Sunday, September 17, 2006

Things in Common: An Examination of the Long Staple of US History

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study In Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes remarks that there is "a scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life." There are any number of textile-related metaphors along the same lines, and likewise, some specifically textile-related metaphors having to do with narrative ("spin a yarn," the "thread of the plot," to "string someone along," and so on). Those of us who study metaphors find that there is great utility to isolating and following these classes or groups of metaphors1 (many of which are so rote and overused they've become "dead metaphors"), because they tell us things about how English-speakers think about various abstract concepts. (For further discussion on the cognitive aspects of metaphorics, you can read The Literary Mind by Mark Turner, referenced below at 1.)

All that is just to set you up for the metaphor I'd like to use in this discussion. Be aware that it is a metaphor, but this particular metaphor, I think, sheds some light on an otherwise opaque phenomenon, especially since the phenomenon deals with how Americans talk about certain abstract or concrete concepts within the larger scope of US political discourse.

What do the British Empire, Communism, Iraq, integration, Iran, homosexuality, the Soviet Union, the Bush Administration, socialism, civil rights, Mexico, terrorism, and climate change all have in common?

Every one of those was, at one time or another (past, present, possibly future) deemed to be an existential threat to the US by someone or other. I'm not pointing fingers here; although the US right seems to be better at playing the "existential threat" card than the US left ever has been, the left does do it. The existential threat to the US is a constant narrative thread in US history since the early Revolutionary days. (In fact, I might posit the hypothesis that the existential threat frame persists in the US consciousness because of the American Revolution -- had the revolution not succeeded, the country would not exist in its present form, although experience and observation suggests that the US would not still be a British colony at this point; it likely would have gained legislative independence in the late 19th or early 20th Century.2)

The colour of the thread changes, but its position in the greater tapestry of American discourse does not. The great existential threat always persists; even during the ostensibly halcyon days of the great postwar US expansion, the everpresent threat of the Soviet Union's (reputedly) immense arsenal of nuclear bombs was hanging over the US's collective head. I first noticed this pattern in the concept of the "Cold War," which seems to me to have been a species of collective insanity unmatched in modern history, a sort of military moral panic, if you will.

Here is the dye to put to the thread: From one of the definitions given in the above link, moral panics are "periodic episodes of concern about the threat of a particular group to the nation-state. Moral panics are normally fuelled by sensationalist media reporting, and are generally diffused by the state through policies which aim to counteract this imagined threat." The US has a thick strand of moral panic spun into its national fibre; from the current political discourse right now, I'd suggest that this historical period especially has exceptionally many simultaneous moral panics, all of which are discussed in terms of existential threats. Many political groups want a strand of the existential threat yarn (in both senses of the term), and are willing to make a lot of noise to get it.

To an outsider from a country not particularly given to either moral panics or existential threats, this terrified handwaving that shows up like a repeated woven motif in the political fabric, seems more than a little absurd to me. Were I talking to the US as I might talk to one of my exiteable friends, I'd say, "Dude! Calm down already! You haven't disappeared yet!" This narrative thread of impending national destruction (by whatever agency, foreign, domestic, or otherwise) in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, NOW!, ok, NOW! No, wait...NOW! is wearying, frustrating, and ultimately tiresome for those outside the US mainstream discourse. (It also constitutes a significant difference between many people on the left and their counterparts on the political right, who don't understand why their opposite numbers don't think that the latest talking-point boogeyman is the End of American Civilisation As We Know It.)

Right now, of course, a lot of the right-wing punditoids, as well as some people in the Bush Administration, are trying to yank the existential threat thread off in the direction of Iran (after having successfully pulled it away from generalised "terrorism" to Iraq). This is a calculated, cynical ploy, and they are exploting a persistent narrative motif in American political discourse to do it. Based on the evidence (badly-translated pronouncements from Ahmadinajad courtesy of agendists like MEMRI don't count as "evidence," either), a rhetorical strategy based on an old meme is all it is, kind of like the hype three years ago around dangerous, fearsome, smoking-gun-in-the-form-of-a-mushroom-cloud Iraq.

As an outsider, and a historian, I see the recurring motif all too well. The existential threat, and its companion, American Exceptionalism, are tangled together, running like a wide multicoloured stripe through the multicornered garment of the US political discourse. The combination is seductive and persuasive; it allows Americans to feel superior, while simultaneously Othering the entire rest of the world. We have seen the effects of this combination, domestically in the US and abroad -- a "victim victorious" paradigm that simultaneously has the US acting like world rulers and a desperately embattled minority. It might be possible to pick apart and pull this mismatched stripe from the American political consciousness, and stitch the US more tightly into that grand patchwork quilt that is international relations. Reducing or eliminating American Exceptionalism would go a long way toward diminishing the constant perception of the existential threat. (In a snide fit, may I say that healthy countries simply do not behave that way?)

In short: Are there existential threats? Certainly, but they're few and far between, and definitely not as omnipresent and omnipotent as the average American has come to believe. If you're my age, or even a generation older, you have lived your entire life watching the US' discourse bounce from one existential threat to another. This rhetoric is counterproductive, it's generally a ploy, and oftentimes, if the threats themselves aren't cut from the whole cloth, they're at least gathered from the scraps of some old moral panics that were lying around.

It's time to pick stitches, adjust your tension, and try again.


1 Turner, Mark. The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

2 For comparison, see the history of legislative independence movements and achievement in Australia, Canada, India, and Israel. See also the history of legislative self-determination movements in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.


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