Well, this blog just passed its’ first year mark a couple days ago. And while Daniel has dutifully set himself to writing consistently, posting constantly, and really making something out of this site over the past year, I think that my sum contribution has been something like three posts. Which is pretty pitiful. So, in order to start rectifying this sad state of affairs, let’s have an ongoing series exploring the culture and ideology of today’s right-wing America! Yippee!
“When fascism comes to America, they will call it anti-fascism”
Huey P. Long
In proper Orwellian fashion, the political parties in this country espouse most ardently the very things they hope to destroy. In the case of the American Right, they clutch Tradition and the Greater Good so tightly in their fists because they are seeking to obliterate them utterly. They do not believe in history. They do not believe in community. And for ostensible Christians, they certainly don’t believe in Original Sin.
Close scrutiny must be paid, therefore, to the political and rhetorical strategies that the minions of the Naked Empire deploy, the masks that they assume and the themes that they trumpet. For instance, at last year’s Republican National Convention, one theme that subtly wove its way through most of the speeches was particularly forceful and insistent. It was the idea that America was a place where, if you kept your head down and worked hard, you could achieve success in life (i.e. material success). The cultural weight of this idea should not be mis-underestimated, as it were. I think it’s one of the foundational narratives of our country, and I believe it’s particularly important to the ethos of the Republican Party.
The absolute primal myth of American culture is the so-called “American Dream,” where a poor man picks himself up by his bootstraps and achieves fabulous wealth through diligence, innovation, and a good Protestant work ethic. What this story teaches us about the world, if viewed sort of retroactively, is that everyone is where they deserve to be. A person’s economic status is completely within their own control, and is directly proportional to the amount of resourcefulness and effort they put into their work.
It follows then that the rich have become rich because they work harder and smarter, and the poor are poor because they don’t work hard enough or waste their money on foolish things (one begins to hear the faint echo of Social Darwinism rising from the depths). And of course, this outlook holds true for the way in which America views itself in the world. We are the most powerful and wealthiest nation on the planet because of our own great merits, our American can-do spirit and our love of freedom. And naturally, we believe that the inverse holds true for the Global South, but more on First World / Third World relations later.
“And one thing I learned about America is that if you work hard and if you play by the rules, this country is truly open to you. You can achieve anything”
RNC Speech, 8-31-04
One can immediately see why this is among the most attractive narratives to those in power, because, in a sense, it justifies their privilege and wealth. It’s also attractive to those who desperately crave privilege and wealth, since it tells them that their dreams are not only achievable, but, in point of fact, darn near inevitable given that they follow the well-trodden path of working within the system. I suspect that this story becomes less and less compelling the further one travels down the socio-economic ladder, with the cold needle of reality working its way closer and closer to the soap-bubble of the self-made man.
(Incidentally, I think this goes some way towards explaining why the Republican Party, the party of the American Dream mythology par excellence, is appealing to upper and middle-class whites as well as the “new” minorities. I think recent immigrants to this country are more likely to buy into the promise of a meritocracy than those who have been around long enough to have that particular illusion painfully dispelled. This is a gross generalization, I know, but I think this (along with a confluence of socially conservative values) does help to explain the Latino flirtation with the Republican Party while illustrating why there is no similar flirtation from the (equally church-going) African American community).
It was said famously of George W. Bush that he was born on third base but acts like he just hit a triple, and I think that this a pretty accurate description of the attitude engendered by the ideology of the self-made man. It’s a smug mix of entitlement and a sense of accomplishment. And this attitude has a particularly complicated set of ideas about the past and about history, which is what I would like to try and explore for a bit (provided I can curb my Rampant Tangent Penchant (which doesn’t really rhyme, but sounds like it should)).
“If you’re determined and you want to work hard, you can do anything you want to. That’s the beautiful thing about America”
RNC Speech, 8-31-04
The American Dream is predicated on the existence of a level playing field. But in a world where some people are born millionaires and some people are born addicted to crack, the idea that we all get an equal shot at things is about the most vulgar lie I can think of. And it’s a lie that is dependant on obliterating the past, on eliding away what came before, and pretending that the past has no bearing on the present.
And I think that this urge, to make the present completely autonomous from the past, has everything to do with control and responsibility. The idea that we might come into this world with debts already established is anathema to an American culture dedicated to the perfection of its own narcissism. It just wouldn’t be fair if we can’t take complete and sole credit for our wealth and status because of the fact that out wealth and status was secured by our forbears and conferred to us through innumerable privileges. And it certainly wouldn’t be fair if those privileges came with any trace of responsibility. It just wouldn’t be fair if we all didn’t start off immaculate and free. Waah waah waah, my pussy hurts.
This is what I mean when I say the American Right doesn’t believe in Original Sin. Or rather, they have some serious misconceptions about it. The basic lesson they take away from the Fall is that sex is a disgusting act. People are born in a filthy burst of sin and need the Messiah to redeem them from their nauseatingly fallible state. However, what the idea of Original Sin really means (using the Daniel Method of speculative theology) is that we all start out implicated in the world. We are enmeshed in what has come before us, whether we like it or not.
To Be Continued...