In Part II of this series,”Why the Stories We Tell Matter So Much,” I quoted Philip Pullman (author of the genuinely wondrous, His Dark Materials) on the critical importance of stories, and of time for reading and reflection. At the conclusion of his remarks, Pullman said:
We don’t need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do’s and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever. It was because of the immense significance of the stories we tell, of the narratives that compel our attention and that very frequently move us to action, and with Pullman’s comments in mind, that I titled this blog, “Once Upon a Time.”
Earlier in that same essay, I wrote: As concisely stated by Philip Pullman at the beginning of this essay, we cannot live without stories. It is therefore of vital importance whether the stories we choose to tell are creative or destructive with regard to their deepest meanings and implications, whether they encourage a reverence for life in general and for the sanctity of each particular life, or lead to a casual dismissal of the value of others’ lives if those others are “different” or obstruct our own desires, and if our stories purport to capture actual events, past or present whether they are accurate and solidly grounded in demonstrable fact, or misleading and distorted. As I have discussed in many essays and will analyze further, most of the stories that permeate our national discussion today are grossly wrong, and most often dangerously wrong. The major narrative to which I have devoted a number of essays a narrative which is profoundly false both in its general outlines and in every detail, and one which has been and continues to be literally lethal in its effects is the tale of “American exceptionalism.” Assuming that one knows even a minimal amount of history (which, I grant, is far too often a completely unjustified assumption today, even and especially with regard to the “best educated” Americans and the members of our ruling class), and if one considers this mythology with any degree of honesty, its inconsistencies, outright contradictions, and numerous points of incoherence quickly become apparent. Yet the overwhelming majority of Americans continue to believe this fable, and the regular invocation of America’s “unique” characteristics, which make us “better” than any other people who have ever lived and which, for reasons that are never explained, entitle us to direct events across the globe, is nothing less than a religious ritual.
At the opening of the last installment, I summarized certain common errors regarding American history committed by many liberals and conservatives. In large part, those errors arise and continue to find new life because of many people’s adherence to this American mythology. People with views across the political spectrum are unable to recognize the realities of American political and social history because those realities would fundamentally challenge the fable to which they are so devoted: conservatives cling to the notion that American progress and superiority are the result of free and unfettered capitalism, that is, the result of the operations of private business in an essentially laissez-faire environment, while liberals see the steady advance of America as due in significant part to the growing influence of the interests and wisdom of “the common people.” As one result, both groups have the identical blind spot: both appear unable to fully appreciate the joining together of government power with certain influential (and usually exceedingly wealthy) private citizens and businesses. This combination, which began in the late nineteenth century, gathered force in the two decades following 1900, and was firmly cemented in place by World War I and then the New Deal, resulted in the creation of a class made up of the American elites. It is in these elites that almost all power is concentrated, both the power of the state and the power of the dominant private interests.
For most Americans, full recognition of this reality is impossible, for it renders maintenance of the American fable of “responsive democracy” all but impossible. All our politicians appeal with thought-deadening monotony to the “will of the people.” The fiction that the actions of the state and of the elites embody that “will” is the unappealable justification for whatever the ruling class might do, whether or not it is true (which it frequently is not). If public opinion on a particular question reaches a pitch and intensity that cannot be ignored, the ruling class might make temporary concessions to the public’s demands. This is why I suggested a series of actions to focus public protest about what still seems to be the inevitability of an attack on Iran, under either the current administration or a future Democratic one. The program I put forth doesn’t contradict these points about the power of the ruling elites; in extraordinary circumstances and on a particular issue, the elites will heed “the people’s voice,” if it becomes so insistent and is offered on a large enough scale that continuing to ignore it might threaten the elites’ hold on power. But such occasions are extraordinary; for the most part, politicians and other members of the elites couldn’t care less about what “the people” want. Yet the fable must be maintained, and “the people” need to be reassured that the state acts in accordance with their desires. We still have what, for the elites, must be an increasingly annoying formality, regular elections even though elections are now almost entirely an empty charade drained of all substance and meaning.
So the American mythology continues intact, untarnished and unthreatened by unpleasant facts. I had numerous reasons for referring to us as “A Nation of Stupid Children, Who Refuse to Give Up the Lies.” Even intelligent and sometimes admirable prominent public voices give new life to the fable that sustains us. Bob Herbert is one of only a handful of commentators for whom I have significant respect; Herbert writes with great power and eloquence about the profound evil of torture, and he is often passionate in his defense of the powerless who are frequently treated with unimaginable cruelty. But our central myth is so pervasive that even Herbert absorbs it, and increases its reach. For example, in a column titled, “The System’s Broken,” from October 30, 2006, Herbert wrote: The system is broken. Most politicians would rather sacrifice their first born than tell voters the honest truth about tough issues. Big money and gerrymandering have placed government out of the reach of most Americans. While some changes in the House are expected this year, the Brookings Institution and the Cato Institute tell us (in a joint report) that since 1998, House incumbents have won more than 98 percent of their re-election races.
Millions of thoughtful Americans have become so estranged from the political process that they’ve tuned out entirely. Voters hungry for a serious discussion of complex issues are fed a steady diet of ideological talking heads hurling insults in one- or two-minute television segments.
DePauw University held a two-day conference last week on issues confronting the U.S. I was struck by the extent to which the people who attended the forums were interested in seeking out practical, nonpartisan, nonideological solutions to the wide range of problems discussed.
The frustration with the current state of government and politics was palpable. One man, Ned Lamkin, asked me if it wouldn’t be a good idea to create some sort of national forum for a serious extended discussion of ways to fix, or at least improve, the system. He’s on to something. Among other things, I’d love to see a nonpartisan series of high-profile, nationally televised town hall meetings that would explore ways of making government and politics fairer, more open and more responsive to the will of the people.
American-style democracy needs to be energized, revitalized. The people currently in charge are not up to the task. It’s time to bring the intelligence, creativity and energy of the broader population into the quest for constructive change. While I’m somewhat sympathetic to the perspective Herbert expresses here, to say that his proposed solution is naive is to be exceedingly and foolishly kind. A “series of high-profile, nationally televised town hall meetings” as against a vast and intricate system of power that has become deeply entrenched in every aspect of our nation’s life and activities over more than one hundred years?
Herbert regularly returns to his praise for the great wisdom embodied in “the will of the people,” as in a column dated January 29, 2007, “More than Antiwar“: You can say what you want about the people opposed to this wretched war in Iraq, try to stereotype them any way you can. But you couldn’t walk among them for more than a few minutes on Saturday without realizing that they love their country as much as anyone ever has. They love it enough to try to save it.
The goal of the crowd was to get the attention of Congress and persuade it to move vigorously to reverse the Bush war policies. But the thought that kept returning as I watched the earnestly smiling faces, so many of them no longer young, was the way these protesters had somehow managed to keep the faith. They still believed, after all the years and all the lies, that they could make a difference. They still believed their government would listen to them and respond. [It will not listen to them, and it will not respond.]
The public is way out in front of the politicians on this issue. But the importance of Saturday’s march does not lie primarily in whether it hastens a turnaround of U.S. policy on the war. The fact that so many Americans were willing to travel from every region of the country to march against the war was a reaffirmation of the public’s commitment to our peaceful democratic processes.
It is in that unique and unflagging commitment, not in our terrifying military power, that the continued promise and greatness of America are to be found. This belief in the “promise and greatness” of “the American people” drenches our political debates, and makes serious, adult discussion a goal that is all but unattainable. You find it on the right, as in these comments from Romney at the first Republican debate in early May: MR. VANDEHEI: Governor Romney, Daniel Dukovnic (sp) from Walnut Creek, California, wants to know: What do you dislike most about America?
MR. ROMNEY: Gosh. I love America. I’m afraid I’m going to be at a loss for words, because America for me is not just our rolling mountains and hills and streams and great cities, it’s the American people. And the American people are the greatest people in the world. What makes America the greatest nation in the world is the heart of the American people hard-working, innovative, risk-taking, God- loving, family-oriented American people.
It’s that optimism we thank Ronald Reagan for. Thank you, Mrs. Reagan, for opening up this place in his memory for us. It is that optimism about this great people that makes us the greatest nation on Earth. With regard to the noxious idea that “the American people are the greatest people in the world,” I am compelled to repeat some earlier remarks, from Part VII of this series, “The Mythology of the ‘Good Guy’ American”: We see our success, and our power on the world stage, as inherently tied to superior moral virtue. We are so successful because we are uniquely virtuous, and our national power confirms our morality, in relation to which all other peoples and all other countries can only suffer in comparison. One of the many dangerous and inevitable consequences of this view is an often virulent racism that has been reflected in our treatment of many very numerous groups of people: the Native Americans, the slaves who were brought here and were an integral part of the new country’s economy, Germans in World War I (German-Americans were the “scum of the melting pot,” who now needed to be gotten “rid of”), the Japanese in World War II (the “yellow Japs,” who were “regularly compared” to “monkeys, baboons, and gorillas”), and a number of other foreigners and immigrants. Very recently, we witnessed the sickening spectacle of this atavistic racism unleashed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
One point is crucial: a critical part of our national mythology is the insistence on viewing our nation and ourselves as Americans in comparative terms. When we insist that we are uniquely “good” and “virtuous,” this logically necessitates a further conclusion: we are better than everyone else. We are “the Good Guys.” The emphasis is not only on “Good,” but on “the”: we are the Good Guys in a way that no one else is, or can ever be. (On this issue, also see this post from yesterday, in response to this.) And the paeans to “the will of the people” come from the left and from progressives, as in this entry from Matt Stoller, which is almost stupendously wonderful in its mind-destroying inanity: I’m going to follow on Chris’s posts on diversity by explaining why I blog. I have a certain set of values, and I want to see the political system adopt those values, including transparency, honesty, and civic democracy. My hypothesis is that these values are shared by a wide group, and that organizing through the blogs is one route to pressuring for social change. In other words, blogging is just a means to power for a progressive movement that I want to see succeed.
And surprisingly, it’s not actually easy to have an impact on the political system. As weird as it sounds, a link from Atrios or Firedoglake, or a mention in the New York Times, does not change the political system. [Who woulda thunk?!] It is in fact a lot of work to get a change to happen. The balance of Stoller’s post, which identifies strategies that are not effective and those that might be, leads one to conclude that a rather unsophisticated irony might be the sought-after tone in remarks such as, “it’s not actually easy to have an impact on the political system.” It might be observed that for a political operative, for whom effective and clear communication is essential, the intended message and tone could be conveyed with just a bit more precision. And Stoller seems to genuinely believe that he is identifying an unappreciated fact that escapes most people when he remarks, “It is in fact a lot of work to get a change to happen.” What can one say? Perhaps: D’oh! So let us be fair: let no one accuse certain progressive operatives of intellectual brilliance or original insight.
True, Stoller acknowledges that, “There’s a small group of people who make policy in politics,” but his overall argument (and his writing more generally) makes clear that the full reality of the complex mechanisms through which power is achieved, maintained, expanded and directed is entirely beyond his grasp. (It is possible that Stoller understands all of this, and also knows the vacuous phrases that he needs to throw up and out periodically, to assuage certain of his less than bright followers. If he does understand it, that, of course, would be unspeakably worse. But I seriously doubt he’s that bright.) And then, of course, there is the unstated but clearly implied self-congratulation at the end: “There are big opportunities here. Seize them. No one is stopping you but you.” You can be assured that Stoller is not stopping Stoller. His post is entirely appropriately titled, “Building Power.” I note, without further explication, that you should read Stoller’s post in conjunction with a genuinely awful entry from Chris Bowers, and you will then understand why I now think of them as the Evil Twins of Progressive Politics. The lust for power consumes them and I implore you to remember that power always must mean power over other people. As those who seek power always do, they regularly camouflage their lust with sentimental tripe about “transparency, honesty and civic democracy.” If people studied and remembered history, they would realize that every leader, including the most brutally vicious and murderous, has always appealed to “the will of the people.” It is on the basis of such platitudinous, vapid twaddle that crimes of immense scale and horror are committed.
As Romney’s remarks make clear, the belief that the “heart of the American people” makes America “the greatest nation in the world” is one regularly trotted out by Republicans. However, I note again that these hackneyed phrases are primarily a public relations ploy, designed to drug unthinking Americans into apathy, secure in the conviction that the state is following their “will.” On the right side of the spectrum, especially among many neoconservatives, the deep contempt for “ordinary” Americans is now occasionally acknowledged explicitly, together with the belief that these citizen-dolts must be told “noble” Straussian lies to get them to behave properly.
But among progressives, the appeals to the wisdom and infinite goodness of “the American people” are unending. So exactly which Americans are they talking about? We can safely assume they probably don’t mean the 62 million people who voted for Bush in 2004, long after the criminally murderous nature of his policies had been made unequivocally clear, or the millions of Americans who still support Bush even today. They probably don’t mean those Americans who enjoy hearty laughs watching repeated acts of torture on 24, and who wish only that their government used similar methods still more systematically (as if we don’t use them systematically enough already). But here is where the genuinely religious nature of this belief in the innate goodness of “the people” becomes clearer. We should first note that, whenever political leaders or would-be wielders of power appeal to “civic democracy” or “the will of the people,” they operate on a crucial but unspoken assumption: that the people they invoke just happen to agree with them. When these seekers after power use the state to force people to act in certain ways, they will only be doing what the people themselves want, for the beliefs of “the people” coincidentally overlap with their own at every important point. I repeat that every bloodthirsty dictator has said the same.
But note a further religious element involved. Every fervent “believer” thinks that if only others saw the truth as he does, if they only had all the “facts,” they would be overwhelmed by his particular vision, and come to see its indisputable veracity. In exactly the same way, all these seekers of political power think that if only “the people” had all the “facts” (which are the ones they view as important, and no others), they would embrace every significant part of their political program. This avoids one obvious and fundamental aspect of human nature, and human behavior: people can have precisely the same information yet they will reach vastly different conclusions because they operate on the basis of different moral premises and values. People make different choices; as we all know, those choices are often entirely unlike ours, and not infrequently directly opposed to ours. Keep in mind that the state is a system of obedience: the essence of the state is force and compulsion. If you violate the state’s requirements, you will pay a penalty. But this reality is washed away with appeals to “the will of the people”: the power-seekers convince themselves that you are only being forced to act in ways that you would choose yourself. This is only a very brief beginning on what is an inordinately complex subject; I will return to these issues in much more detail in an upcoming series about the primitive tribalism that has overwhelmed our politics today.
Let’s return to the mythical “good American.” In a very valuable article from the indispensable Robert Higgs, “How Does the War Party Get Away With It?” (published in September 2003), Higgs eloquently makes a number of the same points I refer to above: Presidents decide to go to war in the context of a favorably disposed mass culture. Painful as it is for members of the Peace Party to admit, many Americans take pleasure in “kicking ass,” and they do not much care whose ass is being kicked or why. So long as Americans are dishing out death and destruction to a plausible foreign enemy, the red-white-and-blue jingos are happy. If you think I'm engaging in hyperbole, you need to get out more. Visit a barbershop, stand in line at the post office, or have a drink at your neighborhood tavern and listen to the conversations going on around you. The sheer bellicosity of many ordinary people’s views is as undeniable as it is shocking. Something in their diet seems to be causing a remarkable volume of murderous, barely suppressed rage.
No one should be surprised by the cultural proclivity for violence, of course, because Americans have always been a violent people in a violent land. Once the Europeans had committed themselves to reside on this continent, they undertook to slaughter the Indians and steal their land, and to bullwhip African slaves into submission and live off their laboru2014endeavors they pursued with considerable success over the next two and a half centuries. Absent other convenient victims, they have battered and killed one another on the slightest pretext, or for the simple pleasure of doing so, with guns, knives, and bare hands. If you take them to be a u201Cpeace-loving people,u201D you haven't been paying attention. Such violent people are easily led to war.
Public ignorance compounds the inclinations fostered by the mass culture. Study after study and poll after poll have confirmed that most Americans know next to nothing about public affairs. Of course, the intricacies of foreign policy are as alien to them as the dark side of the moon, but their ignorance runs much deeper. They can't explain the simplest elements of the political system; they don't know what the Constitution says or means; and they can't identify their political representatives or what those persons ostensibly stand for. They know scarcely anything about history, and what they think they know is usually incorrect. People so densely ignorant that they have no inkling of how their forebears were bamboozled and sacrificed on the altar of Mars the last time around are easily bamboozled and readily sacrificed the next time around. Earlier in the same article, Higgs is similarly eloquent and perceptive on the major theme of this essay: In view of the evident futility, and worse, of nearly every war the United States has fought during the past century, how does the War Party manage to propel this nation into one catastrophe after another, each of them clearly foreseen by at least a substantial minority who failed to dissuade their fellow citizens from still another march into calamity?
An adequate answer might fill a volume, but some elements of that answer can be sketched briefly. The essential components are autocratic government, favorably disposed mass culture, public ignorance and misplaced trust, cooperative mass media, and political exploitation for personal and institutional advantage.
By “autocratic government,” I refer to the reality of how foreign policy is actually made in the United States. Notwithstanding the trappings of our political system's democratic procedures, checks and balances, elections, and so forth, the making of foreign policy involves only a handful of people decisively. When the president and his coterie of top advisers decide to go to war, they just go, and nobody can stop them. The “intelligence” agencies, the diplomatic corps, and the armed forces do as they are told. Members of Congress cower and speak in mealy-mouthed phrases framed to ensure that no matter how the war turns out, they can share any credit and deny any blame. No one has effective capacity to block the president, and few officials care to do so in any event, even if they object. Rarely does anyone display the minimal decency of resigning his military commission or his appointment in the bureaucracy. In short, in our system the president has come to hold the power of war and peace exclusively in his hands, notwithstanding anything to the contrary written in the Constitution or the laws. He might as well be Caesar.
(In the late 1930s, Congress considered the Ludlow Resolution, which would have amended the Constitution to require approval in a national referendum before Congress could declare war, unless U.S. territory had been invaded. Franklin D. Roosevelt vigorously opposed such an amendment, writing to the Speaker of the House on January 6, 1938, that its adoption “would cripple any President in his conduct of our foreign relations,” and the resolution was narrowly voted down [209 to 188] in the House soon afterward. Can't let the inmates run the asylum, now can we?) Higgs has more, and I encourage you to read it.
To fill in these identifications with some further detail, I turn once again to Christopher Layne, whose very valuable book, The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy From 1940 to the Present, I excerpted in Part III, “The Open Door to Worldwide Hegemony.” In his concluding chapter (at pp. 200-201), Layne writes (the highlights are mine, and I’ve omitted the footnotes, with the exception of one indicated by an asterisk): By abandoning hegemony in favor of offshore balancing, could the United States have maintained its security at a lower price? If the United States, at an earlier stage, could have extricated itself from the hegemonic dimension of its cold war strategy, and its concomitant burdens, it would have been in its interest to do so. This, of course, raises another important question: Why has the United States stuck so long with its hegemonic strategy? Were U.S. policymakers foolish, or were they willfully indifferent to the burdens placed on the United States by its grand strategy?
The answer is both complex (a topic worthy of a book in its own right) and yet simple. In his book Myths of Empire, Jack Snyder talks about elites “hijacking” the state. This fails to make the point quite strongly enough. Dominant elites do not hijack the state; they are the state. The United States pursued hegemony because that grand strategy has served the interests of the dominant elites that have formed the core of the U.S. foreign policy establishment since at least the late 1930s, when the New Deal resulted in the domestic political triumph of what Thomas Ferguson calls “multinational liberalism.” At the core of the multinational liberal coalition were large capital-intensive corporations that looked to overseas markets and outward-looking investment banks. This coalition displaced the so-called system of 1896, which was organized around labor-intensive industries that favored economic nationalism and opposed strategic internationalism. [That last sentence is not entirely correct in my view, as I will explain when I return to the actual history of the Progressive movement, as opposed to the widely accepted mythology about its achievements.]
The multinational liberal coalition that cemented its hold on power during the New Deal had its roots deep in the Eastern establishment: it also included the national media, important foundations, the big Wall Street law firms, and organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations.* This coalition favored economic and political Open Doors and the strategic internationalism that accompanied them. Although the bipartisan consensus among the U.S. foreign policy establishment favoring strategic internationalism and U.S. hegemony that was forged some six decades ago has occasionally been tested notably during the Vietnam War it has proved remarkably durable. Unless it undergoes a Damascene-like intellectual conversion, as long as the present foreign policy elite remains in power the United States will remain wedded to a hegemonic grand strategy. It probably will take a major domestic political realignment perhaps triggered by setbacks abroad or a severe economic crisis at home to bring about a change in American grand strategy. The asterisk following the reference to the Council on Foreign Relations refers to a footnote that is also worth reproducing: The terms “dominant elite” and “foreign policy establishment” as used here carry no ideological connotations. It is well recognized that a dominant elite and a foreign policy establishment do exist in the United States. In their fascinating and very mainstream portrait of Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, Charles Bohlen, John McCloy, George Kennan, and Robert Lovett, Isaacson and Thomas explain that they selected these six because they represent a cross section of the postwar policy Establishment. The values they embodied were nurtured in prep schools, at college clubs, in the boardrooms of Wall Street, and at dinner parties in Washington. They shared a vision of public service as a lofty calling and an aversion to partisan politics. They had a pragmatic and businesslike preference for realpolitik over ideology. As internationalists who respected the manners and traditions of Europe, they waged a common struggle against the pervasive isolationism of their time. (Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986], 25) The idea that the United States operates or even could operate to any significant degree like a vast town meeting of 300 million people is utter nonsense. To think for even a moment that nationally televised town meetings or a fictitious “responsive, civic democracy” could, at this late date, seriously impact a complex, sprawling system of immense, almost unimaginable power is absolutely fantastic. And even if such a “civic democracy” were somehow made operational in some science fiction universe, when one considers the actual nature and predilections of far too many Americans, if their “will” were to be fully enacted, the results might well horrify even those who regularly offer their sentimental, empty, cloying appeals to Americans’ inherent “goodness.”
This is the reality that the widely accepted mythology is designed to avoid, a reality that rests upon an intricate series of connections among government, corporations, national media, foundations, law firms, and additional elements (including, very significantly, a massive defense industry). These are the elites who run our government, and who direct our lives. These are the elites who continue the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people who never threatened us and the destruction of entire countries that never attacked us, and who ache for still another war. These are the elites who oversee death and destruction on a vast scale, who seek to eliminate what little remains of our liberties, and who are never satisfied. No matter how much power they have, they always want more, unto the end of time. You can comfort yourself with delusions about “civic democracy” and “national town meetings,” but this reality is the one that runs your life in countless ways, and that might end it someday.
I suppose I could briefly summarize the argument in the following manner: Grow up. Be adults about this. And for God’s sake, be serious.
May 19, 2007