Thursday, November 30, 2023

Johnstone, Stone, and Political Extremism


Johnstone, Stone, and Political Extremism

Peter Schultz


            Caitlin Johnstone: “After the war they went to the suburbs and pretended everything was fine. (It wasn’t fine.) … pretending everything is fine.”


            These are Johnstone’s laments, powerful laments indeed. But what makes them so powerful is her own belief, a belief that rivals the belief that “everything is fine,” that everything should and could be fine. Otherwise, her laments would not be so powerful and conditions in suburbs – and elsewhere – would not seem so bleak.


            For example, there is another view of the suburbs presented in the television series, The Wonder Years. It is a show introduced and developed as a look at the suburbs – partly devastated by the Vietnam War, as Winnie’s brother has been killed in Nam in the first or early episode – that sees life there as filled with the dramas that are played out in families like the Arnolds [Kevin’s] or Winnie’s or Paul’s [who is Jewish]. What emerges are portrayals of human beings trying to navigate through life and its difficulties, doing the best they can which is often not quite good enough, but is certainly human. Kevin and Winnie are negotiating their romantic relationship, while Kevin is negotiating his relationship with his father and mother and, eventually, discovering that they are just human beings also trying to negotiate through life.


            The ugliness that Johnstone sees reflects her disappointment at the failure of American life to be beautiful or to acknowledge its defects. In other words, American exceptionalism underlies Johnstone’s laments, as she assumes that such an exceptional state not only should but could exist, if only there hadn’t been all those “corpses.” Johnstone is still a believer because she clings to the possibility of American (or human) exceptionalism. A marvelously peaceful, beautiful, and fulfilling world awaits, if only we could get beyond war and war criminals.


            Here’s a thought: assumptions of exceptionalism lie behind most of those lamenting the horrible state of US society. And such assumptions point toward extremism, e.g., of the kind embraced by Reagan and Bush I in “the new world order,” by Bush II post-9/11, or by Donald Trump who will “Make America Great Again.”


            Oliver Stone’s mistake evidences such assumptions. Regarding the Vietnam War, in his movie, Nixon, is the following speech from a young war protestor at the Lincoln Memorial talking to Richard Nixon, who appeared there one night unannounced: “You can’t stop it, can you? Even if you wanted to. Because it’s not you. It’s the system. And the system won’t let you stop it.”


            Insofar as it’s “the system,” the flaw is correctable and American exceptionalism would appear or re-appear in the new system, in a new world order. So, the issue isn’t philosophic; it’s systemic. The issue isn’t the idea of exceptionalism; it’s a faulty political system. The issue isn’t the embrace of power as the key to ameliorating or redeeming the human condition; it’s how that power is arranged or who has it that’s the issue. 


            History, however, reveals that Stone’s perspective is flawed because Nixon and Kissinger did stop the war, with the aid of the Chinese and the Soviets by the way, and without changing the system. But it is important to understand that Stone’s perspective is flawed because he fails to see that those who assassinated JFK were responsible for creating that war. But that connection had to be buried, and was by the Warren Commission, because otherwise it would be difficult to think of the United States and its elites as exceptional. And if that connection weren’t buried, it might lead some to wonder about the character of political life itself. And such wonderings might end up dismissing political exceptionalism as the delusional entryway to extremism.

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