Yes, But Why Is It Worth Saving?

Even discarded bits of pop culture can prove illuminating. Some years ago, Jennifer and I were listening to the Big Broadcast on WAMU in Washington, and one of the very old radio programs Ed Walker was running was Space Patrol, which in the early 1950s told the story of Command Buzz Corry and his faithful sidekick, Cadet Happy, as they patrolled the Solar System for the United Planets battling evil, accented villains such as Prince Baccarati [sp?], a generic Commie-Nazi villain of American post-war pop culture, who wanted to destroy the peaceful democratic order of the United Planets and restore his dictatorial monarchy.

In one episode, Corry and Happy, on patrol somewhere between Neptune and Planet X (Baccarati’s home base, where he plots his evil with all of his enslaved minions), are talking about why the Space Patrol is so vigilant in trying to stop all of Baccarati’s plots before he can carry them out. Being new to the outfit, Happy wants to know. Corry responds by saying something like:

If we don’t, Baccarati may stage such a spectacular attack that the people of the United Planets will be frightened into surrendering, traumatized into giving up without a fight.

The program’s sponsor was Ralston-Purina, the maker of Chex cereals, and test pilot Chuck Yeager was RP’s spokesman for many of the show’s adverts. A clear connection was made between Air Force test pilots and the valiant men of Space Patrol, between the imagined villains of Corry’s solar system and the real villains America faced in the 1950s.

Growing up in the military, and around those who made participation in the defense of the country the life’s calling, I’d always discerned something of a mixed message from them — they staunchly defend a country they aren’t entirely sure (because of its decadence, cowardice and lack of gratefulness) truly deserves to be defended. Nowhere had I heard this more clearly articulated than in this lost bit of popular culture. And not a terribly significant piece either.

But this idea doesn’t get talked about much. I do believe history belies much of this thinking — Americans did not capitulate after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and no one simply curled up and called for surrender after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Northern Virginia. But this idea, that Western societies are too fragile and too cowardly to defend themselves, especially when faced with the conspiratorial evil of Communism/Islamism, and thus need to be defended by a vigilant elite willing to do just about anything to ensure that those societies are never “traumatized” by attack, does appear to be pernicious, and it does appear to be bigger than America, as Stephen Walt notes in a recent blog entry:

What is even more striking about conservative extremists like Breivik is their utter lack of confidence in the very society that they commit heinous acts trying to defend. On the one hand, they think their idealized society is far, far better than any alternative, which is why extreme acts are justified in its supposed defense. Yet at the same time they see that society as inherently weak, fragile, brittle, and incapable of defending itself against its cruder antagonists. 

This is really an old story: American hard-liners used to believe that the decadent Western democracies couldn’t stand up to Soviet communism, and previous generations all believed that the current wave of immigrants would bring some sort of fatal infection to an otherwise healthy body politic. We’ve suffered a similar wave of paranoia since 9/11, somehow believing that a handful of radicals in Central Asia posed a mortal threat to a society with 300 million people and a $14 trillion economy. (Of course, the real threat turned out to be the self-inflicted wounds that we suffered in Iraq, Afghanistan, and on Wall Street.) By contrast, those of us who are more sanguine about such matters have greater confidence in the inherent strengths of a liberal society and are therefore more worried about departures from these principles undertaken in the name of “national security.”

For many on the right who think and speak this way, they have reduced the communities and societies which they wish to save to abstract ideals, bereft of any real people. Indeed, real people just get in the way of defending the good. I’m not sure which is more attractive here — being the virtuous defender of a noble idea, or being virtuous battler of irredeemable evil.

Includes Roman Catholics, Communists and Muslims Too!

Stanley Fish, in a column about the public discussion of Jews and Jewishness in the West today, writes this at the New York Times:

An important part of the protean and shape-shifting history of anti-Semitism is illuminated by Matthew Biberman’s brilliant book Masculinity, Anti-Semitism, and Early Modern English Literature. Biberman traces the intertwined careers of two characterizations of the Jew — the Jew as devil, an impossibly strong alien being who blocks and destroys everything that is good, and the Jew as sissy, an effeminate, slight, pasty figure who stays in the background and assimilates, but who, because of his having disappeared into the woodwork, is able to rot it out from within. (This quick summary does not do justice to the richness of Biberman’s analysis.) So you can have the fierce barbaric Jew (Israel as the atom-bomb wielding destroyer of Arab armies, at least in 1967) and the insidiously bland Jew, the obsequious figure who, while no one’s looking, takes control of everything. That means that whatever a Jew does there are a number of pre-packaged, and often mutually exclusive, narratives in which to place him, and, by and large, they are not positive ones.

This notion of the almost supernaturally strong, essentially evil enemy who is at the same time weak and cowardly and blends in so as to destroy society from within also forms the substance of English anti-Catholicism (though it tends to focus on the person of the pope, rather than average Roman Catholics), was central to anti-communism and has found new life in anti-Islamism in America.

I cannot speak to how other societies view enemies real and imagined, but it seems the kind of paranoia reflected in English anti-Catholicism/Semitism/Communism/Islamism is an essential fact of Protestant Anglo-American culture. It is foundational, an essential fact that some in the culture can transcend in times and place, but not for any great length of time. It is something that cannot be explained so much as it explains. It is so much a part of the culture that many Jews — particularly right-wing supporters of Israel — have embraced the language, images and logic of this paranoid-conspiracy thinking when they intellectually deal with Muslims and Islam (and even Arabs in general).

This fear is not grounded in much fact, and so reason cannot explain it away or even ease the fear much. (In the 18th century, there were never more than 100,000 Roman Catholics in England, and yet occasionally the English public would erupt into paroxysms of violent anti-Catholicism in which fear of a take-over of the country by the pope — that century’s version of the sharia scare — was primal, and said take-over would end English liberty because rule by the pope was the very definition of tyranny.) But it is grounded in some fact — Roman Catholic Stuart pretenders hung around in France making ominous noises for decades after the Revolution of 1688; Jews did seem to play a overly huge role in finance and the professions Europe in the 18th and 19th century during a time of several social dislocation; Communists did actually believe they were going take over the world (science allegedly proved the inevitability of revolutionary socialism); and Revolutionary Muslims did attack the United States throughout the 1990s and spectacularly on September 11, 2001. But the fear departs from the fact by creating a moral universe of both irredeemable evil and cowardly weakness incarnate in the same opponent.

I wish I understood where this fear comes from. It does seem to be primal to Anglo-American Protestant existence. (The King of England would take on many of the features of the pope in the run-up to the American War of Independence.) I want to root this with the Scots-Irish protestant, but it appears to be just as English as it is Scots-Irish. So I have no idea where it comes from. But it is fascinating. And frightening to behold.