News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: The Decent American: A Myth Under Destruction?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Decent American: A Myth Under Destruction?

I wrote about the Iraqi death squads earlier. While writing that, I realized one thing: what is at stake here is the idea that there's something called basic American decency that's been corrupted by this war...

I still find it hard to think that US troops could support and instigate anything like death squads. There's the feeling that as bad as Americans act sometimes, they still have a basic sense of decency about how far is too far.

Sure, there are exceptions like My Lai and individual cases, but that's just it: they're the exception, not the rule. Now I think that I am facing the idea, with this war and the revelations of torture camps etc., that this basic decency is gone, and a deadly rot of corrupt ethics is becoming the norm.

Call me naive, I know. In The Quiet American, Graham Greene painted this long ago. Yet, Greene depicted his American protagonist as someone who thought and believed in an innocent way, and through this innocence committed great evil. Slavoz Zizek says that what's happening now is the "resurgence" of this Greene character, a person, of whom Greene writes, "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused." I suggest, however, that what's happening today is that Greene's American has lost that innocence and often does evil knowingly and corruptly.

In terms of Iraq, I think people are coming around to the idea that Iraq was not the right thing to do; unfortunately, it is 100,000 dead Iraqis and 2,200 dead US soldiers too late. Hopefully, someday people will realize that they are complict as a society in buying into the fear-mongering and manipulation by the press/Bushites simply out of fear and despair.

As Kierkegaard noted, there are several forms of despair. Despair for Kierkegaard and much of Christian theology is the sin of sins. It is a state where people sin because they have lost hope. And losing hope is the worst sin because one cannot and should not lose hope in a God for whom all things are possible.

The unconscious form of despair, according to Kierkegaard, is the one experienced most by people in today's world. They do not realize they have lost hope and blithely seem unconcerned about their own despair. As such, all their actions are done in hopeless defiance of what is the right thing to do--unconscious as they are of even what the right thing to do is. This alienation and distance from what one's true self is is precisely the dilemma faced by most people in America. As such, they can be swayed and manipulated because their ethical and spiritual core does not exist.

This point is made even more powerfully by Martin Matustik's explication of Frederick Douglass' and Soren Kierkegaard's attack on false Christianity:

Known to Douglass but lost on most contemporary Americans is the danger of an even greater evil: what Kierkegaard called the human capacity for acting “diabolically.” The “diabolical” is anyone who wills oneself to be good without having confronted one’s capacity for evil. Such a person must cling fast to false innocence because this person despairs over the question whether he or she truly is innocent. The politically “diabolical” is any regime that in despair wills its false innocence. The desire to be the innocent source of one’s power - a phenomenon we can call the despair of America - can be confronted, says Kierkegaard, by the breakdown of the false ego and its attachment to power.

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