---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 09 Jan 2002 11:05:34 -0800
From: radtimes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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
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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