A Nation Self-Defined By Its Enemies
How the USA continually invents existential threats in order to make a claim to superiority
Every nation wants to portray itself as the good, just, and benevolent society it truly is. Therefore, it helps to have an opposite: a bad, unjust, and wicked enemy against which an existential struggle must be fought. In other words, the artificial creation of a national game of Cowboys versus Indians enables ignorant citizens to imagine they are on the side of the angels; in this way they can direct their righteous wrath against a dark and sinister adversary.
Governments thus habitually use the specter of bogymen to keep their citizens compliant in precisely the same way as old-fashioned nannies and grandparents used tales of malignant pixies, fairies, and Баба-Яга to keep small children suitably frightened and obedient.
The USA has used this ploy extensively in its short history. Its founding myth begins with ordinary decent religious fanatics fleeing the yolk of European tolerance to establish a creed of joyful bigotry in the New World where they could imagine themselves chosen by their god to be in the right and everyone else therefore necessarily to be in the wrong.
A century and a half later, as the country was increasingly populated by folk who weren’t much interested in burning their neighbors over tiny differences in interpretation of a tedious old myth, political events provided the opportunity to write a slightly more inclusive version in which righteous citizens rebelled against a tyrannical “big brother” in order to win freedom and democracy and thirty-one flavors of ice-cream.
Along with this came one-sided battles against largely unarmed indigenous people who quite inexplicably couldn’t see the clear benefits of being turned into third-class citizens in lands they’d occupied for thousands of years. Worse yet, these ungrateful natives had the temerity occasionally to resist being dispossessed of their lands and livelihoods, which made them villainous enough for the decent god-fearing white folk flooding into the country to take advantage of its “unclaimed” lands.
After this, somewhat embarrassingly, the USA turned in on itself and organized a rather unpleasant little civil war. Perhaps it was felt that the USA needed one of its own, given that the great powers Britain and France had staged grand civil wars of their own in bygone years. Keeping up with the Joneses isn’t just for families; nations play the game too. And so a civil war was hastily arranged to demonstrate the USA could stage one just as well as the old European powers.
Although the nominal outcome of the US civil war was supposedly to free the slaves, in reality the South merely nominated dark-skinned people as the new existential threat and proceeded to do battle with them while the North looked away to focus on the joys of industrialization. For a while, the USA had to make do with minor existential threats like Freemasonry (believe it or not, a Presidential election was fought and lost on the topic) and the Irish and the Jews. World War One was over too quickly (from a US perspective, being very late indeed to the party) for it to present a good threat to the emerging US donut industry.
Fortunately, World War II came along just twenty years later to provide suitably convincing enemies: the Japanese and the Germans. Yes, Italians were part of the Axis but everyone knew they were just the comic relief and so most US citizens turned their ire on people with non-Caucasian eye shapes and on people with Germanic accents. In an inspiring display of contempt for its own laws, the USA proceeded to intern 120,000 of its own citizens in concentration camps purely for the crime of having Japanese ancestry. No doubt various Dutch, Scandinavians, and other Germanic-sounding folk were roughed up in a pleasingly democratic way during this time of patriotic fervor.
Unfortunately, as some people may be vaguely aware, the Axis powers ended up losing WWII and so a new enemy had to be found to fill the void, especially as the military-industrial complex had discovered how extremely lucrative war can be. Finding oneself short of enemies could make it tricky to justify ever-greater spending on armaments and thus ever-greater profits for patriotic US corporations. Furthermore, as the USA was now the only nation in history to drop atomic bombs on unarmed civilians it was important to re-establish credentials as The Guy In The White Hat lest anyone draw unwanted attention to this horrific war crime.
Fortunately the Soviet Union had been studying the Big Boys’ Book of Being Very Naughty, so it was simplicity itself to cast Communism as the next existential threat to the American Way Of Life, namely a phenomenon centered around the over-consumption of whatever large US corporations happen to be selling to hapless citizens regardless of the harms these products cause them.
Thus Global Communism had to be countered by all means necessary, particularly if those means involved enormous defense expenditures. In order to ensure US citizens knew just how serious the Communist threat was, everyone was told that atomic warfare was just around the corner. Fortunately, hiding under a flimsy wooden desk would save everyone, so tens of millions of people in all seriousness practiced this utterly risible drill for decades.
Communism was so serious that no one was safe: in fact, the higher your IQ the more dangerous you were to the American Way Of Life. This was because if you weren’t ignorant and brain-dead you might question why the USA was supporting oppressive dictatorships and mounting coups against democratically elected leaders all around the world. Anyone suggesting that The Sheriff wasn’t spotless was clearly a traitor and an internal enemy of the people. Which eventually enabled the USA to stage its own version of the Stalin regime’s show trials.
While the USA was sadly unable to mount the kinds of spectacle that Stalin excelled in (it’s always satisfying to condemn thousands to death and hundreds of thousands to lingering death in the gulags) the McCarthy era did at least ruin the lives of thousands of perfectly law-abiding decent citizens. Which was better than nothing, right?
While Global Communism was a jolly good scarecrow with which to frighten children and Republican voters, from time to time additional enemies were required. And so the USA turned back to a brief consideration of people with darker skins. Demonizing the oppressed when they have the temerity to attempt to claim their rights under the law is always an excellent ploy, and so all across the land the awful specter of the Black Panther movement was held up to frighten innocent white housewives and possibly even scare them enough to make them drop their Betty Crocker chocolate-lemon-cherry-swirl just-add-egg packet mixes. The horror!
When picking on thoughtful people slowly lost its appeal, the Republican Party looked around for yet another Баба-Яга with which to frighten ignorant and credulous citizens. Noticing that over-consumption (the Great American Way Of Life) also meant that US citizens were snorting, smoking, and injecting vast quantities of narcotics, the Republican Party decided to have yet another war. As the previous one in VietNam had been a huge embarrassment it was decided this new war should be metaphorical, which was much safer. And so “drugs” were demonized at precisely the same time that doctors were handing out all kinds of legal drugs to millions of Americans in order to keep them docile and compliant.
Just as the War On Drugs was becoming self-evidently threadbare, a dull-witted son of a Saudi multi-millionaire (and a very close friend of the Bush family) decided to sponsor attacks against the USA, perhaps because he could never find a pair of Levi jeans that looked good on him. The events of 11th September 2001 were a boon to Republicans everywhere because once again the USA could claim to be facing an existential threat to its Way Of Life (e.g shopping for things that aren’t needed). Already-threadbare civil liberties were gleefully torn up in order to “protect” people and everyone cheered for such clever patriotism.
And so the USA entered into a protracted battle using the wrong tactics and wrong personnel against an enemy it neither understood nor could successfully engage. Which is why today, after more than seventeen years of blood and hundreds of billions of dollars spent on materiel, Iraq is totally unstable and the Taliban stand ready to resume their misrule of Afghanistan.
Which means, dear reader, the USA now needs to find yet another existential threat. Sure, SARS-COV-2 is a nice little scare story but it won’t last and besides, how do you have a War On Virus? Even Republican voters, who are famously simple-minded, couldn’t rally behind that slogan for very long (not least because few will know what a virus is — perhaps it’s a kind of gluten, because we all know gluten is bad and makes your fingers drop off?). And the mindless orange pus-sack in the White House keeps denying there’s a problem at all. So, all in all, a War On Virus is unlikely.
The USA is therefore making efforts to convince simple-minded voters (e.g. everyone who votes Republican) that the next existential threat is China. Although Trump was busy prostrating himself before Xi Jinping for years and no doubt still feels a tingle of arousal whenever he looks at a picture of the Chinese leader, many of the officials in his Administration have been making desperate efforts to promote China into the role formerly occupied by the Soviet Union. It’s difficult to see whether or not this ploy will pay off, because China makes a lot of things US consumers like to buy (famously, during the 2016 election, legions of obese dull-eyed Trump supporters happily waved US flags that bore the legend Made In China, perhaps oblivious to the irony because so many Trump voters, like their hero himself, can’t actually read).
So what if, despite all the mixed messages spewing out of the most dysfunctional Administration in history, the great mass of US citizens can’t be persuaded that buying fridges and phones made in China will totally destroy the USA ?
Fortunately, it’s now looking like there’s every chance the USA will re-run the civil war scenario but with better toys this time around. The infantile orange moron in the White House has shown that us-versus-them populism is as attractive as ever, and in this case the “them” is anyone with more than zero functioning neurons in their frontal cortex.
Thus the battle lines are already clear and in a country with more small arms than people the conflict should be highly entertaining and very telegenic. Perhaps if it gets good enough ratings, it will even be extended for a second season.
We can but hope.