|Featured Columnist – Meditations
This weekend Americans are celebrating the 4th of July, the date that commemorates the birth of the United States 234 years ago. As Tea Party chauvinism metastasizes and merges with the larger cancer of the Republican Party, it’s fitting to note that one year before the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Samuel Johnson uttered the famous maxim, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
There are many analyses of the Tea Party movement, but no one I know of is looking at the core psychological and emotional factor—the jingoistic reaction of Americans who feel their world has turned to oily, wet sand beneath their feet. It’s the same reaction across nations and ages during periods of crisis and decline, and it always gives rise to a fanatical desire to turn back the clock to a fantastical time of purity and goodness.
Tea Partiers are reacting to the fact that the world has changed, and that the old models, frameworks, and philosophies are proving woefully inadequate.
The American economy, for example, is not going to return to its halcyon days of consumeristic binging anymore than Detroit is going to return to being the manufacturing capital of the world. Consumerism replaced manufacturing for a while, as perverse as that was (as if going from making useful things to buying useless things could last for long). But that’s over now.
The direness of the global situation, and the danger of the status quo continuing, necessitates a psychological revolution. But many lost and frustrated Tea Partiers darkly allude to violence, their T-shirts and placards proclaiming, in Thomas Jefferson’s words: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
These ‘God-fearing’ people, who blithely quote Jefferson, insist that he and the other American Founders meant this to be a “Christian nation.” But as Stephen Mitchell says in “The Gospel According to Jesus,” “Jefferson was our great champion of religious freedom, and he was attacked as a rabid atheist by the bigots of his day.” Yes, and their descendents are the Tea Partiers and Palin followers of today.
Few Christians care to know that Jefferson also said, in a letter to John Adams, that “the whole history of the Gospels is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt a minute enquiry into it. There is internal evidence that parts of it proceeded from an extraordinary man; and other parts are the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.”
The staggering superficiality, emptiness, and deadness at the core of American culture are the inevitable and ineluctable consequences of decades of a mindlessly individualistic “pursuit of happiness.” How Jefferson’s phrase in the Declaration of Independence— “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—got twisted into the care and feeding of the separate self, is a sociological study for future generations.
Soldiers in the Afghanistan ‘war’ (in actuality, perverse police action) display, with the disingenuous support of the American people, the last tragic vestiges of nationalism. As our ‘heroes’ admit upon returning, they fight because it’s their “job.” Their devotion to their fellow soldiers trumps their devotion to country, which has ceased to hold meaning, even for them, especially for them, caught in what has become Obama’s quagmire. Allegiance to country has devolved into allegiance to my platoon.
CNN, which is losing viewers faster than the Gulf of Mexico is losing wildlife, has a corporate strategy that attempts to milk self-centeredness for all they can get in their race to the bottom. From every announcer one hears a version of a gratingly pandering plea: “We’re asking YOU—is the President meeting YOUR expectations?”
The unbridled individualism in American society is the leading reason that the fabric of this country has frayed beyond all capacity to bind. How much longer will conformity and adaptation to a nationalistic/militaristic culture hold out against the forces of history?
Paradoxically, individualism is also providing a laboratory for radical change. The recent defeat of an extension of unemployment benefits throws millions of out of work people back on themselves.
Even before the collapse of the consumeristic economy, there was an epidemic of depression in the United States. No one asks why. It’s simply treated as another opportunity to make big money by a mental health industry in the thrall of drug companies.
Nationalism has run its course, but it’s being viewed, in America and most other lands, as an immutable feature of human nature. Change never comes easy, but it will come, either hard now, or harder later.
More and more people no longer emotionally perceive themselves as Americans or Russians, Iranians or Israelis. For that matter, more and more people don’t perceive themselves as Christians, Muslims, or Buddhists. (Well, maybe Buddhists, but it’s still the same thing.)
For the living, it comes down to a simple choice: Continue to identify with particular groups, and become inwardly dead, 0r let go and grow. Is there really any choice?