Monday, May 17, 2004

American Dreaming
I once had a colleague who saw herself as the smartest person in any room she happened to be in. My sense of her was that she hadn't necessarily come to this conclusion entirely on her own--rather, than she'd had it inculcated in her from childhood that she was special. The fact was, of course, that she wasn't any more special than anybody else, and acting like she was didn't earn her a great deal of respect. I thought of her this morning while catching up on some articles I'd missed late last week and over the weekend.

Britain's New Statesman magazine published an article (no longer available online) wondering just why the world still expects so much from the United States. People from everywhere still think of us as the great bastion of liberty--never mind our staggering rates of poverty, gun violence, and incarceration. They think of us as the leading light of freedom and democracy, when we've overthrown governments, massacred civilians, and played political hardball openly and surreptitiously to get what we want, over and over again.

What is more important than what the rest of the world thinks of us is what we think of ourselves. As I've mentioned here before, lots of us seem to be trapped in the America we learned about in social studies class. It makes us oblivious to our faults, and at worst, makes us feel as though the rules of history don't apply to us. In other words, we're special. The social studies version of America is convenient for us because it represents its own justification. We are the great bastion of liberty and the leading light of freedom and democracy because we are the great bastion of liberty and the leading light of freedom and democracy. Therefore, we have the right to act in a particular way because we have the right to act in a particular way. And because we have the right, all the niggling little details will take care of themselves.

In The American Prospect, Jason Vest writes that thinkers as widely diverse as Clausewitz and St. Augustine argued that "moral authority" was necessary for any war to be prosecuted successfully. More contemporary military theorists have made similar arguments. But the debacle of postwar planning in Iraq, and now the prisoner abuse scandal, have pretty much eroded whatever moral authority the United States possessed. As to what made us think we had the moral authority to proceed in Iraq in the first place, well, the answer looks to me like we had it because we had it, and because we had it, the niggling little details involved in maintaining it would take care of themselves.

Here's another thing we learned in social studies class--that Americans are willing to do what they have to do, no matter how difficult or dangerous, in the name of the greater good. Trouble is, since September 11, "doing what we have to do" has had a different definition. White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales (a top candidate for a Supreme Court seat if Bush gets to fill one) wrote a memo suggesting that the Geneva Conventions are obsolete in the post-9/11 world. And in the wake of the prisoner abuse scandal, many people voiced sympathy for the soldiers accused of abuse--suggesting that the Iraqi prisoners got what they deserved, and if they were not personally guilty of anything, well, somebody over there was, and deserved what they got. Random punishment for collective guilt is a concept that's hard to hold in the same brain with the presumption of innocence and belief in trial by a jury of peers. But ask Rush Limbaugh or James Inhofe which is the America they live in, and they'd name the latter. (At Salon, Charles Taylor writes about the revenge-fantasy film Man on Fire, and how the prisoner abuse scandal has exposed the American taste for revenge.)

Writer Todd Gitlin once remarked on the odd phenomenon of "the American dream." What a strange thing it is for a country to be so rooted in a dream. (Gitlin wondered why there is, for example, no Pakistani dream.) More than any other people in the world, Americans are driven by an image of what they imagine themselves to be. We learn how special we are early in life, and we continue to believe it because it's such an integral part of our identity--if we lose it, who are we? So, like my old colleague, we act on the assumption of our specialness long after it's been proven to be much less than we think it is. But the world is starting to see through us to what we really are. How long before we are capable of it?

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