“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”
Mitt Romney, in response to a question about what he likes least about the U.S.
“I still believe that America is the last, best hope of Earth.”
Barack Obama, remarks to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs
“If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”
Clinton Secretary of State Madeline Albright
That Americans are the best, wisest and greatest in the world brackets almost all of our political speechery. Any and all critical remarks about the American government must be bracketed in numbing comments about how Americans and America are the greatest in the world, rah, rah, rah. It is true that on the spectrum of comparative freedom, U.S. citizens enjoy a spot on the far liberal side. The freedoms we have are the sum of the many small achievements and struggles by resistance movements over the last couple of centuries. Were I a politician running for office, this is the point where I would ask for a moment of silence to honor the brave men and women who have served in the U.S. military who (alone) made these freedoms possible. The truth is that these freedoms were mostly won by slaves and abolitionists, women and suffragists, workers and labor movements, activists and outspoken critics of the state, legal organizations like the ACLU and on. Politicians don’t ask anyone to praise someone like Eugene Debs for challenging the Alien & Sedition Acts and spending a significant chunk of his life in jail for doing so. Or the countless men and women who participated in labor resistance during the 1800s and early 1900s that eventually won reasonable working conditions for U.S. citizens. (U.S. politicians often used soldiers to brutalize labor freedom fighters in places like Ludlow, Lowell, Chicago, Seattle, etc. in an inversion of how we are supposed understand our history.) Or the draft resistors during Vietnam that ended the draft system, which was a mechanism for the government to compel citizens to kill strangers and be killed in strange lands for reasons they may not understand or agree with at all. Or the stepwise legal advances and retreats over the last couple centuries that give us something approximating free speech. I could go on…
Here is the important thing to remember: the freedoms we enjoy were not handed down from on high by the founding fathers in the Constitution. To paraphrase one of them: we have freedom, if we can keep it. Our national history has been a constant struggle to broaden these freedoms, a struggle from below and resisted from above. Opportunists stretch and interpret the Constitution to fit their agenda. For example, corporations are considered legal persons under U.S. law and are afforded the rights accorded to citizens under the bill of rights and amendments. The 13th amendment did not end slavery and racial oppression; it took another century of struggle. Our freedoms are not constant. There is an active dialectic at work all the time whether or not we admit or recognize it. It takes constant vigilance and struggle to maintain or expand them. Think this no longer applies? Witness the military Commissions Act, Patriot Act, FISA and other evidence of domestic spying, etc. Governments naturally want to have greater control over citizens, it is woven into the fabric of their existence and the U.S. government is no exception. One tactic to disarm people from recognizing this struggle is to bluster about nationalist sentiment. The idea is that we are all in this together, all the way. This is why politicians spout the jingoist claptrap we are accustomed to hearing.
Arthur Silber believes our nationalism is like religion. He is right that the framing is one that almost all accept and contains within it the accumulated assumptions and beliefs that enable well educated and otherwise decent people to believe we have the right to kill thousands, millions even, of foreign people because they don’t live as we do under governments our government says we should find offensive. It’s a deeply paternalistic and narcissistic world view to believe that we have the right to determine whether the bloody costs of political change for others are ours to calculate. (Incidentally, when our “regime change” foreign policy is stripped of platitude and rhetoric all that remains is our own definition of terrorism: the use of violence or the threat of violence against a civilian population for political, social or religious goals.) My reading of Silber is that he believes this belief in our own national and personal superiority runs deep, wide and inspires as much fervor as religion. If one strikes back against this peculiar monolith, which is really only to say that a human being living in an Afghani village has as much intrinsic value and right to live as one in Boston, one runs the risk of immediate censure. (And we can make some rough approximations about how much more value we value Americans over wogs; we doled out about $1 million to family members of Americans killed in 9/11. When the military determines that they killed someone in Iraq without good reason, they compensate family members to the tune of $500-$2,500.) I’d agree with Silber that our American exceptionalism runs wide, but I don’t see evidence that it is very deep. When someone spends every waking moment telling all who will listen how great he is, that is not the mark of unshakable confidence but, rather, almost crippling insecurity and guilt. A nation is a collection of people and I suspect the same dynamic is at work writ large.