1. America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.
Jimmy Carter was the first president to screen an X rated film at the White House. He chose Midnight Cowboy. Narrative empathy and complex inner life are the exception to the rule at the White House Family Theatre.
Woodrow Wilson inaugurated the theatre with D.W. Griffith’s rousing KKK epic Birth of a Nation. High Noon is a perennial favorite. Ike and Ronnie both loved it. William Jefferson Clinton screened the film no less than twenty times.
The presidential appeal is understandable. All-American do-gooder Gary Cooper plays a small-town Sheriff who is duty bound to face outlaw Frank Miller and his three goons in the streets of Hadleyville.
Alone and outgunned, Marshall Kane and his bride overcome doubt and great odds to win a moral triumph.
This is how Americans like to see themselves: the inheritors of harsh frontier justice who take lonely stands to claim great victories for the good guys.
Such are the dimensions of a carefully honed sense of heritage that has willfully blotted out the genocide and the exploitation and the slavery and the ecological destruction. Because heritage is the word we give to nostalgized memory amputated from the burden of defeat.
In recent years, the term “epigenetics” has come into vogue in African-American studies to denote the intangible but intuited biases felt in those descended from the victims of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Trauma has a way of imposing itself on DNA. It leaves tags: dampeners and amplifiers that alter the treble and bass of mind and body to reflect ancestral heartache.
Epigenetics is the clinical study of torment and its physiological and psychological wake. It is the enduring legacy of past failures written on the souls of human kind like tattoos that can never fully be covered by sleeves of false glory.
It is not an exclusively African-American concept. All mankind, like it or not, knows what it is like to descend from atrocities. We all live in the shadow of defeat. Our very genes are written in a code of regret.
2. “Above all, such sports as judo, in my view, teach people to relate to each other. They teach us to respect a partner, teach us to understand that an externally weak partner can not only put up worthy resistance, but, if you relax and take too much for granted, may even win.” –Vladimir Putin
Putin is what Putin is. Strip him of the pejoratives and accusations and you get a dyed in the wool nationalist who has used force and rhetoric to consolidate one of the most storied and stubborn people in human history.
He is predictably unpredictable. He is the living embodiment of Stonewall Jackson’s advice to “always mystify, mislead and surprise the enemy.” His shrewd diplomacy, careful subterfuge and foxlike manipulation of slick news media baffles those who foolishly expect a man who thrived during a period of upheaval to behave as a rational actor on the world stage.
Unpalatable as those actions may be, they are informed, aided and sanctified by the American imperial mindset.
He is an heir to Reagan and a cousin to Cheney. He understands the world as a chessboard of resources that exists to be claimed and sacrificed to power. He does not apologize. He is schooled in the ruthless application of violence. He wears divine approval like a scepter and the weight of the ages like a cape.
If he offends Americans with the font of his bold-faced lies or the stench of his cronyism or the height of his ambitions, it is because we do not recognize ourselves anymore.
Though we decry and bemoan, it is not because we lament the character of his aggression, but the fact that our brand of vampirism has been turned against us.
We face now a world made in America’s image and likeness: greedy, self-interested, callous and unrepentant.
3. “What took you so long?” –Robert Hanssen
Bob Hanssen was the portrait of an American — a G man with six kids and a loving wife. The son of a Chicago policeman who had gone to dental school and given it all up to become an FBI counterintelligence specialist. A devout Catholic who proudly counted himself amongst the rigid ranks of Opus Dei.
He gave every impression of pious professionalism. That’s why it took twenty-two years for the Feds to sniff him out. Hanssen was the one guy you couldn’t make for a traitor.
That is unless you really knew him. In the shadow of imperial monuments and absolute power, the substance of Hanssen’s soul grew rotten with un-fulfilled narcissism. He lusted after women and professional recognition. Everything he achieved in his life was a paltry consolation prize paling in comparison to the things he had convinced himself he deserved.
His handlers knew him as Ramon Garcia, Jim Baker, Graysuit or simply “B.”
By the time FBI agents snagged Hanssen as he fixed a dead drop in a park just outside of Washington D.C., Bob had been a Russian intelligence asset for twenty-two years.
In that time, he sold everything from the lives of double agents in Russia to the location of a secret tunnel beneath the Russian Embassy in Maryland to highly sensitive CIA program information.
He did it all because he could and because he needed the reassurance that he was smarter than the men who had passed him over time and time again for a top slot in the company. Toward the end, he spent his spy money entertaining a stripper he’d met at a club down the street from FBI HQ.
God Bless America.
4. “It seems to me that the Washington Monument is a symbol of America’s power. It has been the symbol of our great nation. We look at the symbol and we say, ‘this is one nation under God.’” –Pat Robertson
There is no denying this much-debated assertion: The United States is a Christian nation if only in the most lamentable sense. The country runs on an operating system specifically programmed to empower empire.
The American modus operandi is drawn straight from Genesis: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
We are convinced still that it is our birthright to dominate. We use the idea of a benevolent God to legitimize the rapacious lust with which we pillage the world.
“This is God’s land,” we say as we mistake the false idol of material fortune for the inevitable outcome of divine providence.
Americans can afford to disregard “thou shall not kill” and “thou shall not covet.” We sidestep “blessed are the meek” and “blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” We dance around the particulars of “again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” as we change money in this earthen temple.
We did not see fit to abide by Leviticus’ warning “do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves, and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before it” because we deigned it improper to wrap our heroes in homespun when gold was handy.
We willfully blind ourselves from the light of Philippians and Proverbs in the pursuit of our sordid agendas because “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” and “pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before the fall” are unpalatable to those who have been assured that no desire is too great.
Mostly, we swaddle ourselves in the sacrilege of self-justification and kowtow to a God we have silently rechristened ego. All things are acceptable in the all-seeing eyes of self-interest. Within the walls of our flimsy Jericho, we court ruin.
5. “Being a patriot doesn’t mean prioritizing service to government above all else. Being a patriot means knowing when to protect your country, knowing when to protect your Constitution, knowing when to protect your countrymen, from the violations of and encroachments of adversaries. And those adversaries don’t have to be foreign countries.”-Edward Snowden
The dream: that Edward Snowden and Dick Cheney may forever be known to history as a matched pair.
They have both become two of the most vilified men in modern America. They exist together on a continuum uniting surveillance and an abstract interpretation of patriotism. They are related in their willingness to make unpopular and weighty decisions alone. They are equally intoxicated by the miasmas of self-righteousness.
Intentionally or not, they each benefitted Vladimir Putin in ways they couldn’t imagine. Snowden along with Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange delegitimized the American techno-apparatus while revealing the contours of its infrastructure and tradecraft.
In his willful push for a most profitable conflict in Iraq, Cheney delegitimized the court of global opinion and cheapened the threshold of casus belli to accommodate thinly veiled wars of shock capitalism draped in the threadbare cheese cloth of gun-gifted democracy.
In certain camps across the globe, both Cheney and Snowden are ranked as the height of treason. Yet history teaches us that the meaning of a willful man’s life will never be the stuff of consensus.
6. “The history of sea power is largely, though by no means solely, a narrative of contests between nations, of mutual rivalries, of violence frequently culminating in war. The profound influence of sea commerce upon the wealth and strength of countries was clearly seen long before the true principles which governed its growth and prosperity were detected. To secure to one’s own people a disproportionate share of such benefits, every effort was made to exclude others, either by the peaceful legislative methods of monopoly or prohibitory regulations, or, when these failed, by direct violence.” — Alfred Thayer Mahan
Jazz and naval warfare were the two great art forms of the American Century.
Each revolutionizes what has come before by creating new modes of expression. Both are thoroughly modern — a hodge podge of technologies and methodologies honed for effect and polished with the luster of possibility. Each deals in fluid cognizance of tide and flow. Both are ensemble efforts. Each carries the potential for benevolence and brutality. Both trade in the colonization of space and the projection of power. Each is intimately concerned with the commercial.
In the intermezzo between Tsushima and Leyte, the American Navy reimagined the vitality of the fleet-in-being that has proven essential in the business of building world-spanning empires.
This is the mission: control global choke points, pressure distant suzerains and influence the very medium of trade itself. This is the underlying genetic code implicit in naval prominence: powerful nations are defined not by the values they espouse or the deity they worship, but by the Teflon of their GDP.
The enduring legacy of sea power is a testament to strong returns on a nation’s ability to swing with the best of them at a moment’s notice in any maritime venue around the world.
It’s Saturday evening and concert halls across the world are filling up for the new battle of the bands. The Baltic, The Med, the Arctic, the South and East China Seas host a bill of music you ain’t ever heard before.
The rhythm’s a bit different and the instruments are brand new, but the melody’s the same and improvisation is still king.
7. “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger that oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity.” –Ronald Reagan
The American mythos is built on spurious twin pillars: the ultimate triumph of free individuals over tyrannical hierarchies and the permission, guidance and intervention of God on those individuals’ behalves.
When Ronald Reagan left office in 1989 he conjured both images by harkening back to John Winthrop’s 1630 “City Upon a Hill” sermon. Winthrop spoke of creating a model society ordained by providence and bounty in an otherwise savage wilderness as he and his ilk prepared to invade, sanctify and divvy up the New World.
Reagan’s choice of allusions was deliberate. Nearly three hundred and sixty years after the fact, the President affirmed not only Winthrop and the Puritans, but every good, God fearing Christian who “civilized” the continent beneath the Yankee flag.
In 1989, America was poised to emerge as the world’s lone superpower. Reagan left no doubt. This triumph was issued by the hand of God alone in a culmination of a manifest destiny that awarded the faithful while vanquishing the Soviet hoards who had forsaken God.
Seductive as that simplistic explanation may have been, alternate theories on American pre-eminence emerged as well.
Desperate and unscrupulous immigrants pillaged a continent of its natural resources, perpetuated a genocide on the inconveniently recalcitrant prior occupants, enslaved a race of people they re-branded as sub-human, pioneered modern war, harnessed early industrial technology, consolidated hierarchies of purchasing power, developed trans-oceanic colonies, created elaborate channels of consensus building culture and utilized a strong, specie backed economy to bankroll the definitive war of the 20th century.
You can debate causality and the presence of a supposed hand of God in the drama of mankind. What is undeniable is the efficacy of American methodology and the weaponization of iconography against those enemies, foreign and domestic, who lack the power to discern.
8. “The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will affect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.” — Cormac McCarthy
That our survival is contingent on plotting a course away from divinely sanctified hypocrisy is apparent. That we must become heretics against the false God of pride is essential. That we can afford to be nobodies with a fortune un-gilded by the hand of imperial gluttony is a cost we should accept.
How does one begin to erode the foundations of those magnificent and illusory monuments? By what means do we resurvey a world free from God’s impetus to kill? How do we destabilize the legitimacy of unchecked consumption?
We go once more into a wilderness as free and mortal (wo)men. Our new modus operandi is not to obtain and deplete but to confront what we have made in God’s name.