Wednesday, December 2, 2015

American Exceptionalism? ISIS and the Christian Right are More Alike Than Different

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American Exceptionalism is a state of amnesia.

It allows the American people to look abroad, aghast at the barbarism of ISIS and how the latter burns human beings alive, while proclaiming “such a thing is unprecedented!” Of course, whites often burned black Americans alive—and committed even worse atrocities—during the postbellum years of Jim and Jane Crow American Apartheid.

American Exceptionalism can see the terrorist bloodbath in the streets of Paris, and wonder what sort of people would run amok, killing innocent people by the hundreds, terrorizing an entire population. American memory—especially at the intersection of the white racial frame and white privilege—is very short. Across two centuries, white Americans engaged in racial pogroms against the black community. Many thousands of black Americans were killed in such rampages.

237 black Americans were murdered during one incident in Phillips County, Arkansas during the bloody summer of 1919. In July of 1866, white vigilantes killed 200 African-American civil war veterans in New Orleans. The infamous Colfax Massacre of 1873 would claim the lives of approximately 150 African-Americans. During the assault on the prosperous black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, it is estimated that as many as 300 African-Americans were killed by white attackers—who used gunfire, as well as bombs dropped by an airplane, in their hellish assault.

The American people wonder, what sort of government would commit torture as an extension of national policy? Destabilize entire parts of the world? Or unleash death squads? This is the modus operandi of ISIS. The United States has also done similar things in Latin and South America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

American Exceptionalism is also a state of blindness, one that helps to hide the monsters in both the United States’ past and present.

America was changed by 9/11. The country has been in a state of perpetual war for 14 years. As philosopher Slavoj Zizek so keenly observed about Bush’s “War on Terror”:

The problem is that America is, precisely, not in a state of war, at least not in the conventional sense of the term (for the large majority, daily life goes on, and war remains the exclusive business of state agencies). With the distinction between a state of war and a state of peace thus effectively blurred, we are entering a time in which a state of peace can at the same time be a state of emergency.

This schizoid state is one of the pillars of America’s national derangement. The Paris Terror Attacks will only gin up more war fever, anxiety, and fear on the part of the American people. America wages war abroad. The people live in a state of relative peace at home. But they anticipate the quakes and pain of “blow back” and retaliation for the acts committed by their leaders and warriors abroad. And this anxiety is a type of political capital that can be easily exploited by conservatives (and some Democrats) for selfish gain.

ISIS, those monsters abroad, want more war. This is why they expanded their area of operations to Europe.

There are elements in America, mostly on the Right, who do not see war as a last resort, but rather as the first and always preferable solution to all foreign policy challenges. They do not contemplate war reluctantly. They yearn for it, as a larger war with ISIS will serve their apocalyptic dreams of Christian Rapture and “End Times” eschatology. These people are the monsters at home.

ISIS and the Christian Right both want their End Times prophecies fulfilled.

They are monsters desperate to fight in a religion-fueled “clash of civilizations”.

They both want orgiastic violence with the blessing of their godhead.

There are many reasons why the United States is vulnerable to this poison in the body politic and broader political culture. The first and foremost cause is that the United States is in the grips of what is best described as a type of “soft authoritarianism”. This condition has helped to cripple and undermine the American people’s moral reasoning, decision-making, and resistance to radical right-wing political ideologies.

Soft authoritarianism consists of many things. It is the rise of the surveillance society, the corporate neoliberal state, and a “democracy” that only responds to the rich and powerful. Soft authoritarianism is also demonstrated by rampant police violence, thuggery, and murder against people of color and the poor. The Right-wing’s politics of disorientation, where lies are presented as the truth, is central to the rise of soft authoritarianism in the United States. Soft authoritarianism is given life through the American people as well. As Jonathan Weiler demonstrates in his book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, authoritarian values are increasingly common in the United States, with Republicans, quite predictably, being much more likely to possess such attitudes.

The Republican Party’s 2016 presidential primary contenders shamelessly flaunt their authoritarian beliefs. They are nativists, want to expand the national security state, build walls on the border, believe in the mass deportation of millions of “illegal aliens”, destroy the public commons, and support “law and order” policies that in practice disproportionately, and unjustly, abuse black and brown people and the poor.

In total, soft authoritarianism has created a safe environment for the Christian Right to flourish: scared, disoriented, hopeless and frightened people seek out meaning and security, oftentimes from demagogues, radical religion, and extreme politics. 

This is the appeal of ISIS for its followers. This is also the appeal of the Christian Right, Christian Dominionism and Christian Reconstructionism especially, for its followers as well. ISIS and the American Christian Right are not the same thing. But, they share many traits and beliefs in common.

ISIS and the American Christian Right both believe that:

  1. Theocracy is the best form of government
  2. Women should be subservient to men
  3. Women should not control their own bodies and reproductive choices
  4. They are “victims” under assault by the forces of secularism, sin, and temptation
  5. There should be religious tests for public office
  6. That gays and lesbians are sinners who should be punished and, at the minimum, driven out of the public square
  7. Cosmopolitan and secular values should be rejected
  8. The legitimacy of violence  as a means to advance their religious worldview when “necessary” and/or “ordained” by “god”
  9. Public policy should be orientated towards fulfilling “End of Days” prophecies

These beliefs are not held only by “extremists” on the American Christian Right.

They are increasingly common attitudes among Republicans. To wit, a February 2015 poll found that 57 percent of Republicans want to make Christianity the “national religion” of the United States. Conservative Christian religious organizations are actively manipulating public policy (under benignly sounding “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts”) on the State and Federal level in order to prevent them from having to comply with constitutionally mandated civil rights laws. Republican candidates such as Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, and others believe that “god’s law” (as they interpret it from the Bible) should trump civil society.

In keeping with its theocratic vision and myth that the United States was founded as a “Christian Nation”, the Republican Party’s platform even contains language such as, “We assert every citizen’s right to apply religious values to public policy and the right of faith-based organizations to participate fully in public programs without renouncing their beliefs, removing religious symbols, or submitting to government-imposed hiring practices.”

There are forces of political extremism and radical religion at work in the American Right-wing and ISIS. Both are driven by apocalyptic dreams where a supernatural “savior” or “god” returns to inaugurate a fictive “paradise” on Earth—or alternatively to quite literally “rapture” them to “heaven” as they leap out of their clothes and disappear to some netherworld. Both ISIS and the American Christian Right-wing believe that their “god” will commit acts of violence against “non-believers”. There is pleasure in enjoying violence by proxy.

Rational and sane people, both in the United States and West, as well as the Arab world, will be sacrificed to serve that goal.

To label the American Christian Right as the “American Taliban” (or perhaps less generously as “The American ISIS in Waiting”) is not hyperbolic. It is an accurate description of their theocratic vision and worldview—one that to this point has been restricted and somewhat restrained by the Constitution, legal precedence, mainstream political culture and values, and standing norms and values about the separation of Church and State.

But even with that restraint, Christian extremism still held great sway over one of the most disastrous foreign policy decisions in American history. President George W. Bush was, as reported by The Guardian, rumored to have justified the horrific misadventure that was the second Iraq War by using the logic of Christian Fundamentalism and “End Times” superstition:

Here's a story we should all be ashamed of missing: George W Bush attempted to sell the invasion of Iraq to Jacques Chirac using biblical prophecy.

In the winter of 2003, when George Bush and Tony Blair were frantically gathering support for their planned invasion, Professor Thomas Römer, an Old Testament expert at the University of Lausanne, was rung up by the Protestant Federation of France. They asked him to supply them with a summary of the legends surrounding Gog and Magog and as the conversation progressed, he realised that this had originally come, from the highest reaches of the French government.

President Jacques Chirac wanted to know what the hell President Bush had been on about in their last conversation. Bush had then said that when he looked at the Middle East, he saw "Gog and Magog at work" and the biblical prophecies unfolding. But who the hell were Gog and Magog? Neither Chirac nor his office had any idea. But they knew Bush was an evangelical Christian, so they asked the French Federation of Protestants, who in turn asked Professor Römer.

He explained that Gog and Magog were, to use theological jargon, crazy talk. They appear twice in the Old Testament, once as a name, and once in a truly strange prophecy in the book of Ezekiel…

Bush seems to have taken the threat of Gog and Magog to Israel quite literally, and, if this story can be believed, to have launched a war to stop them.

American Exceptionalism has blinded many people to how the vicious and wicked violence of ISIS exists along the same continuum as the theocratic madness and delusional thinking that drives Christian extremism in the United States. ISIS and the Christian Right are both monstrous. The former has been set free by failed states and disastrous American and Western interventions in the Middle East. The Christian Right, with its snarling Dominionists, Reconstructionists, and other Protestant extremists, are held on a chain by the American Constitution and liberal-democratic norms and values. Unfortunately, America’s consensus politics have been systematically undermined by the Republican Party, the neoliberal deluge, and the Christian theocrats.

If those forces are cut loose, perhaps by additional ISIS terror attacks on the West, or just as a function of broken politics and an opportunistic Right-wing demagogue, nothing good will come from it. People around the world, both religious and non-religious, will be made to suffer. The religious fundamentalists in ISIS and the Christian Right will get their heaven while the rest of us will get hell.

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