Time to reject US patriotism

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Michael Gasser

February 8, 2017

When and if fascism comes to America, … it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism’.

Halford E. Luccock, 1938

For the first time in US history, the country has a president and an administration that is being openly called “fascist”. Whether the term is appropriate or not, as of February 2017, depends on your definition of fascism. What everyone agrees on, however, is the role that nationalism plays in fascism, in particular the ethnic nationalism that is familiar from Nazism. In this respect, no one doubts that Trump and his appointees qualify as fascists. Trump’s campaign slogan, “make America great again”, in combination with his comments about Muslims, African Americans, Mexicans, and immigrants, have inspired an unprecedented rise in racist language and actions, before and after the election. Following one of these incidents, when two men beat up and urinated on a homeless Latino man, Trump replied, “The people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country, they want this country to be great again.”

Of course “America” has figured in the slogans of many other presidential candidates in US history, representing different political parties, and this country’s supposed greatness and exceptional status are invoked all the time in the speeches of US politicians. To take a recent example, Michelle Obama told the delegates to the Democratic National Convention on July 25, 2016, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country is not great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on Earth.” As in Trump’s inaugural address, the nine previous ones all ended with variants of that most arrogant of nationalist slogans: “God bless America”. Indeed, within mainstream political discourse, nationalism (usually called “patriotism”) is treated as a prerequisite to being taken seriously. So on the right end of the mainstream it’s legitimate to accuse someone such as Barack Obama of not “loving America”, and on the left end people defend protest or dissent or peace as “patriotic”; it’s apparently love of country that motivates them to challenge the system in one way or another.

But if we are to believe National Review editor, Rich Lowry, nationalism has a special prominence in the “culture war” that Trump is leading: “Trump’s culture war is fundamentally the people versus the elite, national sovereignty versus cosmopolitanism, and patriotism versus multiculturalism”. Of course it’s not just culture that’s at stake in this war; the Trump Administration threatens the basic rights that Americans take for granted, the security of entire sub-populations, in fact the well-being of the whole planet. If the anti-Trump forces are to win this war, apparently Trump’s nationalism must be challenged in one way or another, either through a different variety or a rejection of nationalism altogether.

US patriotism

Nationalism is not unique to the USA of course, but it’s worth looking more closely at what we might call “orthodox US nationalism”, the relationship between citizen and country that permeates the education system, the mainstream news, marketing, and popular culture, as well as the speeches of politicians. Not surprisingly, US nationalism shares a lot with the nationalisms of imperialist countries throughout history, as opposed to less dangerous varieties characteristic of small countries with little power over others. What are some of its characteristics?

  1. It rests on myths and half-truths concerning US history and on the elevation of particular people (such as George Washington) and particular idealized characters (such as the settler) to the status of heroes. Protest, as long as it stays within certain norms, is a legitimate part of the story (after all, “protest is patriotic”), so figures like Susan B. Anthony, César Chávez, and Martin Luther King may be treated as heroes, while others, such as John Brown, Eugene V. Debs, and Malcolm X, are either marginalized or demonized.
  2. A set of values, varying with the period and the writer, is characterized as “American”, and anyone who opposes them may be attacked as “un-American”. On November 18, 2016, for example, Michael Winship published an article on the liberal website Common Dreams describing the hate crimes since the election and Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon to the White House as “un-American”, without explaining what that meant.
  3. US nationalism creates the illusion that there is something called “the American people” that can benefit from or be united around particular policies, when in reality almost all policies of the federal government have differential effects on different classes or different ethnic groups. “We” are also expected believe that these policies are in some sense “ours”, as when “we” finally caught up with Osama bin Laden or one or “our” planes was shot down over Afghanistan.
  4. US nationalism asserts the superiority of this country to all others, not only today, but throughout history. This exceptionalism is a feature that tends to characterize the nationalisms of empires. For some US nationalists, the “greatness” may have been temporarily interrupted. We see this not only in Trump’s or Reagan’s “make America great again” but in the way liberals bemoan the loss of the “democracy” we supposedly had before Bush or Reagan or Citizens United.
  5. From this special sort of greatness follows the USA’s unique responsibility as the “leader of the Free World”, the defender of freedoms everywhere. Again this has parallels in the nationalisms of earlier empires, especially in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere of imperial Japan in the early 1940s.
  6. US nationalism is strongly associated with the glorification of the military, a military whose size and reach are in part justified by the USA’s special mission within the world. Powerful militaries have of course been indispensable to empires throughout history; without them there would have been no empires.

These ideas, memes, and ways of thinking are so ingrained in the cultural and political life of the country that they are rarely questioned. Is Trump’s variant any different?

Trump’s patriotism

Trump’s inaugural address is full of invocations of patriotism and the glorification of the military and the police. In this speech and on the White House website, the slogan is clear: “America first”. Like “make America great again”, “America first” may not shock many people. But let’s consider what these phrases translate into.

  1. In the realm of energy, “America first” means “energy independence”, a familiar slogan from the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years, when progressive energy/climate policy reforms were usually offset by concessions to the fossil fuel industry, an “all-of-the-above” approach. “Energy independence” for the Trump administration means unrestricted fracking of shale oil and natural gas, coal mining, and pipeline construction, with all of the dangers these industries hold for the future of the world, as well as for the people on site.
  2. Combined with Trump’s scapegoating of immigrants and Muslims, both slogans bring back troubling memories of Nazism in the Weimar Republic, when the “alt-right” of that era blamed Jews and Communists for the nation’s defeat in World War I, eventually claiming that these enemies would need to be eliminated to make Germany “great again”. Fascism seems right around the corner, if not already here, though it is difficult to know what we should be expecting. Greatly enhanced surveillance (taking advantage of what was conveniently put in place by the Bush and Obama administrations)? Criminalization of all protest? Mass arrests of activists? Here’s one chilling set of predictions from Yonatan Zunger.
  3. As in Nazi Germany, “greatness” for the new administration means “winning” wars again, and this in turn means massive expansion of the US military, already by any measure the world’s most powerful, as well as the threat of dangerous new wars with countries like Iran and even China. And the man behind the curtain, Stephen Bannon, seems to relish the thought of new wars.

In an article written soon after the election, Michael Hardt and Sandro Mezzadra put Trump’s rise in the context of the global consolidation of the power of the far right, arguing, among other points, that the struggle against these trends needs to reinvigorate the alter-globalization movement of the 1990s and 2000s. Hardt and Mezzadra warn against the dangers and the futility of “affirming national boundaries and national sovereignty” as a part of this fight. For these writers, then, challenging Trump, like challenging Marine le Pen in France and Nigel Farage in the UK, is not a matter of creating a kindler, gentler nationalism but rather rejecting nationalism altogether.

An unpatriotic alternative

The day after Trump was inaugurated, people in hundreds of cities across the USA participated in Women’s Marches, taking the lead of the organizers of the march in Washington, DC. This was apparently the largest protest in US history and therefore certainly included many people who had never participated in protests before. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues that this protest could mark the beginning of a united front between radicals and liberals in a situation in which “there are literally millions of people in this country who are now questioning everything.” Among the speeches at the Washington march, one thing was noticeably missing, and this was picked up by conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks. While not happy with Trump’s “backward-looking brutalistic nationalism”, it has the “coherent vision” that he finds missing in the Women’s March. What he hoped for was a “better nationalism”, one “that balances the dynamism of capitalism with biblical morality”.

In fact, as far as I could tell, the Women’s March offered no nationalism at all, to its credit, and if millions are now “questioning everything”, perhaps US patriotism is on the list. Consider what happened in August 2016 when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to not stand during the playing of the national anthem, to protest a “country that oppresses black people”. Although his actions generated plenty of opposition, they also led to similar actions in other sports and among college and high school athletes.

Brooks is right about one thing: the new anti-Trump coalition that is emerging does need its own vision. But rather than a nationalistic vision that plays into the hands of the proto-fascists, we need one that replaces allegiance to country with allegiances that make more political sense, both smaller and larger ones. Building on the growing worldwide right-to-the-city and municipalist movements, allegiance to our neighborhoods and cities. Building on the alter-globalization movement of the early 2000s, still to be seen at World Social Forums, and the growing global climate and food justice movements, allegiance to the communities everywhere that are victims of the economic and political system that gave us Trump and that can only get much worse under him. All of these movements are negative in their opposition to this system, but at the same time positive in their creation of local alternatives to it.

Questioning US nationalism will not be easy for a lot of people. Alongside a rejection of the symbols and the language, it means above all re-visiting the history of the USA, confronting the slavery, the colonialism, and the imperialism behind US power, an economic and political system dominated by a class of parasites like the new president. The search for “greatness” in this history leads inevitably to the many Americans who have fought one or another aspect of this system over the years, winning the reforms that are now being threatened by the Trump Administration. The fact is that “America was never great”, and rather than trying to return to some mythical past, we should be working toward a future USA that really embodies the values of justice, inclusivity, and sustainability that unite us in our opposition to Trump.

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Win-lose

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I’m currently involved in a campaign to save a small community garden maintained by a group of immigrant gardeners. The garden has existed — thrived in fact — for more than 20 years on land owned by a powerful local company that runs an amusement park. Now the company wants part of the land back and is only guaranteeing the rest of the space for 3 more years. The details of this campaign are very interesting since it pits private property against a range of values that people in this city are supposed to believe in, like sustainability and food justice.

But what I wanted to focus on here is the division that exists within the coalition that is fighting for the garden. Everyone in the coalition agrees that the garden should be preserved and that the ultimate solution is for the city to buy the land from the company. But the company has other plans for the space (none of them public, but there are some popular theories) and has said on several occasions that it has no intention of selling the land. In fact, rather than showing any sympathy with the gardeners or any interest in what the garden represents, the company representative has chosen to portray them as victims of a sometimes “vitriolic” campaign against them.

Although I’m not aware of such vitriol, one clear strategy at this point would be to put pressure on the company by threatening to organize a boycott of their amusement park and a PR campaign that portrays them as standing in the way of community values. Such a campaign would see this as a struggle between two sides, the company on the one hand and the gardeners and their supporters on the other. In a struggle, one side ultimately loses and the other wins. If the company wins, the gardeners lose part of the garden now and probably the rest in 3 years. If the gardeners and their supporters win, the company loses: though it gets compensated for the land, its long-term plans are stymied and its influence in the city is weakened.

But a significant fraction of the coalition sees things differently. They speak of “win-win”, a situation in which both the gardeners and the company end up pleased with the outcome. I realized that this is a common liberal way of viewing conflict: there really is no conflict; the parties just need to realize that their goals are somehow compatible. This perspective is related to the idea that there is no “us” and “them”, that everyone is in the same boat.

This view denies, or minimizes, class and the conflict that goes with it. It also denies, or minimizes, power. Rather than gaining power through and inevitably antagonizing the other side, “win-win” solutions come through discussion, and any language that could alienate the other side is avoided because if they’re alienated, they might not agree to come to the discussion.

When I began to change over from liberalism to more radical politics, I noticed how often the radical people around me used the word struggle, and I didn’t see the significance of this at first. This new use of the word (for me) took me awhile to get used to; I didn’t say it myself until relatively recently. The strangeness of it comes from the liberal idea that we don’t have to fight for things; we just have to make sure everyone understands what is best for society. The notion that what’s best for one group may be very bad for another is not often considered.

“Win-win” only works if the two sides are on an equal footing and there is more than enough to go around of the thing that is at stake. Neither is the case in this conflict.

I’m pretty sure the company knows that someone is going to lose. By failling to challenge them, those members of the coalition working towards a “win-win” solution are unwittingly helping out the company and making it harder to really win.

What’s so funny about poverty?

PY vendors

In Asunción, Paraguay, where I’m living at the moment, it’s common for vendors to climb on buses and then got off at the next stop. These people sell everything from apples to candy to soft drinks to lottery tickets to socks. Some stand at the front of the bus and recite a long speech that they’ve memorized and, from the sound of it, have given hundreds of times. They remind me of the actors in a high school play whose mechanical delivery of their lines has lost all connection with its meaning.

The other day one of these vendors got on a bus I was riding; he was selling what you might call “educational coloring books”. He pulled one of these out of his backpack and went through his rapid-fire sales pitch, so fast that I couldn’t catch most of it. But the gist was, “This is just what your children need to improve their performance in school. Look, each of the letters of the alphabet has its own page. And on each page is a picture illustrating the letter that your child can color however they like. There’s also a separate page for the numbers 0 through 9 with illustrations for each digit ready to be colored by your child.” And pulling out six of the booklets, “And I have a whole set of these, one for each of the grades of elementary school.”

The whole idea of making these pathetic little booklets into something worthy of the attention of the bus passengers I found hilarious. “A picture on every page.” Hahaha. I turned to my wife, but she wasn’t laughing.

Later I asked her why. “What’s so funny about poverty?” she said. “That guy will be lucky if he sells one of those little books in a day.”

I had to agree. I was falling into one of those typical behaviors of the privileged, to ridicule the poor. It’s all about feeling superior to them. We make fun of the way they talk, the music they listen to, the clothes they wear. These attitudes reinforce class divisions and inhibit solidarity across classes. They are probably as old as class itself, and they are as much a part of modern capitalism as stock brokers, shopping malls, and soup kitchens.

The rich in Asunción don’t get a chance to laugh at the vendors on the buses though. They don’t take the buses, which are rickety and unreliable. Instead they take taxis or drive around the city in their cars. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on whose side you’re on) they don’t get to avoid the poverty altogether though. They have to stop their vehicles at major intersections, and each time they do, they are confronted by a whole array of people, mostly children, ready to clean their windshields; sell them flowers, toys, or bananas; or juggle for them. The other day I saw a man with Down syndrome, by himself, begging for money at one of these busy intersections.

There is nothing funny about these people, nor about an economic system that drives children to juggle for pocket change in heavy traffic in Asunción, young girls to wait by the highways of Europe for truck drivers to pick them up, men to spend their days going through toxic garbage dumps in Asia for salvageable things, women in Africa to sell their children to foreign adoption agencies.

If we have to laugh at someone, let’s laugh at the rich. In Asunción, where both wealth and poverty are hard to miss all over the city, the well-to-do sometimes go out of their way to remind you of their wealth, and the result may be quite bizarre, as in this house.

ASU house

Now that’s funny.

Change

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It seems just wrong to be blogging about anything other than Egypt at this moment. What has happened in Tunisia and now Egypt in the last two months is not something unheard of in human history at all. People have risen up countless times and overthrown tyrants like Ben-Ali and Mubarak. But in these ahistorical times, when we’re bombarded with the hype that things don’t change, that we can pretty well predict who will be in power for the foreseeable future, it’s useful to be reminded that Change Happens.

I doubt that I have much to add to all of the commentary about these events. I just want to make four brief points.

First, Egypt matters. Egypt is the most populous Arab country and the second largest recipient of US military aid (after Israel). A lot of people are very nervous tonight, people in Washington, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Sana’a, Algiers, Baghdad, Tripoli, Amman, Damascus, and beyond.

Second, this shows us, once again, that history is non-linear. Small changes along one dimension, say, the price of wheat, do not necessarily lead to correspondingly small changes on other dimensions, say, the citizenry’s willingness to accept the status quo. While there may be long periods of linearity, history is also characterized by butterfly effects. Relatively insignificant events, like the public suicide of a street vendor, can lead to dramatic consequences, given a background of general discontent.

Third, everybody, but in particular the spokespeople for the imperialist powers that backed Mubarak, will now be jumping all over themselves trying to make it appear that they are on the “people”‘s side, that they support “democracy” and “human rights” for the Egyptian people. Watching these people squirm, as they try to make sense out of a world they’ve lost control of, is really quite enjoyable. Well, only partial control. They are almost as dangerous as ever, and they will do everything they can to manipulate the situation in Egypt to their advantage.

Fourth, for all revolutionaries everywhere, whatever happens next in Egyptian history, this is truly an inspiring moment. I’m crying here.

What good are elections?

Mid-term elections happened last month in the USA. “Mid-term” elections are the ones in between the presidential elections, when all of the people in the House of Representatives and 1/3 of the Senators are up for re-election. There are also a lot of “important” choices at the state level, including gubernatorial races.

As always, the elections attracted enormous attention from the mainstream media, even some of the “alternative” media. This time around, the big questions on everybody’s mind were (1) whether the Republican Party would make the predicted gains in Congress and (2) whether the proto-fascists within the Republican Party, known here as the Tea Party movement, would exert much influence on the results.

In my congressional district, the choice was between the incumbent, one of the so-called Blue Dog Democrats, and a Republican who had never run for office before. Basically, as I understand it, a Blue Dog Democrat is a Republican who hopes to attract the votes of Democrats in a district where there are a sizable number of Democrats.

I could not get interested, in this race or the elections at all. I didn’t vote for any of the candidates, except for a few at the local city level. We are told over and over that this time it really matters. The most recent example of being told this non-stop for months was the presidential election of 2008, where real “change” was a possibility. Well, it depends on what you mean by “change”, I guess. For many people who hoped for something substantial the first 2 1/2 years of Obama’s Administration have been very disappointing. The recent release by Wikileaks of diplomatic correspondence seems to indicate that the government of the USA is treating the rest of the world more or less as it did under George Bush. So much for “change”.

On paper, elections look like the chance to have anything happen, no matter how radical or revolutionary. All it takes is a candidate with a radical program who can convince the voters that it’s superior to what other candidates are offering. This is the way elections are presented in civics classes in high school (at least they were when I went to high school), and there are good reasons they are presented this way. The point is that people believe they have the power to change things.

The reality is very different. Elections are far more than the textbook version that we’re taught to believe in. All aspects of the process, from the selection of candidates to the access they have to the media, are governed by rules and conventions that are not part of the textbook descriptions. The rules and conventions come from somewhere, namely from the people who are in power. If there’s a universal principle of politics, it’s that those in power will do whatever they can do to stay there. Far from being a way of overthrowing the powerful, elections are a clever way of maintaining the status quo. They give people the illusion of power while at the same time making it very difficult to change anything. Consider how much effort is expended on the illusion: the exaggeration of the differences between the political parties by the candidates themselves and by the media. In the USA the positions of Republican and Democratic candidates are regularly portrayed as poles defining the whole space of political possibilities.

Then there’s the weight assigned to the act of voting itself: all of the earnest entreaties to vote, no matter for whom; the “I voted” stickers that people wear on Election Day in the USA; the bumper stickers: “Don’t blame me; I voted for X”, “I’m pro-life and I vote”. It sometimes seems that voting is the one and only political act that citizens are expected to execute. And yet, in the USA, almost half of the eligible voters fail to vote at all, even in the most “important” elections. This “apathy” makes the election freaks even more frantic to “get out the vote”.

But “wait”, you’re saying. Elections do result in changes, don’t they? What about Franklin Roosevelt in the USA in 1936 and subsequently? What about Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1999 and subsequently? The changes that Roosevelt ushered in (some of which did not survive into the 21st century) were probably among the most dramatic in the USA since the Civil War. But something had to be done to save capitalism, which was in deep crisis. Roosevelt’s clever Keynesian moves, helped by the convenient threat posed by fascism in Europe and East Asia, did the trick. Whatever you may think of this, you have to agree that Roosevelt was no socialist; throughout his career he remained loyal to the privileged class he grew up in.

Chávez appears to be another matter. He seems to moving Venezuela, albeit fitfully and slowly, in the direction of some sort of socialism. But Chávez has already survived one attempt by opponents attempting to overthrow him. Many elected leaders who seemed to pose a threat to the ruling class in their countries have not been so lucky: Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, Patrice Lumumba in 1960, Salvador Allende in 1972, Manuel Zelaya in 2009, to name a few famous examples.

It would be going too far to imagine that elections can never bring radical change. It happened in Germany in 1932-33. But the cards are heavily stacked against it. Radical change happens in the workplace and in the streets.

Americans and anti-Americans

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My wife and I once argued about whether I’m an American. I was born in the USA; both of my parents are citizens of the USA, and I have a US passport. But am I an American? One problem with the word is that many people (quite reasonably) feel that it applies to the whole Western Hemisphere and has been appropriated by people in the United States of America. (Even this name is pretty presumptuous when you think about it; wouldn’t the “united states” of “America” be expected to include a lot more “states” than the ones it does?) But that’s not what our argument was about. It revolved more about what the word American means to most people in the USA. My argument was that the word referred to citizenship and to certain typical cultural traits. Like a lot of citizens of the USA, I like to bathe a lot, I eat a bigger meal in the evening than in the middle of the day and I eat it at around 6:00, and the words gas and class rhyme in my dialect of English. My wife’s position was that there was something more important than these things that I lacked: the sense of belonging and the loyalty that go with patriotism. The fact is that I don’t feel any sort of political relationship to the country (though I used to). Like it or not, it seems that this is a part of what most people in the USA mean when they say “American”, and the word obviously means what most people mean by it, not what I think it ought to mean.

Here’s a test to see where you stand on this dimension. I guess it could apply to any country. Say the government of your country carries out some act on the international stage that you support or oppose. In the one case, you feel pride, in the other shame. Either of these emotions implies a kind of responsibility for what the government of your country (“your government”) has done. In this case, you’re a real American (or Russian or Swede or Tanzanian or Bolivian or whatever). Though I’ve never felt proud of anything the US government under different administrations has done, I used to feel ashamed sometimes when the government ordered the invasion of some country or supported some ruthless leader. Now I don’t. So in this sense I’m no longer a real American.

I’m trying to be careful about how I refer to the acts of governments, and it isn’t easy. We don’t usually say things like “the US government invaded Iraq”; we say “the US invaded Iraq”. This is part of the problem, I think, and this is also what Parker T. Moon thought when he wrote the following in 1927:

Language often obscures truth. More than is ordinarily realized, our eyes are blinded to the facts of international relations by tricks of the tongue. When one uses the simple monosyllable “France” one thinks of France as a unit, an entity. When to avoid awkward repetition we use a personal pronoun in referring to a country–when for example we say “France sent her troops to conquer Tunis”–we impute not only unity but personality to the country. The very words conceal the facts and make international relations a glamorous drama in which personalized nations are the actors, and all too easily we forget the flesh-and-blood men and women who are the true actors. How different it would be if we had no such word as “France,” and had to say instead–thirty-eight million men, women and children of very diversified interests and beliefs, inhabiting 218,000 square miles of territory! Then we should more accurately describe the Tunis expedition in some such way as this: “A few of these thirty-eight million persons sent thirty thousand others to conquer Tunis.” This way of putting the fact immediately suggests a question, or rather a series of questions. Who are the “few”? Why did they send the thirty thousand to Tunis? And why did these obey?

Given these linguistic tricks and various sorts of historical distortions, people get caught up in the notion that when some act is carried out in our name, it is our act. But this is an illusion. The soldiers the government sends abroad are only our soldiers in the sense that they may be our relatives or friends. We did not send them, and, except in a very indirect way, they are not fighting for us. The idea that it is somehow the nation as a whole that makes political decisions is common in mainstream political discourse. Take this Newsweek article by Fareed Zakaria on the response of “America” to the 9-11 attacks. Though Zakaria does assign some blame to the government, just as often it is all of “us” he talks about: “the United States has been right about the intentions of its adversaries”, “we overreacted” to 9-11, “when do we declare victory?” It’s as though all of the foreign policy decisions and the increased surveillance of the population that Zakaria is criticizing were the outcome of debates in town hall meetings all over the country. I’m sorry, but I had nothing to do with those policies; leave me out of your “America” and your “us”, please.

So what is an “anti-American”? I used to find this a strange term. Would this be somebody who, say, hates the Mississippi River, baseball, or hamburgers? What it really seems to mean to most people who use it is “opposed to the policies of US administrations generally or to the political/economic system that dominates the US”. To argue, for example, that US foreign policy serves the interests of multinational corporations or that US elections are undemocratic is to be anti-American.

So I may be a “passport” American, but I’m not a real American. In fact I’m an anti-American.

So what? What difference does it make? I’ll save that for another entry.

What we’re supposed to believe (1)

Several things happened to me as I gave up being liberal and turned into a radical. In my last post, I mentioned how I came to understand that the pieces of the society could fit together in a coherent system without a single small group of people telling everybody what to do. A second, related change in my thinking led me to mistrust a lot of the people I had been trusting for most of my life.

A nation can only function if most of its citizens agree on what is true and what is good. By “what is true”, I mean what happened in the past and why and what is happening in the present and why. By “what is good”, I mean what is so sacred, so fundamental to what it means to be a citizen that to question it is unacceptable. To ensure this agreement among citizens, they need to be indoctrinated, but, as far as possible, they also need to remain unaware that they’re being indoctrinated. I’d say the United States is extreme in both regards: Americans are more indoctrinated than people in other comparable countries and also less aware of it.

(No, I can’t prove that; it’s based mostly on my impressions of people around the world. But here’s a recent indication. The economist Rick Wolff discusses in this article how French and Americans have responded completely differently to very similar economic problems and government responses to them: the French with a very popular general strike, Americans with, well, not even a modest mobilization.)

The “truth” part of indoctrination is the business of school and of the media. The US is an unusually ahistorical place; people are discouraged from dwelling on the past. A favorite example of mine is the changing relationship of US governments to leaders and political movements. One-time allies, including figures such as Saddam Hussein and the predecessors of the Taliban, which probably would never have come to power without our help, turn into mortal enemies later on when they are no longer serving their function, and these changes are rarely discussed publicly. This photo of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in 1983, less than 20 years before our government, with Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary, moved to overthrow Saddam, is emblematic of this fickleness and amnesia. In fact Saddam’s relations with the US go back to 1959.

Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein, 1983

Ignoring history is convenient not only because it covers up embarrassing shifts in policy. It also helps to keep the public in the dark about what is possible. As Terry Eagleton writes in The Gatekeeper: A Memoir, “It is no wonder that capitalism seeks to erase the past, since the past speaks of difference, and thus of the future.” Ignoring the present – I mean, ignoring the important things going on in the present – serves the same function because it covers up change that is already underway. More about the present another time.

We are exposed to some history in the US of course. But we get so little that there’s only room for a few key events and people along with a simple narrative for how it all supposedly fits together. And because the time spent on the rest of the world is so minimal, only random snippets remain for most people. The overall impression is one of a world out there full of turmoil and brutality. The history of the US, by contrast, comes across as an unparalleled success story: people coming to the “new world” to escape persecution in the “old world”, creating a democratic system that is the envy of all other nations, unselfishly going abroad to fight wars to extend this special democracy to others as well as to protect our own system. The themes that run throughout the story are a commitment to freedom, a compassion for those less fortunate than us, and a rejection of tyranny.

These are all myths. While individual Americans may be compassionate people who would like everyone everywhere to be free (whatever that might mean), these themes prove useless when it comes to explaining the policies of US governments through the years. These policies can be understood much better as actions designed to enrich a small class of people at the expense of others and to keep those people in power. (If you don’t already believe this, there’s little here that will convince you, I know. I’ll talk about how I came to believe this in another post. For now, check out how one Iraqi woman, Layla Anwar, views US “compassion” in her blog, An Arab Woman Blues.)

If this is true, how can so many people be deceived? I confess to not really understanding this, but there are some clues in US history. First, it’s in the US that the arts of marketing, public relations, and propaganda were perfected, especially through the work of people like Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee, and Frederick Winslow Taylor. In his 1928 book, Propaganda, Bernays wrote that the “intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society”. These people’s ideas have been applied in politics as well as in business. For example, Bernays was largely responsible for the campaign to discredit the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, before he was overthrown in a coup organized by the CIA in 1954.

As in most other countries, public education also has a big role to play in making “good citizens” out of young people; in part this means getting them to accept the national myths. This is the role of “social studies” and “civics” classes in US elementary schools. I’m not prepared to compare the level of indoctrination in public schools in the US with that in other advanced capitalist countries like France, Japan, Canada, and the UK. I’m guessing that there is less room for questioning the myths in the US, but this could be wrong.

Finally, the mainstream press in the US, nominally free, has often been unusually compliant, functioning as a kind of cheering section for government policies as well as (even more blatantly) for capitalism itself. Alternatives to the mainstream US media do exist, and one of their common themes is the spinelessness of the dominant media, for example, the failure of the big newspapers and TV networks to question the lies and distortions that led up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The recent attitude of the mainstream media is summed up for me by the inclusion of “thank you for your service” in their interviews of military officials. A good place to look into the pro-government, pro-corporate media bias is Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.

Too often, frustrated people on the Left blame “the American people” for supporting imperialist wars, for voting for Democrats or Republicans, for blaming immigrants for unemployment. If blame is to be assigned, it’s with the System that manipulates ordinary Americans. And if we’ve learned anything from the experiences of the 20th century, it’s that people can be manipulated; there’s nothing special about Americans.

So Americans are supposed to believe that they are threatened by Islamic terrorists, that measures that benefit rich capitalists also benefit them, that the US fights wars to protect the freedom of Americans, that the Republican and Democratic parties represent opposite poles on the spectrum of “politics”. And they will continue to believe these things to the extent that they trust the educational system, the mainstream news media, and the speeches of politicians. Undermining this trust should be a major goal of revolutionaries.