A Bombed out crater where buildings used to be
Rethinking American Exceptionalism
The question on the lips of all thoughtful Americans just now, as American flags are lowered for the last time over Iraqi territory and our warriors disembark, is was it worth all the American blood and treasure our nation expended there? How one answers this question depends upon your perspective and values; which are shaped by a multiplicity of factors. Among these none are more influential than class, knowledge of the facts at the time of the invasion, historical memory, ideology, general educational level, race, and whether or not you believe in the dangerous myth of American Exceptionalism.
Of all our misconceptions as a nation, this fervent belief that white Americans have been exceptionally good and just among the peoples of the world has been the most destructive. It is the reason that the majority of Americans can get all choked up reciting the time worn mantra extolling the USA as the one country that has always stood for freedom, justice and equality for everyone. The problem is that it’s not true!
There is much for which Americans can justly take a bow: the first people in the world to found a nation on the universal humanist principle that “all men are created equal,” and produced a constitution that placed power so thoroughly in the hands of the people that 200 years later those who govern must still have the consent of the governed. These are achievements that deserve sustained applause. However when the story stops there it distorts the master narrative so grotesquely the American saga becomes a dangerous self-serving lie!
Alas, this is also a country born in genocide and slavery; its European settlers perpetrated the largest case of land theft in modern history; passed laws that made it legal to sell the children of black parents and violate their wedding bed at will, and the Supreme Court of the land once decreed that “black men have no rights that a white man is bound to respect.”
These pious bible thumping Puritans slaughtered Native Americans and other people of color with impunity; shot workers down it the streets when they attempted to organize; and instituted a legal color caste system based on White Supremacy that spans most of the history of this country; a system based on a master race theory so vicious it served as the blueprint for the Nurnberg Laws the Nazi’s used to arrest and slaughter millions of European Jews!
The ideology that led to genocide by the racial hygenicists in Nazi Germany was deeply rooted in the American Eugenicist movement. This movement, which was based in 19th century Social Darwinist ideas that argued the class and racial hierarchy in society reflected the natural endowments of the population, took root in American society in the early twentieth century. Eugenicist propagated the belief that some groups genes should be reproduced because they improved the quality of the nation’s population, and conversely some genes should not be reproduced because it led to an increase of mentally, physically and morally defective people that weakened the nation.
These ideas were fashionable in the US decades before the rise of Nazism in Germany and were promoted by elite academic institutions such as Stanford University. In 1902 Stanford’s President, David Starr, published a treatise titled “The Blood of a Nation,” which argued that human qualities and deficits such as talent, poverty, criminal behavior, etc. were transmitted through a person’s blood. These ideas were subsidized by the super-rich class Franklin Roosevelt would derisively but accurately label “The economic royalist,” through foundations they set up to fund causes they believed would improve American society.
The main culprits in funding this so-called “race science” were the Rockerfeller, Carnegie and Harriman foundations, and the enlisted professors from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford among others. The ideas promoted by the Eugenicists informed policy makers who instituted racial apartheid; laws preventing marriage or procreation between whites and non-whites, discrimination against non- Tuetonic white ethnics in immigration policy and elswhere; anti-unionism, and forced sterilization.
The Rockefeller Foundation even funded the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele’s research before he took up his criminal practice at Auswitz, a death camp where European Jews were slaughtered en-mass. And British historian Edwin Black, whose parents were Jewish holocaust survivors, has written a detailed account of how the IBM corporation supplied machines to the Nazi’s that enabled them to carry out the mass murder of Jews with industrial efficiency. See: IBM and the Holocaust.
The ultimate connection of racist American ideology and Practices with the rise of Nazism in Germany lay in the connection between Adolph Hitler and the influential New York Eugenicist Madison Grant. A lawyer and President of the New York Zoological Society and founder of the Bronx Zoo, Grant published a ponderous tome titled “The Passing of the Great Race” in 1917.
Here was the classic statement of the case that the blond Teutonic master race is the source of all great civilizations. The arguments in this book were virtually cut and pasted in Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kempt, his recounting of racial history is all based on Grant’s pseudo-scientific thesis. While this is obvious from a reading of the two texts, historian Jonathan Spiro discovered a letter from Der Fuerer while sifting through Grant’s papers in which Hitler declared: “Your book is my bible!” See: Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant
A Passionate Racist
The evil system of legal racial oppression in America, that was the incubator of these racist theories, spanned a couple of centuries. It was finally ended only 47 years ago by the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, which was only supported by many in the white power elite when it became clear that the Russians were using the black American freedom struggle as propaganda.
The Russians designed propaganda employing images of black children being vicious beaten by policemen because they wanted to get a drink of water at a lunch counter, to dissuade the emerging nations of Africa and Asia from allying with the US led NATO block – which was largely composed of their former colonial masters – and show them that white Americans were no different.
Hence the Afro-American struggle for basic human rights was an international embarrassment that exposed white Americans as hypocrites who routinely betrayed the values they seek to preach to the rest of the world, and our nation’s economic inequality has become just as potent an argument against US values.
As Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey said in his recent speech at the Reagan Library – a curious mix of fact and fiction – “America’s role and significance in the world is defined, first and foremost, by who we are at home. It is defined by how we conduct ourselves with each other. It is defined by how we deal with our own problems. It is determined in large measure by how we set an example for the world… one of the most powerful forms of foreign policy is the example we set.”
However clueless Christie is divorced from reality like all right-wing ideologues who hoist the banner of American Exceptionalism. Hence he didn’t really understand that his statement was an indictment and not the celebration of American values he intended it to be. His confusion of fact and fiction was nowhere better demonstrated than in the claim that “Unfortunately, through our own domestic political conduct of late, we have failed to live up to our own tradition of exceptionalism.” Could he really believe that this is a recent problem?
The sad fact is that our history demonstrates the USA has a split personality; the contradiction between the professed ideals of the nation and the exercise of power by the white elite –which I consider the major theme of our history – is the essence of schizophrenia. It comes as no news that Americans are shamefully ignorant of our history; yet it is shocking to see such ignorance or denial – which has taken the form of a dangerous self-deception – expressed before the world press by a man who is touted as the best Republican prospect for the presidency. The failure to accept who we really are, a nation with high ideals and tragic flaws, has led much of America’s leadership to believe that our perfection, our Exceptionalism, gives us the right to invade other countries and effect “regime change.”
What must change however is the self-righteous arrogance with which Americans exercise power in the world. To his credit Christie clearly understands this, although he will have his work cut out trying to convince the rest of his party. He observes: “The United States must also become more discriminating in what we try to accomplish abroad. We certainly cannot force others to adopt our principles through coercion. Local realities count; we cannot have forced makeovers of other societies in our image. We need to limit ourselves overseas to what is in our national interest so that we can rebuild the foundations of American power here at home…”
If this does not become the accepted view of American leaders and the general public, the Iraq debacle will really have been all for naught and we shall soon be at war with Iran. I can already hear the sabers rattling! This would be a catastrophe that could fatally wound our political economy, promote protracted conflict at home, and end American prominence in the world.
For the true believers it is impossible to accept that this bloody three trillion dollar assault on an unoffending nation, was a criminal mistake. That this ten year conflict resulting in the destruction of tens of thousands of American lives…through death and devastating life altering injuries to their minds and bodies – overwhelmingly from the working poor and unemployed - may well result in a worse situation than they found; that America’s cure was worse than the disease.
But as the bombs go off in Bagdad, a sure sign that the Sunnis and Shiites have resumed their murderous 18 hundred year old conflict over some esoteric theological disagreement, which renders each side apostates in the eyes of the other, it will be hard to escape the conclusion the American invasion has made the lives of most Iraqis worse. and our position in the Middle east more perilous.
None of the Republican candidates for president dare admit that the Iraq War was a tragic fiasco, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi’s, unleashing antagonistic religious conflicts which insure the killing will continue long after American forces are gone, and expanding the influence of their fellow Shiites in Iran.
Instead the princes and powers of the Grand Obstructionist Party escape into flights of fantasy of the sort that we are hearing from Senator John “Insane in the Brain” McCain, and echoed in the hysterical rhetoric of his hawkish right-wing cohorts. Most of these dunderheads defer to Senator McCain because, it spite of their tough talk they have never served in the armed forces…never placed themselves in harm’s way. Yet they are the first to call for the deployment of American troops everywhere in the world, and seem to have never heard of an opportunity to invade some country they could refuse.
McCain says President Obama’s decision to end the 10 year old war in Iraq is an act of political opportunism; that we should stay there until we can leave with honor in victory. The careful observer can see the glint of madness in his eyes, as he puffs up like a blow fish while spouting murderous madness that bears no relationship to reality.
McCain’s vision and judgment is hopelessly blurred by the fact that he has never recovered from his experience in Vietnam, where he not only witnessed the retreat of the “invincible” American military juggernaut, defeated by a peasant army who labeled themselves the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, but he loathes the fact that his high tech jet was shot down, captured, and then told when and where to shit, shave and shower by little brown Asian warriors whom he still calls “gooks!”
We are fortunate indeed that Barack Obama was elected President of the USA; had McCain won the election we would already be at war with Iran and probably Pakistan too, and instead of withdrawing American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan we would be widening that war in search of an illusory “victory” no one can define. we Although this entire debacle is arguably the worst diplomatic disaster in American history, the leading Republican candidate for President is surrounding himself with foreign policy advisers who were the architects of Bush’s Iraq war policy!
It’s long past time for us to get out of Iraq, and Afghanistan too! Yet Republican candidates are vying with each other to be the first to bomb Iran, and the severe sanctions against that country contained in the new military authorization bill could force Iran into taking actions that could lead to war, in fact all the signs suggest that as I write we are blundering into war with Iran.
If anything is clear in all this, it is that we must struggle to keep the warmongers of the “Grand Obstructionist Party” out of the Oval Office and the leadership of Congress. That is the most urgent lesson of the Iraq War. And as to the question of American Exceptionalism, we would do well to consider this observation by the great 20th century Irish writer George Bernard Shaw: “America is the only country in the history of the world to go from barbarism to decadence without ever passing through civilization.” If you believe that institutionalized racial oppression and a recurrent tendency to invade other countries barbaric…Shaw has a point.
Shaw: Playwright and Fabian Socialist
Was he Right?
Harlem, New york
December 30, 2011