Barry’s Blog # 339: American Exceptionalism, Part Six of Six

America is not exceptional because it has long attempted to be a force for good in the world, it tries to be a force for good because it is exceptional. – Peggy Noonan

It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. – Vladimir Putin

…one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain. – James Baldwin

Ernest Becker asked,

What are we to make of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart…bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence…and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him.

The indigenous world imagined the Great Mother as both sustainer and destroyer. But modern people can only respond to Becker’s questions in dualistic terms. Either we feel the terror and are immobilized, or we construct myths of religion, romance and domination to transcend our fear of mortality. He argued that all human behavior is motivated by the unconscious need to deny this most fundamental anxiety.

Becker regretted that “we must shrink from being fully alive,” because seeing the world “as it really is, is devastating and terrifying,” and results in madness. Mystics, however, describe this insight as devastating to the individual ego, and a necessary, initiatory prelude to the unitive vision that transcends duality. Ancient devotees of Dionysus, as well as modern practitioners of Eastern and African-based religions, actually strive to attain this state. But for those who lack the containers of community and ritual, the unconscious fear of death is a primary motivator.

To the uninitiated modern person, the death of the ego and the death of the physical body are one and the same. And in America, the loss of identity (white, patriarchal, masculine, Christian, productive, growing, gainfully-employed, segregated into racially conformist neighborhoods, or simply privileged) seems to be equivalent to death of the ego. Yet the prospect of ecstatic escape from the confines of that ego continually beckons to us, and we respond in all manner of unconscious ways.  Let’s try to understand yet another essential American myth, the denial of death.

Despite seeing great progress since the writings of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Jessica Mitford, American culture continues to deny and avoid the reality of death more than any other society. This is particularly curious, given our high degree of (perhaps superficial) religiosity. The myth of innocence represents the attitude of the adolescent who expects to live forever. It provides no space for acknowledging that death is a part of life, rather than its opposite. Some call death the most repressed theme of the twentieth century, comparable to the sex taboo of the 19th century. We still view it as morbid, and commonly exclude children from discussion of it. Many adults have never seen a corpse other than in the stage-managed context of the funeral parlor.

Kubler-Ross argued that since few really believe suffering will be rewarded in Heaven, “then suffering becomes purposeless in itself,” and doctors typically sedate the dying to lessen their pain. They are rushed to hospitals, frequently unconscious and against their will, and most die there or in nursing homes. Then the corpse disappears, not to be seen again until it has been “primped up to appear…asleep.” Euphemisms complete the ritual of denial. The “deceased” has “passed on” or “gone to his maker.” “How peaceful he looks.”

The purpose of the ritual is to repress the anxieties that arise when tending to a terminally ill patient. Relatives collude with medical personnel in an elaborate series of lies, maintaining the fiction of probable recovery until the dying person reaches the point of death. Typically, a doctor, rather than a minister, presides over the deathbed, keeping displays of emotion to a minimum. Adults deprive both children and the dying persons themselves of the opportunity to confront death.

Ironically, write Anthropologists Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf, “In America, the archetypal land of enterprise, self-made men are reduced to puppets.” Then the body is embalmed, restored, dressed and transformed from a rotting cadaver into “a beautiful memory picture.” Neither law nor religion nor sanitation requires this process, and nowhere else but in North America is it widely done. In the last view the deceased seems asleep in a casket (often made of metal).

The ritual achieves two results. First, it insulates mourners from the process of decomposition, the finality of death and their own fears. Second, it minimizes cathartic expressions of grief. The funeral director, writes Mitford, “has put on a well-oiled performance in which the concept of death has played no part…” Wakes are generally pleasant social events, and mourners soon return to work. The mystery of death invites mourners to enter an initiatory space, but it closes too abruptly and too soon for any authentic transition or resolution. A veil that had been briefly lifted drops again.

We claim to believe that Christianity represents a victory over death, yet estrangement from nature is its central theme. Thus, to Americans, death must be either part of God’s plan or a punishment. Arnold Toynbee joked that death was “un-American,” an infringement on the right to the pursuit of happiness. By contrast, Native American tribal religions almost universally produced people unafraid of death, wrote Vine Deloria: “…the integrity of communal life did not create an artificial sense of personal identity that had to be protected and preserved at all costs.”

West African shaman Malidoma Some´ observes our characteristic refusal to give in to grief: “A non-Westerner arriving in this country for the first time is struck by how…(Americans) pride themselves for not showing how they feel about anything.” To him, we typically carry great loads of unexpressed grief. And this leads to a corresponding inability to experience joy: “People who do not know how to weep together are people who cannot laugh together.” This is a succinct, tribal definition of alienation – exile from the worlds of nature, community and spirit.

If we cannot grieve or tolerate the vision of the dark goddess and her bloody, dismembered son, then we cannot experience ecstasy either. We learn to tolerate pale substitutes: romance novels, horror movies (in which characters often refuse to die), the spectacles of popular music and sports, New Age spirituality, Sunday church and happy endings. We learn early to emphasize the light (including “lite”) to the eventual exclusion of the dark.

So our characteristic American expectation of positive emotions and emotional growth makes feelings of sadness and despair more pathological in this culture than elsewhere. Christina Kotchemidova writes, “Since ‘cheerfulness’ and ‘depression’ are bound by opposition, the more one is normalized, the more negative the other will appear.”

Ronald Laing argued that the modern family functions “… to repress Eros, to induce a false consciousness of security…to promote a respect for ‘respectability.’” To be respectable is to produce, and to look cheerful. American obsession with feeling good (“pursuing happiness”) is enshrined as a fundamental principle of the consumer society. As Kotchemidova explains,

Our personal feelings are constantly encouraged or discouraged by the culture of emotions we have internalized, and any significant deviance from the societal emotional norms is perceived as emotional disorder that necessitates treatment.

The average American feels real pressure to present him/herself as cheerful in order to get a job. Once he/she is employed, putting on a ready- made smile is simply not enough. “Corporations expect their staff to actually feel good about the work they do in order to appear convincing to clients.”

She argues that twentieth century America took on cheerfulness as an identifying characteristic. The new consumer economy of the 1920s called for cheerful salespeople and an American etiquette that obliged “niceness” and excluded strong emotionality. Among the dozens of self-help cheerfulness manuals, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) sold more than fifteen million copies. In the 1950s, the media industry invented numerous ways, including the TV “laugh track,” to induce cheerfulness. In the 1980s, politicians discovered cheerfulness; all Presidents since Reagan smile in their official photos (none had done so before). The “smiley face” button sold over 50 million units at its peak in 1971 but remains one of our most recognizable icons.

It follows that depression has reached epidemic proportions in America – and that violence is so fundamental to our experience. Kubler-Ross wrote that our denial of death “has only increased our anxiety and contributed to our…aggressiveness – to kill in order to avoid the reality and facing of our own death.” Phillip Slater wrote of “our technologically strangled environment” in which impersonal forces impact us from remote, Apollonic distances and provoke us to “find a remote victim on which to wreck our vengeance.” This is one reason why Americans rarely protest the military’s mass killing of distant Third World people. Another reason, of course, is their ignorance of the news.

But America was characterized from the start by extreme violence. It was present in the “idea” of America – not the abstract ideals of the founding fathers, but the projection of darkness, instinct and lust onto the Other in the already demythologized world of the seventeenth century. By the Industrial Revolution of the 1840’s, Americans had been slaughtering Indians and enslaving Africans for over two centuries. Herman Melville took note of this and wrote that Indian hating had become a “metaphysic.” Technology certainly contributed to alienation, loneliness and the breakdown of extended families and father-son relationships. But as a seed of depression and long-distance violence, it fell on fertile soil that had been well prepared.

And history conspired. No one alive can recall the carnage of the Civil War; since then we have fought our wars across great oceanic expanses. With the ready availability of handguns, we slaughter each other in small-scale violence like no other people in history. Except for urban race riots, however, there had been no warfare on American territory for well over a century until the terrorist acts of 2001.

These factors all help to perpetuate the myths of innocence and exceptionalism. The final ingredient is the state of the media, in which news reporting, political spin and entertainment are now almost indistinguishable, when half of us get our news from social media or TV comedy “news” shows.

On the one hand, media colludes with our need to remain sheltered from the world and our impact upon it. “We are so desperate for this,” writes Michael Ventura, that we are willing to accept ignorance as a substitute for innocence.” On the other hand, even as violent programming perpetuates fear of crime and terrorism, television has desensitized three generations of Americans to the actual effects of violence.

We all know the statistics. We can theoretically take two populations of children and predict that, as young adults fifteen years later, those who watch more TV will be more violent than the group that watched less. Thus, there is a direct connection between the national denial of death in the abstract and America’s ferocious expression of literal violence. James Hillman concluded that death is “the ultimate repressed,” who returns “through the body’s shattered disarray,” an incursion “into awareness as ultimate truth.” american-exceptionalism2

We innocently observe, we are shocked, and we quickly forget. In book talks I’ve often posed a trick question – When did you lose your innocence? – followed by another one – When did you lose it again? When an exceptional sense of personal and national innocence is so ingrained as ours is, every time it is punctured by circumstances it feels like the first time. In Chapter Eight of my book, I wrote of this experience after the attacks on the World Trade Towers:

The next day, a second wave of commentators offered more nuanced interpretations. Rabbi Marc Gelman, asked if America would be changed by this event, responded, “Yes, we have lost our innocence. We now know there is radical evil in the world.” It was out there, and Americans, mysteriously, had never heard about it. Psychologist Robert Butterworth’s son had asked him, “Daddy, why do they hate us so?” Staring mutely and miserably at the camera, he really didn’t know. His non-response assumed that viewers didn’t either. Such laments could have followed the Oklahoma City bombing, 1993’s WTC bombing, the TWA airliner bombing, the bombings of the destroyer Cole and Lebanon barracks, or any of the recent college or high school shootings. America, we were told, had lost her innocence.

From the perspective of outsiders, or of older cultures, or of the Other, losing our innocence is an absolutely necessary step for white Americans to step out of our adolescence and join the human community. But from within the myth of exceptionalism, losing our innocence is simply a temporary stage that precedes falling back asleep.

Never having confronted death directly, we must find a way to see it, by condoning violence or personally inflicting it upon others. Preferring vengeance to mourning, we are still the only nation to use atomic weapons. Americans invented napalm, cluster bombs and “anti-personnel” mines. We are stunningly unmoved by news of torture at Guantanamo, rape of prisoners in Iraq or police murders of unarmed African Americans, because innocence always trumps awareness. The nation that watches and exports thousands of hours of electronic mayhem and has more handguns than citizens is shocked – shocked! – every time a teenager massacres his schoolmates or a cop drives his car into a crowd of peaceful protestors.

Octavio Paz contrasted his own Mexican culture, which has an intimate relationship to the dark side of existence, with ours: “A culture that begins by denying death will end by denying life.” Such a nation desperately needs someone to save it – distract it – from the black hole of death, and to vanquish, rather than to accommodate those forces of darkness. Such a nation needs heroes. And it will get the heroes that it deserves. On the other hand, writes Caitlin Johnstone,

The principles of individual healing apply to collective healing as well. I have learned that an individual can experience a sudden, drastic shift in consciousness. I see no reason the collective can’t also. Of course humanity is capable of a transformative leap into health and maturity…The only people who doubt this are those who haven’t yet made such a leap in their own lives.


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1 Response to Barry’s Blog # 339: American Exceptionalism, Part Six of Six

  1. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 338: American Exceptionalism, Part Five of Six | madnessatthegates

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