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

From: Ted Morgan (
Date: Thu Jan 10 2002 - 18:13:11 EST

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    This is mind-boggling stuff, Gitlin-bordering-on-Horowitz. Until he briefly
    mentions a single out-of-context comment made by Chomsky, Said, and Roy, Gitlin
    fails to document any of his charges, and his out-of-context citations don't
    confirm his groundless charges. Who on the left dismissed the horrific attacks on
    the WTC? Who has "viewed the mass murderer (or mass murder) as nothing more than
    an outgrowth of US policy"? No one on the left that I've read, and I've read
    pretty extensively, encompassing Chomsky, Said, and Roy.

    Why is it "reflexive anti-Americanism" to move from the horror inflicted without
    possible justification on Americans to ways in which America's past role in the
    world may have made American civilians indirect victims of their government's
    policies, or ways in which the current war may make future American civilians
    innocent victims as well. Why does pointing out this completely rational and
    logical connection get turned into "anti-Americanism," as if one doesn't grieve the
    people who died and lost loved ones in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

    The question might be put: what does it mean if we ONLY mourn the dead and don't
    ask questions about the context that led to their deaths --but instead lapse into a
    flag-waving, feel-good war that we're incessantly encouraged to applaud (and I am
    not saying this is every person's meaning in displaying the flag; I know many have
    done so simply as an expression of solidarity with the victims). I mean, the Viet
    Cong used horrific methods to maintain their control in rural Vietnam, to say
    nothing of literally defacing their enemy. That doesn't mean we didn't or don't
    ask questions about what context has driven them to use tactics of this type and
    what role our country has played in that, nor does asking these questions mean we
    don't grieve those who suffered as a result.

    This is frightening stuff! Wasn't so long ago, Todd, that people were accusing you
    of "blaming American first!"

    Ted Morgan wrote:

    > ---------- Forwarded message ----------
    > Date: Wed, 09 Jan 2002 11:05:34 -0800
    > From: radtimes <>
    > 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
    > powerhouse?
    > 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
    > inconsequence.

    Ted Morgan
    Department of Political Science
    Lehigh University
    Maginnes Hall #9
    Bethlehem, PA 18015
    Phone: (610) 758-3345
    Fax: (610) 758-6554

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