Wednesday, February 22, 2012

America and the Eighth Deadly Sin: Sources and characteristics of the cultivation of innocence

The following article is from the Journal of Religion and Health, Winter, 2006 and was written by Ryan Lamothe.

ABSTRACT: In this article, I argue that the cultivation of innocence in the United States, coupled with policies of free market expansionism, the acquisitiveness of capitalism, rising militarism, the hubris of democratic evangelism, free market fundamentalism, and the immense U.S. militaristic and economic power, is an especially fatal sin. In general, I contend that nurturing innocence involves overlooking the inadvertent and advertent destruction and suering that has resulted from U.S. interventionist policies and actions in the 20th and 21st centuries. Finally, I argue that the cultivation of innocence, which is often supported by Christian theological language, contradicts central Christian beliefs.
Part 1 Part 3 Part 4

Part 2: Sources and characteristics of the cultivation of innocence

Nations and national identities4 are supported by collectively held stories and rituals. These stories and rituals comprise the cherished beliefs, values, expectations, and attitudes that people of the nation, in varying degrees, tacitly accept and live out, even though most of the time this is not given much critical thought or deliberation. Elected leaders and the media in the U.S. often refer to and use these shared stories and ideals. I identify four central ideas that are linked to shared myths of the United States' role in the world and that are essential to the cultivation of innocence and its place in the American psyche. These characteristics are not in themselves sins, but instead are manifestations of a tragic and an idolatrous relation that is integral to the cultivation of innocence.

There is a strong strain of idealism in U.S. political life, which has deep roots in our history and in the stories we tell about ourselves. When Ronald Reagan said, "I have always believed that this anointed land was set apart in an uncommon way, that a divine plan placed this great continent here between two oceans to be found by people from every corner of the earth who have a special love of faith and freedom" (quoted in Lundestad, 1990, p. 17), he was representing a long tradition of secular idealism mixed with theology. Indeed, Reagan merely echoed Woodrow Wilson's belief in the U.S.'s global mission to democratize the world and bring about the "ultimate peace of the world" (Johnson, 2004, pp. 47-48). Democrats and Republicans alike have believed in the special mission of the U.S., using terms like, "a city upon a hill," "a chosen people," "the Israel of our time," and "God's own country" (see Lundestad, 1990). This idealistic, politico-theological rhetoric was heard in Clinton's reference to the end of the Cold War as "the fullness of time" and the U.S. as an "indispensable nation" (Bacevich, 2002). It continues today in the religious triumphalism and moralism of the Bush administration's justifica tion for military interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere (Ryn, 2003). The ideas that the U.S. is chosen by God and has a special role in history are not simply held by people who are deeply religious. It is rooted in the grand narratives that children learn in school and it is the background presence of media reporting. Bacevich (2002), for example, argued persuasively that Americans hold onto the myth that we are a reluctant nation whenever we go to war and this myth is accompanied by the shared belief that we are bringing both democracy and capitalism to those who are not so blessed. Another example of this mythical reluctance is found in the rhetoric justifying the first and second Iraq wars, which alternated from security as the major reason to bringing stability and democracy to the Middle East. In both instances, we were a reluctant and patient nation having to take leadership, especially in the second Iraq war, when Old Europe, to use Rumsfeld's term, wavered. There is, in this idealistic strain, the pervasive illusion of altruism. In the face of a great deal of evidence to the contrary (see Johnson, 2000, 2004), Americans believe and wish to believe that we are interested in only helping other less fortunate countries enjoy the freedoms and wealth that we have acquired through our own hard work.

The illusion of altruism?the illusion that our actions are fundamentally and solely for the good of others?is the first necessary feature in cultivating innocence. In holding onto this illusion, we overlook and deny the conse quences of interventionist foreign policies (Johnson, 2004).5 This is not to gainsay the contributions and sacrifices of Americans who have worked to help those in other countries. However, I am speaking of an attitude and tendency that is integral to the cultivation of innocence and the corresponding denial of the suffering and harm created by interventionist foreign policies. Baldwin (1955), in writing about racism, noted this tendency, saying, "Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradic tions into a proud decoration" (p. 31). We do this, in part, by telling and re-telling the myth in our goodness, in our divine chosenness to spread democracy and free market capitalism throughout the world.

Let me point to two examples of the latent presence of altruism in manifest expressions of outrage and fear. We are often told of the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation and the just war they fought and won. Indeed, if there was ever a just war it was WWII, though a just war, as Niebuhr (1942, 1943) noted in War as Crucifixion and War as Judgment, does not mean we escape responsibility and judgment. Many Americans, as Niebuhr discovered, found and find it difficult to confront and take responsibility for the horror inflicted on enemy populations (e.g., fire bombings of Dresden, Tokyo, and numerous other cities; the dropping of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima), because to do so would challenge the mythic belief in our essential goodness. The attending language of just war theory was and is closely allied with the belief in our essential goodness, which together serves to rationalize and deny harm to civilian populations. The presence of the illusion of altruism can also be seen in the 9/11 Newsweek cover, Why Do They Hate Us. Notwithstanding the horror, pain, and suffering of 9/11, the cover reveals the underlying myth of altruism in the midst of shock and fear. In other words, the disbelief in the question presumes innocence (How Could They Hate Us, would be a more apt title), which I argue is inextricably yoked to the mythic narratives of the goodness of American intentions and actions throughout the world.
The illusion of altruism accompanies the second attribute necessary in the cultivation of innocence, namely a deep sense of entitlement. Cultural observer and critic Lasch (1979) believed that "new social forms require new forms of personality, new modes of socialization, new ways of organizing experience" (p. 50). In surveying the American social landscape, Lasch thought that the concept of narcissism, despite its shortcomings, "provides us...with a tolerably accurate portrait of the 'liberated' personality of our time, with his charm, his pseudo-awareness of his own condition, his promiscuous pansexuality, his fascination with oral sex, his fear of the castrating mother, his hypochondria, his protective shallowness, his avoidance of dependence, his inability to mourn, his dread of old age and death" (p. 50). To this list, Bellah et al. (1985) would add exaggerated individualism, self-reliance, and fear of commitment. These observers of U.S. culture also note a sense of entitlement in the American psyche. The beliefs in the goodness and moral rightness of the U.S. are inseparable from a deep sense of entitlement?the belief that we deserve to have power and riches. This sense of privilege is embedded, as Ryn (2003) and Lundestad (1990) both noted, in American foreign policies and actions. Because we are a special nation, because we are chosen and blessed by God (putative evidence is economic and military power), we have the right to intervene in the affairs of nations and a right to amass wealth and power.

The third factor implicated in the cultivation of innocence is simplification. Human beings, theologian Farley (1990) noted, are fundamentally tragic creatures because in grasping reality by way of language we distort it. Lan guage only captures a tiny portion of life. Simplification is the tendency to believe that my portion stands for the whole. Put differently, simplification is the conscious and unconscious practice of eschewing complexity, ambiguity, doubt, and uncertainty by believing that one's interpretations of reality are the truth. Simplification is seen as the stark division of the world into us or them. For example, the social anger and hostility toward "Old Europe" for dis agreeing with the United States' march toward war is an illustration of reducing complex reality into slogans that shield oneself from doubts or questions about one's view of reality and the consequences of one's actions. George W. Bush's simplistic categorization of Iran, Korea, and Iraq as the axis of evil is another example of this tendency, illustrating what Hall (1991) identifies as a strand of simplism in evangelical Christianity.

Simplification, which Bollas (1992) argued is inherent in the belief in one's innocence and the defense mechanism of denial, is inextricably linked to a belief in the inherent goodness of American policies and intentions and a grandiose sense of entitlement. In combination, simplification becomes a key factor in screening the messiness of our motives and actions in the world and serves to keep dissenters at bay. For example, the rhetoric around the second Iraq War was framed in terms of security and later as our aim to bring free dom and democracy to Iraq and to the Middle East. Even if one sincerely believes in these aims, it shields the historical complexity of the Middle East (e.g., the role of colonial powers and the United States toward Saudi Arabia and other countries), the motives of the U.S. (e.g., securing Middle East oil and insuring military presence in the region), the varied experiences, needs, and desires of Middle Eastern citizens, and of the diversity of religious and polit ical beliefs in the Middle East. This simplification attends a nurtured naivete that the U.S. is simply trying to make life better for "these" people. James Baldwin identified this tendency when speaking of racism in the United States. He (1955) wrote, "(F)or there is a great deal of will power involved in the white man's na?vet?. Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious, and the white man prefers to keep the black man at a certain remove because it is easier for him thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or his neighbors" (p. 166).

The final factor necessary in the cultivation of innocence is pride. The theme of pride or American arrogance has been consistently identified by many who have tried to depict and understand the expansionist policies and actions of Democratic and Republican administrations since the 19th century. Decades ago, Reinhold Niebuhr pointed to this when he noted that Americans tend to see themselves as "tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection" (in Bacevich, 2002, p. 54). Even before 9/11, it was often heard from politicians and citizens that the United States is the greatest country in the world, which, if measured solely in terms of military expenditures, bellicosity, and economic power, may be close to the truth, though it is a very narrow and hollow truth. Since 9/11, American pride can be seen in the elaborate, triumphalistic, self congratulatory social rituals such as baseball's World Series and the Super Bowl and in the media spectacle of George W. Bush's landing on a U.S aircraft carrier, proclaiming "Mission accomplished." It is evident in the media and in the common speech that refer to all American wounded and dead as heroes, and taking pride in their sacrifice.6 We see it on bumper stickers such as the "Power of Pride," the proliferation of American flags, and the eclipse of any views from public discourse that challenge prevailing myths.

Pride, which is closely associated with entitlement, involves the idealization (if not glorification) of the United States' role in the world. Idealization is a partner of innocence because it includes the tendencies to overlook and deny anything that does not fit within the idealized image. Criticism, doubt, and ambiguity are simply shrugged off or violently rejected. I recall comments made after the easy invasion of Iraq that ranged from statements of pride in our military to outright pugnacious pride in "kicking their butts" (even given the fact that Iraq had a fourth-rate military). These instances of pride reflect the absence of empathy or compassion toward Iraqis who suffered the damage, killing, terror, and humiliation of the war. Someone will no doubt cite the Iraqis who were and are delighted to be free of Saddam. True, but the immediate introduction of this "fact" or other "good" things we have done shields the harm that resulted from U.S. aggression and pride.

These four factors, which are intertwined with and supported by American myths and rituals, are necessary ingredients to the cultivation of innocence. As stated above, with the exception of pride, these factors are not, in them selves, considered to be sin. Yet, together they form contrived innocence, which, when combined with the will to power (Ryn, 2003) as well as economic and military force, is an especially deadly sin because it denies our less savory motivations, overlooks harmful consequences of U.S. interventionist policies and actions, and reserves compassion and empathy only for those who agree with U.S. actions. Indeed, it is a deadly sin precisely because of its relation to pride and power, the use of which has resulted in much harm, though some good (see Johnson, 2000, 2004; Chomsky, 2004).

In terms of the idea of sin, the cultivation of innocence may be understood as disobedience and as a tragic response to human finitude. To believe, con sciously or unconsciously, in one's innocence is to reject the very reality of one's relation to God. This relation, as Creator and created, involves the rec ognition that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God and that all human beings, while created good, are neither perfect nor inno cent. Human beings cannot claim they are innocent, not simply because of sin, but because of human ignorance. There is no way of knowing absolutely we are innocent and it is this inability to know that leads to our dependence on God's grace and forgiveness. In addition, to wage war, to argue that one is better than others, to use economic and military means to secure entitlement to power and goods, require the rejection of the equal status of the other?equal in real, measurable, not rhetorical dignity. The cultivation of innocence is a form of disobedience whenever it is accompanied by declarations that as a "chosen nation" we know the truth that will save the world.
Innocence, as sin, can also be understood as a response to human finitude. The anger and hostility directed toward any person pointing out America's destructive actions and self-interested foreign interventions reflects, in my view, a tremendous amount of anxiety with regard to facing and losing a highly cherished national identity. Newsweek's cover may have been an initial step toward mourning this idealized, grandiose, and na?ve collective identity, but it quickly died under the weight of the Bush administration's bellicose hype and further pronouncements of U.S. goodness and innocence. Anxiety, in other words, was channeled or transformed into hostility and anger, which continued to be fueled by the fear that the U.S. would face another attack. Yet, I also argue that the fear and anxiety that underlie the cultivation of inno cence are linked to the threat of other losses associated with being an empire loss of entitlement and privilege, loss of purpose and meaning, and loss of power. To ward off fear and anxiety associated with the limits of human reality (i.e., vulnerability), Americans tell and re-tell stories of their goodness and their divine chosenness in the world, leaving compassion and empathy for others in the wake of glory and greed.

No comments: