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March 7, 2004 - How George Bush and Mel Gibson are connected in some way...

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As seen from Canada…   As seen from the UK…
We, here in the United States, seem a bit odd.


First, from Canada’s Globe and Mail, perhaps one of the dullest newspapers published in North America, comes an item by Rick Salutin. 

See The Passion of the Christ and George Bush's America
Friday, February 27, 2004

This starts out as a discussion of Mel Gibson’s new film The Passion of the Christ with the now expected comments on its violence and conspicuous lack of much anything else having to do with Christianity.  Then Salutin veers off into the ether, suggesting a connection to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon a few years ago. 

I think the idea is that Gibson is providing an emblematic passion play that’s really about the folks here south of his border wallowing in their “victim condition” – we suffered and the world changed. 

Here’s a bit of his reasoning, following the discussion of the details of the film. 


… Note that the film's stress is not on inflicting relentless pain; it is on passive, unresisting endurance of it.  That is the sense in which I think the film is also a moment in the life of Mr.  Bush's America.  It is the companion film to Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, in which he captures the deep tension, fear and anxiety in the lives of many Americans, especially since 9/11, but also before: their endless expectation of danger and the lash about to fall.  You see it in myriad small ways: when people are on family holidays at theme parks, looking warily around for terrorists, or drawing too frequently on the hose from the water bottle strapped to mom's waist, lest they all dehydrate.  Then it happened -- 9/11 -- everything they anticipated and more.  It swiftly became The Passion of America.  It had meaning.  It was not a disaster akin to other disasters that strike humans all the time, and always will.  Rather, as the authorities constantly intoned: The world has changed forever.  Not just the United States, the world.  You could say exactly that about the passion a la Gibson.  In his film, one of the few things Jesus says, in contrast to the endless abuse he suffers, is, "I make all things new."

These are generalizations about America, and subject to the usual qualifications.  But the people most likely to make such links, in a conscious or instinctual way, happen to also be the crucial nucleus of the Bush constituency: born-again, fundamentalist Christians.  What many of us forget, whether we admire or abhor that regime, is its deep anchorage in fundamentalism.  They are the voters he must keep onside, as shown in his proposal this week of a constitutional amendment on marriage.  Their support is what he brings to the table.  All the rest -- policies, strategy, money -- comes from others.  But he brings those believers as the core of his vote, and they recognize him as one of them.  Three days after 9/11, speaking basically to them, he said, "Our responsibility before history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil."


Curious.  It’s almost as if George Bush then is some messianic figure who will avenge those “world-changing” attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon a few years ago.  He is the soldier of Christ, sort of, who, although born too late for the Crusades and that effort to win back Jerusalem, and who also seems to have missed the Inquisition, and wasn’t around in the late fifteenth century to drive the Jews out of Spain (that was curiously in 1492, the very year Columbus set sail to make our new world) still can order Iraq be flattened and remade into what we think it should be.  Praise the Lord! 

See the connection?  Gibson’s film is a paean to noble suffering (and little else) and that is how we like to think of ourselves.  We suffered horribly but something good will come of it, if we stay focused and angry.  Maybe. 

It does seem a stretch.  But Salutin tries that leap:


Christian fundamentalists are also the core audience for this movie.  They focus on the rewards of the Rapture and Second Coming, which will only occur due to the awful grimness of the passion of Christ.  Since, in this worldview, Christ took on the burden of your sin, i.e.  your essence, by his death, there is little to do but wait, in unbearable tension, for his return, while gratefully recalling his sacrifice.  A passion play embodies this state, and this film is a cinematic passion play. 

Grief and rage mount during such a performance until they seek an outlet, which often, in the past, meant pogroms against Jews, villains of the drama.  Similarly the passion of 9/11 was endlessly retold, and urgently needed an outlet.  If you are the global superpower, outlets are many and prodigious.  The deeper the sense as victim, the more justified and excessive the reaction.  "God led me to strike at Saddam, which I did," George Bush told Palestinian premier Mahmoud Abbas. 


Well, these days we’re not going to go out and kill some Jews to avenge the suffering of Christ – as many Jews do vote, and Israel is our ally.  But there are always plenty of Muslims. 

In short, the argument here is that this film appeared at a propitious time – Gibson’s mute and bloody Christ with no message other than “I suffer” becomes the outward and visible sign of our inward and spiritual suffering, an emblem for what so may feel.  The world is cruel and our suffering changes everything.  Nothing will ever be the same again, just like on Good Friday two thousand years ago.  That changed the world.  This must.  Really? 

This whole business seems to puzzle this Canadian and I suspect puzzles many around the world.  Everyone knows the world can be cruel and massive numbers of innocents die.  Such things happen – there are murderous fanatics in the world.  One does what one can to make so they don’t do such things again.  So? 

And why was this attack two years ago so very different?  It hardly changed the world.  We just joined everyone else in the pool of targets. 

Yes, we should fight back.  Everyone should, maybe even together - together because we’re not so special.  We’re just joining the club. 

On the other hand, it does feel good to know we’re the exception, that only people who suffered to change the world. 

Yeah, that sounds like bullshit to me too. 



On the same day this Canadian made his argument, Martin Woollacott across the pond in the UK decided the problems isn’t our fixation on our own noble suffering and messianic duty to remake the world, its just we’re real good at holding grudges. 

See How America's right bears the longest grudge: Attitudes to old conflicts are a key issue in the presidential race
Martin Woollacott, The Guardian (UK), Friday February 27, 2004

Woollacott has a great opening:


Trollope said that, after money in the bank, a grudge is the next best thing.  His is an observation that is as true in international affairs as it is in personal life, and the United States is a striking example of it.  America rarely overlooks an insult, and never closes the door entirely on a past defeat or humiliation unless the perpetrator has in the meantime been crushed.  Thus the "axis of evil" made little sense in its grouping of three very different societies, and even less in its implication that they were somehow allies.  But it made eminent sense as a grudge list. 

The phrase was used in a speech focused on dangers ahead, but in truth it was as much about the past as it was about pre-emption and the future.  All three countries had imposed notable defeats on the United States.  North Korea, with the help of China, sent American forces reeling back from the Yalu half a century ago.  Iran threw out the Shah, who had retained power in that country with the assistance of Britain and the United States, and brought in a regime that added to America's humility by taking its diplomats hostage.  Iraq defied the United States over Kuwait, and Saddam Hussein, against what appeared to be the odds, then recovered control of most of his country, resisted American pressure to disarm and made the United States look ineffective and foolish. 

These things rankled with many powerful Americans.


Actually, I never thought about these three troubling nations being just “unfinished business” but perhaps there is an element of that in the air. 

But what about Vietnam?  We trade with them now.  We send tourists.  We made them a market.  And we didn’t exactly do well there.  Woollacott doesn’t buy that – and claims that’s on very recent behavior.  He sees us just whomping folks who made us look bad:


The American instinct for revenge, evident also in the treatment of Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua and, for many years, China, is more marked than that of other powers.  Perhaps America's lack of the experience of defeat on its own continent made reverses in the wider world especially difficult to swallow when they inevitably came. 

Other nations have reconciled or compounded with those who had defeated them, as the British did with the Boers and the Irish, or the French with the Algerians.  The United States, too, has been capable of magnanimity, as with Germany and Japan, but here a generosity of spirit arose only in the context of a total defeat of those two countries and the rapid transference of hostile feelings to the communist states.


Perhaps this is too harsh.  Only Cuba now is a nation we regard is worthy of anything we can do to make life awful there. 

Nevertheless this British fellow sees problems with Iraq. 


America's historic reluctance to be satisfied with anything less than complete victory is now being tested in Iraq, where it seems inevitable that the full conservative program will not be pushed through, although how far it will fall short of the ambitions of men like Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz has yet to be seen.  If, for instance, America does not get the right to base substantial forces in that country indefinitely, and Iraq wobbles off on a more or less independent path, the scene may well be set for another of those "Who lost the war?" dramas that have punctuated American political life since the Chinese communists ousted their nationalist foes in the late 40s.  That will be especially so if by that time President Kerry rather than President Bush is in charge. 

These arguments have always circled around two propositions.  On the right, which at times has included the Democratic right, the proposition has been that if only the United States had exerted its full strength, it would have prevailed.  On the left, which has sometimes included Republican realists, the proposition has been that there are objectives that are not morally defensible and others that may be desirable but are not practically possible, and that it behooves a great power to recognize when either of these situations arises. 


Gosh, it sound as if we’re in a pickle.  The choice is smash and grab – slam those who over the long years made us look bad, but only if we can get away with it - and if we can get some goodies. 

Woollacott, after a long discussion of Kerry and Bush and the upcoming election, ends with this:


[The Bush administration] may be prepared to soften its line on disobedient allies such as France and Germany.  But its reluctance to give Libya the benefit of the doubt, its closed views on Cuba, its distaste for unavoidable co-operation with Iran, its view of China as a future rival and its crablike approach to negotiations with North Korea, are all indications of how long-lived the American grudge can be. 

Apart from the principle that American power should when necessary be exerted to maximum effect on enemies that the US clearly discerns as such, there is something else at work here.  That is the idea that if a regime has stood in the way of the US and got away with it, it should sooner or later have to pay for its temerity. 


I don’t think this guy likes us very much, or, at the very least, he doesn’t much like what our leaders do to get even with nations we remember as having done something really, really bad a long time ago. 
He probably doesn’t “get” the Hatfield and McCoy business either.  Some things you just never let go.  Immature?  Perhaps.  But we have our pride. 

At least the Canadian fellow only thinks we’re a bit daft on religion. 


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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