Thursday, 6 July 2017

Bioshock Infinite and American Exceptionalism

In Bioshock Infinite, the visitor to Columbia would first take note of its religiousity. The Welcome Center is essentially a tremendous baptismal font by which one may wash away the sins of Earth before ascending to the New Eden of this flying city. When the player character Booker DeWitt is nearly drowned in his unwilling full immersion, he regains consciousness in a pleasant garden loomed over by three statues representing the particular religious fervor of Columbia: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin rendered as holy saints. If only this extravagant fusion of patriotism with religion was invented in the minds of a team of game designers! It is, on the contrary, a logical extension of belief in American Exceptionalism.

Bioshock Infinite mural art.

The notion that the United States of America is somehow uniquely blessed in the history of humanity dates at least as far back as the American Revolution, with precedents in Puritan minister John Winthrop encouraging the settlers to build a "City on a Hill" as an example to the world in 1630. Thomas Jefferson defined the Revolution not merely as a conflict over taxation and governmental representation, but as a battle for the "Empire of Liberty" against British imperialism:
...we shall form to the American union a barrier against the dangerous extension of the British Province of Canada and add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile Country thereby converting dangerous Enemies into valuable friends.
He went on to suggest to James Madison, when he took over the Presidency from Jefferson, that the invasion and assimilation of Canada was necessary to the extension of his ideological empire:
...we should then have only to include the North in our confederacy... and we should have such an empire for liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation: and I am persuaded no constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self government.
From the outset, the United States of America was viewed as much as a belief system as a country, its cause not merely one of territorial gain but of evangelistic zeal.

The first person to use the term "exceptional" was Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835 study Democracy in America:
The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.
One might notice that de Tocqueville's wording here amounts to faint praise, if indeed it may be called praise at all. His perspective was that of an outsider, having been commissioned by the July Monarchy to make a survey of life in the United States as a guide for France's navigation of the emerging democratic values spreading across the West. With the detachment of a social scientist, de Tocqueville dissected American lifeways and attitude under the presidency of Andrew Jackson, including the concept of "Manifest Destiny."

American Progress, James Gast, c.1872.
A famous visual representation of Manifest Destiny.

The term itself was first coined by journalist John L. O'Sullivan in a defense of the American annexation of Texas. Originally his concepts echoed those of Jefferson, seeing America as a distinctive example to the world with only a hint of the territorial expansionism he later made explicit. Still, those hints were already enough: O'Sullivan associated the activities of the United States with exercise of God's will, effectively turning America into an evangelistic enterprise and America itself into the savior of humanity. Consider the following excerpt from his 1839 essay A Divine Destiny for America (also known as The Great Nation of Futurity):
We have no interest in the scenes of antiquity, only as lessons of avoidance of nearly all their examples. The expansive future is our arena, and for our history. We are entering on its untrodden space, with the truths of God in our minds, beneficent objects in our hearts, and with a clear conscience unsullied by the past. We are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits to our onward march? Providence is with us, and no earthly power can. We point to the everlasting truth on the first page of our national declaration, and we proclaim to the millions of other lands, that "the gates of hell" — the powers of aristocracy and monarchy - "shall not prevail against it."

The far-reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles; to establish on earth the noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High - the Sacred and the True. Its floor shall be a hemisphere ~ its roof the firmament of the star-studded heavens, and its congregation an Union of many Republics, comprising hundreds of happy millions, calling, owning no man master, but governed by God's natural and moral law of equality, the law of brotherhood — of "peace and good will amongst men."...

Yes, we are the nation of progress, of individual freedom, of universal enfranchisement. Equality of rights is the cynosure of our union of States, the grand exemplar of the correlative equality of individuals; and while truth sheds its effulgence, we cannot retrograde, without dissolving the one and subverting the other. We must onward to the fulfillment of our mission - to the entire development of the principle of our organization - freedom of conscience, freedom of person, freedom of trade and business pursuits, universality of freedom and equality.

This is our high destiny, and in nature's eternal, inevitable decree of cause and effect we must accomplish it. All this will be our future history, to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man — the immutable truth and beneficence of God. For this blessed mission to the nations of the world, which are shut out from the life-giving light of truth, has America been chosen; and her high example shall smite unto death the tyranny of kings, hierarchs, and oligarchs, and carry the glad tidings of peace and good will where myriads now endure an existence scarcely more enviable than that of beasts of the field. Who, then, can doubt that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity?
It is remarkable to read the increasing religious fervor with which O'Sullivan makes his argument. We might also note the process of whitewashing America's history... Baptizing away its sins, as it were... in his assessment of its history in opposition to those of the European nations:
America is destined for better deeds. It is our unparalleled glory that we have no reminiscences of battle fields, but in defence of humanity, of the oppressed of all nations, of the rights of conscience, the rights of personal enfranchisement. Our annals describe no scenes of horrid carnage, where men were led on by hundreds of thousands to slay one another, dupes and victims to emperors, kings, nobles, demons in the human form called heroes. We have had patriots to defend our homes, our liberties, but no aspirants to crowns or thrones; nor have the American people ever suffered themselves to be led on by wicked ambition to depopulate the land, to spread desolation far and wide, that a human being might be placed on a seat of supremacy.
Native Americans might beg to disagree, as might the Loyalists displaced during the Revolution.

American Exceptionalism assumes that America's motivations for conflict are exceptional, rational, just and, most uproariously, done for the ultimate good of those whom America fights. In that aforementioned article justifying the annexation of Texas, O'Sullivan interprets the Texas Revolution thusly:
It is wholly untrue, and unjust to ourselves, the pretence that the Annexation has been a measure of spoliation, unrightful and unrighteous--of military conquest under forms of peace and law--of territorial aggrandizement at the expense of justice, and justice due by a double sanctity to the weak. This view of the question is wholly unfounded, and has been before so amply refuted in these pages, as well as in a thousand other modes, that we shall not again dwell upon it. The independence of Texas was complete and absolute. It was an independence, not only in fact, but of right. No obligation of duty towards Mexico tended in the least degree to restrain our right to effect the desired recovery of the fair province once our own--whatever motives of policy might have prompted a more deferential consideration of her feelings and her pride, as involved in the question. If Texas became peopled with an American population; it was by no contrivance of our government, but on the express invitation of that of Mexico herself; accompanied with such guaranties of State independence, and the maintenance of a federal system analogous to our own, as constituted a compact fully justifying the strongest measures of redress on the part of those afterwards deceived in this guaranty, and sought to be enslaved under the yoke imposed by its violation. She was released, rightfully and absolutely released, from all Mexican allegiance, or duty of cohesion to the Mexican political body, by the acts and fault of Mexico herself, and Mexico alone. There never was a clearer case. It was not revolution; it was resistance to revolution: and resistance under such circumstances as left independence the necessary resulting state, caused by the abandonment of those with whom her former federal association had existed. What then can be more preposterous than all this clamor by Mexico and the Mexican interest, against Annexation, as a violation of any rights of hers, any duties of ours?
Any fault, in other words, lies not with the Texas Revolutionaries but with Mexico's resistance to the Texas Revolutionaries. The latter were exonerated, if not beatified. Following the Mexican Revolution against Spain, the new country liberalized immigration laws to Texas, which appealed to large numbers of American settlers. These settlers, who outnumbered Mexicans 30,000 to 8,000, chaffed under numerous Mexican regulations including a prohibition on slaves (of which there were 5,000 in Texas) and being forced to grow agricultural products that were of use to Mexicans rather than European markets. President Santa Anna believed this immigration to be an American plot to infiltrate the country and the situation devolved into hostilities in 1835. O'Sullivan's account of the Texas Revolution suggests an undercurrent that runs through the whole exercise of American Exceptionalism, being an abiding sense of entitlement.

The passage in which O'Sullivan coined the phrase "Manifest Destiny" bleeds this sense of entitlement. There is a definite notion that on the question of Texas annexation, foreign nations are attempting to deny what the United States is owed:
Why, were other reasoning wanting, in favor of now elevating this question of the reception of Texas into the Union, out of the lower region of our past party dissensions, up to its proper level of a high and broad nationality, it surely is to be found, found abundantly, in the manner in which other nations have undertaken to intrude themselves into it, between us and the proper parties to the case, in a spirit of hostile interference against us, for the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.
It rears up again in his commentary on the Oregon boundary dispute, in which he asserts that the United States has a natural right to the Columbia River basin...
And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.
The concept was not without its dissenters. One Representative in Congress ridiculed Manifest Destiny, saying "I suppose the right of a manifest destiny to spread will not be admitted to exist in any nation except the universal Yankee nation." However, the phrase captured the zeitgeist of pre-Civil War America and spread throughout the nation so rapidly that O'Sullivan himself was virtually forgotten.

The Civil War naturally marked a crisis in America's philosophical self-perception as well as its body politic. Both sides imagined themselves inheritors of American Exceptionalism; John O'Sullivan joined the side of the Confederates. Yet the North seemed to have developed the most acute sense that the war was, in a sense, a holy one. Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, was relatively subtle in his belief that the outcome of the war decided the fate of representative democracy for all people for all time:
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
One of the most enduring artefacts of the period is the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which overtly places the sword of God in the hands of the United States:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His day is marching on.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
While God is marching on.
After the Civil War, America's attentions could once again turn to colonial expansion. The signing of the Homestead Act in 1862 paved the way for 600,000 settlers to flood into the West. By 1890, however, the United States was full. The census of that year declared that the final land allotments had been granted. The next option was to expand overseas, into Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. 

In the late 19th century, American Exceptionalism took on a particular racial emphasis. Notions of racial supremacy were never absent from the narrative of Manifest Destiny, but the development of racial "science" - strongly linked to eugenics - introduced the concept that the Divine inheritance of the United States was intimately tied to its Anglo-Saxon heritage. In the 1885 book Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis, Protestant minister Josiah Strong preached that:
The Anglo-Saxon is the representative of two great ideas, which are closely related. One of them is that of civil liberty. Nearly all of the civil liberty of the world is enjoyed by Anglo-Saxons: the English, the British colonists, and the people of the United States....The other great idea of which the Anglo-Saxon is the exponent is that of a pure spiritual Christianity... It follows, then, that the Anglo-Saxon, as the great representative of these two ideas, the depositary of these two greatest blessings, sustains peculiar relations to the world's future, is divinely commissioned to be, in a peculiar sense, his brother's keeper.
His laundry list of evils which America must overcome included Catholicism, Mormonism, Socialism, Intemperance, Wealth, Urbanization and Immigration. This association of the United States of America with Christian symbolism and religious concepts is sadly not an artefact of the past. As one can see below, it continues apace, most notably in George W. Bush's speech of September 11, 2002, in which he blasphemously attributed Christ's Divinity and Messianic mission to the United States through allusion to John 1:4-5:
Be confident. Our country is strong. And our cause is even larger than our country. Ours is the cause of human dignity; freedom guided by conscience and guarded by peace. This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope drew millions to this harbor. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it. 
One Nation Under God, Jon McNaughton, 2009.

Praying for Peace [sic], Ron DiCianni, 2003.

If My People (Liberty Bell), Beth Sweigard, 1980.

This tendency towards the deification of America is not limited to the strictly religious. Regularly, the American "culture war" is less over the role of religion in the United States and more over whether or not to image the religion that is the United States in blasphemously pseudo-Christian forms. Both sides seem to lay claim to being Orthodox Americans, casting the other as heretical, and both seem reluctant to fundamentally challenge the assumed virtues of patriotism or America's role in global affairs. The one side offers a vision of this in theocratic terms, the other in atheocratic terms (not in the literal meaning of "without-theocracy" but in the more exact sense of an "atheist theocracy" wherein God has been replaced variously by the State, Economic Capital, Science and Industry, Utopian philosophies, Sexuality, or various combinations thereof). In Bioshock Infinite, Comstock seceded from the United States when he felt that America wasn't American enough.

American Exceptionalism has its secular forms, in the same sense that the worship of Julius Caesar was the secular religion of Rome. Notions of religion being a matter of private and sincere belief in supernatural things is an artefact the Enlightenment that obfuscates the subtlety with which the modern State occupies the religious role in the life of citizens/worshipers/patriots. When someone says "you can believe what you want so long as you keep it to yourself," what they are saying is that one's personal beliefs are secondary to the social functions of devotion to the secular State. As long as your habits make you indistinguishable from other citizens, your actual beliefs don't matter. If your religion affects your habits - or even worse, your opinions - then beware. I suspect that Mormons and Catholics have always been treated with suspicion in the United States for reasons that have less to do with their religion per se as for their non-conformity to American lifestyles, however much they may change over time. Romans were far less subtle about it: this took the shape of worshiping the deified Caesar, and Christians back in Ancient Rome also got in trouble not so much for being Christians as for refusing to worship Caesar. Americans have always been on the cusp of this behaviour. An artistic genre known as the "apotheosis" has been frequently used to deify past American presidents. In the apotheosis, the artistic subject is presented in a particularly exalted manner, especially in forms that imply its sacredness or even it divinity.

 The Apotheosis of Washington; or The Commemoration of Washington
John James Barralet, 1802.

 Apotheosis of Washington, David Edwin,  1800.

  The Apotheosis of Washington and Lincoln, Unknown, 1865.

The apotheosis of the Apotheosis of Washington rises above the US Capitol itself. In the oculus of the great dome itself is Constantino Burmidi's painting of 1865, depicting Washington ruling from the heavens, flanked by angelic hosts and presiding over the symbolic depictions of Roman deities. On either of Washington's hands are Victoria and Liberty, and around the base of the painting are Columbia representing war and freedom (a notable statement on the association between these two things in the American psyche), Minerva representing science, Neptune representing maritime supremacy,  Mercury representing commerce, Vulcan representing mechanics and industry, and Ceres representing agriculture.

 The Apotheosis of Washington, Constantino Burmidi, 1865.

Detail of The Apotheosis of Washington, Constantino Burmidi, 1865.

"Columbia," detail of The Apotheosis of Washington, Constantino Burmidi, 1865.

Apotheosis paintings and quotes that supplant Christ with the United States are on the extreme end of American Exceptionalism. Nevertheless, the idea was ingrained into the nation from its very beginning and finds both its subtle and not-so-subtle ways of emerging. At Disneyland USA, the visitor can take in an attraction called Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. The pre-show video has Walt Disney himself advising guests that these words "spoken by [Lincoln] a century ago... still apply to free men everywhere." Inside, we are treated to an animatronic recital of the Gettysburg Address. It is telling that a speech about an internal American political-economic conflict is considered by Americans to be significant for anyone who is not an American.

Columbia's religion of American Exceptionalism is not something invented by the game's design team, nor simply a ramped-up version of Tea Party Republican rhetoric. It is wholly consistent with a dominant, bi-partisan, philosophy embedded in the zeitgeist of the United States.

No comments: