Manufacturing the Enemy: American Identity Crisis

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The
idea of “Perpetual Wars” is not a new concept. Finding justifications
for such acts however, is a complex matter and it differs from one
society to the next.

When
addressing the issue of warmongering by states recently, the media
has focused on the question: Why did the United States invade Iraq?
In their answers they have dwelt at length on apportioning blame
to others such as Iraq, Afghanistan and even individual personalities.
If it’s not Saddam, then they have argued it might be Osama. And
if not these two, then it was Chalibi and company who lied America
into situations of conflict. Some have used the justification blanket-term
"terrorism" to explain all recent conflicts. While others
still, have postulated a Zionist conspiracy with the Deputy Secretary
of Defense Paul Wolfowitz as its ring-leader. The issue of oil too,
has not been left wanting either.

The
whitewash of recent American actions turn on the belief that the
west, America in particular, can do no wrong. That their actions
are deemed "just" because history and God are on their
side. That all acts have a cause and effect cycle. That this cycle
was forced upon them and can explain how things are. There is however,
an alternative view because there is never just one truth, but many.

The
alternative is to argue that America today is undergoing a social
identity crisis of vast proportions because the glue that holds
the population together is spread so thin. The intellectuals and
policymakers appear to be devoid of ideas as to how to steer the
population in the right direction to make this great nation what
its founders originally conceived. War seems to be the only answer
that has received currency of late.

It
remains possible that war has always been the driving force that
shaped American self-identification. War for America has become
an important tool for holding this group of people together who
find themselves with very few things in common in today’s busy "corporate
warfare-state."

Anthropological
instruments are useful for putting order where there is said to
be disorder (Momiroski T., 1993, 2003, 2004). Particularly useful
is the theory of Barth (1969) whose views about social interactions
can be modified to take in America as we know it today.

Briefly,
he argues that we know who we are because we know who we are not.
We demonstrate our difference in everyday pragmatic life by making
use of “easily noticeable diacritica" to advertise identity.
For America, traditional icons and catch-cry’s such as, “land of
the free” and “land of the brave” have played an important role
for American self-identification and as advertisements to others
of this difference.

In
old societies, instruments such as folk songs, dress, humor, and
in particular language and religion have served as glue that held
those societies together. America is a young nation; these traditional
instruments have never really taken deep root within the psyche
of the people.

Instead,
the modern equivalent for boundary maintenance for Americans have
been the myths of: free enterprise, democracy, capitalism, Christian
morality and beliefs, and folk legends such as MTV, IBM, MS, KFC,
Coca Cola, Pepsi, McDonalds and others.

The
modern method of boundary maintenance by America has all too often
been deficient in shaping identity, so that it has been necessary
to create situations of crisis in order to supplement, correct and
maintain the system. Following WW II it was the Cold War and Vietnam
that served this function. Today it is the threat of Terrorism.

All
of these conflicts have played important functions to interpret,
re-interpret and portray an image of “self-identity” both to themselves
of who they are as well as to confirm this difference to others
observing the spectacle.

However,
this method of meaning-making which utilizes war as the chief variable
for self-identity only serves the short-term purpose of Nationalism
and self-identity in the face of threat. In the long term, it is
quickly exposed as one-eyed and ill-conceived in time of peace.
It is for this reason that administrators and policy makers have
had to seek new frontiers and adventures to keep the population
diverted from the harder issues of self-identification. It is not
the economy then, that attention is diverted from, but the bigger
question of: Who is American? What is America? and, Why?

Another
social theorist, Ford (1983), can help to fill in the gaps in the
present argument about the role of war in American self-identification.
He argues that the ritual content which “results from purposive
interaction between individuals determined by their interpretations
of the ritual’s interactive situation” is very important for self-identity.
In the former, war functions as a vehicle to highlight differences
of national or ethnic consciousness, while in the latter the ritual
of real or perceived threat provides a “means of social boundary
maintenance."

Ritual
behavior results from purposive interactions between individuals
which is a part of a strategy of maintenance. War and all public
displays of war, in the same way that religious worship does, are
forums where interactions are crucial to identity. Here, "identities
are confirmed and interpersonal commitments are established that
are essential to continuing membership in the community from which
support and assistance can be mobilized.” Confirmation has the effect
of maintaining, reproducing and transmitting a sense of “group well
being” and solidarity for those within the group, and as a spectacle
to portray this view to those outside it. America is healthy, because
Americans believe it to be and have rallied behind a cause deemed
worth fighting for, while others accept this as fact unquestionably
because difference highlights what they are not — American.

Successive
American governments are not alone in manufacturing the essence
of the American character utilizing war mythology. In partnership
with Hollywood they have sawn and legitimized a whole new American
"quilt" – where the average American of whatever
persuasion or belief system melts naturally into his army uniform.
Differences in this conceptualization of what it means to be American
are skimmed over or dismissed as un-American. David Robb makes this
point abundantly clear in his interview with Jeff Fleischer titled
"How the Pentagon bullies movie producers into showing the
U.S. military in the best possible light" (September 20, 2004):

“They're
being saturated with military propaganda in their mainstream movies
and TV shows, and they don't even know. But I think there's a
very good argument that can be made that over the past 50 years,
this chronic sanitization of the military and what war is has
affected the American character; that we're now a more warlike
people than we were 50 years ago. Clearly, there are also other
reasons, but I think when the world's most powerful medium colludes
with the world's most powerful military to put propaganda in mainstream
films and television shows, that has to have an effect on the
American psyche."

The
idea of “Perpetual Wars” then, whether real, imaginary, or manufactured
have come to serve a social function for young and modern nation
states. Unmasking this function of war is important for understanding
how world events have unfolded recently. Just observing, detailing
and reporting these events by the media, as well as noting the various
similarities between them, the various personalities and threats
is not an ingenious and creative way to deal with conflict in societies.

All
societies throughout history have confronted conflict in their own
way. America is no stranger to conflict. But what does it mean?
There is always another way of seeing. It is time we took another
look at events. After all, it's not seeing with the "eyes"
that leads us to truth, but to explore all of the various possibilities
to current dilemmas towards solution that really leads to a way
out and a way forward.

And
it’s apt to end this column with the words of Dr. Teresa Whitehurst
in her piece "As
I Lay Crying: On feeling what no patriotic American is supposed
to feel
." She easily locates the pragmatic function that
war has in the American psyche in daily life today. The "inclusive"
and "excluding" nature is quickly unclothed. In her moment of weakness
she has feelings she ought not have:

“I know that
I have not been “all that I can be” as an American. Even as a
Christian, I am aware that I am a disappointment to those who
have adjusted Christianity’s less popular elements to fit the
doctrine of eternal war — war conducted by the people and for
the people, killings that are done only by accident and for the
very best of reasons."

And
further fills in the dynamics of meaning-making in daily life in
a nation where the preoccupation with war has skewed everyday realities.
And it must – because it is a necessary function of well being:

"….I
read it on a blog, so I know it’s true. The U.S. would never kill
innocent people intentionally. It isn’t killing when you don’t
target the civilians — it’s just a part of war. Photos of babies
and children supposedly killed by allied forces should not be
believed. Or, if one does believe the pictures, one must understand
that somebody else killed them because the U.S. would never do
that. And if it did do that, it wasn’t intentional. It was an
accident. It was war. Just a part of war. We have to understand
that. Nobody’s to blame. I read it on a blog….”

Dr.Whitehurst
rightly locates the theoretical framework I speak of here. In one
act she cleanses her own sin and provides a framework for understanding
a complex society at work. It is a bizaro world where everything
is upside down. In this world, denial leads to redemption. Redemtion
offers renewed membership to the group. Inclusion to the group is
a function of "patriotism." Patriotism ensures that the
nation is healthy again. Reality has been reformulated (transformed
and reproduced). At the end of the day each citizen exclaims: “I
know who I am, because I am not like you”? Society has undergone
its periodic maintenance. America and Americans are well, and everyone
lives happy ever after.

References:

Barth
F., Ethnic
Groups and Boundaries
. Little, Brown Co., 1969, Boston.

Ford,
G. (1983) Za Dusha: An Interpretation of Funeral Practices in Macedonia,
Symbolic Interaction Volume 6, 1-2 Spring pp.19–34.
(Jai Press, Inc.) at (Ford,1983:22).

Momiroski,
T. “Nasite Granici: Macedonian Group Boundaries 1900 to 1945.” J
Intercultural Studies (Melbourne Australia) 14 (1993): 35–52.

Momiroski,T.
The
Jewish Group: Highlighting the Culture Problem in Nation-States
.”
The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution,
5.1 (2003).

Momiroski,
T. “The
Jewish Group: Highlighting the Culture Problem in Nation-States
.”
Columbia International Affairs Online (CIAO) 5, 1 (03/04/2004):
1–16.

David,
R. Interviewed By Jeff Fleischer, "How
the Pentagon bullies movie producers into showing the U.S. military
in the best possible light
." 20th September, 2004.

Whitehurst,
T. "As
I Lay Crying: On feeling what no patriotic American is supposed
to feel"
1st, October, 2004.

October
11, 2004

Tony
Momiroski [send him mail]
currently teaches Language at Jiaotong University in P.R. China
and is the author of several works concerning culture, language
and war and peace. His opinions are, of course, his own.

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