Cancel Culture, Wokeness, and the Ugly American

They used to call it “holier than thou.” Then they called it “political correctness.” You know, the PC culture. Then they called it “virtue signaling.” Now they call it “cancel culture” and “wokeness.”

In 1958 Burdick and Lederer wrote a book titled “The Ugly American.” The book essentially was an indictment of American diplomatic insensitivity to indigenous cultures of Southeast Asia during the Cold War period. The phrase, “ugly American,” soon took on a more popular meaning as many people outside the US quickly recognized the crudity and arrogance of American citizens traveling abroad, expecting peoples in the country they were visiting to cater to the peculiar whims of their insatiable American appetites, as American tourists projected no awareness of the local customs or sensibilities of the people they were visiting.

The ugly American is a species of the doctrine of American exceptionalism. To be critical of the greatest citizens of the greatest nation in the history of the world is an egregious sin. Never criticize a patriot. You will be accused of not loving your country. Even when patriotism is defined today as might makes right, toxic masculinity, white supremacy, and Christian particularity, don’t you dare whisper a word of criticism. Don’t you dare even ask a question. You will be met with swift correction.

They used to call it “holier than thou.” Then they called it “political correctness.” You know, the PC culture. Then they called it “virtue signaling.” Now they call it “cancel culture” and “wokeness.” This is how we have learned to self-justify when faced with the hard truth that we might, heaven forbid, be wrong about something.

We’re always looking for the next best turn of phrase to poke the finger in the eye of “liberalism” or anyone we disagree with. To “own the libs.” That’s what American conservatism has become. It isn’t about traditional values anymore. It’s about crude and greedy self-interest. If you’re not against every government proposed program, you’re not one of us.

Poke ‘em in the eye? How about, we know where you live and you’ll never be able to go out in public again without us knowing it? That was an actual threat by one of the loud-mouthed ugly Americans who disagreed with their school board member over a mask mandate to protect children and teachers in a public school. The threat of physical violence on someone’s person over a disagreement about wearing masks as a preventative against dying from a pandemic disease. A mask.

And it’s not really about disagreement anymore. Because if you hold them accountable for their crude and violent language and behavior, they accuse you of being a hypocrite toward anyone you disagree with. Another smokescreen, because it’s not about whether we can disagree. It’s about how we disagree. And the ugly American will stop at nothing to project their own failure to be decent human beings onto those who “disagree” with them.

Jesus engaged the bullies of his day. And I know it’s not historically correct to mash on the Pharisees, but the temple authorities and the scribes (among whom some Pharisees also walked), directly challenged Jesus and openly misrepresented his teachings and his actions. At least, this is what the gospels tell us and the gospels are not always reliable for giving us unbiased historical information regarding the Pharisees. What we do know, according to Paul’s own description of himself in Galatians, is that some Pharisees actively persecuted the early church. Some Pharisees joined the early church (Ac 15). Some Pharisees apparently remained neutral toward the Jesus movement. Consequently a circumspect approach must be taken when referring to “the Pharisees” in any context, in order to be intentional about avoiding even the appearance of anti-Semitism in the ways we read the NT.

There were times when Jesus’s religious opponents tested him to trap him, and he so deftly turned the test back on them. The render to Caesar saying comes to mind, in which Jesus slyly confronted his accusers of having Caesar as their god. But it wasn’t just the obvious religious bullies who were the target of Jesus’ correction. Jesus’ disciples openly bullied little children and their parents who were bringing their children to Jesus to have him touch them. The disciples scolded the parents as if Jesus were too busy or too important to bother himself with such insignificance. But Jesus became indignant with his disciples and he lashed out at them for bullying these families for doing what they knew was right. So, there can certainly be a time when challenging the bully is the right thing to do, if not to change the heart of the bully, then certainly to strengthen the hearts of those who are the objects of the bully’s crude and wrathful behavior. We. don’t. have. to. take. it.

Do we not all put our pants on one leg at a time? Or to speak the language of the everyman, do we not all piss in the same pot? (Unless of course yours is made of gold.) Those who piss in golden pots think so much more of themselves than the rest of us. And they are only a small handful. Nothing more. They abuse the rest of us with narratives of division and hatred. That stranger over there is going to take away what little you have left (without actually giving an honest account of why the narrative spinner is actually responsible for taking what you have in the first place and not the stranger they want you to despise). That stranger over there is going to hurt you. That stranger over there looks different. Be afraid. Consequently what we are conditioned to fear becomes the object of our anger and our hatred, because those who have golden pots weave narratives that tell us they are a threat to our lives, our families, our daily livelihoods.

So we fight and we curse and we destroy each other’s lives. While those who egg it on are happy to continue to do what they do. These proxy wars we fight, these dissimulations of ourselves that we don’t even know are dissimulations. The rugged individual, the ugly American, they conceal the holy image we were born with. Our racism, our violence, our misogyny, our bigotry, our pandering poverty. These are nothing but false attempts to define ourselves apart from the agency of relationship we were born to fulfill.

These crude and disgusting behaviors as acts of dissimulation of our original self, the human being as agents of love that God created us to be, they relentlessly call upon us to engage the mythic folly of Adam, to be our own gods and from the place of God to judge others with our proxy wars of hatred and division.

With my own Augustinian-Lutheran embedded theology, which I am constantly analyzing through my own idiosyncratic hermeneutical awareness, I struggle to know whether to engage the bully or keep myself aloof from the fray. I sometimes engage with the bully but not always. I pick and choose when to engage the fight. When it feels right. Maybe it depends on the kind of day I’m having. Or maybe it depends on the extent to which I’ve become fed up with the bullying and the violence. I have no delusions about changing the bully’s mind. But I am convinced that when I hold a bully accountable, I am sending a very clear signal to the rest of us that we don’t have to take it.

And then there’s the painful truth that the bully, the “ugly American,” lives in all of us, and that this confrontation is a constant inner struggle to tamp down my own inner bully and bring forth the image, what is real and beautiful and true.

Be strong. Be loved. And love.

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