Sunday, April 13, 2008

All-American Idolatry

Morning's Minion over at Vox Nova links to this post by a Catholic priest, in which the priest looks approvingly at symbols of American miltary prowess.

About 10 years ago, I used to work with a woman named Callie, who was from New Zealand. She was about as apolitical as they come - I don’t think she’d ever voted in her life, in either New Zealand or the US.

We were sitting around the office one evening with a couple of beers, shooting the breeze after a long, hectic day taking care of the last of the seasonal inventory, and I asked her, “What was the first thing you noticed about America when you arrived here?”

She sort of paused, as if to judge my possible reactions to what she was about to say, and then said, “Well…everywhere you go here, you’re swimming in propaganda.”

I was surprised, and asked her what she meant, and she said, “I always hear people on the news and in the government saying that ‘America is the most powerful nation on earth.’ ”

“Well…I guess it’s true, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Sure, of course. But have you ever asked yourself why that is said on a regular basis?”

I guess I looked even more confused, because she said, “Let me ask you to try something for me. The next time you go to the city, just drive around randomly and stop every 5 minutes. Get out of the car, and look around for an American flag. I would bet you good money that there will never be an occasion where an American flag is not visible.”

So, the next weekend, my girlfriend and I drove over the Bay Bridge and into San Francisco, and tried this. I drove, she kept time, and every 5 minutes she would say, “Stop!” and I would pull over at the next safe spot.

Callie, my coworker, was right: there was never a place where an American flag was not visible. We made 20 stops, and most of the time we did not even have to get out of the car to find one. This was in late February, not the 4th of July or Memorial Day (and before 9/11/01).

Nationalism saturates American life - it is just the ever-present, ambient sound coming from every form of corporate media, 24/7/365, so ever-present that it has become, in an odd way, invisible. I have come to understand that it is idolatry - subtler, arguably, than building a golden calf, but no less idolatrous. And it disturbs me a great deal.

I expect Catholic priests (and, come to mention it, Catholic laity) to stand up against this sort of thing. That a priest would play along with this is not really surprising (I doubt he has ever really thought it through) but it is a sad reminder for me that we Catholics, at every level of our society and in every vocation, me included, have failed to do our jobs of providing clear witness against this Moloch-like “Machinery of Night,” to borrow a phrase from Allen Ginsberg.

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