Category Archives: America

Independence Day

A small but still cherished gift to America on her 235th birthday: The Glenn Beck Show is gone. Above is Talking Points Memo’s montage of the derangement of his last show.

Frye on the fundamental difference between Canada and the U.S. in the “Conclusion to the Second Edition of Literary History of Canada“:

As Canada and the United States went their separate ways on the same continent, eventually coming to speak for the most part the same language, their histories took on a strong pattern of contrast. The United States found its identity in the eighteenth century, the age of rationalism and enlightenment. It retains a strong intellectual fascination with the eighteenth century: its founding fathers are still its primary cultural heroes, and the bicentenary celebrations of 1976, from all accounts, will be mainly celebrations of the eighteenth century rather than the present day. The eighteenth-century cultural pattern took on a revolutionary, and therefore deductive, shape, provided with a manifesto of Independence and a written constitution. This in turn developed a rational attitude to the continuity of life in time, and this attitude seems to me the central principle of the American way of life. The best image for it is perhaps that of the express train. It is a conception of progress, but of progress defined by mechanical rather than organic metaphors, and hence the affinity with the eighteenth century is not really historical: it tends in fact to be antihistorical. Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, with their imperturbable common sense, are thought of, in the popular consciousness, more as deceased contemporaries than as ancestors living among different cultural referents. The past is thus assimilated to the present, a series of stations that our express train has stopped at and gone beyond. (CW 12, 453)

Frye: “Laissez-faire is Anti-Christian”

Today we end the tease and roll out Frye himself on the issue for which we’ve been laying the ground work the last little while: the witch’s brew of Christianity, Amercian Exceptionalism, and laissez-faire.

Here is Frye painstakingly analyzing American ideology as part of a United Church commission to study modern culture and its points of conflict with Christianity. The aim is to determine “the role of the church in the redemption of culture” (CW 11, 237). The report appeared as The Church and the Secular World (Toronto: Board of Evangelism and Social Service, 1950). It was a collective project, but Frye wrote the Tenets of Modern Culture section, from which this excerpt is taken.

1. The oldest civilization in the modern world is the American one, which was established in its present form in 1776. Modern France dates from the French Revolution; Great Britain began to assume its modern form with the Reform Bill of 1832; Germany and Italy entered the modern world in 1870; China in 1912; Russia in 1917, and so on. The party now in power in America [Democratic] is the oldest political party in the world, and the Stars and Stripes is one of the world’s oldest flags.

2. The axioms of this culture are essentially those of eighteenth-century Deism. There is no real world except the physical world and the order of nature, and our senses alone afford direct contact with it. Religion can provide no revelation of another; nature is red in tooth and claw; we must look to God only in man, and in nature to the extent that it is subdued by man. The essence of religion is morality, dogma and ritual being parasites that settle on it in decay. The chief end of man is to improve his own lot in the natural world, and the essential meaning of human life is the progressive removal of the obstacles presented by nature, including atavistic impulses in man himself. This is done chiefly through the advance of science, by which is meant the increase in the comfort of the body, of which the mind is a function.

3. The problems of American civilization are connected with the facts: (a) that these absurd notions, however inadquate to the modern world, form part of an unofficial established church in American society, are taught in schools, and are impressed on American children at their most impressionable age; (b) that the real churches have been too deeply contanimated with such ideas themselves to make much effective resistance against them; (c) that they form part of the ideology, not of democracy, but of laissez-faire, and yet have kidnapped and secularized the democratic spirit in American life, so that many Americans regard democracy as inseparable from laissez-faire.

4. The axioms and postulates of laissez-faire as the above indicates, are anti-Christian, and lead in the direction, not of democracy, but of managerial dictatorship. Such a dictatorship may be established in either of two ways: (a) through the consolidation of the power of the oligarchy (Fascism); (b) through the seizure of power by a revolutionary leadership established within the trade unions (Communism). The preservation of democracy thus depends on a balance of power held by the state and its elected representatives against the threat of a coup d’etat coming from either end of the economic machine. But Fascism and Communism claim to be the logical forms of true democracy, and both claim to be fighting, not democracy, but one another, for each maintains that democracy merely the propaganda facade of its rival. (CW 11, 237-8)

(Graphic from the article “Is Jesus a Socialist?” in, which is worth reading)

Quote of the Day: Christianity and Fundamentalist Americanism

Coinciding with our own exploration of conservative Christianity and capitalism, here’s Andrew Sullivan today on Christianity and a noxious brand of American Exceptionalism:

The relationship between religion and politics is, to my mind, the central question of our time. As the false totalisms of the twentieth century – communism, fascism, Nazism – have been revealed as oppressive, murderous lies, insecure and inadequate human beings in need of totalist solutions to the human dilemma have returned to religion. But more accurately, they have returned to fundamentalism, because only fundamentalism, with its absolute certainty and literal precision and binding, unquestionable authority, can assuage the anxieties of a world dislocated from tradition, up-ended by capitalism, globalized to the point of cultural panic.

What we are seeing on the Republican right at the moment, it seems to me, is an extension of this response to anxiety. The new orthodoxy is fundamentalist Americanism. This is not regular American exceptionalism of the kind that the president adheres to: a belief that this miraculous new world has opened up vistas of democratic opportunity to the rest of the planet, that its inspired constitution has enabled stability and freedom in equal measure, that it played an indispensable role in keeping freedom alive during some dark, dark times, and that its core idea – government by, for and of the people – is universalist in nature. No, the Americanism now heard on the right is that America was uniquely founded on Christianity, that America is therefore a chosen instrument of divine Providence, and that this moral superiority is so profound that indicting America on any prudential, moral or political grounds is un-American or, if it comes from abroad, evil.


All of this is routine for authoritarian nationalist movements. What distinguishes this one is a co-optation of Christianity. But, of course, Christianity cannot be co-opted by nationalism. It is opposed to all such distinctions:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Yes, the Messiah came from a Chosen People, but in Christianity, Jesus’s death and resurrection made the whole world that chosen people. At the Feast of the Ascension yesterday, we Catholics heard at Mass the words of Jesus from Matthew:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

And so the notion of America as a unique nation in the eyes of God is a Christian heresy. And the rest of the current Republican agenda is also, extremely hard to square with Christian orthodoxy.

(Graphic from The Button Pushing Monkey)

Reinhold Niebuhr: America and the Promised Land

Reinhold Niebuhr died on this date in 1971 (born 1892). From a circa 1952 CBC radio review of Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History:

American history is ironic, according to Dr. Niebuhr, because it has not turned out the way that the great Americans of the Revolutionary period expected. To Jefferson, for instance, America was the new Promised Land: it was making a new beginning in history, and was avoiding the mistakes of the past by getting rid of kings and nobles. As far as possible America turned her back on the rest of the world and tried to work out her own destiny. She got very rich and prosperous, and this seemed like a reward for her merits. But now Americans have suddenly found themselves, not out of the world, but practically holding it up, like Atlas. They also find that their prosperity, which has given them this position, is the very thing that makes it hardest for them to hold their allies. Now if America strikes an attitude of outraged virtue, she will succeed in isolating herself, and if she does that she’s done for. She has to realize that, with all her good will, a lot of the ideas she has cherished about her destiny are sentimental illusions, not very different from the illusions the Communists use as bait for mass support. The best American attitude for today is the one represented by Lincoln during the Civil War. Lincoln was sure of the justice of his cause, and he was convinced that the United States, like the world today, couldn’t survive half slave and half free. But still he warned against self-righteousness, against assuming that those who were fighting the Union were sub-human, and so he adopted the Christian principle of malice toward none, and charity toward all. (CW 10, 321-2)

Frye on McCarthyism: “The big lie as a normal political weapon”


Edward R. Murrow’s closing remarks in his report on McCarthy, which was instrumental in ending the hysteria

CBS broadcast its See It Now piece, “A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy,” on this date in 1954.

From The Modern Century:

The collapse of Communist sympathies in American culture was not the result of McCarthyism and other witch-hunts, which were not a cause but an effect of that collapse.  The object of the witch-hunt is the witch, that is, a helpless old woman whose dangerousness is assumed to rationalize quite different interests and pleasures.  Similarly the Communist issue in McCarthyism was a red herring for a democratic development of the big lie as a normal political weapon: if internal Communism had been a genuine danger the struggle against it would have taken a genuine form. (CW 11, 42)

The Week that Was


Gabrielle Giffords warns Sarah Palin by name months ago about the “consequences” of using gun-violence imagery.

It’s interesting that in the course of just a few days a number of influential organs on the right have gone from vehemently denying that unrelentingly violent rhetoric had anything to do with events in Tucson, to just as vigorously promoting the notion that the right has been violated by denunciation of that rhetoric.  In the first instance, words do no harm.  In the second, every word is, according to Sarah Palin, a “blood libel,” and now, according to an editorial in the Washington Times, “a pogrom.”   (The fact that a “pogrom” is the violent consequence of a “blood libel” seems to have eluded those who are otherwise purveyors of word-to-violence denial when the targets are their adversaries.)  Here’s a sample from that editorial bearing the title “Blood libel against Palin and Limbaugh”:

This is simply the latest round of an ongoing pogrom against conservative thinkers. The last two years have seen a proliferation of similar baseless charges of racism, sexism, bigotry, Islamophobia and inciting violence against those on the right who have presented ideas at odds with the establishment’s liberal orthodoxy. Columnist Paul Krugman took advantage of the murders to tar conservative icon Rush Limbaugh and Fox News superstar Glenn Beck as “hate-mongers” . . .

This tragedy has provided a useful warning about the hateful bile that inspires many of today’s liberals.

The absurdity and irresponsibility displayed here is so extensive that it sets its own low standard.  The tragic history of the Jewish people is now being appropriated by extraordinarily powerful and privileged interests for the purpose of rendering themselves victims – victims of  the free speech they seem to think can only be protected through repeated threats of gun play.  This is an unmistakable pattern of behaviour on the right: they are never wrong and they are always the victims.

So which is it?  Do words mean nothing or do they mean something?  Do they have consequences or not?  For the right, it seems that words have no ill consequence when mendaciously barked and bellowed in order to drown out dialogue, but that they must be rigorously suppressed when rendering criticism of the barking and bellowing and the demonstrable presence of lies.  As is usually the case, only those on the right have the right to express an opinion.  Their opinions, moreover, are quickly asserted to be fact, and their facts are of course the only ones that matter.  One of the maneuvers required this week to make Palin the victim of events was the contemptible assertion that the rifle crosshairs appearing in her campaign graphics were in fact “surveyor’s symbols.”  As Bob Denham pointed out this week, every single reference to them by Sarah Palin during the midterm election campaign is consistent with the assumption that they are crosshairs, not surveyor’s symbols.  The lies by this point are apparently a conditioned reflex.

What’s the measure of all this?  Last week a Democratic congresswoman was shot in the head and six innocent bystanders murdered in a congressional district that had been specifically targeted with gun-violence rhetoric by both Sarah Palin and Tea Party candidate Jesse Kelly; by the end of the week, however, the chief point of contention on the right was that Sarah Palin is the real victim of the carnage.  This is horrific.  It is the moral sinkhole into which much of the right is descending. But it is also a template for what is quickly becoming the new normal.  It’s difficult to think of any reason why anyone should think that this is acceptable – except those who have committed themselves to intimidating people to whom they have decided in advance the right of free speech does not apply.  The best response, therefore, is to continue to exercise that right, whatever the shouters are threatening next.

Frye on Rhetoric, Mobs and Ideology


Glenn Beck exhibits his brute talent for race-baiting and incitement to violence

Frye in Words with Power:

When the rhetorical occasion narrows down from the historical to the immediate, as at rallies and pep talks, we begin to see features in rhetoric that account for the suspicion, even contempt, with which it was regarded so often by Plato and Aristotle.  Let us take a rhetorical situation at its worst.  In intensive rhetoric with a short-term aim, there is a deliberate attempt to put the watchdog of consciousness to sleep, and the steady battering of consciousness become hypnotic, as the metaphor of “swaying” an audience suggests.  A repetition of cliche phrases is designed to bring about a form of dissociation.  The dead end of all this is the semi-autonomous monster called the mob, of which the speaker is now the shrieking head.  For a mob the kind of independent judgment appealed to by dialectic is an act of open defiance, and is normally treated as such.

We spoke of the endlessness of argument in the conceptual area, but rhetoric has an ad hominem or personal weapon available to stop argument.  One may be told, “You just say that because you’re an atheist, a Communist, a Jew, a Christian, or because you had a castrating mother,” etc., etc.  Such verbal weapons are illegitimate in the conceptual mode, where an impersonal  basis is assumed.  But they play an important role in ideology–not always a sinister or violent role, as one may also be led to examine one’s position to see what limitations are built into it.  (CW 26, 32-3)

That last point is subtle and reassuring.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with ad hominem arguments in the right context — we may indeed be called upon to rethink our stand on issues in light of personal biases.  Satire, of course, completely depends upon the ad hominem affront, and it is perhaps the most direct assault on the inadequacies of ideology that literature affords.

And that’s the difference I see between left and right in the most readily available public discourse.  The left tweaks the nose of the right with fact-based mockery, and the right responds with death threats and talk of “second amendment remedies,” which predictably leads to violence.  The left has Jon Stewart whose satire is usually most devastating when running a piece of footage that provides a missing piece of crucial information; the right has Glenn Beck whose involuted paranoid fantasies seem only intended to leave his audience unmoored and waiting for him to tell them who to hate next.  While it’s true that you don’t want to mess with Matt Taibbi, he’ll  never threaten you with violence or unleash a horde of angry minions upon you.  But if you cross Sarah Palin, she’s capable of putting a target on you while barking “RELOAD” to an already irrational mob.  One is acceptable and enriching civilized behavior, the other is psychopathy.

Matt Taibbi on John Boehner


John Boehner’s closing remarks before the vote on health care reform last March.  It’s important to remember that in John Roberts’s and Antonin Scalia’s America corporations are persons, and that’s Boehner’s real constituency.

Matt Taibbi has a profile of new House Leader, John Boehner, in this week’s Rolling Stone.  A taste:

John Boehner is the ultimate Beltway hack, a man whose unmatched and self-serving skill at political survival has made him, after two decades in Washington, the hairy blue mold on the American congressional sandwich. The biographer who somewhere down the line tackles the question of Boehner’s legacy will do well to simply throw out any references to party affiliation, because the thing that has made Boehner who he is — the thing that has finally lifted him to the apex of legislative power in America — has almost nothing to do with his being a Republican.

The Democrats have plenty of creatures like Boehner. But in the new Speaker of the House, the Republicans own the perfect archetype — the quintessential example of the kind of glad-handing, double-talking, K Street toady who has dominated the politics of both parties for decades. In sports, we talk about athletes who are the “total package,” and that term comes close to describing Boehner’s talent for perpetuating our corrupt and debt-addled status quo: He’s a five-tool insider who can lie, cheat, steal, play golf, change his mind on command and do anything else his lobbyist buddies and campaign contributors require of him to get the job done.

Thomas Paine

On this date in 1776 Thomas Paine published Common Sense, which arguably turned the American Rebellion into the American Revolution.

Here’s Frye in a letter to Helen in July 1932:

Now the United States is a big thing to criticize, but it has the advantage of having so many aspects that it is hardly possible to make a criticism of it which is not more or less true.  But a statement which is more or less true, like “Germans are more intelligent than Frenchmen,” or “women are more moral than men,” is meaningless and a waste of wind, and of what is of considerably more value, time.  That is the objection I have to Dreiser, and, on principle, to Lewis.  No man has adequate cultural equipment to satirize the U.S. according to it, so that all he can do is imitate, or simply set the standardization of the Babbitts beside his own cultural standardization.  There is too much eighteenth-century sentimentality and sloppy thinking in American culture anyway, and the path from Thomas Paine to Elmer Gantry runs straight and smooth. (CW 1, 41)

And from Elmer Gantry to creatures like Sharron Angle and Sarah Palin who believe that the second amendment supercedes the first — especially when advocates for the first amendment aren’t particularly eager enthusiasts of the second.