Monday, January 15, 2007

Our Baby Nation

Our leaders need to stop pretending that America is an imperiled child, and we need to stop encouraging them to maintain the pretense.

Every time some moralist with his multilayered undies in a bunch takes a microphone in hand and speaks with an angry, worried tremor in his voice about "the children," he's usually trying to stop adults from doing something that adults have every legal or philosophical right to do. ("You can't get drunk and have anal sex in your apartments! Think of the children!" "You can't listen to naughty words on network TV--think about the children!")

Every time some politician with a gleam in her eye and an anthem in her heart tells us that she's going to fix things in painless ways that would never affect, much less fix, the problem, she's treating us like scared children--promising that mommy and daddy will never let anything bad happen to us. ("Senator Mommy will make labor costs more expensive in India by holding a prayer breakfast." "Senator Daddy will put an end to Ahmadinejad's desire to get nukes by quoting from the wartime speeches of Dwight Eisenhower.")

This has been going on for decades. I'm writing about it now in part because I've been thinking about Gerald Ford and in part because I've been listening to Bush & Co's justifications for his latest plans to squander American lives and health care funds in Iraq. I'm with Mike, who posted (in a much more timely fashion) his disagreement with Gerald Ford's decision "to heal the nation" by pardoning Richard Nixon. I actually think Ford was a good guy, an honest guy, and not a bad President. I understand why he pardoned Nixon. But I think he was infantilizing us by doing so.

To imagine that putting Nixon on trial for his acknowledged and indisputable crimes would have "torn the nation apart" was the height of paternalist condescension. For one thing, like most nations, the American nation is incredibly resilient. It has survived far worse. More importantly, the point isn't just survival. It's self-improvement. What realities, even what traumas, a nation allows itself to acknowledge and explicitly experience determine whether it improves or declines. If in 1781 (or 1860, for that matter), America could have experienced slavery not as an economic resource or as a noxious source of noxious black people but rather as a longstanding campaign of kidnapping, brutalization, exploitation, and murder, America today would be much better at--or at least much closer to--justice. Not just racial justice but also gender justice and economic justice. The same would have been true of an America that allowed itself to see Native Americans as human beings whose dignity deserved acknowledgement and whose lands demanded respect. Ford and his advisers deciding that America couldn't handle the trial of bringing to justice a criminal who had used Oval Office resources to coordinate burglary and extortion was acting like a fretting parent who decided to tell little Susie that Uncle Richard had moved to Canada rather than to the state pen.

Bush's plan to send a surge of troops to Iraq may or may not have military justification. Depends which general you ask, apparently. (And whether you ask then on or off the record.) But he's not really stressing that justification when he talks to us. He's stressing feelings. We have to feel resolved so that the Iranians won't feel emboldened so that we can feel safe. But geopolitics in general and war in particular don't run on feelings. It runs on resources, organization, and information. Bush wants our enemies to feel bad and for us to feel good. And that's lovely. But one of the qualifications for being a grown-up is that you at least try to have your feelings about the world in response to, well, the world. It's good to want to take pride in the beautiful condition of your new house; it's not so good to take pride in the beautiful condition of your new house if it doesn't have a roof and it's monsoon season.

To tell us that we should never feel bad about anything isn't just a way for the people in charge to escape feeling bad about how badly they've screwed up. It's also a way for us to never hold them accountable for their screw-ups. Worse, if we don't feel bad, we don't fix things that need fixing. And there is nothing worse for democracy than a permanently infantilized citizenry more concerned with feeling good than with fixing problems.

As an illustrative aside, if you've watched 24 this season or last [spoiler alert for last season], you may have noticed that the assumption that America is a big, fragile baby has been driving the show. "We can't let the full extent of this government conspiracy get out--it would destroy the nation." "We can't let these suicide bombings continue because they'll destroy the nation." I mean, c'mon, this in a nation where maybe 30% of the eligible populace votes in most elections because most Americans are too lazy, too jaded (read, too lazy), or too despairing to go to the polls. Finding out that the President was a huge frigging crook (in 24 or in real life) and watching him tried for his crimes wasn't likely to have torn the nation apart. And getting bombed on 9/11 didn't tear the country apart. If anything, it unified the country. Now, that unity turned out to be pathological because it allowed the government to turn our outrage and desire for vengeance into a pretext to invade Iraq for no good reason, a situation which now puts that same paternalist government in a position to worry about what happens to our fragile infant feelings if we admit that Iraq may be too big a mess for us to fix. But it was unity nonetheless. Don't get me wrong, 24 is still a lot of fun, but I don't think it's coincidental that over the past six years the show has gone from its pre-9/11 relatively adult, relatively logical attachment to physical and political realities to its current fantasyscape in which federal counter-terrorism agencies have as their primary jobs not so much saving American lives as protecting Americans' fragile little baby feelings.

It may that as a nation that we have fragile little baby feelings. But that's a problem that needs fixing, not a sacred trust that needs protecting.

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At 8:53 AM , Blogger Jon E. said...

Incidentally, Lauren Berlant's book The Queen of America Goes to Washington City has a really good chapter on infantile citizenship (chapter 1) that helped me think through this post.


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