U.S. Holds The World Record for Killing Innocent Civilians
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By Kourosh Ziabari
30 July, 2014 Countercurrents.org
A world-renowned Canadian philosopher argues that the United States is the world recorder of illegal killings of unarmed civilians and extrajudicial detention and torturing of prisoners who are detained without trial. Prof. John McMurtry says that the U.S. government is a gigantic mass-murdering machine which earns profit through waging wars, and is never held accountable over its unspeakable war crimes and crimes against humanity. He also believes that the U.S. has become a police state, which treats its citizens in the most derogatory manner.
“I have travelled alone with only backpack possession through the world, and have found no state in which police forces are more habituated to violent bullying, more likely to draw a gun, more discriminatory against the dispossessed, and more arbitrarily vicious in normal behavior,” said McMurtry. “The US now leads the globe in an underlying civil war of the rich against the poor.”
“The US can … detain, kidnap and imprison without trial or indictment any US citizen or other citizen anywhere by designating them enemies to the US,” Prof. John McMurtry noted in an exclusive interview with Fars News Agency.
According to the Canadian intellectual, the United States statesmen have long supported dictatorial and tyrannical regimes and even funded and armed the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler in the period between 1939 and 1945.
John McMurtry is a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Guelph, Canada. In 2001, Prof. McMurtry was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada for his outstanding contributions to the study of humanities and social sciences. His latest major works are his 15-year study, “The Cancer Stage of Capitalism: From Crisis to Cure” and three monumental volumes commissioned by UNESCO for its Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems entitled “Philosophy and World Problems.” McMurtry’s articles and writings regularly appear on different newspapers and online magazines across the world.
Prof. McMurtry took part in an in-depth interview with FNA and responded to some questions regarding the U.S. project of War on Terror, its military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and the September 11, 2001 attacks. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: Prof. McMurtry; it was following the 9/11 attacks that the United States launched its project of War on Terror. The venture has so far cost the lives of thousands of innocent, unarmed civilians across the world, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya; however, the civilian cost of the Global War on Terror has been mostly ignored by the mainstream media and the politicians in the West. Why do you think they’ve overlooked the enormous rate of civilian casualties resulting from an endeavor which was purportedly aimed at exporting democracy and liberal values to the world?
A: In the US’s so-called War on Terror, by far the greatest and most systematic terrorization of civilians is in fact perpetrated by the US state itself. Unarmed citizens are murdered across the world as ‘collateral damage’, ‘illegal enemy combatants’ or other license of impunity. The US state conceives itself as above international law along with ally Israel, but this reality is taboo to report and so too all the killing and terrorization of civilians. One can truly say that “the historical record demonstrates the US is provably guilty of continual lawless mass murder of civilians across the world”, but the truth is unthinkable within the ruling ideological regime. Consider for example, the US-led deadly civil wars and coup d’etats in Venezuela and Ukraine as well as Libya and Syria. They mass terrorize and destroy societies into defenseless dependency so that their resources, lands and markets are “free” for transnational corporate exploitation. Yet the meaning is un-decoded. Ignorance is built into the syntax of acceptable thought.
Q: Many immigrants who seek refuge in United States from the four corners of the globe in search of a better and more prosperous life think of America as an absolutely free, democratic and open society with abundant opportunities for economic and social progress. However, you’ve argued, as many scholars did, that the United States is a police state. Would you please elaborate more on that? Do you believe that these immigrants and asylum-seekers are not told the whole truth about the United States or are somehow deceived?
A: Deception allies with ignorance. I define a police state as a society in which there is unlimited state power of armed force freely discharged without citizen right to stop it. While the men at the top always proclaim their devotion to the public good, an endless litany of crimes against human life is permitted by legally terrorist offices, central directives, and bureaucratic channels. Thus in “free and democratic America”, more citizens are caged than any country in the world, and over 80% have perpetrated no violence against [any] person. While the US accuses others of inhuman persecution and despotism, it holds the world records for caging non-violent people, for violent killings of civilians, for spy surveillance of everyone, and for mass murders of innocent people across international borders. Even kicking the tire of a VIP vehicle may be prosecuted as an act of “terrorism”. I have travelled alone with only backpack possession through the world, and have found no state in which police forces are more habituated to violent bullying, more likely to draw a gun, more discriminatory against the dispossessed, and more arbitrarily vicious in normal behavior. The US now leads the globe in an underlying civil war of the rich against the poor.
Q: What’s your viewpoint on the recent laws and legislations that have stipulated limitations on the civil liberties of the U.S. citizens, including the PATRIOT Act of 2001, which was widely criticized and protested at? It’s seen as a discriminatory measure that violates the privacy of the American citizens and the foreign nationals traveling in the States. Isn’t it so?
A: The repression of civil rights by the US goes far deeper than violation of citizen privacy to which the media confine themselves. The Patriot Act together with other laws like the Military Commissions Act, the Defense Authorization Act, the Homeland Security Act and the Protect America Act, mutating to the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, form a systematic curtailment of civil rights and freedoms. Spying on everyone across borders is the accompanying apparatus of the National Security Agency which has been recently exposed in its totalitarian global snooping and dirty tricks. Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers summarizes the post-9/11 situation in the US as “a coup … a steady assault on every fundamental of our Constitution for executive government to rule by decree”. What makes these new laws and licenses tyrannical is their selective suspension of established constitutional rights to habeas corpus, the right of the accused to see evidence against him/her, the right to one’s chosen legal defense, the right to trial without indefinite detention, and other rights of due process of law including to free speech and organization that can be construed as supporting “illegal enemies”. As to who these “illegal enemies” are, this is determined by the US president without legal criterion, proving evidence or verification required. The US can thus detain, kidnap and imprison without trial or indictment any US citizen or other citizen anywhere by designating them enemies to the US. This arbitrary power has most infamously instituted US presidential right to kill individuals and those around them at will by robot killer drones – all crimes against humanity and war crimes under international law, but again taboo to report in the mass media or question in international security meetings themselves.
Q: The U.S. government has traditionally supported the oppressive regimes that are widely considered as dictatorial and tyrannical. Some examples include the successive U.S. governments’ support for the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and Israel. Isn’t such an approach contrary to the democratic principles which the U.S. Constitution is said to be oriented on?
A: Certainly the US has long supported dictatorial and tyrannical regimes. In fact US corporations and banks led the funding and arming of Hitler and the Nazis even during the 1939-45 War, and official US support of murderous dictatorships afterwards has been normalized since the CIA’s foundation in 1947. In the years since 9/11, US government has covertly directed funding and arming of the most destructive armed forces including jihadists, not only in the nations you mention, but in Syria and before that Libya, Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan and many much less known places like Mali. Ukraine has been similarly launched into civil war and escalated oppression by US-led destabilization, covert Special Forces, and local fascists.
Yet the US Constitution itself has no clear resource to prevent such international crimes, the founding US fathers themselves being mainly rich slave owners and leaders of the genocidal Western expansion against first peoples which England had forbidden in 1763. In fact, despite some stirring phrases without binding force, the ultimate concern of the US Constitution is the protection of private property and wealth at the top against the masses and democratic reversal. The ultimately governing value is profitable and unfettered private commerce, the “commerce clause” being the only way found to enforce the civil rights of Blacks. The opening slogans of “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” seem inspiring except that happiness cannot be pursued, life needs do not ever enter into consideration, and liberty without the means to exercise it is nonsense. Bear in mind that Supreme Court decisions have further granted the constitutional freedom of private money hoards to control politicians, public speech and elections themselves. Transnational corporations which are the global vehicles of the world’s ruling money sequences have at the same time multiplying powers with no obligations, while other societies’ rights have been effectively erased by international trade treaties which recognize only corporate rights and strip societies of their economic sovereignty and public resources. Corporate rights to dominate public speech and elections have been twisted out of even the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment protecting the civil rights of ex-slaves. In short, a near total expropriation of rights by Big Money has shown how anti-democratic the US Constitution has been made. I think that only the rule of life-protective law with the force of international law can regulate this global money-power dictatorship back into coherence with life support requirements now violated at every level, with or without a revolutionary uprising.
Q: Over the course of 20th century, the United States has been involved in several covert foreign regime change actions, and as the Foreign Policy magazine notes, it has toppled seven governments in the last 100 years through masterminding and engineering coups across the world, including the 1953 coup d’etat against the popular government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh or the 1973 coup in Chile that brought down the government of President Salvador Allende. Is such sponsorship of coups and regime change actions the characteristic feature of a democratic, peace-loving government?
A: There has been almost no coup or government overthrow since 1945 not led by the US. The examples you give of Mosaddegh and Allende are sea-changes of history in which elected, socially responsible and peaceful governments led by men of the very highest quality have been criminally usurped. This perpetual and increasing destabilization of other states and societies along with other gravely degenerate trends are systematically tracked in my 15-year study The Cancer Stage of Capitalism/ from crisis to cure. In the US itself, the three powers of supreme legislature, executive and court are now all controlled by the same money party selecting for the same full-spectrum predation of life and life support systems everywhere to multiply themselves. Yet still the long record of the US state and its oligarch allies destroying societies across the world is unspeakable in the mass media because they themselves are financed and advertised in by the same transnational corporations that demand the resources and territories of societies everywhere. The carcinogenic global causal mechanism is ever more evident and catastrophic, but not recognized.
Q: More than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, there are still several unanswered questions about the tragic event, including the origins and motives of the perpetrator, the role of foreign intelligence organizations in masterminding the attacks and the behind-the-scenes benefits of the attacks for the U.S. military-industrial complex. As you note in your writings, it was not Osama bin Laden who spearheaded the 9/11 attacks. Who is the real culprit? Did the 9/11 attacks play into the hands of the Bush administration to set in motion its lethal project of War on Terror and start invading different countries?
A: My recent monograph on the Internet, “The Moral Decoding of 9-11: Beyond the U.S. Criminal State” is a definitive answer to these questions. The turning-point event is laid bare step by step as a mass-murderous construction whose scenario is anticipated and contrived by US geostrategic planners with the official investigation completely concealing the basic fact that fireproofed steel infrastructures collapsed at the speed of gravity into their own footprints against the laws of physics. Moreover the first question of forensic justice – cui bono, who benefits? – is ruled out from the start, although every subsequent policy, decision and new power served the interests of the Bush Jr. regime and the US military-oil complex against the welfare of the American public and the world, especially Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.
Unfortunately conspiracy theories miss the inner logic of the strategic event and the system disorder driving it. The official conspiracy theory is absurd, but every disbeliever in it is pilloried as a ‘conspiracy theorist’ – the reverse projection which is the signature operation of US propaganda. Always blame others for what the US does as the reason for attacking them. One might laugh at the same old propaganda psy-op and fabrications trotted out endlessly, but the terrible reality is the 9/11 construction has had effectively sabotaged international progress in solving the world’s gravest problems. It has dismantled the global peace movement that was reaching an historical peak in 2001 to stop US-led militarism after the Cold War. It has successfully suppressed world-wide uprisings against a US-led global corporate dictatorship despised and opposed by ever more citizens across America, Europe and the world. It has even formed the draconian laws and police practices needed to squash the world-wide environmental movement across the world at same time. 9/11 has, in short, vastly empowered the corporate money system devouring human and planetary life by falsifying opponents as “terrorists”. But who joins the dots of the Great Repression?
Q: Since its inception 66 years ago, CIA has been involved in numerous covert sabotage, anti-sabotage, assassination, propaganda, destruction and subversion plans against other countries, and during the course of all these covert actions, it has violated different internationally recognized treaties and regulations as well as the sovereignty and territorial integrity of these nations. Are these actions and gambits legal or illegal? If they are illegal, then why doesn’t any international organization investigate the crimes and hold the U.S. government accountable?
A: Yes this is a turning-point issue of the world. But the US record as a rogue state is unspeakable in the mass media because they are financed and advertised in by the same transnational corporations that demand the resources and territories of the world by threat of trade-investment embargo and the point of the gun of US and NATO forces. This is what the lawless but unnamed US reign of terror achieves – not only by war crimes and crimes against humanity, but by economic ruin for any society resisting transnational trade treaties and demands which recognize only foreign corporate rights to profit. If the underlying causal mechanism is taboo to recognize, unaccountability is the result. Blame is instead diverted to US-designated enemies – like Iran or Russia or Venezuela – and the society-destroying disorder rampages on.
In fact there are many life-protective international laws to hold the US accountable to, but every one of them is repudiated by the US so as not to apply to itself ; laws and conventions against nuclear weapons, biological weapons, chemical weapons, landmines, small arms, international ballistic missiles, torture, racism, sexism, child abuse, arbitrary seizure and imprisonment, crimes against humanity and war crimes, military weather distortions, biodiversity loss, and international climate destabilization. Yet this record remains taboo to track or publish even as the US demonizes others for “defying the laws and norms of the international community”. The US and ally Israel thus violate the laws against armed aggression, occupation and crimes against humanity at will, but who even knows or cites the laws? For example, when the US was about to perpetrate the supreme crime of invasion against Iraq in 2003 with no lawful grounds, no-one raised the issue at the Security Council, including the Iraqi diplomat there. As one who later debated on Canadian public television a leading US geostrategic analyst three days before the criminal bombing of Baghdad began, my statement that he was “advocating war crime and should be arrested for doing so” was deleted from the live broadcast. The cornerstone of international law is thus silenced while the media go on calling opponents “unpatriotic” or “terrorists” – as in Nazi Germany. If law-abiding states do not stand and join for the rule of international life-protective law, there seems no end.
The US government must immediately end its ongoing deliveries of large quantities of arms to Israel, which are providing the tools to commit further serious violations of international law in Gaza, said Amnesty International, as it called for a total arms embargo on all parties to the conflict.
The call comes amid reports that the Pentagon has approved the immediate transfer of grenades and mortar rounds to the Israeli armed forces from a US arms stockpile pre-positioned in Israel, and follows a shipment of 4.3 tons of US-manufactured rocket motors, which arrived in the Israeli port of Haifa on 15 July.
These deliveries add to more than US$62 million worth of munitions, including guided missile parts and rocket launchers, artillery parts and small arms, already exported from the USA to Israel between January and May this year.
“The US government is adding fuel to the fire by continuing its supply of the type of arms being used by Israel’s armed forces to violate human rights. The US government must accept that by repeatedly shipping and paying for such arms on this scale they are exacerbating and further enabling grave abuses to be committed against civilians during the conflict in Gaza,” said Brian Wood, Head of Arms Control and Human Rights at Amnesty International.
Palestinian armed groups have continued to fire rockets indiscriminately into Israel, endangering civilians in flagrant violation of international law. Amnesty International has repeatedly called for an immediate end to such attacks, which amount to war crimes.
Last week the speaker of the Iranian parliament said Iran had provided arms manufacturing know-how to Hamas in Gaza. In November 2012 he said Iran had given both financial and military support to Hamas and the Commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said missile technology has been supplied. Hamas fighters have admitted to firing Iranian-type Fajr 5 missiles towards Tel Aviv, but mostly fire shorter-range M25 or “Qassam” rockets.
The USA is by far the largest exporter of military equipment to Israel. According to data made public by the US government, its arms transfers to Israel from January to May 2014 included nearly $27million for “rocket launchers”, $9.3 million worth in “parts of guided missiles” and nearly $762,000 for “bombs, grenades and munitions of war”.
The news on 30 July that the USA had allowed the resupply of munitions to Israel came the same day the US government condemned the shelling of a UN school in Gaza which killed at least 20 people, including children and UN humanitarian workers.
“It is deeply cynical for the White House to condemn the deaths and injuries of Palestinians, including children, and humanitarian workers, when it knows full well that the Israeli military responsible for such attacks are armed to the teeth with weapons and equipment bankrolled by US taxpayers,” said Brian Wood.
Amnesty International is calling on the UN to immediately impose a comprehensive arms embargo on Israel, Hamas and Palestinian armed groups with the aim of preventing violations of international humanitarian law and human rights by all sides.
In the absence of a UN arms embargo, the organization is calling on all states to unilaterally suspend all transfers of military equipment, assistance and munitions to all parties to the conflict. They should not resume until violations committed in previous conflicts are properly investigated with those responsible brought to justice.
“As the leading arms exporter to Israel, the USA must lead the way and demonstrate its proclaimed respect for human rights and international humanitarian law by urgently suspending arms transfers to Israel and pushing for a UN arms embargo on all parties to the conflict. By failing to do so it is displaying a callous disregard for lives being lost in the conflict on all sides,” said Brian Wood.
More than 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed since Israel began its latest offensive in Gaza on 8 July. At least 56 Israeli soldiers have died in the conflict, as well as three civilians in Israel, including a Thai national.
By Jonathan Kirsch
By now, of course, we know full well that the Holocaust is a bottomless pit. More than a half-century after the liberation of the last camp, new and wholly unsuspecting tales of both suffering and redemption continue to reach us. “The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis” by Arthur Allen (Norton: $26.95, hardcover) is one such remarkable book.
At the heart of the saga is the humble but also much-hated insect known as Pediculus humanus humanus or, more colloquially, body lice, the transmitters of deadly typhus, a now-unfamiliar disease that was the source of dread over the centuries. Rudolf Weigl, the eccentric Polish scientist whose name appears in the book’s title, experimented with lice in order to come up with the world’s first effective vaccine against typhus — “a disease,” writes Allen, “that terrorized the world, inspired the creation of Zyklon B gas, and provided the pretext for the worst crimes in history.”
One of Weigl’s assistants was a young Jewish biologist named Ludwick Fleck, now best known as a philosopher of science. Fleck ended up in Buchenwald, where his scientific training prompted the Nazis to spare his life and exploit his knowledge in the camp laboratory, where typhus germs were cultivated and vaccines were developed under the direction of German doctors.
The bitter irony that suffuses “The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl” is found in one of the commonplaces of Nazi propaganda. “Nazi ideology had identified typhus, which is spread by lice, as a disease characteristic of parasitic, subhuman Jews,” the author explains. “Learned German doctors convinced themselves that it was better to kill the Jews than to allow them to contaminate others.” Both Weigl and Fleck were doomed to play roles in what Allen calls “a theater of medicine gone wrong.”
Much of the book is devoted to the long and dreadful history of typhus and the pioneering efforts to eradicate the disease. Then, too, Allen conjures up life in the Polish city then called Lvov (which Allen spells “Lwow”), where “learned unemployables” resorted to spending long afternoons at cafes and coffee houses because it was the only available venue to “intellectual cross-fertilization.” Fleck availed himself of the cafe life after leaving Weigl’s lab until a favorable marriage at last enabled him to set up his own private laboratory.
Weigl, by contrast, enjoyed considerable success in scientific circles. “By the late 1920s, Weigl’s lab had become a mecca for serious typhus researchers,” Allen writes. “The endless supply of typhus germs he could offer visiting scientists was well worth the eight-hour train ride from Warsaw or the two-day trip from Vienna.” Later, he employed some 50 workers at the task of raising and processing lice by the millions in order to manufacture a typhus vaccine. The process, described in lurid but also lighthearted detail in the book, is the stuff of a horror flick.
The real horror begins in 1939, when Poland was conquered by Nazi Germany (and, from the east, the Soviet Union), and the likening of Jews to lice turned from a political metaphor into mass murder on an industrial scale. “Jews – Lice – Typhus” was the message on a German poster displayed in occupied Poland, which displayed the image of a louse and a bearded Jew. Both Weigl and Fleck, each in his own way, were recruited by the Nazis to address the authentic public health issue of typhus, but for Fleck, the venue was a concentration camp, where the metaphor took on life-or-death implications for the Germans, too.
“The Germans were indifferent to the suffering of the camp inmates, and encouraged death by overwork, beatings, torture, starvation, exposure, dehydration, diarrhea, and other diseases,” Allen writes. “But there was one illness that Nazis did not want inmates to contract, and that was typhus. They feared that typhus would infect SS men, or Germans outside the camps, and they feared the spread of lice.”
So the camp inmates encountered both literal delousing and, sometimes, the use of delousing as a method of crowd control: “Delousing was so routine in the Nazi realm, in fact, that at Auschwitz it could be used as a pretext to get Jews peacefully to remove their clothes and enter the gas chambers — which were equipped with fake shower heads.”
The ordeal of Weigl and Fleck is narrated with compassion and discernment by Allen, a journalist and historian whose previous work includes “Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver.” Each man found ways to resist and subvert his Nazi masters, sometimes in astounding ways. The Weigl Institute, for example, became “a mysterious labyrinth of science and deception,” and protection from Nazi oppression was available to the lucky souls who were willing to strap cages full of hungry lice to their thighs: “Anyone who needed saving became a louse feeder,” reports one of Weigl’s assistants.
Fleck, for his part, was ultimately consigned to a particularly tragic circle of hell where typhus was studied within the confines of Buchenwald. Inmates accustomed to the starvation diet of camp rations were offered lavish meals without being told that the food was doused with typhoid cultures. Fleck himself contrived to perform experiments that were intentionally inconclusive out of fear that “if he ever finished the work … he’d be killed.” Daringly, Fleck and his comrades produced a total of 600 liters of useless vaccine that the Nazis intended to use to inoculate SS men and German soldiers while also producing six liters of effective vaccine to be used inside the camp itself — “a bold act of vaccine sabotage,” as Allen puts it.
At the end of Allen’s wholly surprising and affecting story, we are introduced to a man whose father always kept a small wooden louse cage as a keepsake of his work for Weigl. Only because he served as a louse feeder did he manage to survive the war. “I’m alive because of those lice,” the son says. Exactly here is the genius of Allen’s brilliant book — the moment when we realize how the humblest of creatures and the unlikeliest of human contrivances can change history.
How Ronald Reagan turned America into a nation of children
A new book on the rise of modern conservatism argues that Reagan’s rhetoric infantilized our political culture — with devastating consequences.
By Damon Linker
If you only manage to read one big book of political history this year, make it Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. The third in a series of phonebook-sized tomes tracing the ascendency of the conservative movement since the early 1960s, The Invisible Bridge devotes over 800 pages to three years (1973 to 1976), with lengthy (and highly disparaging) digressions into Ronald Reagan’s biography thrown in for good measure. These were the years leading up to and including Reagan’s (nearly successful) effort to unseat a president of his own party (Gerald Ford), and Perlstein makes a powerful, intellectually bracing case for treating them as critically important for understanding much that has followed in American politics and culture.
Not that Perlstein’s account is flawless. As with his previous books, Before the Storm andNixonland, the enormous size of The Invisible Bridge and its density of historical detail are mixed blessings. Many of his often obscure anecdotes are marvelously apt and delightfully fun to read. And he is a master of making bold and unexpected connections among political, social, and pop cultural events. (The box-office smash Jaws spoke to a country in which fear was both hidden and seemingly everywhere, “consuming everything,” while the hit TV sitcom Happy Days nostalgically conjured a 1950s world of national innocence that he tartly notes was “especially popular among children.”) On the other hand, the seemingly endless flood of facts can be numbing at times, with the reader sometimes left groping to find the thread of the argument or the story to which they are presumably invoked to advance.
Then there’s Perlstein’s political agenda, which also harms as much as it helps. On the positive side of the ledger, his explicitly stated left-liberal commitments give his writing an edgy, polemical swagger often missing in stuffier histories written by academic scholars striving for a level of objectivity far above the political fray. Perlstein thinks the story of America in these years is terribly important, and that urgency permeates the book, making it read at times like an elaborately plotted murder mystery in which the victim is none other than America’s soul. The intensity is often infectious.
But it can also lead to distortion. Perlstein’s subject is conservative ideas and their impact on political reality. But he is so utterly unsympathetic to those ideas that he finds it impossible to see them as anything other than expressions of animus and anxiety, and an outgrowth of a childish refusal to face and accept the moral and historical complexity of the world.
Sure, that’s part of the story. But does he really think that’s the whole of it? In implying that he does, Perlstein ends up wandering at least partway down the same gloomy path that Corey Robin exhaustively charted in his thoroughly unhelpful history of conservative ideas, The Reactionary Mind. Neither author finds anything particularly insightful or useful in the ideas they’ve devoted themselves to exploring and examining.
That would be fine if it didn’t result at times in tendentious, one-sided history. Take Perlstein’s treatment of the neoconservative intellectuals who (unbeknownst to them, of course) were in just these years laying the groundwork for what would become the Reagan Revolution’s domestic policy agenda. Perlstein mentions the crucially important neocon quarterly journal The Public Interest on just two pages of his book, and he has little to say about it beyond noting that it was “inaugurated in 1965 and financed by a former CIA agent who was now a stockbroker.”
One wonders: Does Perlstein think the neocons ever had a point about anything at all? Were there any Great Society programs that called out for reform or repeal? Did economic or environmental regulations ever produce unintended negative consequences? Were any cultural consequences of the 1960s worthy of concern or even ambivalence? Or did the neocons automatically demonstrate their intellectual fraudulence merely by raising objections to liberal policies and expressing ambivalence about cultural trends?
To concede the validity of some of what the neocons were saying in these years would imply that the Reagan Revolution was not entirely worthless, not entirely an expression of cultural resentment and a desperate, childish attempt to evade reality. That would make for a less cogent polemic but a better work of history.
Which isn’t to imply that The Invisible Bridge should be judged entirely by standards set by historians. For my money, its most interesting and worthwhile contribution may be found in those passages that strive to make broader political and moral claims, especially about the troubling character of American patriotism — in the mid-1970s, but also before and since.
As I noted in my critical (but sympathetic) comments about Ta-Nehesi Coates’ extraordinary essay in defense of slavery reparations, patriotism comes (roughly speaking) in two forms. All political communities — from city states to nations to transnational empires — inspire and cultivate attachment on the part of citizens. This attachment — love of one’s country — is an outgrowth of the natural “love of one’s own” that shows up in love for oneself, love for one’s family and friends, and love for one’s neighbors. To be patriotic in this sense is to love your country because it is yours and for no other reason.
But some political communities go further, to uphold an ideological form of patriotism that treats the nation’s goodness as an intrinsic quality that deserves to be recognized by all, citizen and non-citizen alike. In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles talks this way about ancient Athens. Imperial Great Britain and post-revolutionary France often thought about themselves in similar terms. And then, of course, there’s the United States and its ideology of American exceptionalism, which goes back, in rudimentary form, all the way to colonial New England.
Like many dissenters and critics down through the centuries, Perlstein thinks the ideology of American exceptionalism is delusional. But he also suggests that its grip on the American imagination briefly loosened in the years covered by his study. Thanks to military humiliation in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, an epidemic of political violence (assassinations and terrorism), and a steady drumbeat of press reports about America’s morally dubious actions around the world, the nation finally began to “reflect critically on its power, to shed its arrogance, to become a more humble and better citizen of the world — to grow up.”
The American people were poised to begin fashioning “a new definition of patriotism, one built upon questioning authority and unsettling ossified norms.” Until Ronald Reagan came on the scene, that is. This master of “turning complexity and confusion and doubt into simplicity and stout-heartedness and certainty” encouraged his fellow citizens “to think like children, waiting for a man on horseback to save them.”
It was nothing less than “a tragedy” — one that has deepened over subsequent decades, as the American people have allowed themselves to be lulled to sleep by patriotic fairy tales. Meanwhile, a “cult of official optimism” has turned unconditional expressions of American exceptionalism into a cornerstone of political rhetoric. As soon as a public figure suggests even a slightly more nuanced take on the country’s history and actions, he opens himself up to charge of “apologizing for America.” And so Democrats and Republicans alike trip over themselves coming up with new and better ways to say what Mitt Romney repeated countless times in his 2012 stump speech: “America is the greatest nation in the history of the earth.”
I share Perlstein’s irritation with the prevalence of self-congratulatory bromides in our politics and his disgust at the “shallowness of the flag-wavers.” I agree with him that some of our worst foreign policy mistakes (including the Iraq War) have followed from taking such rhetoric far too seriously. I also join him in greatly admiring the popular art that America produced in its brief mid-70s flirtation with wrenching self-doubt.
Yet I can’t help wondering if it makes sense to hope or expect that any political community — let alone one that for the better part of four centuries has imagined itself as a City on a Hill and a Light unto the Nations — would embrace the deeply self-critical form of patriotism that Perlstein thinks Ronald Reagan murdered in its crib sometime during 1976. Even non-ideological patriotism is, after all, a form of self-love. What Perlstein seems to want is something closer to self-laceration.
More realistic and also truer to the decidedly mixed historical record might be a form of patriotism that promotes a deep and abiding love of country — but moderately. That would look and sound quite a bit different than the “perpetual utterance of self-applause” that Reagan liked to indulge in and encourage. But it would also insist on tempering the relentless focus of Perlstein and so many of his left-wing compatriots on our national faults, failings, and crimes.
In his best speeches, Barack Obama has sought to stake out just such a moderate position, cultivating a form of national self-love that is complicated by criticism. That the right has nonetheless attacked him unremittingly for expressing insufficiently unambiguous patriotism is yet another reason to read and ponder Rick Perlstein’s illuminating and deeply troubling book.