Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Birth of a "Special" People

(Before you read this, you'd better take a bathroom break, then get yourself a cup of coffee. This post is long.)

Today it's time to delve the origins of American (specifically, Anglo-American) narcissism. To me, the most obvious place to start digging is Imperial Rome in the years from the birth of Christ through the reign of Constantine. Let's look first at the psychological construct of national exceptionalism, which has existed for as long as there have been nation-states. The pre-Christian, pre-Roman Greek state of Athens is an excellent example of this. (See this and this for examples). The Greek example shows one key characteristic of national exceptionalism: namely, that it is created, invoked and promulgated by the leaders of a nation-state when those leaders want to rouse their citizens to war and other inhumane acts against the members of differing nations and states.

The Roman empire was no exception in its claims to exceptional status, as described in a Huffington Post article on the concept of the "just war."  In the name of its exceptionalism, Rome conquered many peoples who had previously considered themselves to be exceptional. It was this empire which occupied Palestine in the days of the earthly life of Christ, and which sacked Jerusalem in 70 AD. Both the Romans and the people they conquered viewed exceptionalism as a means to lay claim to an exceptional share of all the things normally valued by people in this earthly life. Yet this empire was also the birthplace of the Christian faith – an otherworldly construct, a commonwealth of strangers and pilgrims on the earth (Hebrews 11:13; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:11), citizens of a Kingdom not of this world (John 18:36). The citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven were called to live by values which are radically different from the values of this earthly life. The modeling of these values, moreover, was guaranteed to bring the citizens of God's Kingdom into direct conflict with the citizens of all earthly kingdoms (Luke 6:20-28; John 15:18-16:3). Thus from the death and resurrection of Christ until the beginning of the reign of Constantine the Great, becoming a Christian was not the thing to do if you wanted a comfortable, wealthy life on earth.

Constantine's reign brought some rather drastic changes to the Christian church, which had become very popular among the Roman underclass because of its message of hope to the poor of this world. In fact, the Faith had begun to exert a considerable amount of temporal influence, both economic and political. Thus Constantine found it expedient to legalize Christianity and to extend imperial protection to the Faith. In exchange, the Church began to abandon certain otherworldly values and to embrace and support the earthly, secular values of the Roman state. At the Council of Arles in 314, a number of prominent members of the early church declared that “to deny the State the right to go to war was to condemn it to extinction.” (Source: Constantinian Christianity by Yuri Koszarycz.). The council also declared “Concerning those who lay down their weapons in peacetime, be it resolved that they be excluded from fellowship.” (Source: The Canons to Sylvester from the Council of Arles). The Church abandoned the pacifism of the New Testament and began to legitimize the concept of a “just war.” Through the acts of Constantine, the first State church was born.

This State church was not the sum total of Christianity in the Roman Empire. There were many Christians who for various reasons did not choose to align themselves with the State church. Some of those reasons had to do with conscience, others to do with ambitions of the sort of earthly political and economic power which was now being enjoyed by the heads of the Roman State church. The abandonment of New Testament pacifism and the pursuit of earthly values by the State church and by some of its dissenters led inevitably to armed conflict. The funny thing about all this is that the combatants on each side claimed that God was on their side. Each side claimed a special mission from God which not only excused but vindicated their newly adopted violence and which vindicated their claim to whatever it was they were fighting for.

This should be no surprise, because if a group of people claim that they hold as holy the words of a certain Book, yet they are always refusing to obey certain key teachings of that Book in order to achieve earthly ends, they need to have some insanely awesome excuses for their refusal to obey. So national exceptionalism was retooled to provide the excuse, which now read something like this: “We have a special mission from God in these difficult and dangerous days. Therefore God calls us to fight and die on behalf of that mission. May God bless us in carrying out that mission!” The flip side of that exceptionalism was the demonization of those who were considered enemies of the exceptional State. This silenced the conscience of combatants and legitimized the horrible things they did to the soldiers and civilians who were the target of their warfare.

State churches and ecclesiastically sanctioned violence marked each of the nations who fought in the religious wars which dot the landscape of European history, including the Crusades, the Eighty Years' War, and the Cromwellian conquest of England, to name a few. Each of the combatant nations believed in its own exceptionalism, and each had its clerics who told its citizens how exceptional their cause was, and how this was due to the mission which they had “received from God.” This exceptionalism naturally led the citizens of each belligerent nation to believe that it and its citizens were superior to other nations.

This exceptionalism and superiority got a turbocharge boost in the 16th century through the writings of John Calvin. Calvin was an influential French politician, preacher and theologian who devised a number of Church doctrines which had a profound influence on the culture of England and the United States. A key doctrine of Calvin is the doctrine of predestination. He believed that certain Bible passages taught that God has predestined some people to find salvation through faith in Christ, and that He has predestined others to eternal punishment. He also taught that this predestination has occurred independently of any man's choice in the matter. This was a special case of Calvin's doctrine concerning the sovereignty of God, where he wrote that all that happens in the world is the expression of Divinely permitted and approved Providence. Naturally, since most people in Calvin's audiences wanted to go to Heaven and not Hell, they became very curious about how they might know they were of the elect whom God had chosen for salvation.

A number of sources (including Max Weber) therefore state that Calvinists looked to “success in earthly calling” as a sign of God's election – i.e., material success in one's work. This was combined with the imposition of a duty on hearers to be as successful as possible (in contrast with 1 Timothy 6:9-10, in which St. Paul warns people against wanting to be rich). Naturally, those who were successful in business liked this doctrine, since it allowed them to look down on those whose lives were marked by material struggles, because such strugglers obviously did not have the blessing of God. (An interesting side note: the Church had also historically taught that usury – the lending of money at interest – was wrong and forbidden by Scripture. But Calvin stated that some Scriptures which had seemed to forbid usury had been misinterpreted, and other Scriptures no longer applied because times had changed. (Source: "Usury and Capitalism" from the Wikipedia article on John Calvin.)

This, then, was the flavor of the nationalist exceptionalism which pervaded many European societies just prior to the colonization of the United States: first, a belief that God had endowed certain nations with a mission that condoned armed conflict in support of that mission; secondly, a belief that God had predestined certain people to eternal salvation and others to eternal damnation independent of the choice of these people, and third, a belief that material success combined with hard work was a sign of God's blessing upon the elect, and that lack of material success was a sign of the opposite.

The American colonists therefore were already primed for exceptionalism when they arrived in the New World. They preached that theirs was an exceptional mission: to found a new Israel in the New World (for instance, see John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, Thomas Thacher, and Thomas Prince). Later, they preached that it was the manifest destiny of the United States to conquer the entire North American continent (see John L. O'Sullivan). This they did – and along the way, nearly exterminated the Native American peoples who had been here previously, through both overt warfare, trickery and ecological warfare (namely, the near-extermination of the buffalo). In their efforts to expand White American wealth and power, they also involuntarily “recruited” millions of dark-skinned, formerly free Africans from their homelands to assist in the expansion of White American wealth. The wealthiest of these settlers just “knew” that they were exceptional because their Calvinism had told them so. The exceptionalism of the people of the United States also gave rise to an exceptional new religion, namely Mormonism, which, in addition to being occult and arcane, is one of the most racist elitist religions on earth.

The wealthy among the new settlers used the arguments of Calvinism to justify their treatment of the dark-skinned peoples they exploited and killed, claiming that the fact that Providence had allowed the conquest of the North American continent, that conquest must necessarily have been God's manifest will. In addition, these wealthy people compared their standard of material wealth to the stark material simplicity of many Native Americans and Africans and concluded that because God had not “blessed” them, these nonwhite people could not be of the elect; therefore, they could do whatever they wanted to them. The Golden Rule did not apply to the treatment of nonwhite people. (To use clinical language, dark-skinned peoples became “objects” to be exploited.)

In the later decades of the 19th century, the American religious community came into conflict with the spread of the writings of Charles Darwin. Yet in some circles there was a truce, and certain men discovered that it was advantageous to combine allegedly Darwinian concepts with the notion of Divine predestination of certain peoples to blessing and election of others to curses. Among these men were Josiah Strong, a Congregational preacher who in 1891 wrote, “Can anyone doubt that the result of this competition of races will be the survival of the fittest?”, and who lamented two years later that the superior Anglo-Saxon stock of the United States was deteriorating because of immigration. (Baynton, 2014) The late 1800's and early 1900's also saw the development of “muscular Christianity” in Anglo-Saxon society as a response to the perceived threat posed by non Anglo-Saxon peoples. (This “muscular Christianity” influenced the development of the YMCA and of American professional football, by the way.  For more information, see this.) These trains of thought also gave rise to the pseudoscience of eugenics, which argued that some people were endowed with specialness by nature in the same way that Calvinism had argued that some people were pre-selected by God for blessing – and which also argued that some people were cursed by nature in the same way that Calvinism claimed that these were also cursed by God. The rationalism of eugenics led to human attempts to improve the human breed, leading in turn to forced sterilizations of people deemed “unfit” by several states in the U.S. (Another side note: the British government is currently funding forced sterilizations of poor people in India, according to an article published in the Guardian in 2012, and other sources.)

The combination of religious superiority (Calvinism), the record of “Providence” (manifest destiny, social Calvinism, and a long string of seemingly unbroken successes), and botched science (social Darwinism, eugenics) has proven to be an intoxicating mix. This country has been drinking one version or another of that mix for over 200 years. This mixture is the myth taught to generations of American schoolchildren, advertised to generations of American consumers, and preached to generations of American ears in every context from movie theaters to books to political campaigns to church pulpits. (Read The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall, for an example of this.) This is the foundation of American narcissism, the belief that this nation is above all nations in that it has a special mission from God (a mission which conveniently lines up with American imperial ambitions), that Americans (specifically, white Americans) are a special, chosen people, and the belief that both Scripture, Providence and nature bear this out.

This belief in our “specialness” is so pervasive and has been taught for so long that it has become the unconscious foundation of the lives of most Americans, most of whom can no longer articulate the roots of their specialness. They are special just 'cause they are. I think of K. Anders Ericsson, who wrote that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in order to achieve expert performance in an endeavor. The average American has had many more than 10,000 hours of being schooled to think that he or she is “special” – a special member of a special people and a special nation. From this “specialness” has arisen a belief among many Americans that each one is more “special” than anyone else, including his or her fellow Americans. A recent paper titled, “The Cracked Mirror: Features of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Children,” expounds the process of the formation of this belief. The author, Karen Kernberg Bardenstein, identified risk factors for the development of clinical narcissism in children. Among these are being the child of narcissistic parents, the child of successful parents, and the overindulged or wealthy child. Consider the vast disparity between what has become “the American way of life” and the standard of material wealth enjoyed by most of the world's population. Is it any wonder that this nation as a whole has the character of someone with a personality disorder? Other factors which contribute to the competing claims for specialness among Americans include the unhealthy glorification of competition – both economic, scholastic, and athletic. If you spend 10,000 hours in concentrated instruction, you can turn just about anyone into an entitled, selfish, first-class jerk.

We now openly compete for stages from which each of us can proclaim his or her own specialness. Think of reality TV, American Idol, and all the shows which were spawned by American Idol. I think of a recent example of “specialness,” the “balloon boy” Falcon Heene whose parents Richard and Mayumi Heene caused national panic in 2009 when they called 911 claiming that their son Falcon had been carried away by a weather balloon. It turned out that the claim was false; the boy had been hiding in the attic of his home all the time that rescuers were looking for him.  It was revealed that his parents had pulled a hoax in order to get their family on reality TV (they had already been on TV once before). His parents therefore did a bit of jail time for their trouble. A few years later, Mr. Heene was able to get himself back in the media spotlight as reporters followed up on the “balloon boy,” who is now an aspiring pre-adolescent metal rock guitarist and front man for the Heene Boyz band. Maybe the publicity has helped Falcon's career.

Later, the American evangelical world produced a religious “balloon boy”: Colton Burpo, whose parents claimed that when Colton was three years old, during an emergency appendectomy, he died and went to Heaven, then came back so he could tell his parents about the journey. Colton's story was “Providentially” discovered by Thomas Nelson Publishers who published Colton's story in the book Heaven is for Real, in 2010. Afterward, the book was “Providentially” discovered by Sony Pictures and made into a movie which was released this year, 2014. Now, I can't prove or disprove another person's religious experience. But I can't swallow Colton Burpo. Luke 16:27-31 is one big reason why. Another reason is that the whole affair smells like stage-managed narcissism to me. Colton's father pastors his own church, and he and his wife have also revealed that Colton is now a high school wrestling star and an accomplished musician who has toured with the band Read You And Me. (If you have the stomach for it, you can watch some YouTube videos of Colton singing and performing. I don't have the stomach for it.) What better opportunity for Todd Burpo to grow his own church and to start a career in Christian media for his son than a near-death experience?

And while we are talking about movies, let me mention the final frontier of hubris, namely, The Interview, a Sony Pictures semi-comedy about two journalists who are recruited by the CIA to assassinate the head of the government of North Korea. The movie is the incarnation of the idea of America as a special nation with a special mission that can be carried out by ordinary Americans who will succeed just because they are Americans, and as we all know, Americans are all just so crazy awesome! The publicity surrounding the movie is the embodiment of American hubris, because when the plot of the movie was announced, many American politicians brushed aside North Korean objections, claiming that these objections were the attempts of a dictator regime to stifle American First Amendment freedoms. (Whoa, dude! You mean to tell me that you can make a movie about threatening to kill someone in another country and the person you threaten can't protest because it would infringe on your First Amendment rights? We are truly a “special” nation.) The movie and its publicity are also an example of what I call “desperate narcissism,” because in the days prior to the movie's release the Obama administration claimed that North Korea had hacked Sony's computer network, and Obama himself promised retaliation. Yet a number of prominent cyber security experts expressed public doubt that North Korea had done such a thing. Sony claimed that it was considering not releasing the Interview in order not to provoke international tensions, but Obama and other politicians pushed back, saying, “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.” So this Christmas the movie opened in flag-draped theaters packed full of doofuses and raked in quite a bit of dough in the process. Can anybody say “publicity stunt” with me?

Desperate narcissism. To a narcissist, good attention is the best thing a body can have. But even negative attention is better than no attention. When narcissists are denied attention they get desperate. I'll talk more about the desperate phase of American narcissism in a future post.

No comments: