American identity, torture and the game of political indignation

Adversarial Journalism™ is a gimmick that far from serving as an agent of change, functions much more as an opiate of the people, sustaining the status quo.

Whenever politics is reduced to us and them, it goes without saying that the problem is them.

And when this polarity is between a powerful political establishment and weak but loud voices of dissent, dissent becomes inclined to follow the path of least resistance. The path of least resistance is one that leads nowhere because it predicts that change is impossible.

Those taking a stand against imperial power do so while insisting it is deaf to its critics.

Thus the master du jour of adversarial journalism, Glenn Greenwald, wrote this in response to the release of the Senate torture report:

Any decent person, by definition, would react with revulsion to today’s report, but nobody should react with confidence that its release will help prevent future occurrences by a national security state that resides far beyond democratic accountability, let alone the law.

Even though there is some truth to this conclusion it nevertheless employs a polemical deceit which is to implicitly absolve America culturally and nationally for the use of torture and locates them — the bad guys — all inside the national security state.

Ironically, this is the same strategy for damage control so often used inside government: avoid facing systemic problems by focusing attention on a few bad apples.

In American adversarial journalism, America’s bad apple is Washington.

In an interview in Salon today, Elias Isquith asks Greenwald whether he sees in the torture story, the story of “a society-wide failure,” but Greenwald frames his response in terms of the culpability of the political and media establishment and a society that has passively become desensitized. Rather than see society-wide failure, he seems to prefer to cast American society as another victim — a view that supports the us vs. them mentality of his American audience, which has a strong preference for railing against Power rather than looking in the mirror.

Dissent which opposes and yet never proposes is ultimately a game that justifies apathy and cynicism. It presents a picture of a rotten world in which our power extends no further than our ability to occasionally express our outrage.

But there is an alternative.

The starting point here is to acknowledge that the torture story is not just a story about the CIA, or the national security state, or Washington, or the media establishment, or post-9/11 America, but rather it is a story about America itself, its people and its history.

Those who remain stuck in the deeply worn tracks of political discourse are not so inclined to speak and think in such broad terms because once you start looking through the prisms of culture, history, and psychology, politics itself loses much of its dramatic significance.

The wide-angle view to which I allude is uncommon but thankfully I just stumbled across an example from Philip Kennicott.

During the thirteen years that I have been running this site, some of the most interesting and insightful commentaries I have highlighted came from Kennicott, the Art and Architecture Critic for the Washington Post.

His interest in form, its construction and its effect, naturally translates into a consideration of the contours of American identity in light and shadow.

Kennicott writes:

Our belief in the national image is astonishingly resilient. Over more than two centuries, our conviction that we are a benign people, with only the best of intentions, has absorbed the blows of darker truths, and returned unassailable. We have assimilated the facts of slavery and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, and we are still a good people; we became an empire, but an entirely benevolent one; we bombed Southeast Asia on a scale without precedent, but it had to be done, because we are a good people.

Even the atrocities of Abu Ghraib have been neutralized in our conscience by the overwhelming conviction that the national image transcends the particulars of a few exceptional cases. And now the Senate torture report has made the unimaginable entirely too imaginable, documenting murder, torture, physical and sexual abuse, and lies, none of them isolated crimes, but systematic policy, endorsed at the highest levels, and still defended by many who approved and committed them.

Again, it has become a conversation about the national image, this phoenix of self-deception that magically transforms conversations about what we have done into debates about what we look like. The report, claimed headlines, “painted a picture of an agency out of control,” and “portrays a broken CIA devoted to a failed approach.” The blow to the U.S. reputation abroad was seen as equally newsworthy as the details themselves, and the appalling possibility that there will never be any accountability for having broken our own laws, international law and the fundamental laws of human decency.

He concludes by saying: “we must learn that the national image is a hollow conceit. What we desperately need is a national conscience.”

For America to re-envision itself, for it to shed its vanity, maybe this doesn’t just require questioning how America defines itself but also who defines what it means to be American.

There are millions of Americans who (like me) are not Americans.

The process of so-called naturalization, even though it involves a ceremonial rebirth — acquiring citizenship and making the pledge of allegiance get staged like a religious conversion — doesn’t erase history.

Every American who grew up somewhere else, knows another culture and knows what America looks like from the outside.

America welcomes its immigrants, calls itself a nation of immigrants and yet those who were not born here are somehow not fully qualified to say what it means to be an American. The naturalization process can only ever be partially successful. We inevitably remain sullied by some impurities and the Constitution ensures that the sanctum sanctorum of American identity, the White House, will never be tainted by an occupant born on foreign soil.

America’s self-aggrandizing tendencies, it’s need to see itself as exceptional, what to the outsider can often look like simple arrogance, seems to me more like a relentless self-affirmation driven by an unspoken insecurity.

The myth of America’s greatness needs to be perpetually propped up as though if it was not pronounced often enough and not enough flags were flown, the image would swiftly collapse. America’s grandiosity is not matched by self-assurance. What other country is there whose leaders and citizens expend as much energy telling each other and themselves about the greatness of their nation?

This sense that America can only be sustained by its own self-worship, speaks to the fact that a society made up of people who virtually all came from somewhere else — directly or indirectly — has a national identity held together by weak glue.

Still, America’s disparate roots are in fact its greatest strength and its identity problem stems from a struggle to be what it is not while denying its real nature.

Those Americans who became torturers, thought they were defending America, and yet what they were really clinging onto was an identity that constructed an unbridgeable gulf between American and foreign. The only thing about which they had no doubt was that their victims were not American.

For Americans to stop dehumanizing others, they need to start embracing their own otherness.

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One thought on “American identity, torture and the game of political indignation

  1. Christopher Hoare

    I think the quoting here of the words attributed to Edmund Burke are appropriate…All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. The problem of America is that the evil has been neutralized so often that the few good men are abashed to oppose it.

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