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Bono On American Exceptionalism Essays

Oliver Laric
Sun Tzu Janus, 2012
24.2 x 40 x 29.7 cm
Plinth: 80 x 32 x 29 cm
(LARIC-2012-0024)
Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Leighton, Berlin

This series was guest edited by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and editorial board member Elizabeth Shakman Hurd. – Eds.

The paired posts in this series were developed in connection with a workshop supported by the three-year Luce Foundation funded project “Politics of Religion at Home and Abroad,” directed by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan.

The larger project addresses American religious exceptionalism as it is manifested in the pivot point between domestic and foreign policy, in particular the ways in which distinctive understandings of religion enable different American religion policies “at home and abroad.” American religious exceptionalism is and has been realized, of course, through a variety of channels including, among others, the perennial political project of distinguishing good religion and bad religion, the jurisprudence of the First Amendment, and the work of religious communities themselves. To interrogate the religious politics of American exceptionalism at home and abroad, as this project does, is then simultaneously to question the naturalness of particular productions of binaries such as “religion/not religion,” “Christianity/not Christianity,” establishment/disestablishment, as well as to try to push beyond the institutionalized scholarly division of labor of the modern American academy. An important, and perhaps not yet fully understood, aspect of American exceptionalism is the notion that religion in America stands apart from the “universal tendencies of history, the ‘normal’ fate of nations, the laws of historical mechanics” (Rodgers 1998).

Enabling the inside/outside work of US religious exceptionalism is the common claim that Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity and its cultural effects, is not religion, a claim that both distinguishes and naturalizes Protestant Christianity. Protestantism in its various forms can apparently choose to appear not as a religion but rather as the natural antinomian evangelical essence of America—having gotten rid of all that “religion” stuff, facilitating polemics against heathens, Communists, Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, and so on. These legal, political, ethnographic, and sociological processes contribute to powerful (though always shifting) distinctions between inside and outside, domestic and foreign, self and other, even civilization and madness (Foucault 1965).

The one-day workshop which produced these essays focused on “Theologies of American Exceptionalism,” asking participants to expound on an exemplary text (a link to those texts is found in each essay). These ranged from what might usually be regarded as explicitly religious texts, such as John Winthrop’s sermon aboard the Arabella and Khomeini’s Last Testament, to judicial opinions, such as that of the US Supreme Court articulating the doctrine of conquest, literary reflections on the Great American Novel, explicitly political engagements with theology, and academic writing on capitalism, consumption, and excess. What followed was an intense discussion of the deeply ambiguous heritage of US exceptionality, both in terms of the stories Americans tell themselves and the stories others tell of them, of what they do at home and what they do abroad—of those excluded and those in charge,—of whether and how the US is or ever was new and innocent—of revolution and the exception,—and of the credibility of the rule of law. Perhaps reflecting the current political climate, much of the discussion, while not centered on the US presidential election, elaborated on the indeterminacy, elusiveness, and provisionality of the US project. Lingering questions concerned the nature and status of sacrifice, sovereignty, and supersessionism in the American context.

These essays are offered not as a summa on the subject but as an opening bid to a conversation. The authors welcome responses.

Paired essays

Constance Furey on John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity”
Matthew Scherer on Stanley Cavell, “Finding as Founding”

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan on Johnson v M’Intosh
M. Cooper Harriss on C. E. Morgan, Foreword to Faulkner’s Light in August

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd on Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart
Lisa Sideris on Robert Paarlberg, The United States of Excess

Noah Salomon on Noble Drew Ali, “A Warning from the Prophet in 1928”
Spencer Dew on The Last Will and Testament of Imam Khomeini

Shaul Magid on Arthur Cohen, “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition”
Stephanie Frank on the “Introduction” to Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty

When movie star George Clooney married human rights lawyer and fashion icon Amal Alamuddin in Venice back in 2014, the Entertainment Tonight website declared that “it was charity that came out as the real winner” of the multimillion-dollar nuptial festivities.

The reason for the alleged win was that proceeds from certain wedding photos were said to be destined for – you guessed it – “charity”, that favourite celebrity pastime that so often translates into massive PR points and saviour-hero credit, not to mention tax breaks.

We non-celebrities have been so conditioned to perceive charity as something unconditionally positive – rather than a commodification and exploitation of faux altruism – that we don’t seem to notice reality’s conspicuous absence from the feel-good world of celeb-philanthropy.

Case in point: reports that rock star Bono’s anti-poverty foundation ONE managed in 2008 to channel a mere 1.2 percent of the funds it raised to the people it purported to be assisting have done nothing to interfere with the man’s portrayal as some sort of messiah for Africa.

In the case of the Clooneys, who now preside over their very own Clooney Foundation for Justice, celebrity worship and Amal-mania have also precluded sound judgement. Objectively speaking, it would seem that “justice” is not really an option in a world in which human rights lawyer-philanthropists by the name of Amal Clooney wear outfits costing $7,803.

The obscenity of inequality

Currently targeted for charitable assistance by the Clooneys’ organisation is the Syrian refugee population of Lebanon, where, the foundation’s website stresses, “refugee children are sent out to work for as little as 2 dollars per day”. Roughly calculating, it would thus take a Syrian refugee child approximately eleven years to accumulate enough funds for the aforementioned outfit (less if accessories are left out).

Fantastically expensive galas, celebrity photo ops with black and brown children in international charity hotspots, and other mainstays of the celebro-philanthropist repertoire do little, in the end, to alleviate poverty, hunger, oppression, and the rest of the global ills that are repeatedly invoked to tug at heartstrings and thereby provoke admiration and/or financial contributions to the cause being peddled.

This is not to suggest, of course, that one must always calculate and justify one’s expenses in terms of Syrian refugee income, but rather to point out that any sort of actual justice in the world would require dismantling the prevailing neoliberal panorama of obscene economic inequality.

In a forthcoming book titled Against Charity, authors Julie Wark and Daniel Raventos offer a meticulous and scathing indictment of the institution of charity as a key component of the neoliberal order – and of the role of celebrity philanthropists in keeping the have-nots in place and the powerful in power.

Celebrities, write Wark and Raventos, “draw attention to social distress but immediately cover it up by giving the impression that something is being done” by the wealthy of the world, who have the money to do things.

But fantastically expensive galas, celebrity photo ops with black and brown children in international charity hotspots, and other mainstays of the celebro-philanthropist repertoire do little, in the end, to alleviate poverty, hunger, oppression, and the rest of the global ills that are repeatedly invoked to tug at heartstrings and thereby provoke admiration and/or financial contributions to the cause being peddled.

Again, were global oppression to somehow magically cease, the “philanthropic” rich and famous would be up a creek – since no arrangement governed by literal justice would allow the obsequiously-celebrated “poverty fighter” Bill Gates to own a house with 24 bathrooms or for the ever-so-charitable David and Victoria Beckham to trademark their children’s names.

Disappearing context

Regarding the function of celebrities within “a system that sees famous people as brands and thus consumer products”, Wark and Raventos note that celebrity “excess” helps sustain the consumerist model by providing glorified examples of over-the-top materialism – while celebrity “beneficence” helps whitewash the brutality of institutionalised socioeconomic disparity.

Meanwhile, the “awareness” that celebrities purport to raise for their respective causes is frequently devoid of the political context necessary to comprehend contemporary causes of human suffering.

Take, for example, actress and philanthropic superstar Angelina Jolie, whose work as Special Envoy for the United Nations refugee agency elicits continuous media prostration before her charitable “radiance“.

Descending upon war-torn nations and refugee camps in characteristic superhuman perfection, Jolie decries earthly injustice – while regularly excising crucial pieces of the puzzle from her lament.

This was the case in a March 2017 speech in Geneva, when Jolie referenced “the conflict in Iraq – the source of so much Iraqi suffering to this day”, and yet proceeded to self-identify as “a proud American” and a believer in the notion that “a strong nation, like a strong person, helps others to rise up and be independent”.

Never mind that the US – a strong nation indeed – happens to have effectively destroyed Iraq, inflicting unquantifiable death and misery upon the Iraqi people.

In Iraq and beyond, in fact, the military and economic policies of the country of which our heroine is so “proud” have contributed to a range of humanitarian crises now abstractly seized upon by Jolie & Co – not least the Saudi-led starvation of Yemen, aided and abetted by none other than the US.

It’s showtime

A recent Vanity Fair cover story on Jolie touches on numerous aspects of the actress’ life, from her new Los Angeles mansion – “listed for around $25 million” – to her cofounding, with British former foreign secretary William Hague, of the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative in 2012. According to its website, the initiative “aims to raise awareness of the extent of sexual violence … in situations of armed conflict and rally global action to end it”.

This is the same Hague who, in addition to fervently championing the war on Iraq, argued in 2015 that just because Iraq had turned out poorly didn’t mean the west shouldn’t intervene in Syria.

In other words, so much for the prevention of violence.

Wark and Raventos observe that “the demigods of celebrity culture are a symptom of a general moral and ethical malaise in which, as capitalism is foundering in its own morass, mythmaking is essential for keeping the show going”.

If only the curtain would fall – not only on the sideshow of celebrity philanthropy, but on the myth itself.

[Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.]

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