Don't Accuse Me of Blaming America When I Blame the Government

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In discourse
about public affairs, words matter much more than most people appreciate.
We live immersed in language so twisted and abused, in part by the
design of interested parties and in part by the sloth of inattentive
speakers and listeners, that we often fail to notice or object to
linguistic miscarriages that pass for intelligent expression. The
examples are legion, but here I have in mind a particular turn of
phrase that American conservatives, especially neocons, have employed
in recent years as a counterstrike against critics of U.S. foreign
and defense policy: They describe such critics as “blaming
America” or sometimes as “blaming America first”
for attacks against this country or its citizens abroad.

Thus, for example,
those who fault U.S. Middle East policies for creating the conditions
that caused Muslim fanatics to attack Americans, both at home and
overseas, are said to be blaming America for what the policy’s
defenders’ take to be the unprovoked acts of terrorists bent
on imposing Sharia on the United States, destroying this country’s
freedoms, or attaining another such farfetched objective.

Applications
to earlier events and policies include use of the expression to
fend off the arguments and evidence of those who maintain that the
Roosevelt administration waged economic warfare in 1940-41 to provoke
a Japanese attack that would justify and lead directly to full-fledged
U.S. engagement in World War II; and use of the expression against
those who argue that the Truman administration bore at least partial
responsibility for the onset of the Cold War. People accused of
blaming America are commonly called “America haters.”

Although this
riposte to criticism is the rhetorical tactic of first resort for
the more simple-minded, flag-waving species of self-anointed patriots,
it is by no means their exclusive property. Neocons writing in such
elevated outlets as the New York Times and the Washington
Post have not been bashful about smearing their critics as people
who “blame America.” I noticed this linguistic resort
most recently in a commentary by an intelligent, reasonable economist
and was shocked that he would embrace this trope while suggesting
that “pacifists” and others who criticize U.S. foreign
and defense policies are unrealistically imagining that international
disputes and warfare can somehow be eliminated from human affairs.

In my view,
replying to policy critics by accusing them of “blaming America”
is worse than linguistically crude and ideologically twisted; it
is stupid.

First, and
most important, let us recognize that the U.S. government is not
America. Notwithstanding the ease with which politicians and their
speechwriters toss around the idea that “American needs X”
or “America should do Y,” the word America has so many
distinct referents that it is extremely ambiguous. In currently
common usage, America may refer to, among other things, the
geographic area within U.S. borders; the population residing in
this area; the traditions, customs, social practices, and norms
that these persons regard as uniquely their own; the ideals that
they have long expressed as their foremost aspirations; or a specific
group of persons representing the United States in international
organizations or competitions (e.g., “America won more medals
than any other country in the Olympic games).

Only in discussions
of international relations do we automatically understand America
to be the same thing as the U.S. government. Thus, when we say that
“America entered World War I in 1917,” it is understood
that the statement means “U.S. government officials, specifically
members of Congress and the president, declared the U.S. government
to be at war against the German Empire and its allies in 1917.”
And when we say that “America ratified the United Nations Charter
in 1945, we mean that “a majority of the members of the U.S.
Senate voted in favor of this treaty.”

Notice, however,
that if one were to presume that the foregoing use of “America”
– that is, the international-relations usage that takes America
to be identical to all or part of the U.S. government – were
the one being employed, it would make no sense to say that critics
of U.S. policy are “blaming America,” because that statement
would amount to saying that critics of U.S. government policies
are blaming the U.S. government, which is obvious and redundant.

However, it
is equally senseless for defenders of U.S. policy to suppose that
the policy’s critics are blaming America in any of the senses
specified in the third paragraph before this one. Critics are not
blaming the geographic area, the resident population, the people’s
traditions and customs, or their foremost ideals.

Critics who
are said to be “blaming America” are in fact simply blaming
the U.S. government, and defenders of the government’s policy
who wield this polemical sword are implying either that the government
and the people are one and the same or that the government
indeed bears responsibility for adopting and implementing the policy
in question, but should not be faulted for doing so. Either way,
the defenders are standing on quicksand.

The government
– the collection of politicians, soldiers, hired bureaucrats,
and assorted flunkies who devise and carry out U.S. policies –
makes mistakes. Of course, many of the actions and policies that
sooner or later are generally regarded as mistakes were not mistakes
at all, but merely actions and policies that, contrary to official
declarations, did not serve the general public’s interests,
although they served well enough the interests of key government
officials and their major supporters. But set aside that class of
actions. The government makes mistakes even in its attempts to attain
objectives it truly seeks to attain. It cannot help but make such
mistakes because its decision-makers have limited information, often
poor judgment, biases of various sorts in the evaluation of information
they do possess, and other shortcomings too numerous to recite.

So, why should
anyone suppose that the government simply cannot be mistaken, and
hence legitimately criticized for its mistakes? So far as the bulk
of the American people are concerned, a great many U.S. foreign
and defense policies – from the very beginning of the United
States, but especially since the late nineteenth century –
have been mistaken. For example, it is very difficult to argue honestly
that U.S. engagement in World War I served the general interest
of Americans. In ways great and small, Woodrow Wilson’s bid
to play the role of global messiah had negative repercussions so
horrifying that some of them continue to wreak harm to this day
(e.g., the creation of artificial, unsustainable state boundaries
in the Middle East). It is similarly difficult to argue that the
U.S. war in Vietnam was a positive event for the American people
at large. And how can anyone mount a strong argument that U.S. engagement
in the Middle East since the early 1950s has not served to antagonize
and destabilize the entire region and turn some of its young people
into fanatics bent on revenge against Americans? Indeed, for some
of us, who are not flying on pro-government autopilot, it seems
that the bulk of the more important U.S. foreign and defense policies,
particularly in the past hundred years, has been adverse to the
general interest of the American people, however hyped up most of
those people might have become when the government plunged into
unnecessary wars and the people rallied round the flag, at least
in the beginning.

Ambrose Bierce
observed in The
Devil’s Dictionary
, “In Dr. Johnson’s famous
dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel.
With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer,
I beg to submit that it is the first.” H. L. Mencken amended
Johnson’s dictum by saying, “But there is something even
worse: it is the first, last, and middle range of fools.” So,
no one who criticizes U.S. foreign and defense policy should feel
pushed onto the defensive when told that he is “blaming America”
or acting as an “America hater.” Indeed, it might be best
if he broke into laughter to indicate that such a response to his
criticism betokens either a juvenile mentality or a shameless willingness
to serve as a running dog of the U.S. regime.

I hold myself
second to none in my adoration of the amber waves of grain and the
purple mountain majesties. I revere the ideal that this nation should
serve as a beacon of freedom to the world and a refuge for its huddled
masses yearning to breathe free. I weep with pride each time I watch
the ailing Lou Gehrig tell the crowd at Yankee Stadium, “Today
I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.”
I don’t blame these beautiful, decent, and admirable aspects
of America in the least for the chronic failure of U.S. foreign
and defense policy to serve the general public interest.

With regard
to the fools, mountebanks, unscrupulous opportunists, and psychopaths
who have long played the greatest roles in devising and implementing
U.S. foreign and defense policy, however, I hold a quite different
and decidedly less favorable opinion.

Reprinted
from the Independent Institute.

January
4, 2010

Robert
Higgs [send him mail] is
senior fellow in political economy at the Independent
Institute
and editor of The
Independent Review
. He
is also a columnist for LewRockwell.com. His
most recent book is Neither
Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government
.
He is also the author of Depression,
War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy
, Resurgence
of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11
and Against
Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society
.

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Best of Robert Higgs

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