Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The Spiritual Health of Nation States

When they said, "repent"
I wonder what they meant

The Future, Leonard Cohen

I am indebted to the Chronicle of Higher Education and its sister site, Arts & Letters Daily, for articulating and exploring Evolutionary-Biology. Evo-bio attempts to account for concepts like aesthetics, spirituality and religion, are (at least at these sites) thoughtful and precise, debatable and provocative. Articles like this one are typical, giving a biological and psychological rationale for the development of religion, and accounting for characteristic similarities in the different world religions. And even though I am existentially at odds with my evo-bio contemporaries, I type the following, in the hope that, from the shallows of my naiveté and superstition, I can perhaps return the favor of illumination and encouragement in some small way.

I am a North American mortal: the recent alerts add to my already anxious state, and the noxious quality of global chatter does little to soothe me. The other weekend, our family met with some friends from Hong Kong, who were cottaging at Lake Huron. Over the prototypical cottage meal of burgers and beer, we were told of how, following 9/11, Chinese Internet chat-rooms were filled with anti-American rhetoric. The Chinese government finally shut down these sites, thinking censorship was the fastest way to deal with the scourge of hatred toward its largest trade partner. Unfortunately the bile rose elsewhere - i.e., the street - so the sites were back up within a week. My friend said the next step the Chinese government took was, essentially, a propaganda blitz attempting to evoke empathy for the stricken Americans. Chinese citizens, who had for generations been subjected to "Yankee Running Dog" rhetoric, reacted with understandable surprise and confusion. My friend couldn't comment on the effectiveness of the blitz, but he was quick to say that Chinese ideas involving nation states are of necessity in constant flux.

Shortly after that conversation, I read this piece by Sasha Abramsky, who notes that anti-Americanism is now commonly expressed among the Western World's literati, in terms that are emotionally charged and inflammatory, if not always articulate or rational. Abramsky laments the declining global currency of the "idea" of America; an idea that almost singularly crossed cultures and inspired entire generations.

It seems to me, after reading Abramsky, that this "Ideal America" is a concept in line with religious concepts, particularly as evo-bio types parse them. Most secular citizens are committed to some idea larger than the individual. In the case of the Ideal America, the individual is duly required to pony up a degree of faith, sacrifice, legal observance and allegiance. To call this Ideal America a god would legitimately raise the hackles of monotheists (and I don't make the analogy to be scandalous), but a wholly secular citizen might, after some qualification, shrug and concur.

Journalist Michael Kelly once clipped that Americans had lost sight of something every 12 year old in Bosnia knows: that there are some things worth killing and dying for. Abramsky despairs, as do I, at witnessing a growing tide of people who have taken Kelly's sentiment to heart, and are committed to killing and dying in an effort to bring down both the reality and the idea of America. But if the idea of America is to regain its moral value, I think it could benefit from grafting a few other religious commitments: namely, repentance and atonement.

At this point, even I, the descendent of a long line of pulpit-pounders, involuntarily shudder. And who wouldn't cringe at pulling these angry words out of the carnie revival tent? "Repent" has been recklessly flung about, its currency cheaply spent among a shifting populace of superficial pietists who are happiest when they're miserable. But I think there is still some coin to be found here; anyone who has invested seriously in a marriage could frankly admit that words like repentance and atonement, however archaic, still have heft and value. Adamant insistence on one's own rectitude is often the short path to disaster. Humility is still the virtue in shortest supply, not only in myself and others, but also in our nation states.

In my childhood, the common environment for this sort of soul-seeking required "every eye closed, every head bowed." The reality, at least with me, was every hackle raised, every mandible clenched. So let's take a deep breath, step back from the emotional tangle of our current environment, and look at an incident that still manages to achieve some consensus: Vietnam. If the majority of Americans can concede that Vietnam was, to put it gently, "regrettable," can our nation state not muster up the moral courage to seek some measure of atonement with the Vietnamese? Starting with re-opened trade relations seems like a win-win no-brainer - a small step, that I would hope might lead to something more significant: say, committing ourselves and our resources to addressing the effects of chemical and biological warfare on succeeding generations of Vietnamese children. As a republic, we decry any ideology or system that willfully inflicts harm on innocents - any step we take to redress our own history of these offences would be significant.

In my day I've eaten some crow - I expect to eat more once this gets posted. It's not pleasant, but it's been good for me, so I would, perhaps foolishly, encourage our nation, the "real" America, to strive for the Ideal America: to humbly seek atonement. This would surely restore some global currency to the Ideal America. It might even buy the real America a few cautious friends, and some much needed time.

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