So it’s odd then that I write so much about America and I care so much about what happens in America. Part of it is practicality – Canada is a US client state and American politics affect Canadians. When you throw away your freedoms, ours will soon follow (our government just launched its own “no-fly list”, for example and after you put out the Patriot Act we put out our own version.)
But part of it is just that I care about America and the American experiment.
Those of us who didn’t grow up in America, but under the sway of America’s media, imbibed a very pure form of the American mythos and civic religion. The American Civil Religion, with it’s secular saints such as Jefferson, Hamilton and Washington and it’s written Constitutional scripture is also a source of wonderment. Canada has no equivalent, no deep sense of history, no touchstone that is written back to to justify the present. Those words of your founders, those words that resound through history are words that inspire men and women who have never seen America and never will.
The Declaration of Independence spoke to all humans, with its assertion that all men are created equal and have unalienable rights. The US system of government, with its checks and balances, seemed unique and able to take shocks that might topple other democratic forms of government.
The Statue of Liberty, holding its torch aloft in New York’s harbor, proclaimed that in America the wretched masses of the world might find a home, hope, liberty and opportunity.
And, of course, there was the US’s role in both World War II and the Cold War. When Europe was in chains, America freed it. It may be true that the German army died in the plains of Russia, but without the US, all of Europe would have fallen into the gray pit of Russian rule and despair.
Truly, in the Cold War, America stood astride the word facing off against an evil empire. Reagan was right when he called the USSR evil – it was a totalitarian nightmare, and opposing it; keeping it in check, was the moral thing to do.
None of this is to say that America was always “the good” – there was Vietnam, there was complicity in various dictatorships; there was a distressing tendency to meddle, especially in Latin America – there were, in short, many places where America fell short of its own ideals.
Yet, in all, America was still the shining city on the hill. Even those who disliked it, when asked “well, what hegemonic nation, past or present, would be preferable to America”, were stilled. In truth, as superpowers go, America was about the best one could hope for – power corrupted, but it had not corrupted absolutely.
And when the Berlin Wall went down, and the USSR with it, and the US stood astride the world, the sole unchallenged superpower, at first absolutely powerful, it was not corrupted absolutely. In the Cold War there had been no question the US needed allies and friends and there had been an acknowledgment that nations pushed too far might slip into the other camp. Perhaps the USSR wasn’t an ideal patron – but the possibility was always there if the US abused its position too much. And certainly the thought of pre-emptive US use of nukes against non-nuclear nations wasn’t even considered – the USSR stood ready, with missiles aimed at America, to ensure that would not happen.
In the 90′s America mostly either used its power responsibly, or at worst, didn’t use it when some hoped it would, as in the Rwandan genocide, or the slowness in dealing with the Balkans. If the new fascination with “globalization” and the fetishization of “free trade”, which mostly meant “free flow of money and investments” dismayed many, still it wasn’t outwardly violent and continued the American habit of binding its empire together less with troops than with alliances and economic ties that often amounted to dependency.
And then the Bush years happened. George Bush, with the acquiescence of Congress and the consent of the majority of voters, who elected him in 2004, made the US a unilateral actor on the world stage, a country that engaged in pre-emptive war and threatens to use nuclear weapons in a first strike. A nation, moreover, which has repudiated the freedoms that the rest of the world admired it for, has engaged in torture, struck down habeas corpus and openly mocked the Geneva Conventions.
America had become, in the eyes of the world, un-American.
The America we loved – the America which, if it did not always match words to ideals, still seemed to move more in jerks and starts towards those ideals, died, choking, gasping, in front of our very eyes.
What is so sad about this, to me, is that if America had lived up to its own ideals, America would be safer.
No Pre-Emptive War
Americans hung a lot of Nazis for the crime of pre-emptive war. Men who were in no way involved in the Holocaust swung high at Nuremberg because they attacked other countries that hadn’t attacked them first.
The Iraq war, a war which was based on lies, and sold on classic Big Lie techniques, with 70% of Americans believing Iraq was behind 9/11, has made the US less safe, not more, by giving millions of Muslims reason to hate America. The next generation of terrorists are being terrorized right now, and as with most violent criminals, they will do unto others as was done unto them.
And the current surge in nuclear proliferation can be laid in large part at the feet of the Iraq War, the lesson of which was not “if you have nukes we’ll take you out”, but “if you don’t have nukes we can take you out. And if you do have nukes like North Korea we’ll talk and make impotent and meaningless threats.” (The second reason, of course, is that the US continually violates the non-proliferation treaty itself, making non-nuclear powers wonder why they should obey it either.)
If the US had not invaded Iraq there would be less terrorists in the world today and in the future. There would be less proliferation of nuclear weapons. By doing the right thing morally, the right thing in the American tradition, the US would be safer and richer.
Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in the 90′s in large part because the US abandoned it. When Afghanis were fighting the USSR, US aid and money flowed in. When the USSR fell, Afghanis thought that they would receive significant aid from America. None came and the country fell to the Taliban. When Afghanistan falls again to the Taliban, as it almost certainly will, it will be because America and its NATO allies couldn’t be bothered to make Afghanistan work for Afghanis. For years the Afghanis were patient, sidelined the Taliban and from all indications hoped that the Coalition would make things better in Afghanistan. That didn’t happen (because all the effort was in Iraq, and because NATO is resentful at being forced to clean up Afghanistan and thus unwilling to put in the money) and slowly the worm is turning. The Taliban, for years marginalized, is making new inroads, and Afghanis themselves are showing that they are tired of being occupied without anything getting better.
Oddly enough, the same is true in Iraq. During the early period after the invasion there wasn’t much resistance to the occupation. During that time a Marshall Plan variant might well have turned the ill-thought invasion into a success. But instead of letting money get into the hands of Iraqis, instead of making it so Iraqis were better off under the coalition, the Bush administration insisted on rewarding its cronies with jobs, and Republican associated companies with huge contracts they mostly couldn’t fulfill. (My favourite being hiring an American company to rebuild a bridge at 20 times the cost an Iraqi engineering firm, which had built the bridge in the first place, offered to fix it for.)
In both cases being American – which is to say, generous, would have served the US better than trying to be stingy and engage in domestic pork barrel politics. And, oddly, being generous to the Iraqis and the Afghanis would have cost less as well, because butter is cheaper than guns, and Iraqis and Afghanis work for a lot less than Americans on the military-industrial dole.
Doing the right thing morally would have made the US safer and cost less money.
American Respect for Human and Civil Rights
In America, all men have unalienable rights. The way this is written isn’t “all citizens” either – it implies all of humanity. If you are human, you have these rights, they are granted solely because you are human and thus cannot be taken away. Primary among these rights is the right to a fair trial before punishment; to habeas corpus; to not be subject to cruel and unusual punishment (which surely includes water boarding and being raped) and to freedom from arbitrary search and seizure (which includes being wiretapped without a judge issuing a warrant).
Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, where “suspects” have been held without trial; have been tortured, and where there have been repeated attempts to end Habeas rights, are exhibit A. These prison camps have tarnished America’s image abroad as it hasn’t been smeared since the Philippines war of occupation. For billions around the world, the indelible image of America today may not be the Statue of Liberty, as it was to my generation – but a hooded man with electrodes attached to him.
This destruction of America’s image has destroyed much of America’s soft power. Neocons may sneer, but when you aren’t the good guy you don’t get as many people willing to spy for you (nor are they the best spies, since the ones who remain are those motivated mostly by greed.) You don’t get as many informants (and informants are the best way to deal with terrorists). Many governments see no reason to cooperate with you, so to get anything you must use force or the threat of force.
As with people who are distrusted or despised, nations who are distrusted or despised find it much harder to get their way.
American Respect for Free Speech
It may seem odd, but few things incense me more than “free speech zones” (which, for the record, started under Clinton, not Bush, though Bush has extended them greatly.) And I think that shuffling dissent off where it can’t be seen by people in power has done great damage to the health of American democracy. Those of us who watch politics regularly are constantly amazed by how “out of touch” Americas elites are. The Washington bubble isn’t made of soap-suds, it’s made of blast hardened concrete and Congressmen vote against the majority of Americans preferred interests all the time (the majority want the war ended, the majority want universal health care, the majority don’t think oil companies need subsidies, and so on.)
Part of why they do it is that they are insulated from the real world, from the world that the rest of America lives in. George Bush, the most extreme case, is so isolated that even showing a negative sign along his motorcade’s passage is forbidden. In both the Democratic and Republican conventions, protesters were shut so far away from the conventions that convention-goers might never have known they were even there.
I grew up thinking all of America was a free speech zone, not just special little areas chosen so as to make sure that the elites would never have to witness someone who was angry at the decisions they had made. And if America really was a free speech zone, America might be better off, because there is nothing worse for any nation than for its elites to live in a bubble.
A Hatred for Aristocracy, Inherited Wealth and Power
America was founded in explicit rejection of aristocracy and inherited power. An American, I was taught, bowed to no one. And for most of two centuries, America tended to have less disparities of income and wealth than other western nations. Oh aye, during the gilded age, there were great disparities within America, but they were still less than in Britain, or France, or most of Europe. And America had the most social mobility – you really did have the most chance to make it to the top from the bottom (though this remained rare, despite the ideal.)
That’s no longer the case – America is the Western nation with the most inequality of any. And social mobility is dropping through the floor – a generation ago it was higher than almost anywhere, but the evidence coming in now is that if you aren’t born well off, your odds of moving up in the world are worse than they have been in generations. Meanwhile the tax code has been jiggered to remove much of the Estate Tax and to benefit unearned money over that earned by an honest day’s work. America is becoming a nation where power and money are inherited, where the rich get richer and where the working and middle classes are expected to borrow from their betters at usurious interest rates to make ends meet.
As this has occurred, and not coincidentally, Americas trade, balance of payment and government deficits have soared. Its savings rate has crumbled to the point where it is less than zero; to where the rest of the world is sending most of its savings to the US, and all those savings can barely keep the US economy above water.
The right thing to do, the American thing to do – to fight against entrenched wealth and power, especially multi-generational money, would have left the US stronger economically. The collapse of demand caused by sending profits preferentially to the rich and corporations was the prime cause of the last Great Depression.
Those of us who grew up in other countries; those of use who are America’s real friends, want what all good friends want for those they care for – that you live up to your own ideals. That you be the nation we know you can be. A bastion of freedom; a nation with the highest respect for civil rights; a country that never gives up “a little freedom for a little safety” and finding neither. A country that doesn’t torture, that believes that pre-emptive war is never excusable.
And we want it for you not just because it’d be best for the rest of the world, though it would be, but because it would be best for you. You would be safer, more prosperous, less fearful and have a more assured future if you lived up to the best of what it means to be America – to be American.
So, coming up on July 4th, on your birthday, this is my wish for America and for Americans – that you remember that the right thing to do morally is almost always the right thing to do pragmatically. There is no choice between “freedom and safety”; there is no choice between prosperity and massive inequality; there is no choice between generosity and fiscal prudence and there is no such thing as “managed free speech”.
Be the America the world loved. Be the America you can be proudest of – the one that does not torture, that treats all men as equal and with unalienable rights. Be the America that rebuilt Europe and that lends a helping hand to countries like Afghanistan. Be the America that would never invade a country that had not attacked you first. Be the America that is about lifting all boats and not just a few.
Be that America, and we will all be Americans.
(Ian writes more often at The Agonist)