Literarisches Events (in and around Lawrence KS)

  • PATRICIA LOCKWOOD. Lawrence. Thursday, September 11, 7:00 p.m., Spooner Hall, KU Campus.
  • PATRICIA LOCKWOOD. Lawrence. Friday, September 19, 7:00 p.m. Lawrence Public Library. Sponsored by Raven Bookstore.
  • DENNIS ETZEL, JR. & RACHEL CROSS. Lawrence. Thursday, September 25, 7:00 p.m., Raven Bookstore, 6 E. 7th St.
  • TONY TRIGILIO. Lawrence. Thursday, Oct. 2, 4:00 p.m., English Room, Kansas Union, KU Campus. FREE.
  • CALEB PUCKETT & JUSTIN RUNGE. Lawrence. Thursday, October 16, 7:00 p.m., Raven Bookstore, 6 E. 7th St.
  • BEN LERNER. Kansas City, MO. Thursday, October 23, 7:00 p.m., Epperson Auditorium, Vanderslice Hall on the KCAI campus, 4415 Warwick Blvd.
  • KRISTIN LOCKRIDGE & ROBERT DAY. Lawrence. Thursday, December 4, 7:00 p.m., Raven Bookstore, 6 E. 7th St.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

God Forgives, We Don't

The flap over the release of the Pan-Am/Lockerby bomber, Abdel Al-Magrahi, has gotten me to thinking about the American national character.

I saw interviews with victims' families from the UK. One wasn't convinced by the evidence that the guy was involved in the plot. Another one didn't care b/c it wouldn't bring back her daughter. Another said the guy's spent the rest of his life in prison already, who cares where he dies.

I saw interviews with victims' families from the US. To a person, they opposed releasing the guy. He should die in prison. He should rot in jail. He should rot in hell - in prison. He didn't show compassion to the victims, why should he receive any compassion. (It goes without saying that he was guilty of the crime; it has to be the work of some one, so it might as well be him)

This made me realize something: Americans never forgive. Sure, some of them do, in some cases. But by and large, it's not part of our make-up. There are no mitigating circumstances, no desire to move on. If you stole that candy bar when you were 12, then three strikes and you're out - you should have the rest of your life to think about it behind bars. If you fuck up and lose your job, then you deserve to be homeless and hungry. Those people wouldn't have AIDS if they hadn't brought it on themselves. Right?

Even in more personal, piddling situations, people here hold grudges for an extraordinary amount of time - usually their whole lives. I guess they do that in Sicily, too. But if you posted that injudicious photo on facebook, or said something stupid in front of a microphone, or are a politician who has an affair, then bam - it's going to haunt you for the rest of your career (if you have one). It seems like the French shrug off shit like that. Life is too short. And it's going to happen anyway.

Even in the realm of criminal justice (the absence of the death penalty in EU countries is the most obvious example), there isn't the same kind of thirst for vengeance you see here. Prosecutors say that the accused should be executed so the victim's family can have "closure." Capital punishment as therapy. As though that was going to close anything. After that, you move on to suing the perp's family, then city where the crime happened, then you get more draconian laws passed, etc. It never ends.

This is all kind of ironic, since closure is big in America - in our juridical discourse, but also pop psychology, best-selling novels, religion, poetry, etc. I once was lost, but now am found. Period. Epiphany. End of story. No second acts. It's a wrap.

(Cf. Lyn Hejinian's brilliant essay linking the "closure" discourse in capital punishment to the desire for discursive closure)

Why the discrepancy? Well, closure never closes, for one thing - you have to keep tamping down the lid, b/c something is always bubbling up. That takes a lot of rage and resentment.

Then there's religion. In a country founded by religious fanatics, you'd expect this sort of thing. US Protestantism centers around the Old Testament (irrational, vindictive father-god) and the epistles (Christian unity, discipline, hierarchy - vs. the Other people). Forget the gospels - Jesus says crazy shit like "forgive your enemies." And killing him sure didn't produce closure.

Tocqueville understood that Americans embraced religion not in spite of, but because of their acquisitive materialism - it was a way of convincing themselves that they really are good people, even though they stab each other in the back from 9 to 5. Maybe the same is true for American desire for the happy ending (whether it's the guy getting the girl, or the perp frying) - we never have closure, b/c we never unclench our jaws from the rag we're shaking and growling at. There's always something else that needs closing - except in the movies.

Why are we thus? In a society where capitalism is the air you breathe, and where that social arrangement results in a lot of pain and resentment, then nothing ever gets resolved. Even if it occurs to you to, say, blame the corporations instead of the government or the immigrants for your bankruptcy, you know you can't do anything about it. So that anger and resentment is always festering, always looking for objects to cathect upon.

All speculations, of course. If anyone has figured this out, pls let me know.

5 comments:

Joseph Hutchison said...

I don't think Americans don't forgive. But we need to consider who gets forgiven and who doesn't. As a rule, people of color are less likely to be forgiven than white people; if they are foreign, they are mighty unlikely to be forgiven for anything, especially when their "sin" involves an attack on American hubris or the elements of American faith in such fantasies as "the invisible hand of the Market," the idea that America always wages war on behalf of "freedom," etc. Then there are the rigid values of Protestant fundamentalism, which say that cocaine-snortin', military service skippin', war crime committin' George Bush can be forgiven because he's been "born again," while the no-visible-religion-in-sight Bill Clinton gets impeached for a blow-job. It did not help that Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar, of course: Americans especially enjoy not forgiving smart people; see Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. In the end it may be a spiritual coarseness that comes from our devotion to greed and the materiality it exalts, which we use an idealized, radical individualism to justify. I have a libertarian friend to likes to remind me that "greed is good," the soul of capitalism (he gets it from Ayn Rand, certainly the most influential bad writer in history); and of course the apologists for our unbalanced system talk cheerfully about "creative destruction," as if the health of corporations is simply more important than the health of workers. Small wonder we forgive the debts of rapacious bankers while jailing the poor for shoplifting food. But I'm rambling. Forgive me!

Susan said...

Right wing Republicans get forgiven because the "sin and seek forgiveness" meme is so powerful for them. When a liberal Democrat sins (eg Ted Kennedy), well, that's another story. So I agree with the other Joseph, except Clinton had lots of religion; hell, he could quote the Bible at great length . . .

Anonymous said...

A vocal part of our society seems to equate blaming and judging with power, but in a hypocritical way Americans also hold no-fault values--they often refuse to accept responsibility. We as a society impose responsibility from the outside on "others" in ritual abolution of ourselves--a "Lottery" or "Heart of Darkness" set of ethics. Whoever does the most rhetorical violence wins, not the ones who want peace and to forgive. It's immature and inhumane.

Anonymous said...

Forgive me my mental typo for *ablution* as I forgive my typecasters?

Joseph Harrington said...

ablution, oblation, ablation - jeez, who can keep em straight??