Re: Blaming America First (from Mother Jones magazine)

From: Wade T. Smith (
Date: Thu Jan 17 2002 - 04:33:55 GMT

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    Subject: Re: Blaming America First (from Mother Jones magazine)
    Date: Wed, 16 Jan 2002 23:33:55 -0500
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    - Wade


    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

    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 powerhouse?

    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

    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.

    All letters to the editor are for publication and may be edited for length

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