Blaming America First (from Mother Jones magazine)

From: Joe Dees (
Date: Wed Jan 16 2002 - 21:52:44 GMT

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    >Blaming America First Why are some on the left, who rightly demand sympathy for victims around the world, so quick to
    >dismiss American suffering? by Todd Gitlin January/February 2002
    >As shock and solidarity overflowed on September 11, it seemed for a moment that political differences had melted in the
    >inferno of Lower Manhattan. Plain human sympathy abounded amid a common sense of grief and emergency. Soon enough,
    >however, old reflexes and tones cropped up here and there on the left, both abroad and at home-smugness, acrimony, even
    >schadenfreude, accompanied by the notion that the attacks were, well, not a just dessert, exactly, butŠdamnable yet
    >understandable paybackŠrooted in America's own crimes of commission and omissionŠreaping what empire had sown. After
    >all, was not America essentially the oil-greedy, Islam-disrespecting oppressor of Iraq, Sudan, Palestine? Were not the
    >ghosts of the Shah's Iran, of Vietnam, and of the Cold War Afghan jihad rattling their bones? Intermittently grandiose
    >talk from Washington about a righteous "crusade" against "evil" helped inflame the rhetoric of critics who
    >feared-legitimately-that a deepening war in Afghanistan would pile human catastrophe upon human catastrophe. And soon,
    >without pausing to consider why the vast majority of Americans might feel bellicose as well as sorrowful, some on the
    >left were dismissing the idea that the United States had any legitimate recourse to the use of force in self-defense-or
    >indeed any legitimate claim to the status of victim.
    >I am not speaking of the ardent, and often expressed, hope that September 11's crimes against humanity might eventually
    >elicit from America a greater respect for the whole of assaulted humanity. A reasoned, vigorous examination of U.S.
    >policies, including collusion in the Israeli occupation, sanctions against Iraq, and support of corrupt regimes in Saudi
    >Arabia and Egypt, is badly needed. So is critical scrutiny of the administration's actions in Afghanistan and American
    >unilateralism on many fronts. But in the wake of September 11 there erupted something more primal and reflexive than
    >criticism: a kind of left-wing fundamentalism, a negative faith in America the ugly.In this cartoon view of the world,
    >there is nothing worse than American power-not the woman-enslaving Taliban, not an unrepentant Al Qaeda committed to
    >killing civilians as they please-and America is nothing but a self-seeking bully. It does not face genuine dilemmas. It
    >never has legitimate reason to do what it does. When its rulers' views command popularity, this can only be because the
    >entire population has been brainwashed, or rendered moronic, or shares in its leaders' monstrous values.
    >Of the perils of American ignorance, of our fantasy life of pure and unappreciated goodness, much can be said. The
    >failures of intelligence that made September 11 possible include not only security oversights, but a vast combination of
    >stupefaction and arrogance-not least the all-or-nothing thinking that armed the Islamic jihad in Afghanistan in order to
    >fight our own jihad against Soviet Communism-and a willful ignorance that not so long ago permitted half the citizens of
    >a flabby, self-satisfied democracy to vote for a man unembarrassed by his lack of acquaintanceship with the world.
    >But myopia in the name of the weak is no more defensible than myopia in the name of the strong. Like jingoists who
    >consider any effort to understand terrorists immoral, on the grounds that to understand is to endorse, these hard-liners
    >disdain complexity. They see no American motives except oil-soaked power lust, but look on the bright side of societies
    >that cultivate fundamentalist ignorance. They point out that the actions of various mass murderers (the Khmer Rouge, bin
    >Laden) must be "contextualized," yet refuse to consider any context or reason for the actions of Americans.
    >If we are to understand Islamic fundamentalism, must we not also trouble ourselves to understand America, this
    >freedom-loving, brutal, tolerant, shortsighted, selfish, generous, trigger-happy, dumb, glorious, fat-headed
    >Not a bad place to start might be the patriotic fervor that arose after the attacks. What's offensive about affirming
    >that you belong to a people, that your fate is bound up with theirs? Should it be surprising that suffering close-up is
    >felt more urgently, more deeply, than suffering at a distance? After disaster comes a desire to reassemble the shards of
    >a broken community, withstand the loss, strike back at the enemy. The attack stirs, in other words, patriotism-love of
    >one's people, pride in their endurance, and a desire to keep them from being hurt anymore. And then, too, the wound is
    >inverted, transformed into a badge of honor. It is translated into protest ("We didn't deserve this") and indignation
    >("They can't do this to us"). Pride can fuel the quest for justice, the rage for punishment, or the pleasures of
    >smugness. The dangers are obvious. But it should not be hard to understand that the American flag sprouted in the days
    >after September 11, for many of us, as a badge of belonging, not a call to shed innocent blood.
    >This sequence is not a peculiarity of American arrogance, ignorance, and power. It is simply and ordinarily human. It
    >operates as clearly, as humanly, among nonviolent Palestinians attacked by West Bank and Gaza settlers and their Israeli
    >soldier-protectors as among Israelis suicide-bombed at a nightclub or a pizza joint. No government anywhere has the
    >right to neglect the safety of its own citizens-not least against an enemy that swears it will strike again. Yet some
    >who instantly, and rightly, understand that Palestinians may burn to avenge their compatriots killed by American weapons
    >assume that Americans have only interests (at least the elites do) and gullibilities (which are the best the masses are
    >capable of).
    >In this purist insistence on reducing America and Americans to a wicked stereotype, we encounter a soft anti-Americanism
    >that, whatever takes place in the world, wheels automatically to blame America first. This is not the hard
    >anti-Americanism of bin Laden, the terrorist logic under which, because the United States maintains military bases in
    >the land of the prophet, innocents must be slaughtered and their own temples crushed. Totalitarians like bin Laden treat
    >issues as fodder for the apocalyptic imagination. They want power and call it God. Were Saddam Hussein or the
    >Palestinians to win all their demands, bin Laden would move on, in his next video, to his next issue.
    >Soft anti-Americans, by contrast, sincerely want U.S. policies to change-though by their lights, such turnabouts are
    >well-nigh unimaginable-but they commit the grave moral error of viewing the mass murderer (if not the mass murder) as
    >nothing more than an outgrowth of U.S. policy. They not only note but gloat that the United States built up Islamic
    >fundamentalism in Afghanistan as a counterfoil to the Russians. In this thinking, Al Qaeda is an effect, not a cause; a
    >symptom, not a disease. The initiative, the power to cause, is always American.
    >But here moral reasoning runs off the rails. Who can hold a symptom accountable? To the left-wing fundamentalist, the
    >only interesting or important brutality is at least indirectly the United States' doing. Thus, sanctions against Iraq
    >are denounced, but the cynical mass murderer Saddam Hussein, who permits his people to die, remains an afterthought.
    >Were America to vanish, so, presumably, would the miseries of Iraq and Egypt.
    >In the United States, adherents of this kind of reflexive anti-Americanism are a minority (isolated, usually, on
    >campuses and in coastal cities, in circles where reality checks are scarce), but they are vocal and quick to action.
    >Observing flags flying everywhere, they feel embattled and draw on their embattlement for moral credit, thus roping
    >themselves into tight little circles of the pure and the saved.
    >The United States represents a frozen imperialism that values only unbridled power in the service of untrammeled
    >capital. It is congenitally, genocidally, irremediably racist. Why complicate matters by facing up to America's
    >self-contradictions, its on-again, off-again interest in extending rights, its clumsy egalitarianism coupled with
    >ignorant arrogance? America is seen as all of a piece, and it is hated because it is hateful-period. One may quarrel
    >with the means used to bring it low, but low is only what it deserves.
    >So even as the smoke was still rising from the ground of Lower Manhattan, condemnations of mass murder made way in some
    >quarters for a retreat to the old formula and the declaration that the "real question" was America's victims-as if there
    >were not room in the heart for more than one set of victims. And the seductions of closure were irresistible even to
    >those dedicated, in other circumstances, to intellectual glasnost. Noam Chomsky bent facts to claim that Bill Clinton's
    >misguided attack on a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant in 1998 was worse by far than the massacres of September 11. Edward
    >Said, the exiled Palestinian author and critic, wrote of "a superpower almost constantly at war, or in some sort of
    >conflict, all over the Islamic domains." As if the United States always picked the fight; as if U.S. support of the Oslo
    >peace process, whatever its limitations, could be simply brushed aside; as if defending Muslims in Bosnia and
    >Kosovo-however dreadful some of the consequences-were the equivalent of practicing gunboat diplomacy in Latin America or
    >dropping megatons of bombs on Vietnam and Cambodia.
    >From the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, who has admirably criticized her country's policies on nuclear weapons and
    >development, came the queenly declaration that "American people ought to know that it is not them but their government's
    >policies that are so hated." (One reason why Americans were not exactly clear about the difference is that the murderers
    >of September 11 did not trouble themselves with such nice distinctions.) When Roy described bin Laden as "the American
    >president's dark doppelganger" and claimed that "the twins are blurring into one another and gradually becoming
    >interchangeable," she was in the grip of a prejudice invulnerable to moral distinctions.
    >Insofar as we who criticize U.S. policy seriously want Americans to wake up to the world-to overcome what essayist Anne
    >Taylor Fleming has called our serial innocence, ever renewed, ever absurd-we must speak to, not at, Americans, in
    >recognition of our common perplexity and vulnerability. We must abstain from the fairy-tale pleasures of
    >oversimplification. We must propose what is practical-the stakes are too great for the luxury of any fundamentalism. We
    >must not content ourselves with seeing what Washington says and rejecting that. We must forgo the luxury of assuming
    >that we are not obligated to imagine ourselves in the seats of power.Generals, it's said, are always planning to fight
    >the last war. But they're not alone in suffering from sentimentality, blindness, and mental laziness disguised as
    >resolve. The one-eyed left helps no one when it mires itself in its own mirror-image myths. Breaking habits is
    >desperately hard, but those who evade the difficulties in their purist positions and refuse to face all the mess and
    >danger of reality only guarantee their bitter inconsequence.

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