[sixties-l] Todd Gitlin: Blaming America First (fwd)

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Date: Thu Jan 10 2002 - 17:35:03 EST

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    Date: Wed, 09 Jan 2002 11:05:34 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: Todd Gitlin: Blaming America First

    Blaming America First


    Why are some on the left, who rightly demand sympathy for victims around
    the world, so quick to dismiss American suffering?

    by Todd Gitlin January/February 2002

    As shock and solidarity overflowed on September 11, it seemed for a moment
    that political differences had melted in the inferno of Lower Manhattan.
    Plain human sympathy abounded amid a common sense of grief and emergency.
    Soon enough, however, old reflexes and tones cropped up here and there on
    the left, both abroad and at home-smugness, acrimony, even schadenfreude,
    accompanied by the notion that the attacks were, well, not a just dessert,
    exactly, but, damnable yet understandable payback, rooted in America's own
    crimes of commission and omission, reaping what empire had sown. After all,
    was not America essentially the oil-greedy, Islam-disrespecting oppressor
    of Iraq, Sudan, Palestine? Were not the ghosts of the Shah's Iran, of
    Vietnam, and of the Cold War Afghan jihad rattling their bones?
    Intermittently grandiose talk from Washington about a righteous "crusade"
    against "evil" helped inflame the rhetoric of critics who
    feared-legitimately-that a deepening war in Afghanistan would pile human
    catastrophe upon human catastrophe. And soon, without pausing to consider
    why the vast majority of Americans might feel bellicose as well as
    sorrowful, some on the left were dismissing the idea that the United States
    had any legitimate recourse to the use of force in self-defense-or indeed
    any legitimate claim to the status of victim.

    I am not speaking of the ardent, and often expressed, hope that September
    11's crimes against humanity might eventually elicit from America a greater
    respect for the whole of assaulted humanity. A reasoned, vigorous
    examination of U.S. policies, including collusion in the Israeli
    occupation, sanctions against Iraq, and support of corrupt regimes in Saudi
    Arabia and Egypt, is badly needed. So is critical scrutiny of the
    administration's actions in Afghanistan and American unilateralism on many
    fronts. But in the wake of September 11 there erupted something more primal
    and reflexive than criticism: a kind of left-wing fundamentalism, a
    negative faith in America the ugly.

    In this cartoon view of the world, there is nothing worse than American
    power-not the woman-enslaving Taliban, not an unrepentant Al Qaeda
    committed to killing civilians as they please-and America is nothing but a
    self-seeking bully. It does not face genuine dilemmas. It never has
    legitimate reason to do what it does. When its rulers' views command
    popularity, this can only be because the entire population has been
    brainwashed, or rendered moronic, or shares in its leaders' monstrous values.

    Of the perils of American ignorance, of our fantasy life of pure and
    unappreciated goodness, much can be said. The failures of intelligence that
    made September 11 possible include not only security oversights, but a vast
    combination of stupefaction and arrogance-not least the all-or-nothing
    thinking that armed the Islamic jihad in Afghanistan in order to fight our
    own jihad against Soviet Communism-and a willful ignorance that not so long
    ago permitted half the citizens of a flabby, self-satisfied democracy to
    vote for a man unembarrassed by his lack of acquaintanceship with the world.

    But myopia in the name of the weak is no more defensible than myopia in the
    name of the strong. Like jingoists who consider any effort to understand
    terrorists immoral, on the grounds that to understand is to endorse, these
    hard-liners disdain complexity. They see no American motives except
    oil-soaked power lust, but look on the bright side of societies that
    cultivate fundamentalist ignorance. They point out that the actions of
    various mass murderers (the Khmer Rouge, bin Laden) must be
    "contextualized," yet refuse to consider any context or reason for the
    actions of Americans.

    If we are to understand Islamic fundamentalism, must we not also trouble
    ourselves to understand America, this freedom-loving, brutal, tolerant,
    shortsighted, selfish, generous, trigger-happy, dumb, glorious, fat-headed

    Not a bad place to start might be the patriotic fervor that arose after the
    attacks. What's offensive about affirming that you belong to a people, that
    your fate is bound up with theirs? Should it be surprising that suffering
    close-up is felt more urgently, more deeply, than suffering at a distance?
    After disaster comes a desire to reassemble the shards of a broken
    community, withstand the loss, strike back at the enemy. The attack stirs,
    in other words, patriotism-love of one's people, pride in their endurance,
    and a desire to keep them from being hurt anymore. And then, too, the wound
    is inverted, transformed into a badge of honor. It is translated into
    protest ("We didn't deserve this") and indignation ("They can't do this to
    us"). Pride can fuel the quest for justice, the rage for punishment, or the
    pleasures of smugness. The dangers are obvious. But it should not be hard
    to understand that the American flag sprouted in the days after September
    11, for many of us, as a badge of belonging, not a call to shed innocent blood.

    This sequence is not a peculiarity of American arrogance, ignorance, and
    power. It is simply and ordinarily human. It operates as clearly, as
    humanly, among nonviolent Palestinians attacked by West Bank and Gaza
    settlers and their Israeli soldier-protectors as among Israelis
    suicide-bombed at a nightclub or a pizza joint. No government anywhere has
    the right to neglect the safety of its own citizens-not least against an
    enemy that swears it will strike again. Yet some who instantly, and
    rightly, understand that Palestinians may burn to avenge their compatriots
    killed by American weapons assume that Americans have only interests (at
    least the elites do) and gullibilities (which are the best the masses are
    capable of).

    In this purist insistence on reducing America and Americans to a wicked
    stereotype, we encounter a soft anti-Americanism that, whatever takes place
    in the world, wheels automatically to blame America first. This is not the
    hard anti-Americanism of bin Laden, the terrorist logic under which,
    because the United States maintains military bases in the land of the
    prophet, innocents must be slaughtered and their own temples crushed.
    Totalitarians like bin Laden treat issues as fodder for the apocalyptic
    imagination. They want power and call it God. Were Saddam Hussein or the
    Palestinians to win all their demands, bin Laden would move on, in his next
    video, to his next issue.

    Soft anti-Americans, by contrast, sincerely want U.S. policies to
    change-though by their lights, such turnabouts are well-nigh
    unimaginable-but they commit the grave moral error of viewing the mass
    murderer (if not the mass murder) as nothing more than an outgrowth of U.S.
    policy. They not only note but gloat that the United States built up
    Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan as a counterfoil to the Russians. In
    this thinking, Al Qaeda is an effect, not a cause; a symptom, not a
    disease. The initiative, the power to cause, is always American.

    But here moral reasoning runs off the rails. Who can hold a symptom
    accountable? To the left-wing fundamentalist, the only interesting or
    important brutality is at least indirectly the United States' doing. Thus,
    sanctions against Iraq are denounced, but the cynical mass murderer Saddam
    Hussein, who permits his people to die, remains an afterthought. Were
    America to vanish, so, presumably, would the miseries of Iraq and Egypt.

    In the United States, adherents of this kind of reflexive anti-Americanism
    are a minority (isolated, usually, on campuses and in coastal cities, in
    circles where reality checks are scarce), but they are vocal and quick to
    action. Observing flags flying everywhere, they feel embattled and draw on
    their embattlement for moral credit, thus roping themselves into tight
    little circles of the pure and the saved.

    The United States represents a frozen imperialism that values only
    unbridled power in the service of untrammeled capital. It is congenitally,
    genocidally, irremediably racist. Why complicate matters by facing up to
    America's self-contradictions, its on-again, off-again interest in
    extending rights, its clumsy egalitarianism coupled with ignorant
    arrogance? America is seen as all of a piece, and it is hated because it is
    hateful-period. One may quarrel with the means used to bring it low, but
    low is only what it deserves.

    So even as the smoke was still rising from the ground of Lower Manhattan,
    condemnations of mass murder made way in some quarters for a retreat to the
    old formula and the declaration that the "real question" was America's
    victims-as if there were not room in the heart for more than one set of
    victims. And the seductions of closure were irresistible even to those
    dedicated, in other circumstances, to intellectual glasnost. Noam Chomsky
    bent facts to claim that Bill Clinton's misguided attack on a Sudanese
    pharmaceutical plant in 1998 was worse by far than the massacres of
    September 11. Edward Said, the exiled Palestinian author and critic, wrote
    of "a superpower almost constantly at war, or in some sort of conflict, all
    over the Islamic domains." As if the United States always picked the fight;
    as if U.S. support of the Oslo peace process, whatever its limitations,
    could be simply brushed aside; as if defending Muslims in Bosnia and
    Kosovo-however dreadful some of the consequences-were the equivalent of
    practicing gunboat diplomacy in Latin America or dropping megatons of bombs
    on Vietnam and Cambodia.

     From the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, who has admirably criticized her
    country's policies on nuclear weapons and development, came the queenly
    declaration that "American people ought to know that it is not them but
    their government's policies that are so hated." (One reason why Americans
    were not exactly clear about the difference is that the murderers of
    September 11 did not trouble themselves with such nice distinctions.) When
    Roy described bin Laden as "the American president's dark doppelganger" and
    claimed that "the twins are blurring into one another and gradually
    becoming interchangeable," she was in the grip of a prejudice invulnerable
    to moral distinctions.

    Insofar as we who criticize U.S. policy seriously want Americans to wake up
    to the world-to overcome what essayist Anne Taylor Fleming has called our
    serial innocence, ever renewed, ever absurd-we must speak to, not at,
    Americans, in recognition of our common perplexity and vulnerability. We
    must abstain from the fairy-tale pleasures of oversimplification. We must
    propose what is practical-the stakes are too great for the luxury of any
    fundamentalism. We must not content ourselves with seeing what Washington
    says and rejecting that. We must forgo the luxury of assuming that we are
    not obligated to imagine ourselves in the seats of power.

    Generals, it's said, are always planning to fight the last war. But they're
    not alone in suffering from sentimentality, blindness, and mental laziness
    disguised as resolve. The one-eyed left helps no one when it mires itself
    in its own mirror-image myths. Breaking habits is desperately hard, but
    those who evade the difficulties in their purist positions and refuse to
    face all the mess and danger of reality only guarantee their bitter

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