Thursday, December 15, 2011


This past week, Republican presidential “hopeful” Rick Perry put out an ad that managed to be hugely offensive to a large majority of Americans, and even elicited negative comments from many Europeans. If you have not seen the ad, here it is:

Perry ran this ad against the judgment of people on his own campaign. I also find the ad to be offensive, but I’m also delighted that Perry has provided me an opportunity to compare and contrast a widespread “mythical” conception of America and its history with the actual facts. I talk about this ad nauseam in this blog and in conversation, and I find that people still are puzzled when I talk about humans as “irrational” beings informed by their own narratives rather than facts. This tidbit provides me with a concrete example.

First, Perry brings up the idea of gays in the military as somehow being offensive. I’m not going to go off on that tangent, as I’m not interested in discussing the theological issues surrounding homosexuality. To me, it’s another reason you don’t take the Bible as your literal rule book. But the Bible aside, this is a secular country, and what the Bible says is irrelevant—there is no rational reason to disenfranchise gays from any segment of society at all.

Ah, but the rest of the ad talks about “Obama’s war on religion”. Perry states that America was “intended” to be a Christian nation. I am not sure what “Obama’s war on religion” is; perhaps it’s the fact that he didn’t mention God in his Thanksgiving address. As to calling this the “holiday” season rather than the “Christmas” season—well, you can call it whatever you want, but officially you ought to include everyone, especially if you’re a government figure addressing a diverse population. I think that is sensible.

What is offensive in Perry’s ad besides the obvious homophobia is the complete and total ignorance he displays about the reality of life in this country, and American history. But you have to consider that Perry wouldn’t be where he is now if many other people didn’t also have the same level of ignorance. It is not news that people passionately believe in an America that never existed.

While some of the Founding Fathers might have been Christians, many were Deists. You can read a good summary of Deism and its influence on the American founders here. Deism does talk about belief in God, but outside the context of Christianity and Christian churches. It extolled nature and natural law over Christian belief, and was a byproduct of the Rationalist era. We don’t hear about Deism today, but a lot of its ideas have been subsumed by the Unitarian Universalists. While they don’t reject Christianity or the Bible (or any religion), they don’t give it any exceptional status, either. Hence the “universalist” part—it includes everyone, regardless of belief.

As to the rest of the “war on Christmas”, gleefully picked up by Fox News, Jon Stewart has done his usual admirable job of demythologizing that claim:

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There is an obvious disconnect between facts and the story being told by Perry and by Fox News, which should surprise no one. But it is clear that in spite of facts, those who believe in Perry’s version of America are not interested in facts—they are interested in their version of the American story, which is a reflection of their own upbringing and their own personal issues. Ideas that tend to exclude or demonize others can be classified as “xenophobic”—they represent a fear of difference, and hence a fear of change (and ultimately of death and the unknown). The attitude towards difference is negative, and Fox has been so successful as a “news” channel because it taps directly into that negative current and validates it. Hand-in-hand with the xenophobia is a sense of victimhood--that the "real" America is "under attack", and that specifically real "Christians" are under attack.
And so it goes, back to Rick Perry.

With the economy near collapse, attempts to cut needed services so that the wealthy are not inconvenienced, recent crackdowns on free speech, and attempts to pass new laws to detain “suspicious” Americans “indefinitely” without trial, it’s not surprising that even those who are more rationally minded would be fearful of what’s next. But America is not collapsing because it's not "Christian" enough, it's collapsing because of bad economic practice. But--understanding the human tendency towards narrative--is it possible to get away from a culture of fear, and take a courageous step towards a new national mythology? Can we look at the New Colossus with new eyes?

Probably not in my lifetime; the collective psyche is a challenging monster.


harry said...

What I see is a nation lacking knowledge of its own history and values. Right wing politicians can say absolutely anything they want, convince their base (who may know better, but still cling to their ignorance), and addle the general public because of its ignorance basic civics and history--fault of the education system.

Brigid N. Burke said...

Hi, Harry--I agree with you that it's an educational problem (there is a lot wrong with the American K-12 system), but I also think as a culture, there is a pattern of overvaluing or undervaluing education--either it's "only for elitist types", or so much information is pushed on kids that they don't learn things that take time. Teachers have to meet certain curricular "goals", and it's the equivalent of "teaching to the test". Real learning gets dropped in favor of memorization for high test scores. As to history texts--many of them are biased. Most of what I really learned about American history I learned post-grammar school.

In general though--one of the mistakes we make in academia is assuming that people are swayed by facts. People cling to their versions of reality. This doesn't always have to be a bad thing--sometimes believing something unsupported by facts ends up being the right thing. But when it comes to our nation and the government--there is a serious need for real debate and discussion based on facts, and it's not happening. It's all stories and spin--and spin with a right-wing agenda, though you do see it from the left sometimes as well. Fox News has certainly read its Chomsky...