Monday, March 16, 2015

TEAM AMERICA: World Police (American Exceptionalism Oppresses Black Bodies)

TEAM AMERICA: World Police.  I f'ing love this movie.  I first saw it in high school and it continues to be one of my favorite movies.  Why, per say, would a feminist who has never shot a gun adore this movie?

I appreciate this movie because Trey Parker and Matt Stone are able to hilariously articulate American exceptionalism.  This term is defined by viewing the United States as qualitatively different and/or above other nations.  The first scene of this movie includes the Lourve and Eiffel Tower being destroyed by just a few Americans in flashy oufits and massive weaponry.  It's comical to me that the members of Team America high-five after tearing down the beloved architecture of Paris (blowing up many civilians along with a few terrorists) in the name of freedom for all.  The ridiculous, exaggerated actions of this team of gun-toting freedom fighters exposes an assumption that is common in American patriotism: the people of the United States understand best what freedom for all people looks like.

William T. Cavanaugh, in his book Migrations of the Holy, argues against the concept of a nation-state as a promoter and protector of the common good (Kindle 103).  Cavanaugh speaks of the danger that is inherent to lifting up a nation-state as the natural way of organizing society.  Within the US there is a common thread that our nation has been founded on the call for all people to have freedom.

Cavanaugh argues that the idea of a state being developed for the common food is not supported historically; Cavanaugh references Joseph Strayer who explains that the movement toward a nation-state developed in the fourteenth century with the members of the royal courts acquiring power by having people assemble and pay taxes in order to be represented in the courts of law.  In order to be represented in a court case, people would have to pay taxes and if you were unable to pay (ie anyone who didn't own property probably couldn't), you would not be represented by the royal court.  That sounds quite complicated to me; luckily the conclusion is a bit easier to grasp: the rise of the state does not emerge of a search for the common good but rather for dominant groups to benefit.

Out of the movement from local communities towards a larger group, or a state, emerges a need for a big group of people to adhere to and be loyal to the state or nation that they are a part of.  This is why nationalism and patriotism are so important to keep a state alive.  Cavanaugh argues that the state, society, and religion are fused together so that people believe that their loyalty to their country is what holds weight in their relationships, job, and even their relationship with God.  The biggest issue I have with nationalism is that when we are loyal to one group of people we are automatically making an Other.  Whoever is outside of the nation-state is not a part of our belief system and therefore is not considered within the freedom for all.

For me it is easy to understand that the nation-state does not work towards the common good precisely because in it's beginnings the United States did not give freedom to all people.  Kelly Brown Douglas argues in Sexuality and the Black Church that black bodies are a pawn of white culture.  She explains the movement from European thought in the eighteenth century that espouses the inferiority of Black-skinned people develops into an intellectual ideology of White supremacy within the nineteenth century in which "American scholars explain blackness as a sign of degeneracy" (15).  How can we say that the United States nation is founded on the concept of freedom for all when Black-skinned people were seen as inferior and were institutionalized into slavery?
 I think that Cavanaugh's points about how the United States emerges out of a myth that it is working for the common good is done by creating a state that lifts up white culture while dehumanizing black bodies.  It is a lot easier to bond together as a nation against an Other; within the roots of America white supremacy connects the represented, tax-paying, white classes by capitalizing on the "unnatural," "savage" black-skinned people.

Douglas explains the ways that white culture in the United States destroys black bodies by controlling the sexuality of black people.  Black women are characterized as either Jezebels who have no control over their sexuality and act as temptresses (36) or Mammies who are viewed as asexual maternal figures who are obedient and never act out of line (41).  Black women slaves were in forced labor and therefore unable to fit into Western concepts of the delicate lady.  Black men were stereotyped as Violent Bucks who were sexually aggressive and needed to be controlled (45).  I believe that these stereotypes that Douglas explicates are foundations of white culture in the United States are are still present in some form today.

These are some tough and bitter thoughts to swallow as a member of the United States.  How can I as a white female who has benefited from a nation that swells with pride in true understanding of freedom, all the while oppressing black bodies in slavery, with Jim Crow laws, and a criminal justice system that grossly over represents black people?  I think the first step is be aware of the dangers of being unable to step back from our nation-state and critically examine it.

As a Christian leader, I find it so difficult to critically look at the ways that the United States nation has oppressed people;  I have a narrative in my head that screams "YOU CAN'T BE AMERICAN IF YOU DON'T LOVE AMERICA!" Perhaps it is the puppets from Team America shouting this in my head, reminding me how strongly people in the United States connect their worth with being American.  Yet it is vital for me as a Christian leader to expose the ways that nationalism is working within Christian churches to make it impossible for a Christian to critique what the United States government does.

Cavanaugh states that his "basic argument is that when a direct, unmediated relationship is posited between America and a transcendent reality, either God or freedom, there is a danger that the state will be divinized" (Kindle 1054).  If we say that America means freedom, there is absolutely a link between America and God.  But here's the issue: America does not mean freedom for some people.  For Black-skinned people, America has meant being dehumanized by slavery, stereotyped as sexually aggressive and uncontrollable, and being excessively jailed and pushed into poverty.  Douglas speaks to the ways that the Black church has found ways to encounter God as a source of freedom over and against what white supremacy of American culture has handed to them.

How do we as Christian people step away from the nationalism of the United States and begin to critically change the ways we see what it means to have freedom for all?  How can we separate out patriotism and the love of God?  Cavanaugh and Douglas expose the ways that the United States, white culture, and religion have fused into a myth that freedom for all is found here in America.  TEAM AMERICA: World Police is able to point to their arguments in ridiculous and exaggerated ways while still exposing the the same concept: America does not mean freedom for all.  We need to take one step back and engage with the oppression that US nationalism causes the Other.

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