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Saturday, September 29, 2007

We Are All Victims Of Our Own Ideas
...Can It Stop Now?

Decline and Fall of the American Empire
"Decline and Fall of the American Empire"
Roger Baum
Courtesy of Adam Baumgold Gallery
In a deft article titled "The Theology of American Empire," posted at The Smirking Chimp (ferreted by Jon Swift hosting Mike's Blog Round Up at Crooks and Liars), Ira Chernus discusses the philosophical underpinnings of what drives American's reactions to failed foreign policy. With a nearly-universal revulsion to the Iraq debacle, it is interesting to see what drives we, the critics.

The problem boils down to familiar basics. Do you feel that Man is essentially selfish, or is there a more enlightened essence to humanity that is being besmirched by our fears and search for security and prosperity? How one answers this question goes a long way in determining how one would interact with others, be it on the personal, business, political or foreign policy level. I find this binary question is pretty fundamental, but Chernus finds fruit in breaking it down into three mindsets, or "groups." I see two of those groups as simply nuanced versions of the "essentially selfish" mindset, but in practical terms his distinction is relevant and useful.

Following a review of American worldview as expressed by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and reactions to same from various American philosophical and political factions (a must read, really), Chernus observes [emphases mine]:
...If you look at the current debate about Iraq from the standpoint of myth and theology, the complainers fall into three broad groups.

First there is the mainstream of the foreign policy elite, made up of Democrats and more moderate Republicans. They complain that the Bush administration is pursuing the right goals but using the wrong tactics...They give most of the world a bit more credit for rationality; they fear the impulses of original sin a bit less.... They are more willing to take a multilateral approach and use the carrot as well as the stick - to pull diplomatic and economic levers before calling out the troops.

...The liberals among the elite, too, want their sense of moral clarity and certainty reassured by seeing it played out in a global drama of good against evil. So they make a huge exception for the supposedly pure and innocent motives of their own nation, the chosen people. They believe that the U.S. has a higher moral standing, which gives us the right and duty to rule. That’s how they can justify the most ruthless policies against anyone who stands in their way...

The second group of war critics is on the right... These hard-core “realists” want the United States to recognize that it too is a sinful nation, limited in its goodness as well as its resources, all too likely to overreach and eventually destroy itself if it doesn’t scale back its hubristic dream of enduring empire.

Thus the right-wing “realists” become strange bedfellows with the third group of war critics, the left-wingers, who, starting from very different principles, arrive at the same anti-imperialist conclusions... They do not accept the doctrine of original sin; they don’t think people are inherently doomed to be selfish and unreasonable...

Leftists who are consistent extend their Social Gospel view to its logical conclusion: There are no monsters - no inherently bad people — only bad conditions. So the good guys versus bad guys myth always distorts reality. But a surprising number of leftists sacrifice logical consistency for the emotional pleasure of the traditional myth. For them, of course, the monsters are the Bush administration, the neoconservatives, sometimes the mainstream Democrats too, and always, above all, the corporate elite whose hand they see behind every gesture of U.S. imperialism.
I confess that I often frame things in this manner, demonizing corporations and the elite for the woes of today. I like to think that I am merely pointing out undesirable aspects of human behaviour "by proxy," as it were - the underlying assumption being that we are all capable of caprice or sinister calculation under various circumstances. Such noble sentiment, however, is often hidden when one points fingers at other people, classes, symbols, nations, etc.

It is worth reminding ourselves, frequently, that we are all "tied in a single garment of destiny."
With [Martin Luther King, Jr.] as our guide, we could have a distinctly American foreign policy based on the conviction of absolute moral certainty we find in the Social Gospel and nonviolence traditions.. Our goal would always be to move the world one step closer to becoming a universal beloved community. We would no longer act out the myth of good versus evil. We would not demonize a bin Laden or Saddam — or a Bush or Cheney. We would recognize that when people do bad things, their actions grow out of a global network of forces that we ourselves have helped to create. King said it most eloquently: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

We can never stand outside the network of mutuality, as if we were the Lone Ranger arriving on the scene to destroy an evil we played no part in creating. Just as Bush is tied to Osama, so each of us is tied to all those who do things that outrage us. We cannot simply destroy them and think that the outrages have been erased. To right the wrongs of the world, we must start by recognizing our own responsibility for helping to spawn those wrongs. Indeed, fixing our own part in the wrongs we see all over the world may be all that we can do.
Such advice seems so simplistic and not the least daunting. Most of us feel, with some validity, that old, gnawing question, "What can one person do?" The stage is huge, the scale of the drama leaves the bit players reeling in the face of enormity. Big things happen. Yes, but if we are cognizant of our own attitudes towards fellow human beings, we can see how we underpin the social attitudes that permit these horrible outcomes. Really, if the average, consensus worldview was healthy, then these impulses of greed, which are acted out on such a huge scale by our ostensible "leaders," would be summarily dismissed as banal, foolish, childish and mad, and they would gain no traction.

Once again, it is us, and only us, one person at a time, who bear the responsibility and the ultimate solution for the state of our world today. Indeed, the "big" actors with their "big" actions have demonstrated to an exhausting degree that those that have "power" are ironically impotent in the face of this problem.

The day that the pursuit of power (wealth, security, etc.) is finally scorned by the least among us, that will be the day that the powerful will evaporate. Our covetousness provides them the oxygen - they cannot exist without us.

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