The New Great Awakening

During the religious revivalism of the Great Awakening, which spread throughout the American colonies during the late 1730s and 1740s, it was common for camp meeting organizers to build a wooden pen and fill it with straw. When people were caught up with fervor and began to shake and thrash violently, they would get carried over and tossed into the straw pen.

Preachers stood above the crowd to deliver sermons on casting out satanic spells and the purging of demons, while their audiences watched bodies quiver and scream. It passed for entertainment.

Now we have cable television news and Iraq in the new straw pen, where sinners will quiver and scream as demons get extracted. I resisted the advertising from my local cable company as long as I could, but finally ordered cable television to see the war preparations and its dramatic finale, the Baghdad 500 Heavy Armor Rally.

As I watched the fresh array of news channels and chattering heads, it became clear that not much was new. Indeed, a lobotomized repetitiveness has settled over US government war rhetoric. George the Second peers gimlet-eyed into the klieg lights and squawks alternately of “evil” and “threat.” His merger of public piety together with finger-pointing at foreign evil mark George Bush as a model of twenty-first century zealotry, as a would-be leader of a contemporary political Great Awakening.

That repetitiveness speaks to more than the shallowness of one politician elevated substantially beyond his talents, for his inability to articulate coherent arguments reflects a learned cultural repetition of older, comforting religious explanations. The secular pro-war arguments of Condoleeza Rice or Christopher Hitchens would sound strange, indeed less than credible, coming from this president's mouth. Rather, he shares with his fellow Yale alumnus Jonathan Edwards a predisposition to substitute personalized invocation of evil for the rational arguments that weave a civil society.

George Bush and his reflexive invocation of 'evil' are only the manifestation of an isolationist, self-reflexive presence in American culture, such as might view USA Today as a reliable report of the world. There is nothing especially new in such cultural insularity within the United States. What is new lies in the near-unimpeded ability of the United States to impose itself on the world and wreak havoc. Bush's theological sputtering is a measure of an ideological incapacity, one that substitutes high indignation for measured address and persistent focus on human rights.

As the United States plunges ever deeper, ever less coherently into the second decade of its Hundred Years War with the Arab heartland, images of 'evildoers' and 'axes of evil' reproduce themselves in public culture. They sustain new regimes of domestic fear and motivate massive reorganization of government services in pursuit of 'homeland security.' The current administration is reshaping public policy in the United States to accord with a theological mission: to identify global 'evildoers' and secure the body politic against their corruption and harm. Unsurprisingly, given a lengthy US history of identifying race as threat, peoples of color come to represent the face of threat. Old cultural typologies associating Asia and Africa with fear proliferate in new forms, ranging from Islamic terror to Korean nukes to African AIDS.

In this new world of fear and global border police, legitimate purposes of civil safety have become a mask for xenophobic American nationalism entirely convinced that it represents a vision of liberation. Amid the vapors of this deluded vision, a Texas-fostered language of civilizational mission and crusade seeks to replace the post-Nuremberg development of international legal protections for human rights and institution of international criminal process. Presidential rhetoric is now one rationalistic remove short of chanting in tongues, the final stage of war frenzy. Lethal high-tech has become a new theology in its own right; it is the force that can reckon with distant satans who need translators to speak proper English.

The United States has developed an astonishingly powerful synthesis of deep-fried Christianity and global military reach. A military-human rights branch of the entertainment industry reinforces that synthesis with images of passionate American warriors who fight for the benefit of all humanity, replacing the Cold Warrior who fought for vulgar nationalism. When Bruce Willis rampages through Nigeria in Tears of the Sun, a profoundly reactionary film, he is the very model of a neo-colonial New Crusader who enacts sacrifice in order to salvage the otherwise benighted futures of people of color who need to be saved from their own kind. A code of heroic self-sacrifice links the New Crusader's glory to that of his sponsoring empire, to a chosen nation in the throes of discovering its calling to the universal defense of human rights.

George Bush, Jr. is a pathetic image of the New Crusader, heavy on militaristic homilies and light on local culture. The pathos of these old-new claimants on heroism lies in their innocence of the history of imperialism, and their evangelical belief that present violence will lead to civilizational transformation. Great crusades and Great Awakenings collapse upon themselves, as believers discover that guiding purposes are secular in truth and that social wrongs need better answers than hysterical preachers. Grand projects in changing global morality, such as the present war, become the rubble of history.

International opinion, the collective expression of people quite capable of making determinations concerning evil, remains overwhelmingly against this war and unimpressed by the Bush-Blair choir against 'evildoers.' Street demonstrations around the world have thrown up new messages against a US imperial rampage in Iraq and for peaceful conflict resolution under international law. None of this has impressed the Bush administration, which long ago determined to have its war irrespective of faraway opinion.

The purgation of sin and Saddam will happen because this is the divine order and the Lord has taken the American president into his confidence. An earlier president, William McKinley, recorded praying "for light and guidance more than one night" before he ordered the American invasion of the Philippines, and later justified US rule over the Philippine people as undertaken in order to "civilize and Christianize them and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died." George Bush, Jr. will no doubt be offering up similar prayers this evening, to similar imperial purposes.

It is George Bush and his advisors whom we should be tossing into the straw pen to thrash about.

Joe Lockard teaches American literature at Arizona State University and is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.


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