Friday, October 12, 2007

A Future American Mythology of Our Present

Bartle Bull, writing in American Prospect, argues that the Iraq War has accomplished the big goals it set out to accomplish.
...three and a half years after the start of the insurgency, most of the big questions in Iraq have been resolved. Moreover, they have been resolved in ways that are mostly towards the positive end of the range of outcomes imagined at the start of the project. The country is whole. It has embraced the ballot box. It has created a fair and popular constitution. It has avoided all-out civil war. It has not been taken over by Iran. It has put an end to Kurdish and marsh Arab genocide, and anti-Shia apartheid. It has rejected mass revenge against the Sunnis. As shown in the great national votes of 2005 and the noisy celebrations of the Iraq football team's success in July, Iraq survived the Saddam Hussein era with a sense of national unity; even the Kurds—whose reluctant commitment to autonomy rather than full independence is in no danger of changing—celebrated. Iraq's condition has not caused a sectarian apocalypse across the region. The country has ceased to be a threat to the world or its region. The only neighbours threatened by its status today are the leaders in Damascus, Riyadh and Tehran.

The entire piece, unfortunately, could be picked apart point by point on moral, political, logical, and strategic grounds. Bartle likely knows this and is wringing his moist hands in anticipation of the waves his article will make. I'll leave the analysis to others with greater patience.

What struck me, however, is how neatly this plays into the claim (often made by Bush and Cheney themselves) that President Bush is a visionary, a man who has sought noble and lofty goals for peace in the Middle East but knew that he would have to roll up his sleeves to achieve these goals. He would be unpopular, this story goes, and would have to engage in a costly war. But the greater good for humankind would be achieved and, as some have claimed, history would even look back on Bush's war as a great historical event, an epochal turning point.

Stepping back for a moment, then, how do we generally view past moments in American history? When we think of the landmark periods that are thought to define America as a great nation, we usually think of the period of the American Revolution, Constitutional Convention, and the wisdom of the Founding Fathers; the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address; possibly the settling of the US frontier; perhaps the US entry into and victory in World War II; perhaps also the Civil Rights movement. As a philosopher, I think of the 100 years between the middle of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th, when the greatest philosophers the US has produced reigned (Emerson, Thoreau, Peirce, Royce, James, Dewey). These are the great epochs in the history of the United States. These are the material out which the American mythology of greatness has been constructed. The mythology of greatness usually doesn't include the Spanish-American War, slavery, Indian massacres, the two periods of the Red Scare, the Vietnam War, US adventurism in South and Central America, etc.

What is common to the grand epochs? They all involve some great struggle in the face of substantial risk. More interestingly, I think, they all involve some example set as a universal claim for the rest of humanity. Think of the wisdom of the founders, for example. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison - perhaps the two greatest intellects of the time - were, of course, writing in the context of their own country's practical concerns and writing for that country. But their thought was also profoundly steeped in the political philosophy and metaphysics of the Scottish and French Enlightenment, and the exaltation of tolerance, reason, liberty, democracy, and scientific knowledge and method. The Enlightenment generally involved a set of claims that displaced the authority of God and the Church as the source of knowledge and truth and replaced this authority with that of reason and science.

Whatever one's criticisms of the Enlightenment for its over-emphasis on foundational reason or over-fetishization of progress defined in scientific terms, what is important here is that this intellectual world was one in which Jefferson in particular was heavily engaged as a political, moral, and scientific thinker. More important than the historical reference is that Jefferson's and Madison's own ideas were not directed purely at "national interests" (again, where those interests tend to be defined today in the constricted language of "economic interests" - we're rather far from Jefferson). Jeffersonian and Madisonian claims about liberty and rights were universal claims. The US Bill of Rights is a bill of universal rights (taking "universal" with a grain of salt, given the history of slavery). The fact that these applied only to the US is simply a matter of the practical considerations of the state system. The moral claims embodied in such rights and liberties, however, were derivative of what Kant called a decade or so later the "dictates of reason." Reason was a human faculty, not an American faculty. And its dictates, the intellectual founders thought, led necessarily to the moral claims embodied in the system of rights eventually negotiated in a context of more mundane and local concerns at historical events such as the Philadelphia Convention.

The common pattern in each of the great events of American history, at least the ones above that I suggest are foundational to the American mythology of greatness, is the appeal to something universal, not merely American. The historical context in each case is, obviously, a context of local American struggles, and these contexts shaped practical content. But the claims that resonate through history are ones that aspire to universality in each case: the Bill of Rights, the rejection of slavery, the rejection of a racial or gendered distribution of opportunity. Even if one exalts the settling of the American frontier as one of the epochal moments, with all its abuses of native Americans, one is still implying some underlying universal claim about human liberty and self-creation.

When we speculate about the future American mythology of the present we are, of course, injecting our own preferences into the speculation. When it comes to the Iraq War or the "War on Terror," those events through which the Bush/Cheney clan wish to define the present moment as a great struggle, we need to look to the universality of the cause if we wish to fit our time into the lineage of great American turning points. As a theoretical and practical matter, we ought always to be suspicious of claims to universality without good reasons to back them up, and of particular interests posing as universals. That's simply a matter of intellectual integrity as well as, when it comes to providing good reasons, respect for others.

What we find when we take our seats in our hypothetical future armchairs is not a claim to a universal good for humankind, but a series of self-interested actions (and, I think, a fundamental disaster). Yes, the administration has laid claim to all this as a matter of fighting in the name of human rights or democracy or peace and global security. Each of these drop away upon the slightest investigation.

The human rights claim is at best secondary or tertiary in the long line of justifications for the Iraq War, and is nonetheless belied by the systematic American abuse of its prisoners in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and elsewhere. It's also belied by the administration's lack of support for global human rights law, as well as its highly selective concerns about human rights abuses elsewhere. The selectivity itself refers us back to strategic self-interests.

The form of democracy the administration has in mind is already just about the most bare-boned imaginable. A vote equals democracy. If democracy also involves transparency, accountability, freedom of opportunity, and other social goods, which happen to be consistently undermined domestically and internationally by the administration, then the administration's claims to democracy-promotion also drop by the wayside.

Peace and global security? Nobody feels any safer, terrorist acts have increased, and many countries are less stable. Perhaps we're all wrong about this and the administration has some special access to wisdom that we don't. Even if we grant this flight of fancy for the sake of argument, we still have to wonder about the administration's clearly intentional stoking and management of its own citizen's fears in the name of the administration's own interests. Why should we actually be safer, but made to feel constantly on edge? Why should we look at various insecurities around the world related to the administration's foreign policy and believe them when they say that in the future we'll all be really thankful? Why should we observe the United States' loss of international standing as a moral leader and then accept the administration's claims that the planet is comprised of people who don't know any better?

Greatness involves the creation of something that gives us all hope, that applies equally to all of us and thus allows our aspirations, if not our actual achievements, to gain concreteness, to possess a kind of reality that makes us all think that we might be able to achieve a better future for ourselves and each other. In other words, historical greatness at least aspires to universality and it seeks a language in which to express it that we can all potentially understand. What we have in the present, however, is an insecure world, a tired world, and an America that seems so interior-gazing that it no longer realizes it doesn't have the messages that help guide the world.


MT said...

Have the goals of the invasion been established then? I missed it! I was so sure it was going to end up being the ten Boy Scout pledges (to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, etc), and I had money riding on it too (gambling is not irreverent or unthrifty, at least when you know you're sure to win).

helmut said...

They may as well also say that the goal was to kill over 100,000 Iraqi civilians. We win!

troutsky said...

The Third Reich also purported lofty values, as have every attempt at empire.One could say we also succeeded in Chile,Vietnam and El Salvador.

Anonymous said...


Words fail in the approach,
Their meaning,
But just as poachers poach
So to one´s fate
Time is careening.

All souls alive today
Are caught up in
This struggle,
Tremendous in its way
Nor in the spin
With time to haggle.

Not to the vertigo
Succumb, despite
For soon the moon will show
Its glowing light,
Time never stalling.

Chill o´er the graveyard, casts
The watchful moon
Her somber
Refraction pale--so lasts
Each earthly boon
If till December.

The cycle is ordained:
Do not fear death.
Themselves be equal pained--
See their chill breath
Just as death enters.

Therefore take solace in
Of spirit:
There is no harm, but sin,
That threatens thee:
Approach not near it.

All will be well. It is
Vouchsafed as true
In heaven,
Therefore heed only this:
By truth then do
Be solely driven.