Film buffs will know I pulled my title from Dr. Strangelove or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” The film is a comedy of errors in which the entire world is summed up in a cowboy who literally cackles and cheers as he rides a nuclear explosive from the heavens down to the earth where it detonates, kills him, and many others. It’s a dark summation of the arms race, but it’s apt. And, to be frank, until recently I felt the same about America — the country of my birth: to love America is to pretend as if she were not killing everyone in droves through drone strikes and in slow poisonous drips of hidden additives and simply because as Mother Theresa said:
“It’s poverty that a child must die so that I can live as I please.”
The older crowd who judges faithfulness by attendance will, of course, consider this ungrateful. How could I speak of the country of my birth with such derision? But let me put all fears of ingratitude to rest: I am, I assure you, one of the more grateful men in my generation and peerage. I don’t say that as a point of pride but as a matter of fact: I am thankful for so many little things, for the ten thousand places in which Christ plays, for petunias and sunrises eclipsing the towers of court houses in small towns across the country, for breakfast sandwiches and first kisses and virginity and the honeymoon that proves the virgin faithful to her groom. I am grateful for life and breath and everything else.
But like my generation, I do not attribute these things to America.
The wrong reaction, of course, was to hate her.
Again, this will seem odd to the older crowd. How could you hate the greatest country in the world? Possibly because it was not great to me and was not great to my friends and is not great to my neighbors and unless something changes quickly it will not be great to my grandchildren. It’s the classic factory error of American capitalists: that a faithful worker will be rewarded with a faithful pension and a job that will exist. And it’s true: many in my generation do not know how to work. But for every lazy Millennial, I can point out twelve industrious ones who invent apps and start small businesses and write novels. Typically, the problem is in boomer writers who are projecting the laziness and entitlement and narcissism of their own generation onto ours. The previous generations put the emphasis on the morally excellent worker. Rightly so: we must have hard-working, faithful employees who take sweeping serious and know the heavens move if for nothing else to move the maintenance department’s mop. We see this first in the Lord of Glory who stripped down and took up not the train of some woven robe and the broad end of some silver scepter, but rather took up a towel and brandished a bucket. There’s a great article by The Boston Globe on How the Boomers Destroyed Everything that sums up the sentiment nicely — it’s the article you Millennials for years have wanted to have on hand when that crazy uncle or grandma of yours sends you an email forward about how healthcare and free college is destroying life as we know it. They might as well say the phrase “death by daisy seeds” for all the sense it makes. Said simpler: these ruthless market forces brought to bear upon the morally excellent worker gave them a blindspot — for in calling all employees to morally excellent work they never stopped to ask if their employers had created a morally excellent workplace.
My generation has seen this blindspot play out in the most tragic ways possible just like the trucker who merges into abnormal traffic as sure as if he’d merged into the middle of the Indy 500. The collision course of our culture has affected the greatest employers among us who corrupted the workplace. In Presidents who have affairs with secretaries and visit harems and blow up small countries for little more than the thrill of it. In banks that play craps with the retirement funds of widows and the EE savings bonds of orphans. In police forces that now wield the sword not only for those who do wrong, as Paul would have it the epistle to the Romans, but also against those who do right. They literally shoot the unarmed, a phenomenon so wicked that The Onion summed it up this way:
And they shoot those who cause inconvenience for those in power as Christ himself did to the Sanhedrin and Roman legionaries in Palestine. In Congress we have one side wanting progress and the other wanting to regress and they digress over this so much that it agresses the whole nation rather than legislating very basic things like whether or not to preserve public parks — an assumption even the most violent knights and lords in Middle Ages never once quibbled about. The word congress, of course, means to walk together. They do not walk together. They walk apart. They walk away. If they walk towards one another, it is only because the clocktower has struck noon and the time has come to duel. They should ingress the doors of Capital Hill as does the Sun when it rises in the sky or when it begins an eclipse or when the planets align. But they do not walk together and so they egress the building having built nothing. You end not with a morally excellent workplace for any given politician, but rather the only place in the country where a lady in power might ingress as a woman of congress, transgress, and egress as an ogress. That or the old tales of witches masked as fairy queens.
In other words, it’s bad. Real bad.
So no, we Millennials do not assume we will be taken care of. We assume the opposite and this is why we seek authenticity: our norm for those in authority is frauds and failures, freaks and the corrupt. Our understanding of history has broadened with the internet and we have come to see that there is no moral war, that no Just war has ever been waged in history — at least not on the scales of flesh and blood. That makes it rather difficult to be grateful for injustices or to pledge allegiance to a strips of colored cotton or sing worship songs to some alleged Grand Old Flag.
Americana, in short, is dead.
At this intersection — of my pacifism and my repentance of the kind of jingoism that would exclude non-Americans from breaking bread with me — I came across two voices. One of them taught me some deeper truths to moral law. The other reminded me of the base level optimism that is assumed by any non-nihilist. The lesson on moral law came from C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, in which he taught me the difference between the law of general beneficence and the law of special beneficence. In moral law from every civilization’s key texts — whether the Tao or The Republic or The Torah — you have rules that temper one another. Do Not Steal (which says value the commons that belongs to your neighbor, not you, in order to help him and his kids have a life equally healthy to your own) is tempered by Do Not Covet (which says don’t use “don’t steal” as an excuse to get greedy, hoard your own treasures, and let envy prompt you to wish misfortune befall your neighbor that you might reap the benefit). Do Not Covet, for instance, is the “forsaking all others” part of the marriage covenant: it protects all marriages by supplementing “do not commit adultery” with the idea that wishing your wife and your neighbor both die in order for you to be free to marry your neighbor’s wife. When you cut out the coveting heart and the adultery, you actually have a chance for a relationship built upon faithfulness and trust. Ask any non-virgin woman: trust is the cornerstone of a good sex life. That’s agreed upon by monogamists, polygamists, and the BDSM crowd alike. And what better way to have trust than a marriage in which both parties have forsaken all others?
So moral law has temperance. And one of those tempered laws is the interplay between the law of special beneficence and the law of general beneficence. This I learned from Lewis, as I said, but had I paid better attention to Plato or Confuscious or even the Torah, I may have seen it there too, as clear as covenant. The law of general beneficence teaches us to love fellow man, neighbor, and foe. The law of special beneficence teaches us to love those in close proximity: friend and fraternity, kin and country. In general beneficence, we learn to love the stranger. In special beneficence, we learn to love the familiar. In general beneficence, we practice novelty and hospitality. In special beneficence, we practice tradition and etiquette.
It’s seems natural and obvious, seeing it written out as plain as that as if by some other author, why I prefer the law of general beneficence. I have this deep tendency within me ever since childhood to push against the borders of the sandbox and see how high the castle might go. It’s the loneliness of nonconformity. The creative mind is not so much a mind of creativity as a mind that tests creative limitations by making whatever it can within hard, rather than soft, boundaries. It determines what is essential because it critiques everything down to their requisite essences and then builds something new from scratch. As long as I’ve been able to think, I have tried to show people the sense in the other side of the argument, the other side of the legislating body, the other side of etiquette. I have been no respecter of persons, no respecter of etiquette, no respecter of convention precisely because I have been so respectful of what it means to be a person, to give a social grace, and to share a convention. It is the general that has made me war with your specifics. It’s my love of food per se that prompted me to force my mother to eat halal Turkish meatballs and my sister’s vegan cooking. And it’s the same love that prompted me to cook ribs for my sister.
The unfortunate side effect of this practice has been — at least early on and these days through some stubbornly lingering habits — to make me confuse disrespect for family with respect for the foreign. I assumed that since so many racists filled Southern Illinois and since I roomed with a black man and learned of other cultures through foreign exchange students and the other side of town that I owed the familiar the same disrespect they offered the foreign. Balance the scales. Well in a world like that, all we have left is hate. And, in fact, that’s exactly what we have in the current climate. Hate will never do because hate eventually runs out of things to eat right before it eats itself.
One of the arguments against the aesthetic argument for God has always been etiquette: that one people belches after eating as a way of saying thank you and another covers their mouth has often been offered as a sort of proof that there remains no overriding principle of etiquette governing the world. But that people shake hands differently is no argument for why they should not shake or hug or present peace lilies after ending a quarrel. That one man belches out his thanks and another writes it down in ink is no argument against saying thank you however and whenever you can. In the same way, to point to one wife who wants her husband to remove his socks before sex and another wife who wants her husband to keep on his boots and pants if it means they can get to business as quickly as possible — neither of these negate the desire in all wives who want to have their way with their man.
And culture is the same way: it might take a great effort to be cultured in every society since we are not omnipresent creatures. But simply because we cannot be all things to all men all of the time does not we should not try to be all things to the man standing before us today. We may not have our way with every culture, but we may have our way with ours. We call “our way of living” by many names: tradition, custom, culture, social norms, and heritage. You can see, then, that the point is not to ask “how do we do it” or even “what do we do” but rather “why do we do it and for whom?” We do it because we try to be courteous to one another. We try to be kind, that’s why. And we try to be kind to our kin and country, that’s for whom. By belch or by pen, every country tries to foster gratitude. And socked or sockless, you can’t have a marriage without some measure of sex. The citizen may be ungrateful, but he is ungrateful against the very moral law that gives him citizenship. In fact, the most grateful citizens I have ever met are all recent additions to the American enterprise — most of them Arab. To modify Chesterton a bit, because America is a country based on an idea of all people in pursuit of freedom, America may forbid the terrorist to become a citizen precisely because he cannot forbid the Arab. And the bachelor may be celibate precisely because a celibate spouse is a contradiction. Virgin grooms and virgin brides may be many holy things, but they are not chaste. They’re too faithful to be chaste to the same degree that the monk is too in love with Chastity herself to be a consummate gigolo. In fact, the prohibition against adultery and the other against coveting that gives us the line “forsaking all others” teaches us that faithfulness — not chastity — is the marriage vow counterpart to the monastic vow. It’s holy for monks to stay away from sex in order to pursue intimacy with the Father and the broader church community. And it’s holy for husbands to stay away from affairs with the wives of their neighbors in order to have frequent wild and naked affairs with their own. If you have any doubts about this, just meditate on the average number of kids in any Catholic home.
All of that to say that the principle virtue behind every cultural application is what we should seek. We seek not the burp or the silent bow, but the thanks. Not sex or chastity, but the faithfulness and trust and so forth. Yes, we must acknowledge difference but the difference should lead us home to the virtue of God. Chaste monks and horny husbands both seek the ever-growing intimacy of a lifelong trust. Foreigners who belch and family members who write thank you notes both seek to encourage generousity by being grateful and humble.
The gratitude bit, in particular, let me relearn why Americans do some things. I had to relearn the point behind my own American customs in order to truly appreciate them. I had already done this with moral law, as I said before. See the person who only has general beneficence — the man who only loves his neighbor or enemy or foreigner, but does not love his kin and country (in my case to hate rather than love America) — this man we call either a kinslayer or a traitor. And the person who only has special beneficence — the man who only loves his kind, but not other kinds of men — we have many names for this: racist, sexist, jingoist, ageist, ableist and so on. Simply to eradicate racism and jingoism from my life was insufficient. I could still wound my family. I could still betray my friends. I could still kill my creed. I needed the love of novelty to lead me back home to the love of heritage. As moral law taught me the principle of love behind both special and general beneficence, the gratitude a foreigner felt for America led me home.
His name you’ve heard me use often.
He wrote a book entitled What I Saw in America, and through it I began to fall in love with my homeland once more. I started to love America again. It started with apple pie and seventh inning stretches, banjos and bar-b-ques and it started to swell in my soul as something I would refuse to give up no matter how desperate things got. I am no patriot. I am no nationalist.
But I do love America. And I do wish her well.
After a long section full of wonderful mocking jokes about the typical forms one fills out in customs upon entering America, he moves into a wonderful discourse on what America is. If you’ve followed me this far, you’ll follow me further:
The American Constitution is a thing like the Spanish Inquisition.
Only the traveller who stops at that point is totally wrong; and the traveller only too often does stop at that point. He has found something to make him laugh, and he will not suffer it to make him think. And the remedy is not to unsay what he has said, not even, so to speak, to unlaugh what he has laughed, not to deny that there is something unique and curious about this American inquisition into our abstract opinions, but rather to continue the train of thought, and follow the admirable advice of Mr. H.G. Wells, who said, ‘It is not much good thinking of a thing unless you think it out.’ It is not to deny that American officialism is rather peculiar on this point but to inquire what it really is which makes America peculiar, or which is peculiar to America. In short, it is to get some ultimate idea of what America is; and the answer to that question will reveal something much deeper and grander and more worthy of our intelligent interest.
It may have seemed something less than a compliment to compare the American Constitution to the Spanish Inquisition. But oddly enough, it does involve a truth; and still more oddly perhaps, it does involve a compliment. The American Constitution does resemble the Spanish Inquisition in this: that it is founded on a creed. America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just. It certainly does condemn anarchism, and it does also by inference condemn atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived. Nobody expects a modern political system to proceed logically in the application of such dogmas, and in the matter of God and Government it is naturally God whose claim is taken more lightly. The point is that there is a creed, if not about divine, at least about human things.
Now a creed is at once the broadest and the narrowest thing in the world. In its nature it is as broad as its scheme for a brotherhood of all men. In its nature it is limited by its definition of the nature of all men. This was true of the Christian Church, which was truly said to exclude neither Jew nor Greek, but which did definitely substitute something else for Jewish religion or Greek philosophy. It was truly said to be a net drawing in of all kinds; but a net of a certain pattern, the pattern of Peter the Fisherman. And this is true even of the most disastrous distortions or degradations of that creed; and true among others of the Spanish Inquisition. It may have been narrow touching theology, it could not confess to being narrow about nationality or ethnology. The Spanish Inquisition might be admittedly Inquisitorial; but the Spanish Inquisition could not be merely Spanish. Such a Spaniard, even when he was narrower than his own creed, had to be broader than his own empire. He might burn a philosopher because he was heterodox; but he must accept a barbarian because he was orthodox. And we see, even in modern times, that the same Church which is blamed for making sages heretics is also blamed for making savages priests. Now in a much vaguer and more evolutionary fashion, there is something of the same idea at the back of the great American experiment; the experiment of a democracy of diverse races which has been compared to a melting-pot. But even that metaphor implies that the pot itself is of a certain shape and a certain substance; a pretty solid substance. The melting-pot must not melt. The original shape was traced on the lines of Jeffersonian democracy; and it will remain in that shape until it becomes shapeless. America invites all men to become citizens; but it implies the dogma that there is such a thing as citizenship. Only, so far as its primary ideal is concerned, its exclusiveness is religious because it is not racial. The missionary can condemn a cannibal precisely because he cannot condemn a Sandwich Islander. And in something of the same spirit the American may exclude a terrorist, precisely because he cannot exclude an Arab.
…It is not fair to do what almost every Englishman probably does; to look at the American international examination paper, and laugh and be satisfied with saying, ‘We don’t have any of that nonsense in England.’
We do not have any of that nonsense in England because we have never attempted to have any of that philosophy in England. And, above all, because we have the enormous advantage of feeling it natural to be national, because there is nothing else to be. England in these days is not well governed; England is not well educated; England suffers from wealth and poverty that are not well distributed. But England is English; pesto perpetua. England is English as France is French or Ireland Irish; the great mass of men taking certain national traditions for granted. Now this gives us a totally different and a very much easier task. We have not got an inquisition, because we have not got a creed; but it is arguable that we do not need a creed, because we have got a character. In any of the old nations the national unity is preserved by the national type.
Now what was true in Chesterton’s time is not necessarily true now, for as those varied characters — English, French, Irish — came and shared with us their varied customs of burping or thank you notes, PDA or relative public coldness towards their wives, they melded and the Jeffersonian democracy was interpreted over and again by those who practiced empathy and those who would rather kick out creed for a national character. Those who chose to kick out the creed for a national character may well be called nationalists, for they offered up a Call To Whiteness, as Farai put it so eloquently, when the creed offered none. Or appeared to offer none, in any case.
What it offered was a melting of color. For those with English and French culture banded together in their bloodlines, which is about as an unholy of a union as Dickens might find in Tale of Two Cities or Mary Tudor might find in Louis XII. But they did it and established a base level of whiteness. That whiteness excluded the Germans for a time, but with the Dutch in the north, it grew to include them. Then the Italians and Irish found themselves on the outside of whiteness, but eventually were whitewashed themselves, intermarrying and intermingling until the lines really bled together. The Spanish who had directly intermarried with the French in the south began to be included, but those who married the natives of Central America became “hispanic.” This coupled with the Manifest Destiny aim to wipe entire races of natives from American soil and the human slave industrial complex led to a distinct color divide. That divide affected the Asian immigration both with the opium dens of Gotham and the rails of the west.
But shortly after World War Two, with the persistent contribution of Asian Americans to mathematical and science institutions — and the shame of the American version of concentration camps, made for the Japanese — they eventually earned their status as white people. Their culture has been swallowed whole by the empire, so it kind of begs the question: at what cost?
It remains to be seen in the present time whether those who seek a national character or those who seek a national creed will win out. Those who believe in the creed always believed that black slaves were human beings that deserved the dignity of the richest white man. And anyone who seriously doubts that need read no further than John Woolman’s Journal, which were penned before the Declaration of Independence. They always believed in free speech because they always believed that truth rises to the surface — this was a Puritan thought, for crying out loud, and it’s right there in John Milton’s Areopagitica. Any Christian who can’t understand the Christian basis of the freedom of speech literally has no grounds to argue for freedom of religion. And the same goes for the right to peaceably assemble (which doesn’t exist currently in America). The list goes on.
Of course those exist in the Bill of Rights, which limited the power of the government run at the time by those who wanted America to exist not in creed but in character. And that character has become something of a characterization: the Arrogant American. It remains to be seen whether or not America will define itself as a sort of amalgamation of various shades of white which will eventually include black and end with a morality no more prestigious and no more nuanced and no more articulate than Fifty Shades of Grey.
If America will see the creed behind the character, the heart behind the heartland, the virtue behind the social customs and will end up loving the specific precisely because she loves the general.
For me, I’ve learned to fall in love with the human side of that creed, but I still do not favor government over God because those who favor government over God seem to end not in favoritism but in a fade where they worship the god named Government. And I don’t mean big government or oligarchical government or government by the states so much as the act of governing at all — the act of ruling at all. Power — and it’s Christianized, clean-cut term “influence” — as a god.
I am, like Chesterton, a Christian. And as a Christian I have fallen in love with every country I’ve come into contact with: Lebanon, England, Russia, Brazil, Vietnam, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Tibet, Saudi, and the rest. The question remained: could I fall in love with America in the same way?
Which brings us back to apple pies and baseball.
Sure, I’ve loved those things – but I love them because of the creed, not because of the character. I don’t believe that an American character exists. I’ll drink English tea and Irish stouts, use Canadian syrup and Mexican salsa as toppings, and dance both debke and waltz. But let’s not mistake the character of other countries with an American character.
The only character America has, if she has any at all, is the character to affirm the human side of the creed. Those who have the easiest time of it have stopped believing in an American character and have started to believe in a higher creed. I truly believe that when I feed the poor, let in the refugee, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and heal the sick that I am feeding, welcoming, clothing, visiting, and healing Jesus. I truly believe that the creed of this country will be judged by higher and older creeds, creeds not intended for the governance of man but for the sustenance of being and consciousness and bliss itself. It is because I follow Justice that I argue about Supreme Court justices, because I follow Courage that I argue about practical pacifism, because I follow Wisdom that I mock the fools who hold office. The creeds I hold critique the character that others claim is America and it is because I truly do want God to bless America that I hope he damns Americana.
I will always love America.
I will never be an American.
Because I was born here and because I was born again here, respectively. I follow a different King, you see. One who was homeless and crucified and a postcolonial refugee and arrested while unarmed and innocent and brown-skinned.
And so I don’t worry about the future of our country because I’m too busy loving my immigrant neighbors, loving those who haven’t achieved whiteness yet, loving those who are poor and neglected and don’t have anyone to speak or stand up for them.
They’re tomorrow’s America if tomorrow exists at all.
If there is an American Inquisition, it’s aimed at those who choose an American character over an American creed. You could flip it around and say America will only take seriously and include white man’s ideals the day those ideals exclude his whiteness.
And since I’m white.
And since I got these ideas from black folk and non-Americans.
I guess you can take me seriously now, as an American.