America is Too Big to Love or to Hate

Fresno Bee, July 4, 2021

What does it mean to love one’s country? This question is too big to permit a simple answer. In a free country we will disagree about patriotism.

A Black athlete, Gwen Berry, refused to salute the flag during the national anthem at the U.S. Olympic Trials last week. Some viewed her as a hero. Others did not. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas asked in a tweet, “why does the left hate America?”

Of course, America includes a long list of protesting Black athletes, from from Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James. Maybe those who hate these protests are the ones who hate America.

The truth is, we disagree about everything, including who counts as a patriotic, real American. We always have.

The generation of 1776 had to decide whether to pledge their lives, fortunes, and honor to a new nation conceived in liberty. A war broke out. This happened again in the 1860s. Abraham Lincoln invoked the “mystic chords” of national identity. Southern states disagreed. The patriotic vision excluded people like Frederick Douglass, who said (in 1847), “The institutions of this country do not know me, do not recognize me as a man … In such a country as this, I cannot have patriotism.”

Douglass is now recognized as an American icon. But we continue to disagree.

Congress recently honored the police who defended the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. The congressional commendation celebrated the patriotism of those cops. But some Republicans balked, unhappy with the word “insurrection.”

President Biden has said, “the insurrection was an existential crisis.” But Andrew Clyde (R-Georgia) said it was a lie to call it an insurrection. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) said that the Justice Department’s response to Jan. 6 harassed “peaceful patriots.” Each voted against honoring the Capitol police.

We disagree about recent history — and about the deeper past. We disagree about who we are, what our country represents, what unites us — and what divides us.

America is a big, messy place. It includes Gwen Berry. It also includes Ashli Babbitt, who was killed by a cop on Jan. 6 as she tried to enter the House chamber, and George Floyd, who was killed by a cop in Minnesota. It also includes those cops. This is a country of Proud Boys and Antifa. It is a country of Trump-lovers and Ted Cruz voters, Biden-supporters and fans of Kamala Harris.

Which America are we supposed to love? Should we love the American history of colonialism, slavery, and war? Should we love those who claim the 2020 election was stolen? Should we love a country that elected a woman of color as vice president?

There is too much here to love. America is a 300-year-long, continent-spanning process. Something this big cannot simply be loved. Nor can such a thing simply be hated.

This country contains a multitude, as Walt Whitman might say. It includes farmers and fishermen, poets and priests. This is a land of scientific achievement and quack medicine. It is a land of many faiths, including atheism. It is a country of diverse people united by the fact that we are free to be different.

Human beings are more complicated than simple patriotism permits. When freedom is unleashed, we grow and expand and become unruly. As long as we generally leave each other alone, this can work. But it is too much to ask us to come together and sing “Kumbaya.”

Indeed, when one group joins hands and starts singing, another faction will be standing on the sidelines mocking the song. This is the tragic truth of human freedom. It unites us and divides us. It brings us together and drives us apart.

So let’s not be surprised at our divisions. We have always been divided. Division is a sign of the health of a democracy. Conformity indicates the presence of oppression and the death of the human spirit. Liberty vitalizes and invigorates. It invites us to be different and to disagree.

Democracy is messy, ugly, and often unpleasant. Tyrannies are cleaner, perhaps, creating conformity through coercion. But democracies unleash freedom. And liberty promotes diversity. We are not ants or bees. Nor are we cogs in a social machine. We are human beings: unruly, disruptive, creative, and free.

Erotic Untruth and the Violence of January 6

The January 6 attack on the US Capitol gives us a lesson in the futility of violence.

Human beings have a terrifying tendency to kill each other over horseshit (to use a technical term).  Violence typically rests upon a delusion.  The bigger the lie, the worse the violence. 

Religious and ideological warfare are extreme cases.  Terrorism and cult violence routinely occur: with Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, Aum Shinrikyo, the Manson Family, in Waco with David Koresh, and so on.  There is an analogy linking QAnon to al Qaeda. 

Some of the Trump insurrectionists believed outrageous falsehoods: that Biden and Pelosi were communists; that Covid-19 was a sinister plot; that pedophiles, Satanists, and lizard people had infiltrated the government.  This horseshit was accompanied by other more insidious lies: that the election had been stolen; and that the Congress and Vice-President could overturn the Electoral College. 

A broth of bullshit was brewing when the President said, “Our country has been under siege for a long time.”  He said, “If you don’t fight like Hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”  This rhetoric is eschatological and existential.  It is not surprising that the pot boiled.

The rioters believed they were patriots leading a noble revolution.  But they did not seem to think beyond the immediate outburst of violence.  What was supposed to happen next?  And why did they think they could get away with it?

Some have blamed the rioters’ obliviousness on the sense of impunity that comes from white supremacy.  But at bottom this was a product of the delusion of violence.

Violence is mired in immediacy.  It is reactive and episodic.  Violence focuses the mind on the present moment.  Violence promises simplicity, clarity, and consummation.

This promise is false, of course.  But violence is not about truth.  It is about power in the moment.  It is an expression of anger and contempt.  It is not strategic.  It is emotional, exciting, and erotic.

Tangled webs of braggadocio and bullshit typically lead to violence.  Closed networks reinforce delusion and breed a sense of superiority and impunity.  Critical thought is destroyed by anger, fear, and the love of brothers-in-arms.  When the delusions are eschatological, common sense is trampled underfoot. 

We have known that violence is rooted in psycho-social dynamics since Cain killed Abel and Achilles sailed off to Troy.  Freud described how hate and violence are perversely linked to love.  Aggression against “the other” binds us together and gives us meaning. 

It does not matter that our ideology is a lie.  In fact, falsehood binds us tighter together in an erotic dance.  When some “other” challenges our delusions, we strike out.  When those delusions involve love and identity, the other becomes a menace who must be destroyed. 

Religious violence has often worked this way.  Sometimes religious violence involves tangible conflicts about land or resources.  The Crusades had political and economic causes.  But the faithful frequently fight in the name of the fabulous.  The warriors themselves want glory, as well as penance and atonement.  They want to be purged and healed, uplifted and inspired.

And so human beings continue to kill and die in defense of unprovable myths.  The most dangerous myth of all is the myth that links violence to righteousness and redemption.  Prior to Trump’s speech on January 6, Rudy Giuliani proposed “trial by combat.”  This medieval nonsense holds that somehow the gods ensure that the righteous defeat the unholy. 

But violence has nothing to do with morality.  Good guys get killed as easily as bad.  Violence occurs at the level of physical power.  It decides nothing about truth, holiness, or moral worth. 

The myth of violence is essentially pagan.  It reflects a primitive theology.  To view the world as a battlefield supervised by the gods is to ignore a more elevated notion of the divinity.  If there is a God, wouldn’t He want us to reason together rather than to kill each other? 

The solution to the problem of violence is as old as Jesus and Socrates.  Jesus said the peacemakers were blessed.  And Socrates encouraged us to ask critical questions about the horseshit that encourages violence.  The truth is that violence is not reasonable.  Nor is it loved by the gods. 

Rebellion, Fantasy, and Nihilism

Fresno Bee, January 10, 2021

The mob’s attack on the Capitol was a juvenile outburst of rebellion doomed to fail.

What we witnessed on Wednesday was a juvenile outburst of rebellion. A motley mob stormed the Capitol without a plan or strategy. The violence was disorganized. This was a desultory insurgency instigated by a leader who lives in a fantasy world, where ranting and raving masquerade as thinking.

The image of Shakespeare’s King Lear comes to mind. As Shakespeare put it, nothing comes of nothing. This shambolic coup offers a warning about nihilism and a lesson about power and rebellion.

There is in the human soul an impulse toward anarchy. We bridle against restraint. We want the world to conform to our own image. This impulse is often destructive and nihilistic.

The rebel is a toddler angry at his parents. He is an adolescent lashing out at the world. Rebellion can do short-term damage. But the rebel’s ferocity is feckless. Juvenile rebellion cannot effect lasting change.

The rebel paints the world in black and white, leaving no room for compromise. He has no desire to build because he is focused on burning things down. He has no strategy because in his fantasy, the world should revolve around

The rebel fails to understand that this is a world of highly organized systems of power. There really is a deep state. It cannot be transformed by random outbursts of violence or emotion.

Power is tightly woven in complex webs involving political bureaucracies, transnational corporations, educational institutions, religious traditions, and so on. Political change in the modern world requires strategy based in this reality. This is slow and complex work. Random protest is toothless in the face of the bureaucratic state and institutionalized power.

The would-be revolutionaries of the 21st century — on the left and on the right — are deluded if they think this system can be opposed by disorganized explosions of anger. In the long run, the cops and the courts will win every time.

Political change requires an organized, fact-based approach to the world that avoids wishful thinking. Almost always this involves compromise and working to find common ground in a shared conception of the world. Most of what the party of Trump has done since the November election has been futile because it is based on the fantasy that Trump actually won the election. Lies have limited power. They eventually run aground on reality.

Juvenile rebellion is prideful and angry. Sometimes it is simply thrill-seeking. Other times it is a violent convulsion of despair. Almost always it is based in an unrealistic view of self and world. This leaves the juvenile rebel strangely susceptible to lies, conspiracy theories, and authoritarian politics.

The rebel feels that the world ought to satisfy his desires. When it does not, he gloms onto a savior or hero who makes him feel powerful. The rebel seeks out lies that feed his ego. This can evolve into a cul-de-sac of conspiracy, where the truth gives way to a reflection of the rebel’s own self-image.

Most rebels grow up and grow out of this nihilism. When rebellion comes of age, it mellows and deepens to discover a larger truth. A good explanation of this is found in Albert Camus’s book “The Rebel.” Camus describes how rebellion becomes nihilism. From nihilism, totalitarianism can emerge. Those who believe in nothing are susceptible to anything. But if we keep growing and looking for reality, rebellion can give birth to solidarity, justice, love, generosity, and wisdom.

The impulse of rebellion will always be with us. But it must be educated and sublimated. Artists and entrepreneurs nurture the spark of anarchy. So too do religious mystics and scientific geniuses. The creative imagination smashes barriers. But it does not destroy for the sake of destruction. Rather, it aims to build something out of nothing.

The energy of anarchy is youthful and exuberant. Without guidance this energy circulates in nothingness. When rebellion remains stupid, it is merely destructive. But when the spirit of rebellion is informed by truth, there is hope for justice, compassion, and wisdom. For this to happen you need a strategy that accepts reality. Instead of ranting into the storm with King Lear, you need to harness the wind and put it to work.