Friday, January 07, 2005

An American Buddhist Response to Americanism...

as defined by David Gelernter in Commentary.

Updated: It appears that the original version of this was perhaps too reactive to the article in Commentary, and didn't really accurately portray a Buddhist response to the notion of "America," although I think as a reaction to an "-ism," it's not a bad first cut. The fact is, all political designs, like any design, is a reflection of the people that make them, and what one might say the prevailing social and ideological karma, for want of a better term. The United States simply could not have existed in the way we (or at least many of us) know it without the Enlightenment, the Thirty Years' War, and yes, the Puritans.

That doesn't make us better, and it doesn't make us worse. It in no way justifies triumphalism or condemnation.

Moreover, because of the abundance of greed, hatred and ignorance (as well as wisdom, compassion and generosity) the United States, while having some incredibly good aspects of its society and government envied by the rest of the world (e.g., attempted fidelity to the rule of law, as someone in China pointed out to me) there are still unintended consequences to our society and government; e.g., federalism hinders community, which in turn leads to regional factionalism.

All nation states are engineered imperfectly. We have been relatively lucky to be spared a Pol Pot or a Hitler, but we should not be like a gambler who prides himself on his "skill" having bet at roulette on black 6 times and winning.

That said, I cannot but find the article referenced highly superficial, simply because it lacks any semblance of nuance.

We Buddhists tend not to be partial to "-isms" of any stripe- pro anti. "The -ism is not it" might be a good motto for us. Joe Carter cliams that anti-Americanism "is is closely associated with anti Christianism and anti-Semitism. Anti-Americans are still fascinated and enraged by Americans’ 'bizarre tendency to believe in God.'"

Mr. Carter has offered a "symposium prize" for the best reveiws of Gelernter's article.

So, intrigued, (fascinated?) I go off to Joe's link, remembering Woody Allen's famous remark about how Dissent and Commentary's merger had become Dysentery. Commentary - like Susan Sontag- has become famously irrelevant over the years except for those who want to view the ideological analog of a car accident on a freeway.

Gelernter defines "Americanism" as "the set of beliefs that are thought to constitute America’s essence and to set it apart; the beliefs that make Americans positive that their nation is superior to all others—morally superior, closer to God."

Whenever I see things like this whether from the People's Daily, The New York Times, or National Review, a flag goes up: Who thinks these beliefs constitute America's essence? Well clearly Gelernter, for starters.

"America is Deconstruction," so it wasn't Derrida who posits an Americanism, (as expected.) And yep, it's Gelernter's straw man: America has an "-ism," and it's dead serious about it. Thanks for speaking for me Mr. Gelernter- it's about as profound as speaking for those NASCAR dads, soccer/security moms, my 3 year old, the cleaning ladies in the Hyatt Regency in Monterey, and Marty Beckerman.

Anyway, Gelernter- I'm curious as to Carter's take on this by now, because the reasoning here is shoddy to the point of apalling- goes on: "In the late-18th and 19th centuries, America stood for radical republicanism and the breaking-down of inherited rank—grounds for hatred among much of the European elite."

America, in the late 18-th and 19th centuries stood for continuance of the slave trade, imperialism, cheap labor, the later suppression of labor unions, the subjugation of indigenous peoples, and the hegemony of people to the south of our borders. This is hardly a "breaking-down of inherited rank," except insofar as it challenged the greed of the Europeans. But it is no cause for any kind of moral superiority to which Gelernter may be hinting. We can say that in some ways America was better than other countries; in some ways worse. We got a big break from acquiring a land from indigenous peoples and Mexicans that hadn't fully exploited its resources. But that gives us no moral advantage.

Let me quote one passage at length:

Over the roughly four centuries of American and proto-American existence, it has also inspired remarkable feats of devotion. You would need some sort of fierce determination to set forth in a puny, broad-beamed, high-pooped, painfully slow, nearly undefended 17th-century ship to cross the uncharted ocean to an unknown, unmapped new world. You would need remarkable determination to push westward into the heartland away from settlement and safety.

This "devotion" was in many cases "desperation." From the Irish famine to the pogroms to the grinding poverty in Mexico today it's desperation and resentment that drives immigrants which is transmuted into a hope.

What's interesting to me, is, having seen a bit of the world, this desperation has resulted in immigrant journeys in many other places- Japanese to Brazil, Chinese to Mexio, Indians Venezuela. But Americans don't know about that. Why? Americans don't know how many people leave the US every year (currently I think there's at least 6 million non-military-related ex-pats).

Let me deal with Gelernter's article that in one place directly talks about Buddhism:

Can you be an agnostic or atheist or Buddhist or Muslim and a believing American too? In each case the answer is yes. But to accomplish that feat is harder than most people realize. The Bible is not merely the fertile soil that brought Americanism forth. It is the energy source that makes it live and thrive; that makes believing Americans willing to prescribe freedom, equality, and democracy even for a place like Afghanistan, once regarded as perhaps the remotest region on the face of the globe.

Now the bible was never part of American culture as defined as the nation was; it was of course what folks thought of as religion even as they whipped their slaves, slaughtered the Indians, brewed their moonshine, murdered their Mormons and Shakers, etc.

But Gelernter may be on to something here: just as one needs a certain selective myopia to exalt the bible (ignoring or explaining away its inconsistencies, its advocacy of genocide, its historical use as a method of subjugation) one also needs a selective lack of conciousness to be the kind of "American" Gelernter promotes. And yeah, we Buddhists, who are about being mindful have a problem with that, becaue despite the uncomfortable nature of all the greed, hatred and ignorance in ourselves, and others, we still find it better to be aware of the nasty stuff than to gloss it over in a feel good "Americanism," especially one which looks increasingly like what Romans thought of the empire even as it declined.

I could go on more- Gelernter's take on Puritanism leaves out witch hunts, which I think is telling, too. Gelernter's analogy might be spot on in one streak of being an American, but if you want the Puritan, you've got to take the witch hunt along with it.

All in all, this article is what's wrong with America today: it seems to be slipshod, second rate reasoning, and lacking in those things- like hard work and humility- that made Americans take advantage - in a good sense- of where they found themselves.

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