Newsletter #64: This Is Your Country
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Over the years I’ve laid out a number of foundational concepts to understanding our world, ranging from the transformation of the household to last month’s essay on the managerial revolution. I’ve also previously given a few perspectives on what we need to be doing, including being above reproach and defending institutional integrity
Today I’m starting a series of hard-hitting newsletters with further thinking about various aspects of how we should live now. This one is about an aspect of psychological preparation for life in the negative world. Because while we should reflect on and learn from the past, the task today is how to move forward in today’s very different 21st century. This newsletter is written primarily to Americans and also white evangelicals, but I know I have a big global audience too. The same principles apply to every nation and group. It should be straightforward to transpose this to your situation.
The idea of “American exceptionalism” has long been core to our national identity. It has a double sense, referring both to ways in which America is an outlier among the nations, and the view that America is an exceptionally, uniquely good nation. “America is great because America is good” as the quip falsely attributed to Tocqueville goes.
I grew up at the end of the Cold War. I remember the way Ronald Reagan celebrated America, though many of his most famous lines were from before my time. He once said, “I, in my own mind, have thought of America as a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land.” He also said, “America’s not just a word; it is a hope, a torch shedding light to all the hopeless of the world.” And, “It’s not an arrogant demand that others adopt our ways. It’s a realistic belief in the relative and proven success of the American experiment.” And, “One scholar described our Constitution as a kind of covenant. It is a covenant we’ve made not only with ourselves but with all of mankind.” Reagan’s rhetoric is hardly unique and has a long pedigree. One of his famous lines about America being the “last best hope of man on Earth” comes from Lincoln.
I was raised in the midst of the rapture fever of that era, and the attempts to map current events onto the end times. In this system, the United States was frequently presented as a sort of New Israel, a particularly chosen nation established at God’s command to be a light unto the world, and blessed with His favor. When I was a teenager, my mother gave me a copy of the book The Light and the Glory, which I don’t remember in any detail, but is famously filled with this kind of rhetoric. You see this of course in Reagan as well, and this too has a longstanding pedigree in America.
While this type of thinking was completely understandable during the Cold War, in retrospect, it’s quite unsupportable. While some of Reagan’s speeches hold up well, such as his Brandenburg Gate call to Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” some of them are cringe inducing to listen to today.
An objective look at the past and present shows that America is a nation filled with massive amounts of evil as well as good. We did basically wipe out the Indians and take all the land for ourselves. Slavery was integral to the Southern US economic, social and cultural system. Jim Crow and similar systems of discrimination did exist for many decades. These were not just unfortunate, minor aberrations from an otherwise pristine narrative but were a pretty big deal with effects that persisted long after they were ended.
Moving forward in time, we did commit deliberate mass slaughter of civilians during World War II, not just in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the firebombing of cities like Tokyo and other ways. We have routinely toppled foreign governments. The CIA undertook mind control and other experiments using dangerous drugs and electroshock therapy. We backed death squads in countries like Guatemala and Honduras. Many of our actions were not from some raison d’etat, but merely to protect financial interests in the United States. The very term “banana republic” refers to how the US overthrew the government of Guatemala at the behest of the United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita). Many of us remember the Iran hostage crisis in which US embassy staff were held hostage after an Islamist revolution overthrew the government of the Shah. But few know that the US government staged the coup that installed the Shah in the first place because the previous Iranian president planned to nationalize Western oil holdings in the country.
It continues to the present day. The US invaded Iraq under false pretenses, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths and wrecking the country. The Christian community of Iraq in particular was all but wiped out. The US toppling of the Khaddafi government in Libya destroyed a country that had previously been the highest ranked nation in all of Africa on the UN Human Development Index (did you know that?). Now that country suffers civil war between many factions, open human slave markets, etc. In the eight major wars the US has participated in since 9/11, at least 37 million people have been displaced. About 90% of people killed by American drone strikes were not the intended target. The whistleblower who revealed that was sent to prison. Children and other innocents are routinely killed by the US military, which has also intentionally targeted funerals and other such civilian activities.
America also uses its control of the global financial system to impoverish or even starve citizens of other countries. It froze Afghanistan’s assets as the country has experienced food shortages. While I would never defend the regime of Hugo Chavez, the problems in Venezuela today are mostly a result of some of the harshest US sanctions applied to any country in the world, not bad policies on their part. The US routinely interferes in the internal affairs of other countries. A stated goal of US foreign policy, for example, is the promotion of progressive social policies in other countries. Aid is often explicitly tied to this. And of course we also arrest (Julian Assange), raid (Project Veritas), or spy on (James Rosen) journalists.
In many ways the United States is exceptional - exceptionally bad. In fact, the US government is probably responsible for more deaths, displacements, and war crimes than any other country in the world during the 21st century so far. We are far, far from being the most evil country in the world. But our vast power allows us to inflict wrong on a scale other regimes can’t even dream of.
Morally Debilitating the American People
Americans are so used to thinking of ourselves and our country as the good guys, so used to thinking of the USA as a shining city on a hill, that we are not psychologically equipped to face the truth about the things America has done. When someone points out a problem with America or its behavior, their response is often to deny or minimize it. If forced to acknowledge it, this can produce disillusionment or even moral debilitation.
Creating and exploiting this moral debilitation is a tactic that is now widely deployed for the purposes of manipulating people and institutions.
Consider, for example, the rhetoric around structural racism. In this telling, America and its systems have, since the country’s founding, been built around racial injustices such as slavery, segregation, red lining, etc. Any specifically cited material injustice like these is usually decades in the past. Nevertheless, Americans today (or certain Americans at least), are said to be morally implicated in these systems. Similar techniques are used within churches and denominations, in which, for example, someone might highlight a pastor who defended slavery or segregation back in the day. Or talk about how a particular church didn’t admit blacks until some particular date.
One key point of such arguments is to morally debilitate the hearer by attacking one of their sources of identity. By that I mean make the person less willing to stand for themselves, their own position, preferences, or interests by weaking their identity anchors and making them feel morally compromised and thus unworthy and without standing to do so. Secondarily, it is to then cause that person to acquiesce to some other set of people, positions, preferences, interests that are asserting themselves.
Such streams of argumentation apply a sort of works righteousness standard to America, churches, or other institutions. That is, unless they and their actions have been morally pristine, they are morally compromised and deserve condemnation, and to be turned over to new proprietors who will correct these purported defects (or so they claim). They again attempt to sever people from sources of identity and community. In the Christian world, this is typically compounded with gaslighting about how we are supposed to “find our identity in Christ” and thus disconnect ourselves from the targeted sources of identity.
Because all nations and institutions are populated with human beings, and human beings are fallen creatures who do all variety of bad things, this sort of moral undermining can be applied to anyone and anything. But we see that they are only ever applied selectively, such as to white evangelicals, conservatives, etc. Even a cursory look around shows all sorts of people and groups that are not even slightly morally debilitated, or asked to consider their relationship to injustice at all, even for injustices they are directly implicated in. Again, in the Christian world, these other groups are also never asked to abandon their own sources of identity in favor of finding their identity solely in Christ.
For example, there’s a non-profit group where I live that raises money to bail people out of jail. They assisted two people to get out of jail on bail who then each turned around and killed somebody. This organization received funding both from the city and our local community foundation. Yet no one seems morally debilitated over the fact that they contributed to enabling two murders. The leadership of the non-profit itself is completely unapologetic. The city and community foundation ceased funding the organization, but I haven’t seen anyone in either organization engage in self-flagellation or pulling back from asserting any of their own priorities in the social justice arena. They are not viewed or critiqued as morally compromised even though they themselves gave money to a group implicated in two murders.
Or consider the violence associated with the Blacks Lives Matter movement. In 2014, BLM protestors in NYC were marching and chanting, “What do we want? Dead cops. When do we want it? Now.” A week later they got their wish when NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were assassinated by someone who posted on social media about seeking revenge for Michael Brown and Eric Garner. In 2016 a sniper who cited BLM and anger at police killings of black men assassinated five police officers in Dallas in an attempt to “kill as many white officers as he could” per the New York Times. A similar attack killed three police officers in Baton Rouge not long afterwards. I could go on, but that’s ten cops assassinated right there. We see that any crimes like these that are inconvenient to the BLM narrative are quickly memory holed and never referenced again in polite company.
Or think about immigrants. There are tens of millions of recent post-1965 Immigration Act migrants to the United States, plus their descendants. Many of them come from countries with significant systemic injustices of their own, like India with its caste system. According to Reihan Salam, about 45% of Indian immigrants to the US are from the highest Brahmin caste, with only 1.5% coming from the lowest castes that comprise a third of India’s population. Most Indian immigrants to the US have a far more proximate connection to India and its social systems than the average white American does to slavery or red lining. Yet no one ever suggests (nor should they), that Indian-Americans should feel some moral shame or debilitation relating to India’s injustices (much less that they have any obligation to do anything about them).
Personally, while I don’t support these non-profit bail outfits, there’s nothing wrong with taking a shot on a social reform idea. Just because it fails, that doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person. Nor do I think social movements should be blamed for what some whack job who likes their Facebook page does. Nor do I think immigrants ought to feel bad for what their ethnic group or country did in the past. But that’s exactly the kind of moral obligation and debilitation that some folks try to impose on select groups like white conservatives or evangelicals.
That’s why it’s important for everybody to free themselves psychologically from these forms of moral blackmail. Realistically, many people in America are not in a position where they can publicly oppose some of these things. But you can at least steel yourself psychologically not to allow yourself to be manipulated by people advancing their own agenda.
It’s Our Country Because It’s Ours
The United States does not have to be a perfect country for us to identify with it and love it. We identify with and love our country for the same reason we love our children – because it is ours. Doing so requires no defense or justification beyond that.
As G. K. Chesterton put it:
Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing – say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.
If we want to make America great, again or otherwise, we have to identify with her in that way.
This doesn’t mean ignoring America’s problems or faults. In fact, identifying with America because it is our country enables us to accept her while also recognizing those faults.
To be clear, I actually think America is a pretty great country. I’m an American and very thankful to be one. We are one of the most significant political entities in the history of planet Earth. We’ve brought tremendous benefits to the world in terms of scientific and technical progress, material well-being, and the spread of freedom. There’s no place else in the world most people would rather migrate to, which tells you something profound about how incredible we are. But even though America is legitimately great in so many ways, it does have its faults. I don’t need America to be perfect to love it or celebrate its good points - or to embrace and defend our American way of life against those who want to change or destroy it in favor of their own visions.
Too often people try to deny or minimize the problems of our country as a defense mechanism against moral manipulation. This is understandable and in part results from the false dichotomy imposed by the culture shaping institutions of society. Few of us fully appreciate the awesome power that can be brought to bear when our institutions collectively impose a false dichotomy. For example, George W. Bush’s “You are either with us, or with the terrorists” is such a frame. This is what enabled the disastrous Iraq War. We all look back now from a distance of 20 years and see the ambiguities in that situation. But at the time, resisting war was seen as tantamount to actively supporting Saddam Hussein, his crimes, and terrorism. People who opposed the war were labeled “unpatriotic” and in the conservative world largely exiled from the movement. We cannot easily appreciate today the difficulty of resisting the invasion of Iraq. Most people didn’t even try to resist because they were fully caught up in the march to war. They didn’t even realize they were being psychologically manipulated by propaganda and institutional pressure.
These frames are so powerful that those who want to resist them sometimes merely invert the field and end up embracing the opposite pole of the false dichotomy. We see this all playing out right now with Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. Again, we see full spectrum institutional pressure brought to bear saying either support our maximalist intervention agenda, or you are a Putin stooge.
In fact, there are a wide range of possible responses to the invasion that don’t require supporting Putin or what he has done. But what we see on the internet is a number of non-interventionists who have embraced the Russian position because that’s the only other option they can envision apart from supporting the neoconservative demands of our foreign policy establishment. We have to be able to recognize and resists these false choices.
We can reject moral manipulation without having to deny America’s faults. In fact, if you try to deny those faults, then you are left defenseless against moral manipulation when the reality of them becomes impossible to deny. We are simply entitled to rely on our own best analysis as to what those faults actually are, and what we think should be done about them.
Also, the attempts to impute some kind of indelible moral stain based on guilt over sins which we didn’t actually commit is a corruption of Christian teachings, as Joshua Mitchell and others have documented. There’s no need to go into detail here as it has been covered by others. But these attempts do recognize the centrality of sin and human depravity in the problem, but deny the “Divine Scapegoat” who has already addressed that problem once for all. Instead, they try to "immanentize the scapegoat" as Mitchell puts it, with you in the starring role as the designated goat.
Make no mistake, Christians have an obligation to be other directed in at least some respects. Serving others, serving the poor, seeking justice are not optional. But that doesn’t mean being forced to accept somebody else’s agenda for that. There are a range of huge issues on which one can engage: homelessness, prison ministries, counseling, food shortages and other forms of poverty relief, opioid addictions, redeveloping rural areas, disability issues, racial reconciliation, abortion – the list goes on and on, even if you just look at domestic problems. And beyond purely charitable activities or acts of mercy, there are ways to seek to address problems in our society through other means, such as public service in government or starting a business with a mission.
There are a large number of needs out there, and different people have different skills, opportunities, and sense of call about which ones they should engage on. You have to do something about the problems in our country, but you don’t have to necessarily do what other people demand or accept their diagnosis. For example, back in 2016 I was originally planning to start a money making web site focused on gut health and the microbiome. Instead, I decided to start this newsletter because I saw important problems and perspectives that were not being presented. This certainly isn’t all that I do for others, but it is one form of ministry I engage in.
Free Your Mind
You have to free your mind from moral manipulation that strikes at your sources of identity and tries to undermine your connection to and ability to act on behalf of country, community, or institutions. If people come after you in this way, ask yourself what they are doing to first correct the injustices to which they are a party or are connected. There’s a long list of bad things most people in America don’t seem all that concerned about. Let them take the logs out of their own eye before them come lecture us.
If you are an American, this is your country. You don’t have to apologize for it or feel bad about it anymore than a Han Chinese immigrant has to apologize for what his people are doing to the Uighurs in China. You don’t have to justify how you feel about America.
You can feel the same about your church or other communities or institutions of which you are a part. You don’t have to support and are entitled to resist other people’s agendas to change them.
We should be clear eyed about what’s wrong with America (or its institutions), past and present, and engage to make it better or greater as we feel called to do.
Where we are legitimately implicated in a genuine injustice for which we bear some direct personal responsibility, then we should own that and work to correct it.
We should reject any attempts to manipulate and morally debilitate us, particularly for things we didn’t personally do, especially by people who have no intention of addressing even the injustices in which they are personally complicit.
Obviously if you are not an American or in a different environment than the ones I discussed above, you need to map these to your own situation. The same principles apply.
Until you can free your mind from this type of manipulation designed to morally debilitate you, it won’t be possible to operate successfully in today’s world. Don’t underestimate how difficult this can be to do in the face of full spectrum institutional pressure. You may not even be able to fully do it in your actions in light of this pressure. But you can at least psychologically resist.
Note: The title of this newsletter was inspired by Paige Willey’s podcast “This Is Your Country.”
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Chet Hanks Rejects Moral Debilitation
Actor Chet Hanks was interviewed by Ziwe Fumudoh on Showtime and asked to defend himself to charges of cultural appropriation. He flat out refused.
This clip went viral because it is so rare to see someone like Hanks refuse to submit to moral moral manipulation. People like the head of the non-profit bail fund I mentioned above regularly respond this way. Other people are fully within their rights to do the same.
Follow-Up on the Pro-Life Movement
With a leaked draft of a Supreme Court decision suggesting Roe vs. Wade may soon be overturned, the action on the abortion front is moving to state legislatures.
A group of pro-life organizations recently weighed in on what should not be in these laws, namely any accountability for women who abort their babies. Their statement in opposition to this is a direct restatement of the pro-life movement’s moral doublespeak that I highlighted in January’s newsletter.
Women are victims of abortion and require our compassion and support as well as ready access to counseling and social services in the days, weeks, months, and years following an abortion.
As national and state pro-life organizations, representing tens of millions of pro-life men, women, and children across the country, let us be clear: We state unequivocally that any measure seeking to criminalize or punish women is not pro-life and we stand firmly opposed to such efforts. [emphasis in original]
There’s more on these lines in the full document. It was signed by a who’s who of anti-abortion groups, including the National Right to Life and many state affiliates, the policy organization of the Southern Baptist Convention, and others.
Again, note that they don’t just argue that women shouldn’t be punished for practical reasons or from some rationale rooted in prudential justice or even out of simple mercy. Instead, the reason women who abort their babies shouldn’t be punished is that they are innocent - they are explicitly “victims” according to the pro-life movement.
The pro-life movement has adopted the bizarro logic that abortion is murder, but women who procure that murder haven’t done anything wrong.
Candidly, it is easy to see why secular society wouldn’t take these people seriously from a moral perspective.
Also, it shows that contrary to all the complaints about “patriarchy” and “toxic masculinity” and the like, in reality the American church is so female-centric it is unwilling to hold women accountable for anything - not even procuring what they themselves profess to be a murder by aborting their baby.
Again, if you didn’t read my previous piece on this, check out newsletter #60.
Cover image by Steve Wall, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.