Opinion Original Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence: The Origin of the Specious

Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost

“Why is our collective mood so sour? We are awash with material wealth, and technology provides us with unprecedented powers. But this veneer of well-being masks a deeper crisis. …  Our institutions are crumbling, leaving us vulnerable and aimless. …  How have we come to this condition?”

These questions arrived in the mail Monday morn courtesy of R.R. Reno, who edits First Things, a high-end journal of religious and public affairs that concerns itself with the intersection of the two. One way or another, in one or another set of terms, I have wondered about these things for years. Can you be an American and a sentient being—which do not always go together—and not pose these questions, silently or among others? 

Lately I think about these matters daily. 

I have been living abroad for some time now—south of the border, to be as precise as I intend to get. Leaving the U.S. for however long it turns out to be was mostly a cost-of-living decision, as it is for many thousands of Americans yearly at this point. Mostly but not entirely: I also looked forward to escaping not only the sour mood and the discontent and the aimlessness Reno mentions, but also a certain air of unreality that has come to permeate American life. 

It is not so easy to describe this state, especially to those who are most thoroughly immersed in it or who simply don’t want to hear anything about it. It is in the way of what the philosophers tell us: There is no light without dark, no joy without sadness, and so on. If some pole of reality is so distant, so absent from daily life, a pervasive unreality becomes the reality. It is as if it is in the air we breathe and the water that flows from our faucets: So it seemed to me by the time I packed to depart from a New England village I love as I will never love any other, even if I can no longer afford it.

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A little distance goes a long way when you exit the condition I describe. I find this whenever I travel abroad and have found it during this latest journey. The things that make headlines in major media—Here’s where to get the best corkscrew, who wore what at the Met Gala, and so on infinitely—suggest a nation detached, willfully, from the world as it is.

America’s political life—and I don’t want even to mention its foreign policies— proceeds in some kind of dream state. Readers of this publication know well enough that our mainstream press and broadcasters have wandered into Alice’s wonderland. Donna Brazile, the longtime Democratic Party hack, as corrupt as they come but taken seriously nonetheless, published a piece in The New York Times a few weeks back under the headline “The Excellence of Kamala Harris Is Hiding in Plain Sight.” This is not merely ridiculously unserious, the essence of our bullshit politics, if you will excuse the infelicity. It is a form of psychosis. 

I come to the word I find most useful. I was talking by telephone with a friend in Maine not long after my departure and having a hard time, per usual, explaining these thoughts and impressions. He interrupted. “The national psychosis,” he said. 

But precisely. If we define psychosis as a dysfunctional relationship with reality, our republic can fairly be said to suffer a collective case. I can think of no other nation on either side of any divide you want to name that suffers this affliction, at least not to the extent America does. 

“How have we come to this condition?” to borrow R.R. Reno’s good question. What is the origin of our collective speciousness, our state of self-deception, our shared inauthenticity—and at this point our desperate attachment to same?

A case can be made that America the specious goes back to the 17th century, the Jamestown Settlement (1607), the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock (1620), Winthrop’s arrival on the Arabella in 1630. These first trans–Atlantic settlers were as lost in the Bible as right-wing Israelis are today. They all set sail certain that the hand of divine Providence guided them and that they had reached some kind of Promised Land. We think of this as the root of America’s exceptionalist consciousness, and true enough. But a more clinical description is as pertinent, reminding us that America may never have been other than a nation founded on speciousness, which we can define, as Webster’s 11th edition does, as “having a false look of truth or genuineness, having a deceptive attraction or allure.”

O.K., but I am not a scholar of early American history and am more interested here in our shared unreality as it manifests today. Where did this come from?

I have long argued that the events of Sept. 11, 2001, shattered our national myths and so reshaped the American consciousness. It was then, as myth gave way to history, that the imperium, thrown onto its back foot, assumed the defensive crouch and began conducting itself with the vicious aggression of the wounded. It was then our media caved entirely to the needs of a national-security state suddenly desperate to preserve its global primacy. 

But I go back a little further now to explain “the national psychosis.” Some readers will remember the prominence in the 1960s and 1970s of Rollo May, the noted practitioner of “existential psychotherapy,” as he put it. Back then you had to read Love and Will to be any kind of hip. Ditto The Courage to Create. I have lately been reading one of his later books, Freedom and Destiny, and came upon the following passage the other night. May is examining the question of destiny, which he defines as those parts of ourselves and our circumstances we can act in accord with or against but cannot change:

We can collectively cover our eyes to the results of our actions, blind ourselves to the full import of our cruelty and our responsibility for that cruelty, as we did in the Vietnam war. But this requires a numbing of our sensitivity and will sooner or later take its toll in neurotic symptoms.

Taking May’s obvious cue, isn’t April 30, 1975, when that famous helicopter rose from the roof of the American Embassy, marking the rise (not fall) of Saigon, America’s decisive date of departure from reality? I think so, having lived through it and all the flinching and pretending that followed. 

Nobody has captured this interim more astutely than Chris Appy, the distinguished UMass historian, who got it down in American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (Viking, 2015). It is a brilliant work of history and social psychology that traces precisely the way America transformed the Vietnam War from an act of U.S. imperial aggression into a conflict that left Americans the victims. 

Here is Appy in an interview I conducted with him in Amherst after the book came out: 

There was a kind of national mourning, but it was all about what came to be known as “an American tragedy.” This allowed us to stop thinking so much about what we actually did in and to Vietnam and to lick our own wounds and think about the ways that it had divided us—all those things people like Ronald Reagan said the war had hurt, if not destroyed: our natural pride, our international prestige and most of all our power.

There was a kind of reconstruction project, and much of it took place at the level of memory and public discourse about the past. It’s amazing how successful that project was. Of course, memory can’t be defeated or completely erased. There is a legacy of dissent that continues in these decades. There is certainly an incredible proliferation of literature, much of it expressing dissenting viewpoints, but at the broad level of collective or public memory, this epic event gets reduced to a tiny set of images. 

Most of them focused on the American combat soldier. Some small unit of Americans walking through very menacing and dangerous jungle environments and endangered, physically and psychologically. That’s a way of worrying about what the war did to us, particularly to our own soldiers. I still have students who grew up persuaded that maybe the most shameful thing about the war was the way we treated returning veterans. That’s a classic example of how we transformed [Vietnam] into an American tragedy.

 I well recall, on visits home from overseas assignments in the post–1975 years, marveling at the unfamiliar profusion of American flags all over the place, the hyper-patriotism—often ugly, as during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles—and altogether a turn among Americans toward some unbecoming posturing at the heart of which was an idea that America never loses even though it just did. These were the “Morning in America” years, some readers may recall.   

It was a great big collective flinch, a turning from reality toward unreality. And so we must see the post–Vietnam time as the root of those neurotic symptoms Rollo May warned us about, except that these have to do not with a patient paying $100 for a 50–minute hour on a couch but with an entire people, with us, with us now.

Last week I read that the Pentagon, now committed to rechristening military bases named after Confederate officers, changed Fort Benning to Fort Moore. Henry Benning was indeed a hell of a piece of work, a radical secessionist and a vigorous defender of slavery, on the battlefield and in the councils of government. Who is Moore, then?

Moore is Lt. Gen. Harold Moore and his wife, Julia. Fort Moore is the first Army base to honor a spouse in recognition of “the important role Army spouses and families play in the success of our military,” as the camp commander put it the other day. It sounds very 21st century, doesn’t it, very 2023, except that Harold Moore is honored for leading the U.S. Army in the battle of Ia Drang, in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Waged in 1965, Ia Drang was the Army’s first major attack on the Vietnamese, a decisive battle during which it tested assault helicopters while B–52s flew their first bombing sorties. Moore later valorized Ia Drang in We Were Soldiers Once … and Young, an example of just the sort of rubbish Chris Appy writes of in American Reckoning. We were noble, as Moore has it. We did the right thing and paid the price for doing the right thing.     

Henry “Old Rock” Benning, who fought for slavery at Antietam and so dishonored Black people, must go. In comes Harold “Hal” Moore, a soldier who front-ended the most shameful of America’s many 20th century aggressions, leaving behind three million brown people as casualties. 

See what I mean about April ’75 as the root of the national psychosis my friend in Maine named? See the straight line I propose to etch between our condition then and our condition now? 

Last week the Center for Policy and Research at Seton Hall University Law School published a 131–page paper that gives us “the most complete—and compelling—account to date of America’s torture program,” as the authors of “American Torturers: FBI and CIA Abuses at Dark Sites and Guantánamo” write in their introduction. This is the work of Mark Denbeaux, a Seton Hall law professor; Jess Ghannam, a professor of psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco, and a number of Denbeaux’s law students. Not to be missed, it features 40 graphic—to put it mildly—drawings by Abu Zubaydah that depict scenes of torture at the Guantánamo prison over the past two decades. That is how long Zubaydah has been held there, nearly how long the U.S. has known and acknowledged he is innocent, and we are still counting the duration of this atrocity, for Zubaydah remains at Guantánamo as we speak. 

Consider this report carefully, readers. We should ask ourselves what and who it is about. It is about the sadists at Guantánamo and their victims, obviously. Is it also about Ronald Reagan, who got Americans to think they were the victims of the Vietnamese? Is it also about Harold Moore and the Pentagon officials who just put his name on an Army base? Is it also about those perpetrating the post–Cold War wars and interventions in the Greater Middle East? Is it about, is it about, is it about…?

Is it about us, we who are not very good at facing ourselves and accepting our responsibilities, we who consequently get through our days as if on clouds of unreality, of speciousness, of endless, numbing distractions?

I mentioned Rollo May’s Freedom and Destiny and quoted a passage having to do with destiny. We should also think about what May meant by “freedom” and why he put these two terms side by side in the title of his 1981 book. 

It is our destiny, we who are now alive, to live in a declining imperium responsible for many crimes and inhumane acts, the waging of many wars, and the propagation of many fabrications and lies intended to shield us from all these realities. We cannot change this inheritance. All that I mentioned just above cannot be undone. It all happened, and we cannot unhappen any of it.

Our freedom lies in how each of us chooses to respond to this destiny–and, not least, our determination or otherwise to shape our destiny anew. It is entirely up to us, each of us, to look squarely at our circumstances or go numb. We assume an individual responsibility as we make these choices, just as the postwar existentialists argued, and declining to make such choices, or refusing even to recognize we have them, is to make our choice—the wrong one. May calls this “the freedom of doing,” or “existential freedom.”

I am especially taken with what May has to say about the importance of rebellion, and in the circumstances I describe it should be evident why. “Is the possibility of rebellion necessary and inevitable for human freedom?” May asks. “I answer yes. … I mean the capacity for rebellion as the preservation of human dignity and spirit.”

Human dignity and spirit: I count these among the great casualties of America’s turn into speciousness since April 1975. We can blame Reagan et al. all we like for this state of affairs, but we have also been participants in our collective abdications. 

Reagan went on and on about freedom, a perversely defined freedom, to the point one wanted to shout, “Enough already!” That has nothing to do with what Rollo May had to say to us. Reagan’s “freedom” is part of the unreality he helped foist upon us. May’s is the freedom each of us has to act with or against our circumstances, our destiny. It is the freedom to rebel against the state of speciousness that has overtaken us since that fateful spring 48 years ago, to advance ourselves beyond the sour aimlessness R.R. Reno finds among us. 

What is there to make this advance impossible? I can think of nothing, or nothing outside of ourselves.

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Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a media critic, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon siteHis Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored without explanation.


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