Our American Agony [11/22/13]


Fifty years ago Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and it seemed immediately credible to almost everyone, including Dallasites, that it was done by ‘one of our own.’ But there was a cosmic sigh of relief when it seemed that an interloper, an outsider, a Communist was the assassin: not us but one of them! But, then, who are ‘we’?

We Americans—aka folks living in the boundaries of the United States of America and sometimes called citizens—have been stalked from the colonial days by the quest for a just and peaceful we that remains contested to this very day. At times the we seems powerful and obvious, especially when we go to war against an other who is not us: wars with armies and weapons seem to galvanize the natives and lure them into laying aside their own agonisms. Hence, within the boundaries of an assertive we, it can seem opaque that this we is riven with internal rivalries and warfare. This we turns out to be a multitude bound together by an agonistic sociopolitics that incessantly divides us, in which there must be winners and losers. And the question remains: is there anything else that binds Americans together that is other than the rivalries themselves and the quest for power and domination and victory?

It might sometimes appear that America is itself the crown jewel of free enterprise capitalism: competition is that primitive instinct in which life is simply a matter of sorting out winners and losers, by whatever means available and defensible by law, but now the law itself as something decided by the winners. And the winners, in order to be winners, must have deep pockets, and deep pockets elect legislators and executives and actually the judiciary as well.

So it turns out there is no commanding ideal—either republicanism or democracy—understood historically or practically. Is it then really true that America has always been a civil war among presumed citizens as to who are the winners and losers? For more than a century if you were black or red, female, and poor, you were a loser. If you were male, white, and rich, you were, in one way or another, a winner demanding respect and power.

Of course, from time to time, amidst multi-dimensional agonistic and civil warfare, there were occasional voices proclaiming an equality among persons rooted in something variously called theological or metaphysical. There are still rumors flitting around about these odd and apparently impractical notions of equality. Lip-service is everywhere, however, but nobody pays any real attention to it. It doesn’t seem to have any real cash value, and of course, the market is the great judge of winners in the warfare called competition.

I write these thoughts not because I was a devotee of Kennedy and want to enshrine his name in metaphysical glory. Actually, there are only two results that Kennedy brought about that put him dramatically on the plus-side of American politics. First, there was his soaring political rhetoric that in fact seemed to inspire a whole generation of folk roughly my age to either undertake a career in elective politics or simply become a local person-of-interest aiming at something called justice. Second, there were those electrifying press conferences in which he met his adversaries with that forthright sound and fury of superior intelligence and intimidating presence that could smile through it all. No president since has even come close to matching the brilliance of his performance in those televised press conferences and other occasions as well.

Yes, there are some dreadful life-style moral lapses that emerged post-mortem that at least ought to make Kennedy’s admirers shudder in dismay and regret. And it cannot be overlooked that Kennedy was himself a product of free-enterprise-upper-class-America. No struggling Massachusetts working class here, rising in politics by virtue of sheer intelligence, hard work, and moral resolve.

And yes, I do think of myself as a Democrat, but I weep a lot. Clinton’s utter idiosyncratic betrayals are simply indigestible morally and they opened the way for Bush to sneak into the presidency under the cover of a Supreme Court gone-rogue. And then Bush repealed taxes on the rich, undermined the presumably balanced budget Clinton seemed to have left behind, and then took us into a terribly stupid war bringing chaos to us and to the Middle East.

And now I weep a lot about and for Obama, caught up in the promise of a post-racial nation but subverted from his first day by a latent but festering American racism that seems to have captured the Republican Party. The presumably party-of-Lincoln begins inflaming racial hatred and flagrantly appealing to class warfare of that free-enterprise sense of justice. And Obama seems himself to be stumbling in disarray. I do not blame him; what can a divided nation expect when an African-American rises to the presidency of a people long nurtured by racial hatreds that cut both ways and that justify a suspicion of those who are other, even when the criteria for who the other are remain cloaked in the rhetoric of justice and rights. Yes, it seems as though America is almost ungovernable, lacking any consensus about justice and rights.

This agonistic disposition has for centuries bred the suspicion and the practice that freedom, justice, rights are deservedly ours but not quite appropriate for them.

Sometimes the spectre of Eisenhower lurks at the edges of my mind, warning us once again of the military-industrial complex and its incessant urgency to identify enemies—near and far—and the need to prepare for war and to go to war. An agonistic people? Without enemies to defeat and profits to make, without winners and losers, life would surely seem boringly peaceful. But who really wants peace when there are competitive contests to be won or lost?



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Reader Responses

Tony Ciccariello

responded on 11/23/13

Joe,what insightful thoughts on Kennedy and on the whole American scene. I can’t agree with you more .  I shared your your blog on my Face book page. Always good to hear from you,Thanks.

John Gibson

responded on 11/23/13

Brilliant analysis without hope or action.

Hyla Glover

responded on 11/23/13

I am in awe of your ability to express yourself so clearly, so thoughtfully, and so beautifully.  I remain, of course, saddened by the truth of your remarks. It is heartbreking that, in 2013, we Americans have learned so little.  I plan to share your remarks with family and friends.

Dorothy Messenger

responded on 11/23/13

Thank you, Joe, for this piece.  You have helped me by organizing, clarifying and putting into such a readable article your opinion of where we are as a nation right now.  I agree one hundred percent.

Mark Perdue

responded on 11/23/13

Your remarks are spot on.  Liberal democracies such as the United States inhibit, by design, the formation of national identity along the lines of kinship, religion,  or ethnicity.  Consequently, we are left with 2 cultural options by which we can achieve national identity and derived cultural bonds from that identity. One of course is the culture of capitalism in which prominence and recognition are signaled by financial success and culturally poignant acts of consumption.  The other cultural mode of national identity is war.  If Americans, by design, are not allowed to predicate their national identity one a particular ethnicity, religion, kinship etc.,  then our American identities, like the public square are – naked. We would like to say that the American culture and our national identity is predicated upon “the rule of law.”  But this seems existentially unsatisfying.  We have a hard time connecting emotionally with other countrymen when our rallying point is the exercise of a mostly inhibitory use of law.
The “rule of law” does not have a positive content upon which people can formulate contemporary virtues, personal roles and the kind of existentially compelling identities. At best, it functions in a strictly negative way inhibiting the encroachment of historical forces like kinship, religion and ethnicity from encroaching upon our citizenship.  The rule of law then becomes a strictly negative function which ensurethat all of our human qualities kinship, ethnicity and religion are bracketed out of our national identity. What is left is the “freedom” but this is not a goal directed positive freedom. This freedom is highly specialized in the sphere of economic activity, and personal consumption.  In matters of free market activity, American freedom is strong and unrestricted.  Our positive freedoms then are ineluctably connected with our identities as agents of the free market. To be sure, agents of the free market will experience some virtue and will acquire an extensive culture with its own roles, values and identities. But ultimately there is nothing distinctively American about free-market societies and the strange culture of capitalism. What may be distinctive about American identity is the 2nd cultural force of American modern identity, war. It is proposed and sometimes known to be true that other nation states and political groups wish to restrict or even threaten the “American way of life.” There are few elements of American life which have the capacity to galvanize and create positive content for our identities like the threat of an enemy and the dispatching of that enemy in some discrete act of war. of a recent book on this very topic, “war is a force that gives our lives meaning.”
I enjoy your posts and your books!

thomas spear

responded on 11/24/13

Think you have given us the perfect reminder of JFK on this week of reflection and thank you for that. But, ol friend, I cannot agree with your assessment of the Republican Party as being a “racist” assembly of citizens. The Loyal Opposition should and indeed has the responsibility to caucus and lobby against policies of the President they see as detrimental to the country. And to be labeled as “racist” for doing so is just plain wrong. As a man of words, you can find a better way.   

Phil Jones

responded on 11/28/13

Thanks Joe. Do you have any critical thoughts on Hauerwas’ last group of essays, “War and the American Difference.”?  I’ll be with him this Sunday at one of our Disciple churches in Kinston, NC.