Thursday, December 3, 2009

Americans become more accepting of torture

This is nauseating, but somewhat forseeable. I've felt this trend coming on for a while. I think the torture thing hits a couple of pressure points in the American psyche. There's the security issue, obviously, and considering the lack of concern during the Bush years over eroding civil liberties it's not surprising that the public is becoming more pro-torture. But I think in a lot of ways what you see here (and with the death penalty) is an overreaction to a very specific sort of threat. Americans have for centuries liked to view America as some sort of unspoiled paradise away from the pettiness and tensions of the rest of the world--the "City on a hill", a turn of phrase as old as America itself--and it tends to react most angrily and most violently when that self-image becomes untenable. It's the dark underside of that generally good American optimism--if you believe that everyone can make good if they try hard enough, despising those that don't comes naturally. And if you see yourself as a good person and someone tries to attack you for no reason you can see, uncomprehending hatred comes naturally to you.

This is not to say that one should sympathize with terrorists. They're crazy, though the societies that produce them usually aren't, and the complaints that anger them are often very specific (though misguided, and never sufficient to start murdering civilians). It is to say that we haven't really grown up yet. Our unwillingness to look beyond our borders and at the world at large--our provincialism, in other words--is incompatible with our being a major global presence and leader. It just reminds me of a quote from a Gore Vidal novel set right after WWII whose effect is, "Why should we stop being the smiling hayseeds of the world? Hasn't that always been good for us?" That says much, I think. And our blindness to our own evil--which, to be sure, is often outweighed by the goodness--will prevent any sort of sane worldview until it is resolved. So long as Americans are not willing to clearly look at our own motives and reasons for doing what we do, we're not going to get over these problems. We'll still be susceptible to the Cheneys of the world until then, regardless of what polls say people think they think about war. The torture question is, to my mind, an unfortunate effect of America's cognitive dissonance about itself.

To be fair to the American mentality, though, this country is basically still in its adolescence and it's possible that a generation that came of age during a time of irresponsible wealth and nation building will be more receptive to a more mature point of view, and I deeply suspect that it's the Polyannish memories of the elderly that drive this sort of mayhem. Eventually, we will get over this nonsense. But until then...

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.