Would it be unfair to say that this image basically sums up the content of mainstream U.S. politics and culture since “9/11”? Where does this picture fit amidst arguments about the clash of civilizations, the politics of oil, the legality of torture, secularism, multiculturalism, or the exercise of sovereign power? Does the image of George W. Bush as a roided-out Uncle Sam basically iconize the post-millenial U.S. zeitgeist?
I have felt since 9/11 that the U.S. is best understood through the psychology manifested in this image, a psychology dominated by the fragile and wounded ego of a national subject understood as ‘white’ and ‘male.’ I see U.S. politics as dominated by the mentality of the grade school playground, where argument takes the form of “I know you are but what am I?” and the insecure bully goes around whopping on whimps because he is afraid that no one loves him. I see U.S. culture in the last several years as fundamentally authoritarian. It doesn’t take a professor of anthropology to argue that “9/11” has catalyzed a backlash against all that ails the modern white male ego. U.S. culture appears fundamentally motivated by a need to build up and defend the poor, damaged male self after decades of onslaught by the feminists and the gays, the intellectuals, the Europeans, the immigrants, whatever. Though the wound that motivated much of the defensive political posturing and putsches of the last several years resulted from the spectacular humiliation of “9/11,” the abject failure of the Iraq war as a demonstration of U.S. prowess has only deepened the cut. The prospects are frightening.
Countless moments in recent memory have contributed to my gut feeling that the whole U.S. thing can best be explained as a Tough Guy response to the sucker punch on 9/11, but none to me revealed the basic psychology underlying U.S. political ideology better than when Ann Coulter called U.S. presidential candidate John Edwards a fag.
Of course there was an outcry by the earnest political press, saying that this sort of ‘hate speech’ is inappropriate in mainstream politics. Yet, I think the far more interesting response came from those who argued not that this was somehow inappropriate political speech, but that in fact it perfectly illustrated the underlying thought behind much of contemporary U.S. ideology. Glen Greenwald, in particular, has been assiduously tracking the ‘butch’ posturings of war-mongers in the U.S. Media stars, in Greenwald’s daily analysis, are unveiled for the yapping little boys they actually are, fawning over father figures. And although Greenwald unveils very tight linkages between the U.S. conservative movement and authoritarian ideology, Bob Somerby shows that the gendered logic of authoritarianism actually pervades the so-called liberal press as well. There is a lot of excellent writing on this theme in progressive U.S. blogs, most of it much more informed and well-written than anything I can say here. Indeed, much of this real-time critique of U.S. ideology is more compelling than what you can read in Public Culture.
Which raises the question: How best can anthropologists address the problem of contemporary U.S. politics? SM has done a great job of addressing the Iraq war. Yet much of the blogging here has mainly focused on ‘anthropology’ as an institutional constellation and its role vis-a-vis U.S. military policy. I am wondering about the tools of cultural analysis and how they can be used to understand (and mitigate) U.S. warmongering.
Some possible (creative, critical) connections:
- John Borneman’s “Death of the Father” project looks at 20th century authoritarianism and analyzes forms of post-authoritarian regime change.
- Donald Tuzin’s The Cassowary’s Revenge analyzes a very different sort of gendered regime change: the repudiation of a traditional ‘male cult’ in New Guinea.
- Barbara Ehrenreich offers an evolutionary psychology style of analysis of war in Blood Rites. I think Ehrenreich is our best pop anthropologist.
- Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat review some contemporary anthropological takes on the problem of ‘sovereignty’ here.
- I find Rabinow’s rather uncharacteristic attention to gender issues post-9/11 here very interesting.
OK. That’s a random assortment. There is a LOT of work being done in anthropology that takes as its starting point current U.S. politics and power, from the overarching effects of the ‘Washington Consensus’ to the U.S. role in forming the national-cultural order of things. What I want to emphasize in this post is that I personally am most persuaded by analyses that link current U.S. policy to gender dynamics; I am persuaded by those analyses that use psychoanalytic tools to uncover the effectiveness of authoritarian, masculinist ideology. For example, while I think that a genealogy linking current U.S. ideas about executive power back to Carl Schmitt is incredibly important, I think it ultimately fails to explain or describe the bizarro world of contemporary U.S. zeitgeist, wherein calling a man a ‘fag’ (or French) amounts to persuasively popular political critique.