- Happy Days (of the White Settler Imaginary) Are Here Again
A commentary on “Drugs, The Nation and Free-Lancing: Decoding the Moral Universe of William Bennett” by William E. Connolly, Theory & Event, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1997)
A journey through William Connolly’s peripatetic 1997 essay, “Drugs, The Nation and Free Lancing: Decoding the Moral Universe of William Bennett” from the first issue of Theory & Event, begins in the “Drug Confessional” and ends with “Dis-nationalizing the Democratic State.” As finish it, I am struck by the essay’s concluding sentence: “The largest agenda remains: to show how a democratic civilization flourishes best when a large variety of constituencies overcome nostalgia for the innocence of a nation lost.” In 2016, nostalgia for a nation lost still runs strong. Nostalgic sentiment resonates in the defining visual signifier of the 2016 presidential campaign; a bright red baseball cap emblazoned with the words, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, worn by Republican nominee/2016 US presidential election winner Donald Trump and his millions of supporters. In 1997, Connolly did not predict, claim, nor offer any reason to believe that a nostalgic overcoming was afoot, in 20 years or 100. Rather, his essay is fundamentally about the politics of national memory and how it is utilized to define good from bad Americans in the discourse of conservatives like William J. Bennett, US Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan from 1985–1988 and Drug Czar under George H.W. Bush from 1989–90. Bennett is Connolly’s impish free-lancer extraordinaire; a self-aggrandizing, often pompous and overly self-assured figure who would intentionally go off-script and make outlandish statements in order to provoke discussion and draw attention to himself. If that sounds familiar, stick with me as we take a “quantum leap”1 between the 1990s and our time.
Twenty years after its publication, Connolly’s analysis remains a pointed articulation of the role of national memory in American politics, particularly in the discourse of longing for a mythical founding unity. As he notes, in the face of centrifugal forces undermining a national [End Page 44] unity built around “the abstract common sense of a nation of regular individuals…. the spirituality of a nation of regular individuals is maintained by political invocations of a putative past when this unity was present and by the repetitive exhibition of contemporary policies, ethical codes, and styles of living that deviate from the spiritual norm. The fictive ideal of a nation of regular individuals catalogs the actual populace into a nation of diverse deviants in need of coercive correction.” There is a timelessness to this form of American evocation of a longed-for past from which the nation has fallen. It serves to both redeem the nation’s deeper purpose and critique those who deviate from it. In that dialectical relation of unifiers and deviants we see another timeless form of American narrative, which is the countersubversive one that evokes a mythical unity in order to draw out and demarcate deviance. While this is a narrative one can locate in the politics of nations around the world, in the contemporary moment this narrative particularly defined the terms of the 2016 US political context. Before speaking to the contemporary US context, we must pay homage to and make connections with the past, even if it is but a decades-old past in this case.
In the 1990s, it was one’s relationship to drugs and the drug war that lured and ensnared deviants in the web of William Bennett’s moral universe. The deviants were drug users and dealers, and more fundamentally were and remain people of color, liberal academics and media, state bureaucrats, and anyone who thinks and acts more like a social scientist than a common sense American. The threat that drugs and drug addiction posed to the nation’s spiritual unity was the looming terror of dependence; dependence on substances, on excuses, on government, on anything outside the first “conventional code of the nation: individual responsibility for your own fate.” Collective memory of the nation in this light is not about the status of a collectivity per se but of a past in which...