sphagnum moss, dark water, and politics
Sunday, November 26, 2006
Cohen, Iraq, Therapy, and The Myth of Regeneration Through Violence
Richard Cohen's column on (his changing attitudes towards) the Vietnam and Iraq Wars has probably been knocked from one end of the left blogsphere to the other by now - see for example digby and Hilzoy. While his account - by turns painfully sincere and breathtakingly un-self-aware - of somehow making
essentially the same mistake twice -- failing to think hard enough about why one is advocating a war that will cost tens of thousands of people their lives.as Hilzoy puts it (doubt Cohen recognizes it) is pretty amazing and unintentionally informative, the real lightning rod has been this bit, with its astonishing quote:
If anything, I was encouraged in my belief by the offensive opposition to the war -- silly arguments about oil or empire or, at bottom, the ineradicable and perpetual rottenness of America.I want to get back to the first few sentences a little later. After all, many of the real arguments against this war of choice have turned out to be tragically correct (if anything, we underestimated the administration's incompetency, and the potential for disaster), and Cohen now criticizes the war. What's really striking is the apparent disconnect between the talk of duping, repellent exaggerations, and betrayal towards the end, and the recounting of the "offensive opposition" and other rationalizations here. It sounds as if he somehow still imagines that yes, he was wrong but for all the right reasons.
But anyway, that last line, about how he thought post-911 that the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic." Some folks have taken this as a product of a mind that views war as equivalent to some aromatherapy candles; others have pointed out that in context it suggests the utopian belief that invading a random country would somehow help bring peace to the Middle East and reduce the threat of terrorism. (Which is less monstrous, if no less muddleheaded).
I'm pretty sure Cohen intended that second interpretation, and it's not at all surprising. He was just echoing an old, old idea, what's Slotkin called regeneration through violence in his book of the same name (Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860), the first of a trilogy tracing this idea into the 19th (The Fatal Environment and 20th (Gunfighter Nation) centuries. To quote the amazon.com review:
His argument in Regeneration is that, as the British colonists established their own societies in the wilderness, they expressed their regional desires for territorial expansion and self-rule by reinventing their history. Their narratives, according to Slotkin, revolved around frontiersmen who internalized, then disciplined, the "savagery" of their new environments, using their newfound mastery of nature to transform the wilderness into a revitalized civilization. Slotkin begins by examining how narratives of King Philip's War transformed New England from a demon-haunted Puritan enclave to a region where Indian killing represented progress and prosperity. Daniel Boone's paradoxical backwoods mixture of aggression and reflection serves as an icon for the rest of Regeneration, which emphasizes sectional variations of the Indian hunter myth . . .Indeed, it's oddly appropriate to bring this up now, a few days after celebrating the thankful but uneasy truce that in time gave way to savage slaughter, first in the Pequot War and finally the massive devastation of King Phillip's War. Elizabeth Furniss adds that
The frontier myth thus provides a theory of history in which conflict, violence, and the subjugation of nature and indigenous peoples are legitimated as natural and inevitable for ensuring the ‘progress’ of civilisation. The frontier myth provides a master narrative of ‘regeneration through violence’, through which American identity was initially defined, and continues to be continually reasserted, through acts of aggressive violence. . . . Slotkin sees this key metaphor of regeneration through violence, and this foundational narrative of history, to be continually expressed in diverse arenas of cultural and political activity, ranging from the military aggression of American foreign policy to the crop of urban vigilante movies produced by Hollywood in the 1980s. It is through such acts of heroic, aggressive intervention that American national identity is continually expressed and celebrated.In a New York Times review of Gunfighter Nation Michicko Kakutani notes (PDF) that
Whereas the early settlers achieved progress (and, Mr. Slotkin implies, a sense of spiritual regeneration) through the continual annexation of new lands, Americans were forced to look for new sorts of conquests when the Western frontier closed in the 1890's. With the Spanish-American War and American involvement in the Philippines, Theodore Roosevelt extrapolated the frontier myth to the world of foreign affairs. For Americans to renew their virility, Roosevelt suggested, they must take up the challenge of empire and bring civilization "to the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway." Later administrations, says Mr. Slotkin, would invoke the frontier myth to justify the use of counterinsurgency measures in the cold war and to rationalize America's growing involvement in Vietnam. In each case, Mr. Slotkin argues, the enemy was portrayed in terms similar to those once used to depict Indians, as ruthless, savage adversaries, whom the "side of progress and civilization" must fight "without quarter and even without scruple."Indeed, the current conflict has turned out, as a few people who knew their history predicted, to mirror (albeit imperfectly) the Spanish-American and Phillipine-American Wars, at least as much as the Vietnam War. For there, too, one sees the honest belief that we were "attempting to do a good thing," spreading freedom and democracy to cruelly oppressed people. Slotkin felt that Vietnam, with other features of the 1960s and '70s, had deeply wounded the old myth, measured in such things as the plummeting popularity of Westerns, which had embodied (and yet increasingly challenged) it in previous years. It would seem that it had unexpected resilency. Indeed, Furniss points out:
The resilience of the frontier myth as a dominant cultural myth is due to two features. The first is its flexibility . . .Second, the frontier myth conveys historical truths not so much through explicit, argumentative forms of discourse, but indirectly through narratives rich in symbolism and metaphor. ‘The language is metaphorical and suggestive rather than logical or analytical’, Slotkin asserts. ‘The movement of a mythic narrative, like that of any story, implies a theory of cause and effect and therefore a theory of history (or even of cosmology); but these ideas are offered in a form that disarms critical analysis by its appeal to the structures and traditions of storytelling and the clichés of historical memory.' . . . Of particular importance are ‘mythic icons’, which stand as condensed symbols of the frontier myth’s narrative, and which ‘effect a poetic construction of tremendous economy and compression and a mnemonic device capable of evoking a complex system of historical associations by a single image or phrase’. . . . Their power, thus, lies in their ability to convey certain myths of history intuitively and indirectly in such a subtle manner that often lies beyond our critical awareness. [italics added]I think this speaks to the experience many of us had, trying to challenge this folly using "explicit, argumentative forms of discourse," and being completely ignored, our "critical analysis" disarmed.
posted by Dan S. on 9:47 PM | | link
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