Monday, June 18, 2007

An American Capacity for Evil

How could this have happened in America? How did we get into this horrible mess? Why is there not more outrage from the American people? Why is the traditional media so compliant? Why are the Democrats so timid?

As the full rotten fruits of the Bush Administration's contempt for democracy, constitutional process, human rights, international law, middle-class economics and just plan basic human decency become increasingly apparent with each passing day, coherent and convincing answers to these questions become increasingly necessary. It should be deeply troubling to anyone who cares about America as a nation and the principles upon which it was founded that our institutions could have become so easily subverted, and our national will so broken that we not only did nothing to prevent these disasters, but failed to act decisively to right the wrongs once they had become so appallingly obvious.

It is these questions that Al Gore attempts to answer in his outstanding book Assault on Reason. Gore's answer in a nutshell is that representative democracy only functions based on a two-way conversation between its government those being governed; that in the days of pamphlets and the written word such communication was commonplace and easy (at least for the bourgeois); and that radio and especially television have broken down that communication into a one-way street from government to the people, with an ever decreasing attention span.

Al Gore is right about all this, of course--yet as I turn it over in my mind, it is clear to me that this explanation alone does not suffice to explain how we got to such a dreary state of affairs. America has a long history of horrific corruption, appalling deficits of accountability, and immoral acts of oppression and war that predates radio and television. Slavery, the Trail of Tears, Andrew Jackson's final "victory" in the war of 1812, the massacres of Native Americans at Wounded Knee and elsewhere, the brute aggression of the Mexican-American War, the Confederacy on the wrong side of morality and history, the lies of the Spanish-American war, the social injustice and government corruption of the Gilded Age and robber baron eras, Jim Crow and the White Man's Burden of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson--all of these took place well before the advent of radio and television. And nearly all took place with the fairly quiet consent of the governed.

No, the answer lies deeper. While America's ability to project might, together with the secrecy and corruption made possible by the unprecedented power of multinational corporations, has ensured that the Bush Administration's misuse of both capacities will earn it the award of Worst Administration Ever, the uncomfortable truth is that the difference between Bush and many of his American predecessors is not one of quality, but rather of quantity. One shudders to think what sort of damage might have been done by a President Jackson, President Grant or President Nixon, given Bush's military power, post-9/11 national cohesion, and pressure from corporate interests. Bush and his Republican corporatocratic cronies do so much damage because they have the power to--not because they are a uniquely destructive breed.

But even that is not enough. Regardless of the power that can be wielded by an unholy alliance of religious dogmatism, military-industrial complex influence and corporate power, there still remains the question of how the American people, its media, and its supposed opposition parties could have remained so compliant for so long.

The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that most Americans simply do not believe their leaders and their government to be capable of sheer evil. Certainly, we as Americans acknowledge the past sins of slavery, native exterminations, Jim Crow and the like--but we view these actions as a product of inadequate social enlightenment at the time, simply reflected by our leadership. And certainly, we believe our politicians to be venal consummate liars who are inherently corrupt and self-serving. But we are incapable of allowing ourselves to admit that we as a nation are capable of playing an utterly immoral role on the world stage.

Most other industrialized nations do not have this problem. The nations of Europe learned the lessons of colonial exploitation, empires established and lost, and brutal world wars fought due to greed and stupidity. Japan (in spite of its official refusal to acknowledge it) understands and is fairly contrite for the negative role it has played in military and economic exploitation of its neighbors. Russia certainly is sadder but wiser for its experiences with state-run Communist Empire. Even China has a storied history of imperial cruelty and rebellion from such--though its lessons tend to be internally rather than externally directed.

But America has not yet had its often heavy hand slapped by the forces of karma. The impossibility of the maintenance of both military colonial empire and domestic democracy have not yet become apparent to the average American. In fact, most Americans are still sitting on the laurels of overtly beneficial military campaigns overseas in World War II and in Korea--perhaps the only truly just wars America has fought since the war of 1812 (with the possible exceptions of Kosovo and Gulf War I). Even when our actions are overtly aggressive, Americans have always found a way to justify them to ourselves.

Perhaps the best example of the philosophy that most Americans hold when it comes to foreign policy is presented by Trey Parker and Matt Stone in their 2004 comedy Team America: World Police. Apologies for the crudeness here, but the words are Parker's and Stone's. Shortly before the following speech in the film, the American heroes have foiled a plot of world domination by North Korea's Kim Jong-Il, who has made unwitting allies of the Hollywood celebrities the Right loves to hate (unless their running as Republicans for president, of course):

We're dicks! We're reckless, arrogant, stupid dicks. And the Film Actors Guild are pussies. And Kim Jong Il is an asshole. Pussies don't like dicks, because pussies get fucked by dicks. But dicks also fuck assholes: assholes that just want to shit on everything. Pussies may think they can deal with assholes their way. But the only thing that can fuck an asshole is a dick, with some balls. The problem with dicks is: they fuck too much or fuck when it isn't appropriate - and it takes a pussy to show them that. But sometimes, pussies can be so full of shit that they become assholes themselves... because pussies are an inch and half away from ass holes. I don't know much about this crazy, crazy world, but I do know this: If you don't let us fuck this asshole, we're going to have our dicks and pussies all covered in shit!

As clammyc and I will be discussing tonight on our radio show Political Nexus, this speech, crude and filled as it is with misogynist sexual politics, underlines the American theory of domestic and foreign policy: we may be over-the-top sometimes, but our hearts are in the right place. Our leaders stand up, we believe, to evil wherever it is--and sometimes some weaklings get hurt and offended in the process--but if it weren't for our strong decisive leadership, all those weaklings would get abused by those evil people in the world. This ethic applies just as much to our law-and-order attitude towards drugs and a variety of other crimes (leading to horrific incarceration rates) as it does to our foreign policy in Iraq. In the minds of most Americans, we can always be overly aggressive dicks--but never assholes. And the worst thing we could possibly have, we believe, is a President who is a "pussy". Indeed, it would be difficult to surmise how dickish an American president would have to be for us consider him/her enough of an asshole to actually impeach.

And that is why Chris Matthews can't believe Americans don't like George Bush. That is why the idea of impeaching George Bush for war crimes and crimes against the American Constitution is so distasteful to so many Americans. That is why our Democratic candidates have such difficulty saying that occupying Iraq is wrong, or that Bush deliberately lied to get us to invade; instead, they say their vote was a "mistake", that they wish they had "known then what they know now", that we were "misled". That is why Americans were so utterly shocked by Abu Ghraib, and why they did their best to forget about it just after it happened. That is why Americans were so utterly shocked by the callous and incompetent response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and why they did their best to forget about that, too, just months thereafter. That is why it takes a Michael Moore to say explicitly that American healthcare isn't just in need of adjustments, but is structurally bad.

In sum, Americans cannot hold George Bush accountable for his evil actions if they refuse to acknowledge the possibility that any American president could be capable of using our power towards evil ends. So long as conventional wisdom dictates that no politician or major media figure can speak badly of his/her country's position on the world stage, no politician will truly be able to speak badly of the leadership that put us in that position.

This is why Al Gore cannot decide whether or not to run for President. As an outside figure, he can hold George Bush's and America's feet to the fire for dragging its feet on global climate change, and for abusing the awesome power of its military might. As a politician, however, he knows that doing so is the kiss of death.

As Americans, we deserve the leadership that we get. So long as we are incapable of admitting evil of ourselves, we will be incapable of having principled leadership like Al Gore is demonstrating today. At best, we will get the calculated platitudes of a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama; at worst, we will get the utter depravity of a George Bush or Dick Cheney.

If we want to save our country, however, we will need to admit the truth. We will need to be able to call a spade a spade, and acknowledge that great evil has indeed been done in our names. I only hope that we as a nation can do so before it is too late.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home