Wednesday, September 25, 2013

American Exceptionalism

President Obama is really serious about this American exceptionalism shtick. He started in on it again in his recent address to the UN, saying:

“The danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries, or to take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is, that the United States after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues aback home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world, may disengage creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.
I believe such disengagement would be a mistake. I believe America must remain engaged for our own security, but I also believe the world is better for it. Some may disagree. But I believe America is exceptional. In part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self interest, but for the interest of all.”

I append some comments from readers of They convey what seems to me the right interpretation that Obama is pitifully whistling in the dark: The era of American supremacy is coming to an end. If we seem still to be in charge it is only because we, foolishly, do not acknowledge that we are weak, that our affairs are in terrible disorder and that we have begun a downward trajectory. It is also because we are prepared to bankrupt the country for the sake of continuing to play the Big Bully. The American Empire is soon to join the British Empire and the Holy Roman Empire in the little regretted past. 

Here are some fine comments: “Exactly what is it that makes America exceptional? Spending more than any other country on defense spending at the expense of everything else such as healthcare, education, employment (other than in defense industry.) Our rate of poverty in the country is rising, our stats in education keep dropping. The infant mortality rate is mirroring third world countries. When will we really look at these figures and realize it's not a good picture of things.”

2.3 million human beings currently living in cages. The highest prison population in the world by both number and %. No bankers though."

"Exactly what is it that makes America exceptional?" Our shit doesn't stink. It smells like roses.”

"There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people for a purpose which is unattainable."
----Howard Zinn
A vacuum of leadership is exactly what the world needs. Most of the current wars are traceable, easily, to American war boots on the ground in places where they are not welcome and where they have no reason to be. The Taliban fights us because we are there, for example. Peace would break out all over the world if the U.S. were a peaceful country. We are exceptionally militaristic and therefore exceptionally evil. “

" Yes, Mr. President, because the world NEEDS "exceptional" cluster bombs, white phosphorus, depleted uranium and agent orange. And, oh yeah, "exceptional" piles of corpses of women and children.”

Will someone please tell the President to turn off the “exceptionalism” spigot? Claiming to be exceptional does not make us exceptional. Other countries do that too. Throwing our weight around wherever we can does not make us exceptional. Other countries do that too.

Working unceasingly with exceptional dedication to make ourselves ridiculous—that is how we are exceptional.
But, I for one, am not laughing.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Listen to Dr. Martin Luther King

Recently we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's speech in Washington, D.C. in which he spoke of his dream of a post-racial America.
Today, we would do better to pay attention to Dr. King's speech given four years later at The Riverside Church in New York City to an organization of clergy and lay leaders who were firmly opposed to the war in Vietnam.
Sadly, American leaders have learned nothing from the experience in Vietnam.
Let me quote some passages from Dr. King's anti-war speech:
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality, . ... we will find ourselves organizing "clergy and laymen concerned" committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala -- Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. .. “
It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years before he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. “I am convinced” Dr King said, “that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin...the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
After withdrawing from Iraq defeated and planning to leave another defeat behind in Afghanistan, we are now getting more and more deeply involved in the series of revolutions taking place in the Near East. Our leaders, regardless of political party, have not understood the “far deeper malady within the American spirit” that Dr. King diagnosed as Western corporations “ investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries. . .”. They have been unable to see that malady because we live in a “thing-oriented society. . . [rather than] a person-oriented society. ”
Intent as ever, our leaders are continuing their campaigns to try to create stable governments, currently in the Near East, in order to assure safety to the investments of American corporations, regardless of the cost in human lives and misery of those campaigns. They have continued to conceal that campaign behind moralistic talk about the “moral obscenity” of using poison gas. They continue to lie to their own citizens and thereby betray their continued advocacy of democracy to be no more than a cynical public relations move.

You can be sure that when the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's Riverside Church speech rolls around, there is not going to be a national celebration. We like Dr. King as our beloved dreamer and remain silent about Dr. King the harsh critic who calls for a “radical revolution of values.”

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Another issue in Syria

There has been a lot of talk that we need to bomb Syria in order to maintain the credibility of the United States. A while ago Pres. Obama proclaimed the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” which, if crossed, would invite US retaliation. So far there has been no action on the part of the US government even though it seems fairly clear that poison gas was used in Syria. Experts are uncertain who used the poison gas but our government claims to have conclusive evidence it was the Syrian government.
How serious is this feared loss of credibility? How long would it last? How credible will we be if we kill more Syrian women and children?
These are important questions.
But there other issues involved. Secretary of State Kerry has been an enthusiastic supporter of military action in Syria. He has declared with absolute certainty that it was President Assad who used poison gas against his own people. He has presented a glowing, and most likely mendacious, picture of the military opposition to Pres. Assad. He has made all kinds of claims which most observers regard as of dubious truthfulness. All in the interest of starting another war.
Secretary of State Kerry has presented the United States as the knight in shining armor that sees to it that the world live up to the same high moral standards as our government. He fought in Vietnam but he has forgotten the agent orange we sprayed on Vietnamese fields. To this day Vietnamese children are horribly crippled and deformed at birth as a consequence. He has forgotten that we used radioactive munitions in Iraq.
But many American voters and many of their elected representatives remain full of doubts and uncertainties. Others are plainly opposed.
In the face of all this uncertainty, among experts and ordinary citizens, of the left as much as of the right, Secretary Kerry is in danger of becoming a joke. Now his credibility is on the line. Now we have another credibility issue that we are about to go to war for.

How many Syrians will have to die to save the face of Secretary Kerry?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Coming to Terms with Vietnam

A local columnist observed recently that America has never gotten over the Vietnam War experience.
This observation is by now familiar, but we rarely hear what it is about the Vietnam War that we are supposed to get over. The column that occasioned these thoughts focused on the moral evil of destroying a poor Asian country for the sake of stemming an imaginary “red tide.” It contrasted American refusal to face up to our conduct in Vietnam with that of the German Chancellor Willy Brandt who traveled to Poland to beg forgiveness for the German armies that ravaged Poland. No American has gone back to Vietnam to apologize to the Vietnamese people. ( Although Robert MacNamara, Secretary of Defense during significant periods of the Vietnam war has admitted in his autobiography that he, and others, were terribly mistaken about Vietnam).
It is not likely that we will ever offer such an apology and not because we are too ashamed of our moral failings in the conduct of that war.
We will not apologize for what we did in Vietnam because it would require us to admit that we lost the war in Vietnam. The richest most technologically advanced country of the world could not defeat a nation of poor rice farmers, who, walking on flip-flops, moved their military supplies on bicycles through the jungle.
That is an embarrassing defeat –as is the defeat by the Taliban-- but it does not only put our military prowess to shame, but arouses profound fears in the national psyche.
Americans have always been exceptionally war-like. In our entire history, our country was never longer at peace than the twenty four years between WW I and Pearl Harbor. On the average we were at peace for about ten years.
Most of the wars were fought against the native inhabitants of this land. We settled on land that was not ours and were, with a few exceptions like the Pennsylvania Quakers, not willing to share the land. We had to have it all and that meant decimating the original owners.
We have been a very violent people ever since we came here, not only against other peoples but also, as Wendell Berry points out, against the land. Where the native Americans traveled a footpath we have bulldozed the land and laid down 2, 4, 6 lanes of asphalt or concrete. We have cut down forests, damned up rivers and are destroying the fertile topsoil of our farms with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation.
Violence does not only shape action but affects the imagination. The violent see only allies or enemies; no others exist. Enemies are always a threat; the violent are always in danger as long as they have not conquered every last opponent. Enemies not overcome will always remain a threat. The violent live in fear—however much they may deny that.
That helps us understand our inability to come to terms with the Vietnam War. Once again, we saw an overwhelming danger where there was little or none at all. Having failed to subdue Vietnam, we remain in a world we cannot control. To reflect on Vietnam would require us to acknowledge how vulnerable we are, how much more vulnerable we have become since the middle 1970s.
We are not prepared to face up to that. To face up to Vietnam would require the admission that our violent view of the world keeps seducing us into seeing mortal dangers where there are none. There are not only Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years which we attacked under false pretenses but, more ridiculously, the invasions of Grenada and Panama we justified by the need to protect ourselves.
It is not just that our violent imagination makes us paranoid but that seeing the world as one vast struggle, we cannot be at rest or feel safe until we control everyone and and everything.

That was not even possible as long as our world was limited to this hemisphere. In a globalized world we are just that much less safe. Fearful, we cannot recognize Vietnam for the defeat that it was because it would reveal how dangerous our world is for those who only know how to be violent.