Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The US as authoritarian father

The latest ginned-up controversy about whether the US president “loves America” is noteworthy not for the specific content of the so-called debate over the nature of (Obama’s) patriotism – that debate is absurd - but for what it reveals about US political culture.

In the terms of this discussion, the nation isn’t seen as a political community continually created to serve real needs by participating citizens on the basis of reasoned deliberation and evidence. It’s a distant father, to be feared, loved, and idealized, and to whom the only appropriate attitude is one of unquestioning respect, duty, and a willingness to be sacrificed. As I’ve suggested in connection with a related matter, these attitudes, largely beneath conscious recognition, contribute to the support of violence perpetrated by the father-state and his declared representatives against those perceived as weak, ungrateful, disloyal, or threatening.

More democratic models of citizenship and rebellion, of course, are often imperfect and tend to suffer from the very same unconscious distortions and biases, leaving those who espouse them liable to join in the displays of deference toward the father-state and the denigration of those concerns associated with “feminine” care and nurturing. My point here is fourfold: First, we should openly recognize how far these notions diverge from democratic ideals of equality and participation. Second, we should appreciate that many of these political ideas have deep roots in an authoritarian-abusive culture of parenting and largely remain below the conscious surface; this culture needs to be exposed and addressed. Third, given these first two points, we should explicitly oppose any debate in these terms, not just because the attacks are silly partisan hackery and often thinly disguised racism, which they are, but because debate under these premises is woefully unsuited to a democratic political community. Fourth, using this recognition, we should work on developing inclusive models of citizenship and political participation that aren’t fettered by these familial patterns.

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