Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Western Civilization and It's Discontents, Part 4. Is it true?

Is it True?

“Nowhere at present is there such a measureless loathing of their country by educated people as in America.”
--Eric Hoffer

Since I am questioning the sincerity of the professed motives of the self-hating Americans and the sanity of their proposed plans, a decent respect for their opinions (a respect they do not habitually grant their opponents) demands that we take their contentions seriously enough to consider the truth or falsity of them. So, what are some of the common charges leveled against America and is there any basis for them?

· America is an imperialist power.

Webster’s revised unabridged dictionary (© 1996, 1998 MICRA Inc.) defines empire as:

n 1: the domain ruled by an emperor or empress 2: a group of countries under a single authority; "the British empire" 3: a monarchy with an emperor as head of state 4: a group of diverse companies under common ownership and run as a single organization
and imperialism:
n 1: a policy of extending your rule over foreign countries 2: a political orientation that advocates imperial interests 3: any instance of aggressive extension of authority.

By the standard definition, the US is not an empire. It is neither a monarchy nor is it a group of countries, but a single country with a recognized common culture whose legislators are chosen from every region of the country without any legal qualifications of ethnicity, religion or even native birth. By the second definition of empire (and ignoring the pejorative connotations of the word) there are only two countries of any size in the world today that match the definition: Russia and India.

As for creating an empire, after an initial period of expansion into almost empty territory[1], the US appears to have reached the limit of its territorial enlargement, the last being a few island possessions taken from the Empire of Japan at the end of WWII. And in these cases, the US grants a huge measure of local autonomy (for example the local laws of Guam are not subject to judicial review by the Supreme Court) and has made it plain that they can have complete independence any time they ask for it.

The US does indeed maintain military bases in a great many countries. However, unlike the bases maintained by the former Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, they are not used to intimidate the governments of their host countries by threat of force. When Charles Du Gaulle withdrew from NATO and demanded the removal of American bases in France, the US removed them without much protest or even economic reprisals. Similarly, US forces evacuated bases in the Philippines and in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia when local opinion turned against them.

The Saudi case is in fact an example of restraint in the use of power unprecedented in history. The local population found itself living over huge shallow oil deposits located between two deep-water harbors, making the oil the easiest to get to market in the world. Incapable of either exploiting or defending the resources themselves they looked to US corporations to develop the fields and to the US government to guarantee their security.

For three generations foreign workers have done all of the meaningful work in the country while attempting to prepare the local population to assume complete control of the oil industry – so far with a notable lack of success. The Kingdom first nationalized the oil industry and has subsequently manipulated production for their own advantage ever since – all of this while maintaining negligible military forces of their own. In the cruel logic of empire it would have been far easier to have driven the local population into the desert or the sea, imported the foreign workers and simply taken the oil. Any of the past European or Asian empires would have done so without apology.

These examples seem to give the lie to the charge of imperialism (according to the dictionary definition). However actions of the US often do appear to match the definition of hegemony, defined by Webster’s as:

n : the domination of one state over its allies.

One doesn’t often hear the US charged with “hegemony” though, because the word doesn’t carry the negative emotional freight of “imperialist”. You don’t get a lot of rhetorical mileage from accusing your opponent of being a “hegemonist”.

It must be pointed out that realistically, in any alliance, somebody has to lead. In an alliance of free states there should certainly be consultation, debate and disagreement freely expressed but ultimately there has to be a leader. But I do not think it marks one as a cynic to point out that the leadership is usually assumed by the strongest and largest contributor to the common purpose. When in history has it ever been any different and when has one power so overwhelmingly stronger than its allies, in fact militarily stronger than all of its allies combined, ever shown so much deference to their opinions?

· American corporations exploit people in third world countries.

In this charge, the definition is rigged. “Exploit”, in this context seems to mean “employ”. An extended definition amounts to, “employ at wages and conditions that American workers would not tolerate”. Well, yes. The reason for locating facilities overseas is to take advantage of lower labor costs. Nobody disputes that, the argument is whether this is moral or not.

The counter-argument is that in these countries, the choice is not between a bad job and a better job, but between a bad job and no job. If one finds this reprehensible, the choices of remedy are limited to:

1) employ local labor at wages and under conditions equivalent to American – in which case there is no advantage in locating overseas at all and the only alternative remaining is, 2) do not locate overseas – in which case the local populations are denied access to the capital (in the form of wages) that might help raise their personal standard of living and national GDP.

The rebuttal offered is that commercial penetration of the local economies destroys indigenous cultural patterns and economies and the environment itself, turning them into poor imitations of American capitalism that will never be competitive with the huge capitalist states of the West.

This view sees capitalism as a designed and imposed economic system, as opposed to a natural system that arises spontaneously whenever there is a sufficiently complex division of labor and relatively free exchange of labor goods and services. According to this point of view, corporate capitalism is imperialism by other means and is linked with the following claim…

· American government is the creature of corporate interests.

So do large concentrations of capital exercise great influence in a democratic system? Gee, give me a minute to think about that one. Yes. Corporations, labor unions, and guild associations such as the AMA and ABA, all exercise an influence I don't care for at all. Dealing with such is one of the perennial problems of democracy for which there has as yet been no completely satisfactory solution.

I will note that singling out any one of these influences as dominant is naive and flies in the face of observation and experience. And that suggestions for dealing with this influence often amount to creating one huge monopoly of power a la the Soviet system. Doesn't sound that good an idea when you put it that way...

· America is “the biggest terrorist nation on earth”.

"If [the War on Terror] is about terrorism, and terrorism is the killing of innocent civilians, then the United States is also a terrorist."
Gordie Fellman, Brandeis University Professor of Peace Studies

Again, consulting the dictionary definition, “terrorism” is defined as:

n : the calculated use of violence (or threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear (Worldnet 2.2 © Princeton University)

Any thoughtful person has to have questions about the difference between bombing a target from miles up and delivering the bomb in a car. Sometimes it seems that the difference between war and terrorism lies in the price of the delivery system. Terrorism has been described as the “war of the powerless”, but examination of the tactics and targets reveals some important differences:

o The US does not take, bargain with, or execute hostages in the manner of Jihadist or (formerly) IRA terrorists.

o The US does not try to inspire terror as a matter of policy.

o The US does not target civilians as a matter of policy and has spent huge amounts on military Research &Development to develop precision and non-lethal weaponry to avoid harming civilians to the greatest extent possible. The US military has put the lives of their soldiers at risk to avoid inflicting civilian casualties as much as possible when they manifestly have the power to “kill them all and let God sort them out”.

o Though the US has indeed conquered and occupied countries (imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and present day Iraq) there has been no attempt to incorporate them into the American state or install anything that answers to the definition of a “puppet state” in the same sense as the satellite countries of Eastern Europe were puppet states to the Soviet Union.

· Racism is institutionalized in American society.

“Publicly inconsolable about the fact that racism continues, these activists seem privately terrified that it has abated.”
--Dinesh D'Souza

I used to work with a Black guy who favored dating young White girls. Black men had been lynched within the memory of living men for less than that. Now it passes almost unnoticed. You really think racism is “as bad as ever” or even worse?

Or take the example of the Ku Klux Klan. Once an accepted and admired part of society, the Klan is now a disgusting and embarrassing memory, home only to marginalized misfits desperate for attention.

· America has no culture but a vulgar pop pseudo-culture.

“Ninety percent of everything is crap.”
Sturgeon’s Law

I’ve heard it argued that America is not a high culture, but a Roman-type culture destined to carry and preserve the legacy of European high culture. I don’t really know. Are movies high culture? We certainly produce most of the movies consumed abroad, and I think some of them are of lasting value and will be watched for some time to come. And it would be hard to top Mark Twain in English literature.

· “Cultural imperialism”, American culture is overwhelming higher, more traditional cultures.

Eric Hoffer observed that historically, powerful states and empires spread their culture by conquest, co-opting the local elites and with their help forcing their culture on the masses. American culture however, spreads from our masses to other countries over the vociferous objection of the local elites. [2]

A lot of this is truely dreadful pop culture, which is consumed avidly by the rest of the world. So what's your remedy? Ban the export of Britanny Spears? Tempting for sure...

· America has practiced genocide against the native peoples of this continent.

This is a serious charge with some substance to it. The story of the American Indian nations contact with Western civilization is a tragedy from which the surviving cultures are still suffering. The story has however, been distorted by misconception, myth and self-serving mendacity. Absurd claims of the deliberated massacre of as many as twenty million Indians have been made, the ultimate absurdity being that they have been made unchallenged when it is so easy to check them.[3]

At it’s founding, the White population of the United States is estimated at around three million. Best estimates of the Indian population of the entire North American continent north of the Rio Grande at that time vary widely but range from two to twenty million. There is strong evidence of a disastrous population drop due to diseases brought by Spanish explorers before English-speaking colonists ever arrived in North America.[4] And the 19th century was a bad time for indigenous peoples all over the world.

· America is “just as bad as…” (take your pick of awful nations the US has tangled with in the past).

“Just as bad as…” is a subjective evaluation unless you define in what way bad. My suggestion is – count the dead. As in, how many civilians not under arms, have been deliberately murdered as a matter of policy by the governments of: the USSR, the People’s Republic of China, Nazi Germany, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, North Korea, Cuba and the United States.

(America-hating Leftists usually answer defensively, “Well if you want to play a numbers game…” Yes. I want to play a numbers game. Among other reasons, because it directly affects my own personal chance of being murdered by a regime.)

Evidence shows that even tiny Cuba has tortured and killed more people for the crime of speaking their minds in the two generations of rule by the present regime, than the United States has in its entire history. Conceding that yes, people have been killed for their opinions in the US, such as the martyrs to the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century and the Civil Rights movement in the 20th. However, all such killing has been outright illegal, such as in lynchings (which reached a peak of 104 in one year over a hundred years ago), or by means of perversions of the trial system. Though it certainly doesn’t matter to the dead, it matters a whole lot to the living that murder of holders of out-of-favor opinions cannot be done easily or openly under cover of law.

Yes there are possible caveats: what about the killing of combatants resisting the invasion of their country, such as the Filipinos killed in the pacification of the country following the cession of the islands to the US by Spain? This is a legitimate question, but again I suggest, count the dead. Count the dead of small tribes and nations in the non-Russian Soviet republics, in Tibet or the death toll inflicted by the Spanish Empire in the conquest of Latin America.

And then you might ask, how are these people getting along with their former antagonists now? Compare relations between the Philippines and the US (rocky in spots but generally pretty good) with relations between Russia and their former republics and satellite states (dominated by fear of a resurgent Russian imperialism and unconcealed distrust).

The country America is usually claimed to be “just as bad as” is most often Nazi Germany, partly for rhetorical reasons, the Nazis being the paradigm of evil for the 20th century. One doesn’t hear “just as bad as the Soviet Union” nearly as often because the speakers are frequently apologists for the USSR. (And lately we have been hearing it from German intellectuals, perhaps because they are tired of being the home of that paradigm.)

Now we’ve run out of arguing room. Somebody who goes to that rhetorical length is simply a moral imbecile, has an agenda and cannot be reasoned with. However I will say that I have visited both US prisons and Auschwitz. Neither are places I’d take my family to for a vacation – but if you can do the same and claim to see no difference, then at least we’ve defined which sides we are on and I’ll see you on the field.

[1] Yes, I’m aware of the American Indians. Without deprecating the enormous wrongs done to the native population, compare the present-day population of the US to the best estimates of the numbers of Indians at the time, which range from two to twenty million. The notion that the conflict was over “living space” is absurd. There is some evidence of a disastrous population drop, due to diseases brought by the Spanish before English-speaking colonists even started to settle the Eastern seaboard.

I’m also aware of what no American ever remembers and no Mexican ever forgets; that the southwestern quarter of the continental US was once the northern half of Mexico. The point remains, Mexico’s claim rested largely on inheriting title from the Spanish Empire, which had conquered them with a brutality remarkable even by 20th century standards. Mexico could not settle the area and invited American and European colonists to immigrate. Eventually, largely due to the chronic instability of successive Mexican governments, the colonists preferred to live under their own institutions.

[2] And strictly speaking, not just American culture. A lot of world pop culture, particularly music, originates in the British isles.

[3] The US Army actually got interested in how many Indians they had killed over the history of their existence and set the historical department to work on cataloging the battle casualty reports from every engagement with Indians since the beginning of the United States as a nation. The results, between ten and twenty thousand total in the entire history of the US Army, surprised even them. And I might add that these figures are rough estimates from after-action reports and thus far more likely to have been exaggerated than minimized.

This of course, leaves open the question of how many Indians have been killed by civilians and state militias or how many Indians have died as a result of government action outside of battle, such as the forced removal of the Five Nations to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.

[4] The De Soto expedition went up the Mississippi, fighting and slaughtering on their way through a well-populated area. On their return they report seeing only empty villages. Other sources give similar accounts. The French made contact with peoples such as the Mandan, and the rich city builders of the Natchez. Later explorers found either nothing or a few scattered survivors.


  • At 12:12 PM, Blogger gilmoure@gmail.com said…

    As someone who's family goes back to pre-Albuquerque times, yeah, some Americans do remember who ruled over the southwest for several hundred years. Relatives on the Zuni reservation remember too. And despite the gringo land grab, things are better then when Mexico ruled things.

    Heh. Can't understand why Spain had such trouble getting settlers up here. 'Course, my great grandmother remembers, as a kid, hiding in their cellar when the Apaches came through (they had broken out of military reservation and were heading south). This was east of the mountains next to Abq.

  • At 3:57 PM, Blogger Canker said…

    Well said!
    As a resident of the UK I wouldn't agree exactly with 100% of what you said, but the differences are trivial. Stick up for the USA (incidentally, I was once severely told off by a Mexican when I talked about the US-he pointed out that it's the United States of Mexico too).

    The USA is the strongest and largest member of the most important alliance which supports civilisation today. The faults and historical offences of the USA are as nothing compared to its good points.

  • At 4:57 PM, Blogger Brigitte said…

    Are you serious? This is a bunch of uneducated right-wing excuses and lies. An embarrassment for somebody who is aspiring to become a Ph.D. European high school students would be able to disprove many of your points.

    As an exercise, you should investigate the numbers of US interventions abroad during the entire 20th century, and all of them just in order to serve American interests, no brownie points in sight. Just for starters.

    And I'll never forget 9/11 - the one in 1973. Chile. Allende. I am very unhappy - as are many - that Kissinger isn't rotting away in some dungeon for the rest of his life for that.

    So much for benign American presences and all the other ridiculous lies you peddle. Do you need these lies to feel good about yourself or what?


  • At 8:28 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 8:30 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 9:22 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Glad to hear that I'm not just preaching to the choir.

    Specifics please. "Ridiculous lies" is a serious charge and should be supported with more than just an assertion. What is a lie, and what is your authority for claiming so?

    European high school students are indeed generally better-informed about the history of their neighbors than their American counterparts. But they've got odd gaps in their knowledge. I understand that French textbooks devote about a paragraph to the Normandy invasion and no mention at all of Omaha Beach. An English colleague of mine had no inkling of who King Brian Boru was - hard to justify considering England's long and often tragic involvement in Ireland.

    Second and fourth paragraphs, please point out where I denied American interventions abroad - or expressed anything like admiration for the detestable Henry Kissenger. I'm sorry too.

    Getting to the heart of the matter, conceding that the United States often behaves as great states do and have throughout history, which of the comparably sized powers do you think have behaved better: Imperial Russia, the USSR, China, Imperial Spain, Prussia?

    And why did you chose to call me a liar and question my sanity, instead of saying, "You are mistaken"?

  • At 10:12 PM, Blogger Eduardo said…

    Well said.

    As for the previous poster, you haven't run afoul of facts or the historical record. You've run afoul of a political dogma which is not allowed to be questioned.

    It is the creed of the self-loathing American professor, too. Of that breed I have just about had my fill.


Post a Comment

<< Home