Wow, well put, and, which adds to the fun, is that this actually touches on the point with which I am most in disagreement with Griffith. The fundamental flaw in the idea that American commitment to our founding ideals is on the order of self-delusional lip-service is missing the point of the political tradition from which these ideals are derived. [...] The idea is that there are political truths we can commit to, without perfectly following these truths.
I think, actually, that the idea I'm suggesting--and that I take Griffith to be suggesting--is part and parcel of this very tradition. The idea is these ideals are
good, and the failure to act on them is a failure of national character. You can't meet failure to live up to ideals of human dignity with a shrug and dismissive comment [not that you're dismissive, yourself] that humans are flawed. The only proper response to such a failure is outrage. All the fine ideals in the world are useless unless they're put into practice. Until you abolish slavery [to take the most obvious example] you simply do not have the right
to claim to value human freedom.
It's not as if the concept is difficult. Look at the timeline
for the abolition of slavery. 1822--Greece. 1827--Sweden and Britain form a treaty to abolish the trade; slavery abolished in Britain in 1834, 1847 in Sweden. Meanwhile, in America, we had the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, and didn't abolish slavery until 1865-1866--making us the last "civilized" nation to abolish slavery. The U.S. might have had the ideal that "all men are created equal," but we were far, far behind every other power
in implementing that ideal, making any pretense at being exceptionally moral or idealistic seem a bit suspicious.
That's the problem with American Exceptionalism: it doesn't match up with history. It's delusional in the truest sense in that it re-writes memory in order to maintain a false self-image.
There can be a difference between a scapegoat and a criminal. Yes, the "they were just a few bad apples" argument has been used to try and make us feel more comfortable with what happened. But it is not a reason to reject the ideals that made what happened at Abu Ghraib a crime in the first place.
Ah, but as Griffith points out, what happened in Abu Ghraib was generally thought not
to be a crime by the soldiers involved. In fact, it's likely that the Bush administration wouldn't have considered it a crime except for the fact that it was exposed. The exposure--not the deed itself--was the crime (I'm not speaking in the abstract legal sense here, but in the functional sense of what got punished--though see my comments on projection below). The individuals were undoubtedly acting wrongly, and their punishment was just; but it's telling that the outrage stopped with the individuals involved, and didn't extend up the chain of command to the people who first decreed that the prisoners were not covered by the Geneva Convention.
This is an important point: someone can function both as objectively wrong
in their actions and as symptomatic
of larger problems; similarly, it's perfectly possible to punish someone at once for their real crimes and as a scapegoat to conceal or eliminate the guilt of those in power, or the society at large, or of individuals. This, actually, is intimately related to the Soviet Union/al-Qaeda point below.
When the actions of international agents are based upon propositional claims to truth, it is possible to hold that one is true and the other false. I see no problem at all in acknowledging that the political ideas advocated for by the Soviet Union were both false and freedom hating.
Nor do I. But the "Soviet Union" that functioned as a bogeyman during the Cold War was not
the Soviet Union that existed in reality. Nor is "terrorism" as it has functioned for much of the past decade the same thing as terrorism as it exists in reality. In each case, they serve as abstracted Evils against which America can set itself. There's no clearer picture of this than the claim that al-Qaeda "hates us for our freedoms." When Leftists suggested that America's actions in the Middle East might be a contributing factor, they were dismissed as "anti-American" because it seemed to be legitimating al-Qaeda--and al-Qaeda is evil
. Thus al-Qaeda in particular--and "Terrorism" in general--was made to fill a position that was precisely not
"based upon propositional claims to truth" since any claims they made were rejected as irrational out-of-hand. In some sense, any truth-claims they made were irrelevant because they weren't meant to function that way in the discourse.
Again, this isn't to say that al-Qaeda is innocent or that America is "just as guilty," but it is
to say that terrorism's function in political discourse/popular imagination is largely enacted by voiding the words "al-Qaeda" or "terrorism" of real content and replacing that content with fears/anxieties/tensions that cannot be expressed otherwise without threatening the nation's self-image. And that's the same move--on a national and a personal level--that's made when we dismiss England et al as "bad apples" or psychopathic monsters: we divorce them from context (a context in which these "bad apples" are themselves
dealing with a dehumanized Other) and fill them with our own anxieties/dark drives/what have you.
We do not have to "regard ourselves as good people" (who would never commit evils like Abu Ghraib or My Lai) in order for us to fight for what we believe is good. It is a fundamental political insight that we are, in fact, depraved and prone towards evil and stupidity (something that Hamilton and Adams wrote extensively upon).
No, but if we fail to live up to the ideals we espouse, we are condemned by our own words, and any pretense to Exceptionalism is shown to be doubtful at best. A nation that holds to good ideals and lives up to them is exceptional; a nation that gives lip-service to ideals and behaves in exactly the opposite manner while at the same time declaring itself exceptional
is flawed at best. Certainly not exceptional (especially when, as pointed out above, other nations have lived up to those selfsame ideals--all while doubtlessly violating other
Now, here's the kicker: we know
we fail to live up to those ideals. That's precisely why projection takes place, why we see our enemies both real and imagined as irredeemable monsters. It costs nothing to condemn the Soviet Union for hating freedom, and such condemnation allows us to ignore the ideological conformism on our doorstep. In the same way, it costs nothing to condemn al-Qaeda or the Taliban for blowing up buildings and oppressing women while doing nothing to implement, say, equal-pay laws at home or stop the habit of propping up dictators to serve our own ends. And so the Other becomes a receptacle for our guilt or our fears in addition
to its already-existing crimes. This allows us to ignore our failure, to assert Exceptionalism, and so to continue without having to change anything.
EDIT: At the risk of lengthening an already over-long post, let me bring it all back home for a second and talk about myself. Speaking personally (and not to get any more political, but), I disagree with a lot of people, but I only truly loathe
people in whom I can see a reflection of myself; thus, I disagree with Bush et al
, but I do not regard him as irrational--simply wrong. On the other hand, certain libertarian views do
inspire something like hate precisely because they align so closely to my own opinions
. It's hard to argue that that hatred is not motivated in part by fear that my own right-eousness is itself illusory. As such, I do
call such views "irrational," "inflexible," and so on in order to reassure myself of my own correctness. I recognize my reaction as itself irrational, but that only serves to heighten the fear--and so on and so on. The wrongness
of these views is at this point immaterial; my response betrays a deeper issue that lies in my own challenged self-image. [I say this in the manner of confession, knowing full well that, because the response is [i]irrational[/i], rationally confessing it will likely do little to curb its effects]
And, at the same time, I think we are complicit in allowing a culture of images and entertainment where, as Griffith notes on pg. 75, "In Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, we hear American soldiers in Iraq discussing the specific type of music they listen to while in combat. One soldier describes how he plugs a portable CD player into the communication system of the tank so he can hear the music in his headset. The song? ‘The roof. The roof. The roof is on fire. We don’t need no water. Let the motherfucker burn. Burn motherfucker burn.’” This is possibly the attitude towards death, destruction, war and violence of a majority of American troops - and it is an attitude that has been cultivated by our modern culture.
I agree on that score; I don't think it's just Late Capitalism, though. Functionally, there's no difference between the song the soldier listens to and something like the anti-Muslim rhetoric in The Song of Roland
or the medieval blood libel. All three serve to dehumanize the Other in order to make it easier to kill.
Which means that it's certainly a concern, but it's precisely not an attitude that our modern culture alone
has cultivated; it's a standard move. It's almost certainly the same move that al-Qaeda makes toward the U.S.--and that without the "benefit" of Western culture. [Scare quotes indicating not that WC isn't beneficial in some ways, but that it's certainly not beneficial in this
way, even if we accept it as exceptionally violent, etc]
Edited by NBooth, 25 February 2012 - 01:26 AM.