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  • American Dream States
  • Daniel T. O'Hara (bio)
The New American Exceptionalism. Donald E. Pease. University of Minnesota Press. 264 pages; cloth, $67.50; paper, $22.50.

When everyone rises at the beginning of a baseball game to sing the national anthem, I also do. I apparently murmur its words along with everyone else. In fact, I murmur instead the refrain of a late 1950s-early 1960s TV Western, starring Richard Boone, Have Gun—Will Travel: "Paladin, Paladin, where do you roam? / Paladin, Paladin, far, far from home. / His fast gun for hire heeds the calling wind. / A soldier of fortune is the man called Paladin"...and so on until the rest of the crowd and I stop singing at the same time. Donald E. Pease, a leading Americanist scholar, demonstrates in his new book why and how in this initial anecdote both the typical action of the crowd and my critical reaction are equally authorized by the state and the dream logic of its hegemonic national fantasies.

Basing himself on the work of Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Žižek, Giorgio Agamben, and Jacqueline Rose in States of Fantasy (1998) (among others), Pease shows how during the Cold War the US perfected a narrative of the exceptional status of America among the history of nations and in the contemporaneous international order. However specifically framed (circumstances produced responsive variations), the narrative always has America as being a nation apart in a binary struggle to the death with the Soviet Union. When the state, in one or another of its symbolic functions or events, calls forth its citizen-subjects ("interpellation" Athusser would say), they, by investing in and identifying with the logic of this fantasy narrative, thereby are authorized as acceptable, as are their individual fantasizes of identity. The subjects, that is, identify actively and directly with the will of the state, and the state then empowers their wills.

Although Paladin, the hero of my favorite childhood Western which I watch on cable in reruns these days, is swarthy, exotic in his tastes in food, wine, and women; quotes Shakespeare at every turn of events; and has a Arab-sounding name suggestive of un-Americanism, especially given his symbol, the figure of the Knight in chest, a game originating in India; the show nevertheless, in its moralizing grandeur and melodramatic shoot-'em-up plots, always underscores the exceptional nature of America—its people, its laws, its land.

In one memorable show, Paladin turns prosecutor in the town saloon, and wins his case before a jury of criminal outcasts. Pease would argue, given what he says in his book, that my acceptance of the fantasy of American exceptionalism, Cold War style, is passive, ironic, indirect, more literary and aesthetic—but nonetheless what I do, say, believe, and feel, every sign of my agency, is still necessarily conducted within the framework of the Cold War fantasy of American exceptionalism and its more actively and directly identified with narrative.

Or, at least, this was the case. Once the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War came to an end, so did the authorizing state fantasy of the national security state—the other name for America's exceptionalism. The 1990s, the period that Pease analyzes closely, sees the contest, a true agon, among candidates for replacing the old Cold War fantasy.

The chapter titles pretty much tell the story of that decade: "Staging The New World Order: Hiroshima, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Persian Gulf War," "America of the Two Covenants: The Waco Siege and the Oklahoma City Bombing," "A National Rite of Passage: The Return of Alexis de Tocqueville," "Patriot Acts: The Southernification of America," "From Virgin Land to Ground Zero: Mythological Foundations of the Homeland Security State," and "Antigone's Kin: From Abu Ghraib to Barack Obama."

As George H.W. Bush's New World Order, Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, and Bill Clinton's New Covenant fight to install their new state fantasy amidst unforeseen events of a global as well as local yet still catastrophic kind, only the events of 9/11 give Bush 2 the bloody rationale for the acceptance of the new...


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