Dispatches: America the Inconceivable

About a month ago, a close friend who I don’t see often asked me at dinner, in an outraged tone, “How does it make you feel that at any moment you could be secretly whisked away to another country and held and tortured without trial by our government?”  Pretty shocking question, and certainly one that made me pause over my lamb ragu.  My first reaction was, yes, that sounds awful!  And then, “Strange, I’ve never worried particularly about such a thing happening to me, not at all.”  This was the truth.  Such eventualities, so hard to make real until, I suppose, the dread moment when they precipitate in your own life, occur to us mostly as dangers to others.  And it is with familiar liberal empathy that we grieve the possibility that such things might happen to another, especially in the name of our own polity.  That is the habitual structure through which I, as well as my friend, who I went to school with in Buffalo and who I have known for about twenty years, conceptualized the issue.   The issue being, of course, the current “state of emergency” under which the U.S. government authorizes itself to suspend fundamental jurisprudential rights: the right to counsel, the right to a trial, habeas corpus.

But here, instead of us both considering this situation in parallel, I could see that he was projecting that sympathy we reserve for the victim of flagrantly abused state power onto me, whereas I was proceeding as normal, seeing the potential victim abstractly.  My friend had personalized the issue (using his friend: me), and hence his sense of outrage up till that point exceeded mine.  Of course, I had to concede, I might be more susceptible to the whims of the state.  It’s not as if that never occurred to me when in an airport.  Certain external characteristics of mine fit into the realm of suspicion better than his: my ethnicity, my name, my passport stamps.  How many people have, as I had in 2005, traveled from New York City to Karachi, a twenty hour flight, and returned after twenty-four hours (an incident that followed two immediately successive family emergencies)?  On a purely statistical basis, surely I could be said to be a better candidate for interrogation and maybe even detention than he.  I had worried about other members of my family for this very reason.  Yet until the question was posed by my friend in this startling, menacing way, it had yet to occur to me to be scared of this possibility myself.

The question I became interested in on the way home from this conversation, then, was: why had I never personalized this issue, instead behaving the same way that my friend had towards me, concerned for the other and not myself.  I wouldn’t say I displaced my concern onto others so much as I had never placed it onto myself to begin with.  The first reason is clear enough: such detentions are happening to other people.  Some of those incarcerated at Guantanamo’s Camp Delta, for instance, are being detained indefinitely without trial.  These people are really subjects not of “the state,” conceived as a legal framework subtended by the Constitution and other fundamental documents of the nation, but of an absolutist power.  It decides arbitrarily (in the sense of never providing justification) who is and who is not allowed the protections of a legal framework – and this decision is not taken by an elected official, nor a judge, nor even a named individual at all, but by anonymous administrative and military “officials.”  In sum, a part of our government has allocated to itself the power to operate utterly outside of national law (and also of international law).  As Judith Butler wrote in a powerful essay called “Infinite Detention,” this is “a ‘rogue’ power par excellence.”

The arbitrariness of the division of who is and who is not allowed to have rights, who is and who is not allowed even to be construed as human in the juridical realm, leads, I realized, to my second reason for not understanding this state of affairs as dangerous to myself.  To accept that I was in more danger than my friend was in some way, psychically, to accept some difference between us that was more than arbitrary, more than fictive.  Thinking about it, it would mean to distinguish levels of Americanness, levels in how securely one was ensconced in the nation.  I, by contrast, had constructed my understanding in the opposite way: the government’s current activities were that which failed to belong properly to the national framework, rather my own status with respect to that framework.  But perhaps, I thought, I should take seriously the implication of my friend’s question to me: was I naive to reject the possibility of differentiable levels of belonging?

A more direct way of posing this question would be: Are some Americans less American than others?  I wondered at this question.  Obviously, there are levels of discrimination amongst people within the spatial confines of the U.S.: native citizens, naturalized citizens, legal aliens, illegal aliens.  To engage with those categories is a hugely complex topic in political philosophy.  But even, for simplicity, sticking to those of one category, the question can be posed.  Am I as American as Dick Cheney?  Is my friend as American as Judith Butler?  Is Emeril Lagasse as American as Joan Didion?  In every such case I could imagine, the answer was: yes, how can there be a distinction?  Though it was equally clear to me that for many others, the answer to some of these would be no.  Nativism operates in the realm of culture: eating marshmallows in a salad, or admiring the novels of Cormac McCarthy, or liking football better than soccer, might be held in someone’s sympathies to be more American, whatever that might mean. 

That this kind of cultural fealty is so ill-defined and ephemeral does not stop it from mattering.  It contributes to the ability of our government to act in certain ways.  In that sense, it is important.  (I was reminded of this last week, when I saw Casino Royale, which starts out with the new, Nordic James Bond drowning a Middle Eastern man in a bathroom sink.  This scene of the lethal brutality of UK/US espionage agents apparently affected no one’s ability to identify with Mr. Bond.  Is it any wonder there is no sustained outrage over Abu Ghraib?)  For this reason, it is important to point out nativism’s incoherence (in the British context, it’s always nice to read Daniel Defoe’s The True-Born Englishman).  As Alon Levy pointed out on this site last week, yesterday’s dangerous outsider is today’s celebrated embodiment of ethnic authenticity.  I have my own genealogy of Americanness.  It is one whose members recognize one signal feature of America: its inconceivability.  Recall here the nature of the Great American Novel: as everyone knows, it’s a mythical beast.  The country holds too much.  Unless you want to argue that certain figures (who?  Jonathan Franzen? or Oprah Winfrey?  Maybe Bill Bennett?) “tap into” the inner sense of the nation.  That’s arrant journalistic nonsense.  Lobstermen.  Mobsters.  Cajuns.  Ladies who lunch.  Whatever. 

If I have a relation to Americanness, I think it consists in my belligerent confidence that I embody it as well as anyone else, despite (or maybe because of) my many departures from what is generally considered to be normative.  In fact, I believe the danger I face is that of succumbing to the sense that I am much more representative than others – just the thing I am rejecting.  But there it is: a strangely implacable sense that I am more properly representative of this contradictory mass of people and places than anyone who attempts to define it, that in some sense such people are the true aliens.  My Americanness is almost private, like a spiritual belief.  It features landmarks and people and ideas that are part of my experience.  It dissents from the idea of looking to past customs and habits for definition.  Perhaps prophets of American excess and incomprehensibility like Herman Melville or Walt Whitman would understand; perhaps not.  I ain’t waiting for an invitation, Jack.  This is a paradox: only by claiming not to understand and define what belongs, in my sense of things, can one belong to something worth belonging to.  (I know, that’s a claim as to what belongs. It’s a paradox, remember?)  For me, only in such openness can something as illusory as nationalism be understood.  I may be deluded.  Sometimes delusions are grander. 

See the rest of my Dispatches.