, it is seen not as the product of a deranged mind, but as a sign of divine anger.
3.3.2 Quote 9: the higher moral purpose
Quote 9 more or less spells out my thesis for us: ‘the president accentuates the best of an American idealistic tradition that acknowledges the existence of evil while maintaining hope that the nation can find the collective will to gain a higher moral ground and eradicate it’. If the nation acts properly as a collective then it can overcome evil. This is simply extraordinary; this is no mere denial of theodicy, it is the assertion almost that it is America’s destiny to conquer sin. And this gives an important pointer to the next stage in my argument: such a sentiment can only emerge from a world-view that believes that we humans are perfectible, that evil is not inherent in human nature, but rather an expungable stain upon it.
But for now the more interesting, and worrying, part of this statement is that relating to gaining the higher moral ground. As we note above, the belief by many Americans that they do inhabit the higher moral ground, simply by virtue of being American, and that their higher morality does not need to coincide with non-American definitions, has led to more than one abomination. We are not told what the higher moral ground consists of, or whether it involves Americans limiting their actions so that they will be moral. Rather it seems that an act of collective will makes open a space where America is morally higher by default, and that anything Americans may do must conform to this higher morality. We are back with group casuistry, which maps precisely onto the Old Testament model.
3.3.3 Quotes 10 & 11: more collective penance
We now return to collective penance, but with a twist. Quote 10 starts off by saying that ‘No doubt this rhetoric appeals to the conservative ethos of freedom and individual responsibility, but it is a rhetoric that lacks any sense that some collective response is required of us’. This is interesting, because it shows an example in action of the tension I noted above between the individualist and collectivist sides of the American coin, which are falsely labelled ‘right’ and ‘left’, when in fact both are clearly extremely conservative, merely differing in what they consider to be the correct way of returning to primal purity. Again, this is a key pointer to the next stage in the argument.
The quote continues: ‘they missed the ways Obama attempted to set a penitent tone, calling Americans to a higher level of moral accountability.’ And once again we get the mystifying assumption that all Americans should be held accountable for the actions of one individual. Or rather, mystifying unless understood within the model of the theocratic state. The people have sinned (presumably this writer would say by placing too much emphasis on ‘freedom and individual responsibility’) and have been punished, and now all must do penance.
Note, parenthetically, how extraordinary it is to find a commentator writing in what likes to believe itself to be the freest nation on Earth, where liberty is a prime virtue, and criticising an ethos of freedom and individual responsibility as if it is a bad thing. But even here the theocratic model is of help: in the Old Testament it is repeatedly made clear that the children of Jacob are free only in so far as they do the Lord’s will, and there is repeated imagery which rams home the fact that the Lord takes responsibility: his people’s role is simply to passively do his bidding.
And finally, in quote 11 our author condemns the ‘right’ in what he seems to think are the strongest possible terms: ‘they reflect a moral worldview that makes no room for collective culpability or a language of national repentance.’ Such a worldview would, of course, run counter to the entire theocratic enterprise.
So, the conclusion from all this is that many of the features of American culture that make little or no sense to outsiders (especially the mystery that is the American Dream) make no sense because we are looking at the United States through the wrong conceptual scheme. Viewed as a modern, open society, the United States is strange, even pathological, but when viewed as a secular recreation of the Old Testament theocracy, where every action becomes sacred and is therefore made into myth, it becomes explicable. Clearly other nations should bear this in mind when dealing with the United States, for otherwise only confusion can result.
4 Ideas of the state
Now, I am fairly certain that it was not the intention of the Founding Fathers to create a theocracy with a secular state religion. However, it is clear that whatever was their intention, it provided a seed-bed in which theocracy could grow very successfully. And it to the nature of this seed-bed that I want to turn next, for it turns out that some aspects of the theocracy do derive directly from the founders’ intentions (e.g. Jeffersonian anti-statist individualism) while others were enabled by them.
In this section I therefore re-examine the theocracy by considering what kind of ideas about the nature of society had to be current in order for it to come into being and thrive as it has. The conclusion highlights two very different models for society based on different views of human nature: the American or ‘optimistic’ model results in a collectivist illiberal state, while the European or ‘pessimistic’ model results in a communitarian liberal state; the separation seemingly arises out of very different conclusions drawn at the end of the second world war
I should add a disclaimer at this point. I personally espouse the pessimistic view and the concept of the liberal state, and as such I find it hard to be dispassionate when comparing and contrasting it with the optimistic model. However, with this bias understood, and the reader forewarned, we can proceed to the analysis.
4.2 The United States and Rousseau’s natural man
4.2.1 Optimism in political philosophy
Let me start by making it clear that in the context of this discussion, ‘optimism’ does not have its normal informal meaning of having a generally positive outlook on life. Rather, it is a specific technical term defining a particular school of moral and political philosophy, which believes that the tendency to commit bad acts is not inherent in human nature, but is rather a consequence of the perversion of our naturally good nature by the unnatural strictures imposed upon us by society.
Optimism is most commonly associated with Rousseau, who is perhaps its most notable proponent, but, as we shall see, it stretches back to antiquity. Let me recount the basic thesis. The theory sets up a basic antinomy between the good, which is natural, versus the bad, which is unnatural. These implications are equivalences, so not only are bad things contrary to nature, but anything contrary to nature is bad, while good things are natural and all natural things are good.
At first sight this merely looks like anti-modernist, if somewhat naive, conservatism, but now consider the status of humanity within this model. People are, of their nature, natural things. And thus, according to the model, should be naturally good. This is manifestly untrue. Rousseau solved this problem with his key insight: the theory of the natural man. According to this, humans are naturally good, but the culture of existing societies is corrupt, and so corrupts that natural goodness. Which leads to the interesting question of how corrupted societies could have come about as a result of the actions of naturally good humans. The answer appears to be that for some reason or other, people were tempted to start to behave in an unnatural way, and so, because the unnatural is bad, were themselves corrupted, and then subsequent generations were corrupted by being born into an already corrupt society.
Therefore, Rousseau advocated overturning the established order and reverting to the state of the ‘noble savage’, where humanity’s natural goodness would once more come to the fore. The political impact of this is epitomised by the famous statement ‘man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.’ Humanity must return to primal freedom. So, rather than a complex state, there should be a collection of free individuals.
This is where Rousseau runs into problems. If the individuals are all free of any unnatural constraint, which means, amongst other things, free of law, then as they have free will, what is to prevent them from running riot? Two answers to this have been given. First, that the natural man has no inclination to do bad things. But if that were so, how did corrupt, unnatural societies come to be in the first place? Second that the individual is subjugated to the collective, in that the individual is free to do only that which the collective permits. So there is no law, but there is a means of collective social control, and only by submitting to the collective will can people become truly free.
That this theory is singularly naive and bears no relationship to the world as we know it should be self-evident (it is hard to view the manifestly natural behaviour of our closest relatives as being very different from that of modern humans, which is, according to Rousseau, bad). Two other points worth noting are as follows. First, the ostensibly godless Rousseau has, in his theory of the natural man, simply recounted the Biblical narrative of the Fall. Second, the paradoxical celebration of the individual’s freedom, coupled with that individual’s subjugation to the collective will is almost the defining feature of fascist regimes from Sparta to the twentieth century dictatorships and today’s pseudo-Islamic extremist hegemonism.
4.2.2 Optimism in the United States
Looking at this theory in the light of our discussion of the United States, it should come as no surprise that Rousseau was a major influence on the Founding Fathers. The Jeffersonian yeoman farmer model clearly derives from Rousseau’s natural man, who makes his own law. And we see in the theory precisely the tension we saw in American society between Jeffersonian individualism and collectivism. Even the anti-modernism chimes with the idealisation of an unreal past that we have noted.
Thus it is clear that the United States is founded on a basis of an optimistic view of human nature. This is, indeed, probably a necessary precondition for the theocratic state, for if the people were not naturally good, there could be no millenial hope of perfectability, and they would not obviously be set apart from the corrupted other. Indeed, it is probably not surprising that it is particularly in the United States that we see evolutionary biologists who seriously claim that homo sapiens alone among species has no biologically determined aspect to its behaviour (for if it did, then that would imply first that the species is not perfectible, and second that its members are not naturally good).
4.2.3 Other political optimists
What is surprising, and rather amusing, is to consider which other political groups espouse a similar optimistic philosophy. The first, and most obvious, case is communists. Rousseau’s influence on Marx is manifest, and the ideas of perfectibility and that the natural human is a tabula rasa are common in communist thought, as also is the paradox of promising individual rights while subordinating them to an all-powerful state. The other group is the pseudo-Islamic extremists. In classical Islam, jihad is waged based on a consensual decision of the members of the polity; the extremists replaced this communitarian approach with a Jeffersonian one: the individual has the right to decide for themselves what jihad should be waged, and then to do it. Moreover, the lifecycle of an extremist (self-radicalise via Internet, break with conventional society, commit acts of terror) is startlingly similar whether they be pseudo-Islamists or home-grown American terrorists.
Thus it seems that the very groups that successive American leaders have labelled the greatest threat to the American way of life (note: it is not the American polity that is at risk, but a model for how to live) are precisely those with which America has most in common. This is probably not surprising.
4.3 The alternative
4.3.1 Hobbesian pessimism
Thomas Hobbes, the crucial modern pessimistic political philosopher, has received something of a bad press, largely because people like to think of themselves as being Rousseau’s naturally good individuals, and so like to formulate political and social opinions based on ideal cases, and so dislike the reminder that in reality ideal cases scarcely ever happen, and that it is better to be prepared for the worst than to be caught napping when the bad happens. However, his philosophy is hugely important for, as I shall show, it is the basis of the modern liberal open society. It is, as I have said in the introduction, an amusing apparent paradox that an optimistic view of human nature leads to fascism, while a pessimistic view leads to liberalism.
The basic difference between Rousseau and Hobbes is that Hobbes has no truck with the idea of the innate goodness of humankind. He insists that we are all imperfect beings, largely motivated by self-interest, and that people doing bad things to one another is something inherent in human nature. So for Hobbes there is such a thing as human nature, there is not the optimist’s blank slate. This view is, of course, much more in accord with reality than the noble savage theory. Again, our closest relatives have all of our foibles and readily commit violence, rape, murder and even (it seems) war.
The next observation is this. Societies exist because people can co-operate to their mutual benefit. That is obvious, but note mutual benefit: here we have no idea of action out of pure goodness. But now, as soon as we have societies then there is the possibility for individuals to exploit others; they take but not give. Exploitation is clearly beneficial to the exploiter, so there is an incentive to exploit, and so exploitation will spread until either the society becomes unstable and collapses (because a huge superstructure is dependent on exploitation of a tiny foundation) or else warfare breaks out. Either way, an unregulated society will collapse into chaos, which negates the point of forming a society.
So, society must be regulated in order to maintain stability, which means that exploitative behaviours must be prevented. But note an absolutely critical point, which underpins the distinction of this model from the optimistic model. The purpose here is not to dictate what is good; it is to prevent that which inhibits people from making best use of their abilities for mutual benefit. So whereas the optimist says: ‘People are inherently good, therefore the collective can determine that which is good and then everyone should follow that diktat’, the pessimist says: ‘People are inherently selfish, therefore to prevent selfishness from causing catastrophe we will limit specific selfish behaviours’. The optimist defines a goal and then dictates that all must work towards it; the pessimist limits negative behaviours, but leaves individuals free to find their own goals.
So we have the central paradox. The optimist claims to speak for the individual noble savage, but shackles that individual to a collective agenda. The pessimist speaks of the benefit of society, but leaves the individual free to act, so long as they do not exploit others. Bluntly: the optimist is a fascist; the pessimist is a liberal.
4.3.2 Pessimistic states
What defines an open society has been clearly set out by Popper and Hayek. There are four key points. First, there is a clear and strictly-defined system of law which the state abides by, so any individual can tell in advance whether any proposed act is legal or extra-legal, and whether or not they risk state intervention. This does not mean that the laws have to be ‘nice’ or ‘moderate’. All that matters is that the individual knows that if they do not commit any explicitly outlawed act, then the state will have no interest in them. Second, the system of law must be deterministic. That is, two individuals accused of the same infraction will have the same standards of proof applied in the determination of guilt, and, if found guilty, will incur the same penalty. The law does not care who you are, it cannot be bought off, and it cannot be swayed by external considerations. Again, this does not mean that the justice system has to be particularly ‘liberal’, merely that it is impartial and not subject to political interference. Third, outside of acts specifically outlawed by the system of law, the state has no interest in an individual’s actions. That is, any act that is not illegal is permitted. There is no concept of a ‘greater good’, or of a model of behaviour to which individuals should aspire. Fourth, and most important of all, the state is held accountable for its compliance with the first three points.
Looking at the definition, it is clear that an open society is pessimistic. A succinct way of expressing the fundamental principle underlying the pessimistic theory is that the state exists as a means to protect people from one another. So, it is accepted that bad behaviour is inevitable, and that the state should intervene to limit certain disruptive behaviours. and so it is determined which behaviours are injurious to the stability of society, these becoming the subject of the judicial system. But now, as the state is concerned solely with maintaining social stability, once this list of injurious behaviours has been determined, any action not on the list has been deemed uninjurious, and so is of no interest to the state. As the purpose of any justice system is purely to maintain the stability of society, rather than to serve a higher goal, there is no purpose to it being anything other than deterministic, for there is no value in treating A differently to B when what concerns one is not the purity of an ideal, but the injurious act that (it is claimed) was committed. And finally, the principle that the state must be held accountable follows automatically once one applies pessimism to the state itself: its behaviour must be limited just as must that of individuals.
Now, I have observed that it is not the laws themselves that matter, but rather the way they are applied. The same is true of the mode of government, for, contrary to common myth, there is no law of nature that states that in order to be liberal a society must be a democracy. It is, after all, arguable that Rome was at its most liberal, in the sense of respecting the right of the individual to self-determination within the law, under the imperiates of Augustus and Vespasian; certainly the Republic was very close to being a closed society: indeed, one of the main charges made against Caesar by the likes of Cato was that he was ambitious! On the other hand, the Athenian Republic, though in fact a democracy of a very pure kind, was the state which invented ostracism, which subjected ‘decent’ women to a regime equalling that of the Taleban in severity (though, strangely, allowing considerable freedom to prostitutes and hetaira), and which judicially murdered Socrates for corrupting youth and impiety – both crimes that can only exist in a society where that which is good has been defined.
4.3.3 The United States as a closed society
Consider the United States as measured against the four principles defining an open society. First, the system of laws is reasonably well codified, but in some places is now so complex that it is hard to determine what is lawful and what is not. Second, the judicial system is notoriously non-deterministic, given (a) the undue preponderance of poor, black men in the prison population, (b) the system’s unusual habit of judicially murdering people for crimes that it has been proven they did not commit, (c) the clearly documented fact that money and influence talk, (d) whether something is or is not a crime, and what sentence will be applied if one is found guilty can vary depending on where one is tried (to the extent that prosecutors shop around for locations to hold a trial, so as to gain the maximum punishment), and (e) the lack of sub judice laws, which effectively allows cases to be pre-judged. Third, indeterminate detention without charge means that the state can deprive an individual of liberty without having to give a reason. Moreover, many ‘national security’ measures have the effect of reversing the presumption of innocence. Thus the state can intervene whenever it wishes, and does not need to account for itself when it does so. Finally, the system is (as we have just observed) unaccountable. In one particularly interesting case, a group of convictions were called into question when it was discovered that they all derived from the work of one police officer, who stood accused of entrapment and falsification of evidence. One or two of those imprisoned have been released, but there has been no general review of the convictions, and the individual in question still works in law-enforcement. The United States is not an open society.
Looking at the world today, the pessimistic open society is most clearly realised in modern Europe (excluding, of course, Russia, and with the proviso that the Code Napoleon has optimistic tendencies), Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Japan and South Korea, and it is the basic model for much of South America and parts of Africa. This range of examples shows quite clearly that open societies can cover quite a range of social models. This is not, of course, to say that the open society is realised perfectly in any of those societies; however it is clear that the intention is for society to enable the individual rather than constrain them, so, in as far as an open society can be said to have aspirations, their aspiration is to become more open. On the other hand, the bastions of the closed society are (former) communist states, Middle Eastern dictatorships (though that is changing) and the United States of America: all states which (to a greater or lesser extent) have a theocratic myth.
4.4 Optimisim and pessimism as systems
It is safe to say that in Western Europe the second world war killed political optimism. The abominations committed by the Third Reich stem from the fact that it too was an optimistic, secular theocracy, which set the ‘aryan’ people above all others and worshipped ‘racial purity’ as its god. Indeed, the horrors of the Holocaust can be seen almost as a grotesque, modernistic rewriting of the early parts of the book of Joshua. Thus, before the war there may have been talk of ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘the white man’s burden’, but that was all put to a very firm end as one of the many lessons learned from the war.
Strangely, this lesson was not learned in the United States. It seems that there the lesson was seen as being that the horrors had happened because Europe was priest-ridden, king-ridden, class-ridden, undemocratic and basically un-American. Thus, America could never suffer from its own horror, because it, by virtue of its ideal society, was set apart. In other words, the myth of American Exceptionalism led to the belief that the United States was somehow inoculated against fascism, which in turn strengthened the Exceptionalist myth, as one does not react to the prevalence of a disease by reducing the dose of the antidote.
The theocratic exceptionalist myth is self-reinforcing. The pessimistic world-view can accommodate bad events because it is predicated on their possible occurrence, so they are accepted as just something that happens and have little long-term effect. However, in the optimist’s world such events should not occur, and so when they do there must be a cause or reason. And as the only available reason is failure to properly serve the collective good (the god of the theocratic state), the only possible reaction is to redouble efforts at serving that good. Now, optimism has no basis in reality, and so bad events will continue to occur, and each time the optimistic society will become that bit more extreme. This means that the pessimist’s response to any crisis of trying to find a workable solution is impossible, as technocratic solutions constitute by their nature a denial of the notion of a right path. And so the centre-ground is abandoned as factions move to greater and greater extremes.
This is absolutely what we see in the United States today, with extremism on both ‘left’ and ‘right’, and any attempt at centrist compromise lambasted from both sides as a betrayal. And so, in the end, all that America’s leaders can offer to their people is hope. And that is the last thing any society needs, for hope, a promise, a dream, breeds only disappointment, dissatisfaction and despair.