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In Monty Python’s comic diner skit every dish came with Spam, either a little or a lot. Is America the same with ideology? Does Ideological America touch everything and corrupt everything it touches, and can it turn back? Or, in the words of President Obama’s periodic, and oftentimes unpleasant, Chicago preacher, have “the chickens come home to roost” forever?

Answers may start with The Imaginative Conservative’s own Bradley Birzer and Bruce Frohnen, Tibetan Buddhism in the Rockies, and the misfortunes of an ancient king in modern-day Turkey. Conclusions may be upsetting.

Dr. Birzer, this website’s co-founder and a distinguished historian writing the definitive biography of Russell Kirk, recently recounted his family’s annual holiday through the American West. In the heartland town of Lebanon, Kansas, in a small chapel, the Birzers were outraged to find an altar to religious nationalism or nationalized religion: the Cross of Christ glued (or maybe nailed) to a silhouette of the continental US covered in Old Glory. They found it an “unholy mixing of symbols, an adultery of the imagination, a civic religion” which he called evil.

Back home in England there are vague similarities but no one gets upset. Although personally and officially tolerant of others, there is a state religion, Her Majesty the Queen is Defender of the Faith, and many gorgeous old Anglican churches are festooned with dusty, tattered, regimental flags from largely-forgotten wars of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Apart from any long-dead troops who worshiped there, the major link between the Prince of Peace and, say, the Battle of Omdurman, is a formerly-bellicose nationalism jerry-rigged to Christianity.

We Catholics don’t mind, nor seemingly do British Muslims or Jews or Sikhs, Hindus or agnostics or atheists, all of whom abound there. Frankly, that’s because we don’t take Anglicanism seriously, but we appreciate British history. But also, apart from the decadent ruling classes in thrall to progressivism, who now persecute Christians actively, ordinary Brits are habitually stolid and viscerally suspicious of any ideology and its icons. We don’t hang flags from our every porch, but that oughtn’t to imply any diminished love of country.

Flag-obsession is rare, worldwide. Tanzanians, Ghanaians, Finns, Slovaks, Peruvians, Indonesians, and so on, often from old cultures in new nations, seem patriotic yet disinclined to hang flags on everything moving or still. The exceptions are Turkey, reborn in the 1920s and still in the grip of Ataturk’s fierce nationalism, and India and Pakistan at loggerheads since 1948. All three nations are new, democratic, polyglot, multi-ethnic and contain substantial religious or sectarian minorities. In all three, only livestock seem devoid of national flags. Flag obsession makes some sense, as there and in melting-pot America, national identity may be the only unifier, or by far the major one (Pakistan trumpets Islam as its raison d’être, but its ubiquitous national flags suggest otherwise).

India, with her many religions, resembles America by using her flag and its nationality as a kind of unifying secular faith. Turkey, an often-militantly secular state, (so far) has only a Muslim-looking crescent on its national flag adapted from the Ottomans. In neither country does one see much mingling of religious and nationalist iconography. They are only so often combined in America and Pakistan, so far as I know. In America, this often seems due to minorities seeking acceptance in an untrusting melting-pot; Jews, Sikhs, and others may display American flags, even in synagogues and gurdwaras, to tell neighbors that they are “good Americans too,” and because they truly love their country. In unfortunate Pakistan, such iconographic mingling reflects some near-schizophrenia over why they exist (far more Muslims live in India than in Pakistan), and 65 years of incremental Islamist radicalism. America seems unique among the four, enjoying a general peace between various beliefs while its majority faith, Christianity, so vigorously displays religious and nationalist icons together under a flag-culture that borders on the excessive.

Modern American flag-culture has something to do with traditionalists upset by change and their past being torn from them, but this demands books and doctoral dissertations, not little essays. Yet while its far different origins understandably date back to Betsy Ross and the fight for independence, the national penchant seemed to grow, again understandably, among the Civil War’s Unionists. In John Greenleaf Whittier’s once-vastly popular 1864 poem, old Barbara Fritchie antagonistically waves the American Flag over the heads of Confederate Stonewall Jackson’s troops. The rebels intend to shoot her dead until their leader is overcome emotionally, moved to mercy as she cries out:

“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.

The crone was real, the tale apocryphal. The process appears to strengthen apace in the wake of Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet making intimidating “courtesy calls” around the globe; in other words, American imperialism, typified by Henry Holcombe Bennet’s 1900 war-horse of flag-worshipping poetry:

Hats off!
Along the street there comes
A blare of bugles, a ruffle of drums,
A dash of color beneath the sky:
Hats off!
The flag is passing by!

Such lyrics survived the death of American popular poetry, on through Merle Haggard’s patriotic, slightly ornery, anti-hippie, country-music paean, Okie from Muskogee, where;

We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
And white lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all.

Yet there is something distinctly odd about America’s flag-culture, quantitatively and qualitatively, which is invisible to most Americans who grew up within it. Beyond pride and even braggadocio, it contains an air of menace. If it did not, and were U.S. flaggery as wholesome as most elsewhere, would the Birzer family still have sensed something so upsetting in the Kansas chapel? Perhaps. It does represent a perversion of religious faith. But bigger mischief may be afoot, and it’s a good thing that the Catholic Birzers aren’t Tibetan Buddhists instead.

A journalist chum lives near Naropa University, a vast Tibetan Buddhist centre in Colorado. Although he flirted with Buddhism and married a Japanese lady, he steers clear of the place. Instead of inculcating Buddhist values that vanquish ego to build selflessness and compassion, “everybody’s guzzling chilled chablis, sneering and bragging how much they paid for this or that lama’s blessing or rare tantric initiation. Sometimes, I think that America corrupts everything it touches,” he sighed.

A lady-friend is Middle-Eastern but a longtime resident in Europe, profoundly cultured and artistic. Her family keeps close, and she recently visited siblings in America. Last week she wrote:

…it took me the whole month of August to recover… I found everybody I came across (including my brother and sister) to be aggressive, obsessed with making money, and brainwashed into a self-righteous intolerance… In the streets, everyone is wired by or fiddling with a cell phone and can’t be bothered to be asked directions or anything else. People are bent on reinventing themselves according to what sitcoms, magazines etc. tell them they should be…

Hers is a common enough observation nowadays. She holds (or held) a U.S. Green Card and long worked there, so either she had forgotten American tendencies or after years in Europe it shook her, but worst was her family being slowly corrupted.

Midas and his DaughterIt didn’t go wrong all at once for Midas, either. King of Phrygia, in modern-day Turkey, his father Gordias ostensibly tied the Gordian Knot that Alexander the Great severed with one blow of his sword. Gordias had been a peasant crowned king by the priests, so he may have lacked family savings like King Croesus of Lydia next door, who invented gold coins and was, as the saying still goes, “as rich as Croesus.” Or perhaps Lydia stood on the interstate highway between Persia and the Mediterranean, growing rich on trade while poor Phrygia languished nearby, like a ramshackle Texaco station on a lonely country road. Anyway and famously, King Midas wanted money and lots of it, thus brokered a deal with a passing satyr that whatever he touched would turn to gold.

All morning, things went, as Bertie Wooster would say, spiffingly. No doubt Midas turned a few sticks and leaves into gold as experiments, it wowed him, and so he tapped every earthenware vessel in the palace. After transforming the furniture and the bath-taps, he probably touched the gardener’s loincloth as a joke. But when lunch came, and his food and drink turned auric before he could swallow them, he realized that (as Bertie also must have said) he’d put his hoof in it, big-time. The satyr’s gift was a curse.

Chuck the phony romance, self-flattery, and the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty: few American immigrants came fleeing persecution, while most came to get rich, as rich as Midas or Croesus if they could. They were willing, and sometimes delighted, to abandon kinfolk living in the Old Country, to never again see the graves of their ancestors or to worship in their ancient churches, to give up those irritating festivals, and to trade everything old for anything new. Apart from a few notable examples to the contrary, the greedy got out while the traditionalists stayed home. American citizenship and culture was self-selected, intentionally, by its immigrants.

Old cultures lingered briefly in America, chiefly in granny’s goofy folk-costumes, because the old girl had no say about immigrating, and nobody back in the ancestral village wanted to buy her, so money-mad offspring dragged her through Ellis Island against her will. As the ghastly Irish folk-songs still aver, American streets were “paved with gold” and, westward, land was free. Immigrant Dad, speaking execrable English, may have been stuck in some ethnic urban ghetto but the kids got out and stayed out, just possibly returning for the old git’s funeral. Countless American spin-doctors tried to glamorize the vision, but it was as true then as now. Like Midas in the morning, it began by looking good; now, like Midas by lunchtime, maybe not so hot.

Edmund Burke spoke of English Common Law as an uncodified means of preserving traditional rights and practices, an unwritten contract between past, present and future. Recently Bruce Frohnen, a respected Professor of Law, discussed how America’s Founders tried to fit the same traditions and rights into a written constitution limiting government power, tempering any one generation’s political fashion. Russell Kirk famously described America’s independence not as a revolution inspired by French intellectuals and ideology and theoretical liberties, but rather a conservative defense of traditions, preserving real and venerable rights recently usurped by the British Crown.

They can all be correct about the patrimony of American independence, order, and law, and still America can be in thrall to true revolution as crazy as an outhouse rat, an apolitical ideology that possibly crept in later; of greed, of something for nothing, of a fairytale world in which every dream comes true. The daemon may not have sailed in on the Mayflower, or lurked in the attics of grim-faced, realistic New Englanders, or even huddled around hobs of the stolid, practical and well-read English squires of Virginia; but it came nevertheless, and one cannot blame any single immigrant faith or ethnicity. By the 19th Century the newcomers had almost all contracted the virus. English or Irish or German, Slav or Italian, Catholic or Protestant, Gentile or Jew, the period literature, in America and abroad, seems to have painted America as a land made for the greedy, whether through hard work or chicanery; a Pleasure Dome for the Mother of All Ideologies wherein every dream, no matter how absurd, is eminently possible. In dwelling on riches, by dreaming so intently of elusive desires, one becomes ever more self-obsessed, and greedier.

If so, the Mother of All Ideologies now feeds its young on disrespect for history, which otherwise tempers the wildest dreams. She suckles her brood on distaste for religion, which teaches that all is not possible on this earth where human wishes are often vanity. Her massive body secretes the very notion that only now matters, so he-who-hesitates-is-lost and grab-it-while-you-can. Her nourishment only makes one thirstier for more make-believe and self-delusion, so one never deserts her for long, and never grows up; her progeny return again and again.

Her own well-nourished daughters are hauntingly beautiful because they are the very stuff of dreams, until they return to her at dawn and their seductive smiles reveal teeth stained crimson. “You deserve celebrity! Embrace me, my darling!” “They are rich, so why not you?” “Hold me tonight and be young forever!” “Dream, Beloved, and all shall come true!” Thus succubae spread longings among the living; and their delivery is pitch-perfect for they have rehearsed since Eden. From whence came their hulking dam is a matter for historians, or theologians better still, but her home is now somewhere cavernous and deep beneath America, as the vast form pulsates, secreting her venom and growing ever larger, like a nightmare creature of Tolkien or Hieronymus Bosch.

Unlike Midas, the riches came much slower for most American immigrants, and more slowly did hope become despair. Dreams of a little log-cabin, and a mule to call one’s own, were modest and achievable; modern inflated dreams of a billionaire pop-star’s celebrity, and a villa in Malibu after the sex-change, are less so. Now even Americans with cars and televisions and air-conditioners are deemed poor and are deeply resentful. But they too keep on dreaming as the fragrant temptresses return each night. American dreams grow in power and decadent allure, until the dreamers are driven mad with desire.

It took a few generations for frontier frugality, practicality, and prudence to be strangled by the Midas dream of gold. But now, overall, even on the prairies only the greed and self-centeredness remain. Neither individuals nor even old family firms provide for the future; all is the quarterly bottom line, the credit-rating, the now, the me, the greed. All is transmuted into the greater cult of more, as Old Glory wraps the whole (Uncle) Sam’s Club package, including much of Christianity in its confused iconography and prosperity gospel. The faith hasn’t hijacked the flag; the flag has subsumed even the faith.

greedOther subsidiary fever-dreams abound as well, anthropomorphizing the environment, promising unachievable fame or wealth, or indefinable abstractions such as universal fairness, or equality, or an end to (another’s) greed or corruption. Camouflaged folly has metastasized, but the common DNA is still from the Mother of All Ideologies, or under her old names, the sins of gluttony and lust, greed and envy and pride. And she’s now even more American than apple-pie-flavored, two-quart, 3,600-calorie smoothies (Notice: contains no apple-based ingredients).

The materialist values and phenomenally successful economic policies, that enabled such riches to be amassed so efficiently, now spread globally like avian-flu but with more consequences. Even if materialism is an unavoidable side-effect of reduced poverty and greater wealth, America’s endemic and uncommonly vulgar consumption culture spreads, hastens, and worsens the effects elsewhere. Americans defend their vulgarity by pointing at the long queue of foreign virus-carriers who long to emigrate there, ignoring the unseen multitudes preferring to remain at home communing with their ancestral ghosts, trying to raise their children and somehow survive the immoral epidemic. Perhaps sustaining the family business is preferable to expanding and selling it off; perhaps we don’t need the new gadget; perhaps we can have the shoes resoled instead of purchased anew. In the world’s older cultures, such notions are often seen as virtues not driven by financial necessity: in some lands, even rich people still darn their socks. How many Americans understand that, as even their grandparents did?

According to Nathaniel Hawthorne at least, the affectionate Midas patted his daughter and accidentally turned her into gold too (enable that in America and watch the population-levels plunge). But Midas talked Dionysus into reversing the curse, sparing him dying of thirst while restoring the damsel to life. Locals were grateful when he washed off the spell in the sacred river, which turned the sands into gold and made the Phrygians as rich as Croesus next door. But the chastened monarch forsook his crown, moved to the countryside and became a humble worshipper of Pan (the ever-youthful deity who gave us Peter Pantheism). But it wasn’t all bad: the vineyards were in the countryside too, Pan-worship entailed many wild parties, and Midas was even taught music by Orpheus, who played a blazing lead-guitar.

Might Americans do the same? Might they retreat, if not to a pristine and simpler rural idyll, into at least a less greedy and selfish culture that doesn’t turn all it touches into unpalatable gold and longings for even more?

Dionysus doesn’t answer his mobile phone nowadays, while the real God, all-merciful though He is, may not reverse it. After all, America doesn’t suffer from a satyr’s single and reversible curse; the causes of her woes are self-inflicted, continuously reinforcing, and are what brought most immigrants there in the first place. Few were raped by the Mother of All Ideologies; most came longing for the embrace of her daughters, as sure as sailors go ashore by night in search of red lamps.

Early American order wasn’t an unholy offspring of Ideology, but most Americans are now, and most of America is. If the Kansas chapel’s twisted iconography is evil, what of the culture that spawned it and a million variations more? Paraphrasing Yeats, “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches” beneath the surface of the heartland?

Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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8 replies to this post
  1. Steve, your marvelous piece reminds me of a young East German woman who had just come over into the West, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She said, “We knew that Marxism was a false god, but we don’t want to worship the golden calf of the West, either.”

  2. Deeply challenging. I suppose the response is up to us to figure out, but, Stephen, do you have any suggestions about how we need to think, act, and communicate differently? To my mind, the top priorities are education and entertainment. Any thoughts on that?

    Thanks for a provocative post.

  3. Mr Kern, I fear that most of America and her mighty ideologies, her nationalist cults and icons, are preserves of the most dangerous and insidious kinds of evil, but some (often small) communities contain enormous good. There’s where I’d start – and stay. Expose trickery, and promulgate virtue. Hunker down and work there, for we haven’t seen the worst of it.

    Barbara, yes indeed; the golden calf!

  4. One can soften american greed and excess in their heart. But it holds firm in basic living structure- where one works, whichever apartment you watch TV in. What options are there? Is there a past to return to? If I could suffer and live on my ancestral farm, or move to the “frontier” where my greed would be tempered by harsh limits, I would. Opting out, is, for the most part a rich mans game and a lifestyle achievement.

    Is it then in small victories, turning down one corporate job for another to spend more time at home? Living in “fly over country” instead of the ACELA corridor?

  5. Ben, your deep question deserves a post of its own, and I’ll don my thinking cap! My first reaction is that America’s New Frontier is within the minds and souls of every American; more specifically in how to (a) reduce corrupting influences from without, (b) strenthen from within, and (c) fortify one’s efforts with moral community found in old and new ways. Thank you!

  6. Thou hast ta’en thy vorpal sword in hand, and played snicker-snack on the flesh of the beast. But will it die?
    Surely, to kill the Jabberwocky, one MUST believe six impossible things before breakfast.
    But, as a hopeless Romantic, I Believe, (help thou mine unbelief.)

  7. You utterly miss the point!
    For most of us the flag and its pride represent the freedom of choice in all matters of our lives!
    The Menace you sense is that we may choose our way but are responsible for our choices and actions, the consequences we do not get to choose!
    Learn and choose wisely or fail utterly either way it is on you!

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