Obama, Falwell, and the Rhetoric beneath Our American Way of Life

It is the anxiety of not being able to preserve one’s own being which underlies every fear and is the frightening element in it. In the moment, therefore, in which ‘naked anxiety’ lays hold of the mind, the previous objects of fear cease to be definite objects. They appear as what they always were in part, symptoms of man’s basic anxiety. As such they are beyond the reach of even the most courageous attack upon them.
— Paul Tillich, 1952

Over the last week (and really for much longer), President of the United States Barack Obama and President of Liberty University Jerry Falwell, Jr. have offered two seemingly different approaches for curbing the rising tides of domestic and foreign threats of violence. On December 4, two days after the San Bernardino massacre, Falwell spoke to the students of Liberty and expressed frustration that President Obama’s “answer to circumstances like [the San Bernardino massacre] is more gun control.” He then encouraged the students to obtain a concealed carry gun permit, so that they could “end those Muslims before they walked in.” On December 6, President Obama spoke to the nation from the Oval Office and discussed the San Bernardino massacre, “the broader threat of terrorism, and how we can keep our country safe.” The President spoke proactively of his administration’s “strategy to destroy ISIL,” marking seven years of “confronting the evolving threat” through his “authorizing U.S. forces to take out terrorists abroad” because he knows “how real the danger is.” The speech ended with Obama jumping up onto a tightrope we’ve seen him walk before, that of distinguishing “ISIL” from “Islam,” and “Terrorists” from “Muslims.”

Each president’s perspective couldn’t be further removed from one another, when considering that they are offering different appraisals of “who” is afforded protection and “what” is identified as a threat. But perhaps they also illuminate two sides to the same American culture of violence, not so much different ideological colors, but representatives of an iridescent American way of life organized around the mantra: kill first and ask questions later. Imagine this way of life as a flashy car with iridescent paint. Same paint, same way of life; we just see different colors based on where we stand. Depending on where one stands politically, we see and hear, in Obama and Falwell, the myth of (our) innocence projected back to us. Their words are little more than different hues of the same American color: blood red.

Rhetorically, is there any difference between Falwell encouraging concealed carry holders “ending the Muslims” and Obama's justification of drone strikes, save the varying distances relied upon and seemingly procured by each threat of violence? Such “distances” are not measured so much by geography as by claims to innocence (and guilt) made possible by strategies of naming and categorizing. This chaos over naming belies an effort to keep clothed and masked the “naked anxiety” described by theologian Paul Tillich.

The concern over naming extends far beyond civic and governmental leaders, and even American shores. In a brief post at Culture on the Edge, scholar of religion Russell T. McCutcheon drew attention to reports that during the recent London train stabbings, one passenger reportedly yelled to the attacker: “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv.” McCutcheon uses the unfolding conversations (online) to note the rhetorical weight of the passenger’s charge. Borrowing from twitter user Matthew Baldwin (who was borrowing from cultural theorist Jean-François Bayart), McCutcheon suggests that such “operational acts of identification” work to define “Islam,” “London,” and “Britons.”

McCutcheon’s post, like many from the Culture on the Edge crew, encourages a confrontation with the question, what’s in a name? By my estimation, the passenger in the train car is attempting to distance himself (or someone/some group) from the attack. Naming the attacker as not a “Muslim” is, ipso facto, an effort at exonerating and vindicating the innocence of those who are Muslim. Adding to the complication of naming is the double negation lodged inside the passenger’s claim. Per Standard English, the passenger was only disputing the possibility that the attacker was not Muslim. What’s at stake in such naming?

The critical gaze modeled by McCutcheon might also extend to Falwell’s (and Obama’s) recent statements. Falwell expressed a problem of misnaming, but perhaps the misnaming is part of a broader misdirection effort. A Washington Post story includes a spokesman for Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe characterizing Falwell’s comments as “rash and repugnant.” Social media has seen calls from both laity and pastors to denounce Falwell’s comments as “unchristian” and others have called for cuts to Liberty University’s nearly 800 million dollars in federal funding. Ibrahim Hooper, of the Council on Islamic-American Relations, said in a CNN interview that Falwell’s comments are indicative of Anti-Muslim bigotry “moving toward the mainstream thanks to Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and these types of comments.” In general, I agree with the critical response to Falwell; what is troubling, however, is that President Obama’s statement has not drawn the same ire from commentators—suggesting that Falwell’s failure rested not in the threat of deadly force, but in misnaming the threat. Anti-Muslim bigotry may be “moving toward the mainstream,” and we should actively work to combat this growth. Yet, when we pretend that Obama’s comments are qualitatively distinct from Falwell’s, we become complicit in concealing a more troubling feature of the American way of life: Our “mainstream” comfort with and reliance on an economy of sacrifice and violence. Our rhetoric is not about whether or not to kill, but who to kill. 

Obama plays the name game, too, when he says of the San Bernardino attackers that “the two of them had gone down the dark path of radicalization...So this was an act of terrorism, designed to kill innocent people.” Simultaneously, Obama suggests that the perpetrators of the San Bernardino massacre are terrorists, and in such naming, absolves the dead (and we the living) of any guilt to the point of labeling them/us “innocent people.” Furthermore, a more generalized work takes place through the co-constitution of names like “terrorism” and “innocence,” such that one cannot be the other, neither can one of these names show up without the other in tow. According to Obama, the terrorist is, by definition, a killer of the innocent. He tells us this while an American coalition is literally killing twice the number of civilians as were killed in San Bernardino. Perhaps, what we see here is a strategic reliance on the category of the “terrorist” (or “terrorism”) so as to rhetorically construct American innocence. But does this posture of innocence promote an end to violence, or does it work to ensure victory through further reliance on violence?

Obama’s focus on the “terrorist” and Falwell’s generalization of “those Muslims” are operational acts of identification used to demarcate who should live and who should die. Are not both presidents championing the use of violence for combatting violence and more importantly, for combatting the fear of “danger,” the fear of hypothetical future violence—eerily similar in form to what Tillich calls “naked anxiety.” On this point of fear, Obama and Falwell both represent an American populist impulse (and European, too) to kill that which invokes fear. Those so labeled “terrorist” find motive for violence in us; “our” motive seems to be fear. Yet, we are to believe that we are the “innocent.” We may do better for ourselves and the world if we stop confusing our collective, arrested developmental fear with childhood innocence. Maybe then the killing would stop.

Naming matters as a consolation, a kind of quality of life issue (or set of issues) exercised in the face of coming to terms with a terminal diagnosis. The naming, and the trouble over naming, suggests that many, if not most, Americans are more afraid of learning to live with fear than we are even afraid of death. Obama implies as much, suggesting that in the fight against terrorism, “our success won’t depend on...giving into fear.” Perhaps he is right about the acute instance of defeating ISIS (or ISIL), but he is tragically wrong if we consider the broader, humanistic, implications of our (global) culture of violence. Success in that campaign will require acceptance of fear as thoroughly human, humanizing, and never justifying the murder of another. Such judgment holds true as much for the “terrorist” and “freedom fighter,” as so for the “Muslim” and the “Christian.” These categories, and our preoccupation with naming, arise from a nearly pervasive fear of social life lived in actual uncertainty, and the white lie that fear is to be fought against and destroyed. To the extent black and brown bodies continue to serve as symbolic representative and rhetorical storing house of our fear, there is little wonder why we find it so easy to destroy “them.”

Obama ended his speech claiming that “freedom is more powerful than fear,” words taken from the myth of American innocence, and varnished with the blood of many “others” taken out by the terrorism of racism, homophobia, domestic violence, rape culture, among many more tragic social ills. Our iridescent American paint job keeps us at a distance from any substantive disruption to the culture of violence that has marked our American way of life and that may very well lead to our undoing. But after we’ve tagged bodies and notified families, at least we will get to tell the world (and ourselves): it wasn’t “us,” it was “them.”

Indeed, Obama is right to note that “many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure,” but the threat, the “cancer,” is not terrorists, Muslims, Christians, Republicans, or Democrats. Rather, the cancer we are confronted by is a metastasized (and likely terminal) fear of nakedness—our innocence exposed as a myth—that has marked America (and Americans) as ruthless, violent, and willing to destroy anyone who would threaten to pull back the mask of our presumed innocence.

The ‘American way of life’ is a blessing coming from the past, but it is also a curse, threatening the future.
— Paul Tillich, 1959