Monday, January 2, 2012

Celebrating Death, again

Steven Johnston
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

For America’s elected representatives, the 2011 holiday season called for gift-giving, both material and symbolic. The recipient, if you will, was patriotism. First came the “Vow to Hire Heroes Act.” Now we have the Civil Service Recognition Act. The Democratic and Republican parties may be split on which version of neoliberal capitalism ought to govern America’s social, economic, and political life, but they can always agree on the fundamentals of patriotism, including the need to feed this insatiable affective cultural machine. Patriotism is always on guard for new sources of sustenance to maintain its glossy sheen. Nothing rivals dying for your country, unless, of course, it’s killing for your country—though when it comes to killing, the celebration tends toward the discrete.
The Civil Service Recognition Act provides for (to quote the statute) “the presentation of [a] United States flag on behalf of federal civilian employees who die of injuries incurred in connection with their employment.” It is not just military service personnel who risk—and lose—their lives working in the name of the American people (members of the diplomatic corps offer one prominent example). Nor do you need to serve abroad to have your life placed in danger. It can happen on the home front as well, a space increasingly militarized and securitized in the last thirty years.
Who would object to honoring those who 'serve' their country and pay the proverbial ultimate price? Well, the American Legion, for one. Initially, it condemned the bill, citing the following language as objectionable: A flag shall be furnished and presented…in the same manner as a flag is furnished and presented on behalf of a deceased member of the Armed Services who dies while on active duty.” Fang Wong, the Legion’s national commander, objected to the equation of civilian and military service, privileging the latter: “Civil service workers do not sign a pledge to defend America with their lives, they are not forced to serve in combat zones, and their work routines do not include engaging enemy forces overseas.” Not surprisingly, right-wing bloggers joined in the condemnation, one describing it as “The Flags for Bureaucrats Act,” arguing (I use the term loosely) that it was “just another trapping of power available from the federal government to all those people in the ever expanding federal bureaucracy.” The statute was quickly changed, as supporters of the bill insisted no equation was intended—or possible. The American Legion supported the amended bill without hesitation. Patriotism’s love affair with death again won the day.

Still, and somewhat strangely, the ritual enacted into law hasn’t changed (a flag will still be presented). How to make sense of this? It seems that the American Legion was primarily interested in policing the terms of American political discourse. You simply cannot say publicly (this applies especially to the state) anything that seems to equate civilian and military service. The latter is sacrosanct.

What allegedly distinguishes these forms of service? Though Fang Wong won’t explicitly say it, it’s the act of killing for country that separates the two. Presumably most civilians who die in the performance of official duties do not kill, but this distinction does not always hold true—just ask the CIA. Does the exception prove the rule?

Ironically, the right-wing hysteria may be warranted, a defensive reaction designed to deflect attention from another reality not to be exposed—the mercenary character of the military forces of the United States, which are routinely showered with (more and more) trappings to join and remain in the military. If anything, the military represents the pinnacle of achievement in the American welfare state, though many Americans might be loath to think in such terms. This is the comparison that must be unthinkable, certainly unspeakable. What’s more, the real issue is not that civilian service might rise to the level of military service; the fear is that military service is no more elevated than civilian service. As Andrew Rosenthal points out, many conservatives don’t consider government jobs real jobs; well, how is it that a military career became so highly valued in a country whose founders were deeply suspicious of a standing army? Many conservatives deride professional politicians (Mitt Romney, ludicrously, tried to tarnish Newt Gingrich with this label in a recent GOP debate). While not endorsing such a judgment (I like politics), I would ask how professional military service achieved its exalted status. Shouldn’t it be something that everyone does, briefly, when young? And if a permanent military force is needed, why isn’t it on the list of America’s necessary evils (like government itself)? How is it, for example, that make-work jobs fighting an imperial war in Iraq come to be honored? How was it contributive to America’s collective project?

Finally, the Civil Service Recognition Act, ostensibly reflecting a generous political impulse, excludes and marginalizes as much as it includes and honors. It privileges forms of service informed by death rather than life. Service here functions as a euphemism for sacrifice, itself a euphemism for death. Not surprisingly, then, the thousands of citizens of the Occupy movement will receive no formal recognition for their democratic activism on behalf of justice, fairness, and the 99% (even though they, too, it turns out, risk their lives in its pursuit).

If anything, democratic activism, perhaps especially if undertaken by the wrong people, often fosters state violence and disenfranchisement. Republicans across the country have undertaken a party-sponsored program to systematically eliminate as many likely Democratic voters (openly targeting students) as possible from the electoral process in pursuit of a one-party state. Tragically, those who do in fact kill and die in the name of America’s democratic values thereby see their efforts, in the end, subverted, even destroyed, by those who deploy them with undue ease. For what exactly are they killing and dying?

1 comment:

  1. A near permanent job, a salary and permission to kill. Lord help Americans and the rest of the world. This is madness!