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imperialism & war | legacies

God's Nation

The trinity of themes "Last Hope-Noble Victory-Disgraceful Defeat" has been the core of the US-American state religion, whether called the Monroe Doctrine, Cold War or War against Terror. A multipolar world with many civilizations is the best hope for the future.

America flees into self-absorption. "Empire-light," not isolationism reflected in America's flight

By Lotta Suter

[This article published in: Freitag 40, 10/3/2008 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.freitag.de/2008/40/08401301.php.]

The white paint on the high wood fence between the dilapidated filling station and the trailer park that I often drive past is not white any more but grubby brown from all the exhaust fumes. The paint peals off and needs a new coat. The red-white-and-blue flag that someone recently painted has the slogan "Proud to be American." What is really the origin of this pride? Why do people embrace their land in its whole symbolic greatness after the state denies basic rights like education, health care and social security? Do my left-liberal friends in the local peace movement imagine the present crises and wars of the US are mere aberrations of history and that we are all only one presidential election away from returning to the noble nation that is its true essence?

Why is the relation of so many US citizens to their land colored so religiously instead of politically, by the Christian virtues faith, love and hope instead of by enlightened criticism, engagement and participation? Why is the US celebrated so stubbornly in public discourse as the lighthouse of freedom and the last hope for humanity and not simply approached like every other democracy needing change?

Whoever watches the US election spectacle must wonder whether the 21st century can accomplish anything. No one speaks about September 11, the Bush doctrine, moral corruption through the Abu Ghraib and Guantanemo or the geo-political shifts of power in Europe and China. Instead the presidential candidates argue how the world should appear under America's leadership. The Republican continues the muscular moralism of his predecessor and speaks of victory and honor in Iraq. The Democrat presses the historical backspace to the economic boom of the Clinton years. That is his prescription for restoring America's respect in the world. Strangely enough, both candidates revere Ronald Reagan who awakened US national self-confidence to new life after Vietnam and the stagnation of the 1970s with the slogan "It's morning again in America." Will the sun never set in this kingdom of hope?

Right after September 11, 2001 US sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein proclaimed the end of "Pax Americana." The question, he wrote, is only whether the proud eagle will skid to the ground in an elegant nosedive or brutally crashes driven by the imperialist ambition of the neocons in the Bush administration. Wallerstein's thesis of the eroding American world hegemony offered material for a political debate on the eve of the Iraq war. His observation that abdicating empires like to appeal to their military superiority while up and coming superpowers can be recognized by their dynamic economies is worth considering.

But little time was left for thought. After the terrorist attacks, the president dug up old myths from the founding time of the US and acted like a sheriff in the Wild West. Even intellectuals in the left-liberal camp welcome the new US global function or at least regarded it as inevitable. Still everyone was not enthusiastic about an "empire-light." A modern good-natured empire of the 21st century should arise combining military strength with free markets, democracy and human rights! It would be a reluctant or reserved empire, its apologists argues and referred to America's rebellion against British colonial rule.

Why didn't any of the dreamers point out that anti-imperialists at that time were already imperialists when it concerned their own nation? Only twenty years after the War of Independence against Great Britain ended, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, purchased the Louisiana Territory from the French. He wanted to create "an empire for liberty," he said. Two hundred years later, the visiting lecturer Michael Ignatteff declared: "In favor of the empire, it can be said it represents the last home for democracy and stability in a country like Iraq."

American history can almost be read as a succession of hopes for this empire of liberty. Unfortunately this empire had to be defended sometimes with authoritarian means. The historians said this who wanted to believe that liberalism and not nationalism and imperialism have guided the development of the US. "We will either rescue the last best hope for humanity or lose disgracefully," Abraham Lincoln warned in 1852 at the beginning of the disastrous Civil War when he tried to soften the southern states on the slave question. Since then, trinity of themes "Last hope - Noble victory - Disgraceful defeat" has been the core of the US-American state religion, whether called the Monroe Doctrine, Cold War or War against Terror.

"God has assigned a glorious history to his chosen people," said Albert Beveridge, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, on the occasion of the American occupation of the Philippines at the end of the 19th century. "The empire of our ideals will be established in the hearts of all humanity." Very few Americans know this quotation. Sentences like these belong to the national memory. In the cultural conflicts of the last decades, conservative forces tried to screen this value canon against more progressive perspectives. Since the 1960s, movements of "oral history" and "history from below" have made a new view of history socially acceptable for women, blacks, Native Americans and Latinos. However the republican rightwing led by Lynne Cheney, the wife of the vice-president, have not built a healthy, strong and united nation from such an arbitrary chaos.

Since September 11, it has been easy to reduce the fate of the nation, its "Manifest Destiny," to a battle of good against evil, the constitutional state against a rogue state, Christians against unbelievers and the civilized against the uncivilized. Whenever a real or imaginary danger threatened, the US has united to a We or core group that excludes everything foreign. For outsiders or outlaws, other laws are in force than for the in-laws, the ordinary population. The indigenous population of North America, the Indians, first made this experience. Then there were the slaves imported from Africa. Later special legislation was directed against the latest waves of immigrant Chinese in the California gold rush, Catholic Irish and Italians in the second half of the 19th century, Germans in the First World War and Japanese in the Second World War.

After the abolition of the racist system of immigration quotas in 1968, Latinos have been at the center of the immigration debate. Today Muslims are added as a special "foreign" or threatening category. In the 2008 election campaign, a third of all Americans cannot be dissuaded of the fixed idea that the Afro-American presidential candidate Barack Obama is or could be a Muslim. His political adversaries were successful with their campaign...

This self-absorption of the land should not be confused with isolationism. The imperialist fantasies of US administrations come and go while world events do not really concern the US population. The exceptionalism, the religiously motivated conviction of being an extraordinary nation chosen by God, screens the most patriotic Americans from the outside world and holds them captive in a kind of permanent cosmopolitan minority status and ignorance. However this changes all of a sudden when the "homeland" is attacked, as on September 11, 2001, with the sinking of the USS Maine in 1898 in the Bay of Havana or in the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 (if that can be described as an attack). The same patriotism becomes a battle cry. When the defense of the US is involved, the people do not distinguish between nationalism and imperialism. Whatever it takes, whatever is needed to protect the US is allowed.

"Practically nothing can counter the self-image of the US as a well-meaning international power of good," the Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said declared after the invasion of Iraq and shortly before his death in September 2003. Sharing my despair with this thinker comforted me a little at that time. However the counteracting force to "empire light" is lacking when so many intellectuals with their post-modern, de-constructionist and linguistic detail analysis lose sight of the goal of an emancipated and enlightened world for everyone. This world cannot be an empire or "empire light." A multi-polar world with many civilizations is the best hope for the future. The eagle would land right in the middle.

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