The Roads Not Taken
excerpted from the book
Dark Ages America
The Final Phase of Empire
by Morris Berman
WW Norton, 2006, paper
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. - The Cycles
of American History (1984)
Who can doubt that there is an American
empire?-an "informal" empire, not colonial in polity,
but still richly equipped with imperial paraphernalia: troops,
ships, planes, bases, proconsuls, local collaborators, all spread
around the luckless planet.
Stephane Courtois and his colleagues at the Centre National de
la Recherche Scientifique, in The Black Book of Communism (first
published in France in 1997), show that 25 million people were
killed in Russia during the Bolshevik and Stalinist eras, and
perhaps as many as 65 million in China under Mao Zedong. In terms
of systems of government and how they treat their own citizens,
then, let us not be confused about this: democracy wins, hands
However, that is not quite the end of
the story. As is the case with the "war on terrorism,"
I believe much of the Cold War was an illusion, a large mythic
structure or narrative co-created by the United States and the
USSR for their own respective domestic political agendas. On both
sides, the presence of a powerful enemy served to generate a huge
apparatus of employment and government expenditures, including
elaborate structures of espionage, military research and development,
scientific research institutes, and the like. The two "threats"
thus maintained each other and enabled each system to define itself
in opposition to the other. After all, writes Ivan Eland (in The
Empire Has No Clothes), if the main goal of U.S. foreign policy
after 1945 had been to fight communism, the pax americana we had
established during the Cold War years would have been dismantled
after 1991. But our military spending never dropped below Cold
War levels after that date. The truth of the matter is that the
conspiracy theory of a global red menace threatening to engulf
the world [Cold War] was grossly exaggerated by the United States
for imperial purposes, to gain public support for military and
political intervention in the affairs of other nations and for
the huge defense budgets such intervention would require. In this
way, the Cold War became the justification for building a global
empire. In fact, given the decrepit state of the Soviet economy,
some analysts within the US. government had contemptuously referred
to the USSR as "Upper Volta with missiles."
Between 1918 and 1920 [President Woodrow] Wilson sent more than
ten thousand troops to try to overthrow [Vladimir] Lenin by force.
[Americans] longed for the simple age of right versus wrong, the
notion that we were good and our enemy evil and that military
strength could give us security. So they were drawn to Ronald
Reagan, a man who saw the world in just such simplistic terms,
and who pledged to make America great again. His blaming of foreigners
for nearly everything wrong with the world gave Americans the
(pseudo-)psychological security they badly needed .28 To this
day, tens of millions of Americans - perhaps even the majority
- regard Reagan as "wise," a great leader, because he
provided a simple Manichaean formula. This says quite a bit out
what the United States had become as a nation by 1980.
What the Cold War provided ... was conceptual
simplicity, something Americans found (find) difficult to live
without. As with the "war on terrorism," it obviated
the need to understand international relations at any depth. All
you had to know was "Communist" or "not Communist."
Failed Presidency versus Failed Nation
The Carter presidency is so anomalous,
particularly in terms of the postwar pattern of U.S. foreign policy,
that it is initially hard to conceive how it ever happened. Timing
accounts for much of it. America had just suffered an ignominious
defeat in Vietnam, and the morality of the entire venture looked
shabby in the extreme. The Church Committee had conducted a congressional
investigation into the dirty tricks of the CIA, focusing especially
on the overthrow of Salvador Allende. Gerald Ford had pardoned
Richard Nixon immediately after the latter resigned, thus making
the squalor of Watergate even more squalid. All in all, U.S. government
morality and image were at ebb tide; it was a confused and demoralized
time. Enter, in 1976, Jimmy Carter, a "Christian" candidate,
low-key and self-effacing, who spoke to the need for some national
soul searching. "We're ashamed of what our government is
as we deal with other nations around the world," he announced
on the campaign trail - astonishing rhetoric, really. "What
we seek is ... a foreign policy that reflects the decency and
generosity and common sense of our own people." Over and
over, in hundreds of speeches and interviews, Carter reiterated
that the United States had gone through a loss of spirit and morality.
A foreign policy dominated by rivalry with the USSR, he maintained,
was an obsession whose logic led directly to Vietnam (the latter,
in short, was no "detour").The time was over for blaming
an enemy for our own problems, he declared; rather, the time had
come to look within ourselves, to put our own moral house in order.
Carter attacked the realpolitik of Henry Kissinger and the U.S.
role in Chile; the time had come, he maintained (this in 1977),
to move beyond "that inordinate fear of communism which once
led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear.'
For a brief moment in American postwar
history, the position of sanity found an echo, The moment, was,
however, long enough for the president to suggest a different
direction in our international agenda: obsession with communism
would not shape every policy; we would work for a more humane
world order in our international relations, not seek merely to
defeat one adversary; military solutions would not come first;
efforts would be made to reduce the sale of arms to developing
countries (by 1975 we had become the world's largest arms exporter
- $15 billion in sales as compared with $2 billion in 1970); and
so on. These were, quite clearly, exceptional times .
But the exception was of short duration;
the Carter morality was, within two years, heavily out of step
with the return to the usual public demand for a more muscular
and military foreign policy. In addition, out-of-office cold warriors
closed ranks, forming organizations such as the Committee on the
Present Danger, which included Paul Nitze. Their goal-to revive
the Cold War-was ultimately successful; Ronald Reagan and CIA-assisted
torture in Central America were the inevitable results. And in
the course of all this, a picture was formed of Jimmy Carter as
weak, bungling, inept, and out of his depth; an ad hoc president
who had no coherent conceptual outlook or foreign policy at all.
It seems to me that some of this was true, but a genuinely alternative
foreign policy simply could not "scan" in the mind-set
still with us ...
Jimmy [Carter] entered state politics on a "one man, one
vote" platform, and his thinking was that if the South could
end segregation in a few years, why couldn't the world undergo
similar changes? Human rights, in general, was central to his
As president, especially during the first
three years, Carter never stopped talking about the subject. He
referred to human rights in his inaugural address, and in his
first speech to the United Nations in March 1977. At his Notre
Dame address that May, he listed five foreign policy objectives;
human rights was number one. He staffed the Human Rights Bureau
of the State Department with dedicated activists and established
mechanisms to ensure that human rights records would be factored
into decisions on foreign aid, arms sales, and diplomatic contacts.
He also cut military aid to Argentina, Ethiopia, Uruguay, Chile,
Nicaragua, Rhodesia, and Uganda because of human rights abuses.
To many observers, / Jimmy Carter was a kind of mysterious politician
who descended from the moon, visited D.C. for four years, and
then left-which, given the foreign policy outlook of his predecessors
over the previous thirty years, was in a sense correct. He had
neither the talent nor the patience for memorable rhetorical appeals;
his interest was in the substance of foreign policy issues, not
in how they would play in the media. It is no accident that he
was defeated by an actor, a not terribly astute, sloganeering
individual with an opposite modus operandi. Popularity with the
media was at the top of Reagan's list. He was not interested in
the substantive details of foreign policy; he probably couldn't
even understand them. What interested the fortieth president was
rhetoric, public appearances, and ceremonial duties. He had no
intellectual curiosity whatsoever; his political philosophy amounted
to little more than "us good, them bad," and that was
basically what most of the American people wanted to hear. Jimmy
Carter (perhaps foolishly) had loftier goals in mind; thus, he
was "inept ."
... Jeane Kirkpatrick's widely influential
essay in November 1979, "Dictatorships and Double Standards,"
faulted [Carter] for failing to support America's right-wing allies,
and for being a "liberal." Kirkpatrick was a member
of the Committee on the Present Danger, whose goal it was to resuscitate
the Cold War. Her central charge-that Carter's human rights policy
"lost" us Iran and Nicaragua-was full of holes, but
it carried great weight among the Cold War crowd and beyond (it
was squarely in the tradition of the GOP's attacking Truman for
"losing" China). The United States, she said, should
accept dictators such as Anastasio Somoza and the Shah of Iran
as "traditional authoritarians," ones who prevented
the triumph of the left. Carter, she went on, was destabilizing
our right-wing allies. Our so-called crisis of spirit was simply
something being inflicted upon us by liberals. Right-wing regimes
were, she asserted, capable of redemption; left-wing ones were
beyond it. Furthermore, any nation that describes us as colonialist,
expansionist or racist was an enemy, for we were none of those
things (Kirkpatrick apparently hadn't read a whole lot of American
history). Not surprisingly, the article attracted the attention
of Ronald Reagan, who appointed her ambassador to the United Nations
in 1981; and her distinction between "redeemable" right-wing
regimes and "irredeemable" left-wing ones provided the
basis of much of his foreign policy: the Iran-contra scandal,
the repression of the left in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and the
CIA torture training that went on in Honduras, to name some of
the worst examples. William Casey, Reagan's CIA director, manipulated
intelligence reports to exaggerate the Soviet threat in Central
America, in order to whip up support for the government policies.
Business as usual, in other words.
Although Kirkpatrick's attack was fundamentally
misguided-indeed, Christopher Hitchens remarked that what she
really preferred was not authoritarian regimes to totalitarian
ones, but authoritarianism to democracy ...
... Carter's response to the energy crisis
- that we had to reduce our expectations and be prepared to live
with a certain level of discomfort, and that unless we moved in
a new direction life on earth for most people was going to be
much worse in 2000 than it was in 1980. How many Americans want
to hear that? We love our large, energy-inefficient vehicles,
and don't seem to be too preoccupied with the fact that other
peoples of the world have to die in large numbers so that we can
live an extravagant and wasteful lifestyle. As George Kennan wrote
in a top secret report of 1948, "We have about 50 percent
of the world's wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population.
Our real task in the coming period is
to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain
this position of disparity ...." we have succeeded in maintaining
a substantial disparity, in ignoring human rights, in deriving
our identity from opposition to others, and in projecting our
problems-and our military-outward. Jimmy Carter had something
more creative, more introspective, in mind. What chance did he
This matter of introspection is perhaps
what it all comes down to in the end. Americans as a people don't
really like to look inward. Our feelings on the subject are much
closer to, say, Bush Sr. than to jimmy Carter. Whenever the elder
Bush was asked probing questions, his immediate response was "Don't
stretch me out on the couch."" When Carter asked us
to look at our wasteful energy policy, our self-contradictory
foreign policy, and our questionable political morality, he was
asking us to reflect on ourselves, on who we were and what we
really wanted. And this would have inevitably led to looking at
ourselves from the outside, seeing ourselves as others saw us.
Given our track record, few people outside the North Atlantic
region, as Carter understood, saw communism as a greater enemy
than colonialism and institutionalized inequality. We had aligned
ourselves with colonial and reactionary regimes that flouted the
principles we supposedly fought to vindicate. The Third World
regarded us as imperialistic, self-serving, and hypocritical,
endlessly employing a double standard. We backed right-wing regimes
across the globe; Vietnam looked like neocolonial repression of
indigenous nationalism. It wasn't exactly a glowing record, and
it had been generated by largely faulty premises.
In his "crisis of spirit" speech
in the summer of 1979, Carter spoke of a "national malaise,"
and said that America had two possible paths it could take. One,
he said, led to fragmentation and self-interest-"a certain
route to failure" - whereas the other led to "common
purpose and the restoration of American values." The latter
path, he added, "leads to true freedom ... As Gaddis Smith
says, during the Carter administration an effort was made to think
in terms of a lasting world order beneficial to all, rather than
to make every decision based on gaining a short-term advantage
over an enemy. Carter failed, he concludes, "because he asked
the American people to think as citizens of the world with an
obligation toward future generations." But who, then, really
failed: Jimmy Carter, or the American people?
One can point to Jimmy Carter's mistakes in office... But the
overall impulse ... of trying to get us off the path of lurching
blindly ahead with the logic that took us into Vietnam, and of
trying to get us to see ourselves as others see us, was fundamentally
sound. e did not, as it turns out, have the "nerve to fail";
the window shut, and we chose "self-righteous crusades up
to or past the edge of violence." The blowback from this
is going to be the theme of the twenty-first century, as we continue
to weaken ourselves through endless war and oppositional logic,
and the attempt to project our military into every corner of the
globe. "The traditional effort to sustain democracy by expansion,"
wrote Williams at the conclusion of his book, "will lead
to the destruction of democracy." This is, by now, our imperial
destiny, and there does not seem to be any way to alter it.
Republic versus Empire
George Kennan's 1948 secret memo about
our goal being one of preserving the economic disparity between
the United States and everyone else remains a persistent theme.
It was echoed recently in the 1998 "Long Range Plan"
of the U.S. Space Command (written with the help of seventy-five
corporations that do business with the military), which states
that the gap between the rich and poor will widen, and that the
U.S. needs military space development in order to contain the
regional unrest that will inevitably ensue as a result. The Long
Range Plan also declares that the way a nation makes wealth is
the way it makes war-a thesis that leaps right out of the pages
of [Charles] Beard and [William Appleman] Williams.
There is simply no getting around these
* There is, as Dwight Eisenhower said
in his farewell address, a military-industrial complex.
* During the Truman administration the
military-industrial complex insisted on, and got, a permanent
war economy (one that generates vast wealth for American defense
* After World War II the American republic
was essentially replaced by a national security state, largely
exempt from congressional oversight and answerable to practically
John Foster Dulles agreed that "the chief American interest
in the world was access to the world."
It is the economic factor, combined with the militarization of
American foreign policy, according to Andrew Bacevich, director
of the Center for International Relations at Boston University,
that has been key to the transformation of the republic into an
empire. Bacevich claims that we had a "globalization"
strategy in the 1890s and that it was still operative one hundred
years later, Then as now, the goal was to create an integrated
international order that offered no barriers to the flow of goods,
capital, and ideas, and that is administered by the United States.
The whole world is to become a free-market economy, and the US.
military is there to remove any opposition to this process. And
since there will be those who will not be happy with this project
and will resist it, our foreign policy necessarily has to become,
in essence, a military one, Thus, says Bacevich, "the politico-economic
concept to which the United States adheres today has not changed
in a century": an "open" order based on commercial
integration and technological innovation, with the rapid deployment
of the armed forces to maintain that order, if necessary. This
vision has been the strategic consensus of the foreign policy
elite of both major political parties - long before George Kennan,
and long after him as well." All of this was quite in evidence
during the Clinton administration.
... the success of the expansion depends
on having the U.S. military as the enforcer of all of this. The
economic payoff that results from involving the Defense Department
(DoD) is twofold:
1. We are enforcing a worldwide economic
order in which the deck is loaded in our favor (globalization
2. An expanded military budget means lots
of business for American defense industries and weapons manufacturers.
We can see how this works if we take a
closer look at the dramatically expanding role that militarization
has come to play in American political and economic life.
It is sobering to realize that in the
1920s and 1930s, the United States deployed an army that was roughly
the size of Portugal. Today, America has a quarter of a million
troops and civilians stationed in 130 countries. It is, by far,
possessor of the largest military establishment in the world and
is the world's largest arms exporter. (The U.S. share of the global
arms trade doubled after the Cold War ended, so that America now
sells roughly half of all the weapons sold worldwide.) By 1990,
Pentagon property was valued at nearly $1 trillion, the equivalent
of 83 percent of all of the assets of all u.s. manufacturing industries.
With an annual budget (during that time) of $310 billion, the
Pentagon was (and presumably remains) America's largest company:
5.1 million employees, 600 fixed facilities nationwide, more than
40,000 properties, and 18 million acres of land. Indeed, the Pentagon's
economy is twice as large as all of Japan's. In 1997, the government
spent $37 billion on military research and development, nearly
two-thirds of what the entire world spent on the same. In 1998,
while the entire world spent $864 billion on military forces,
the American fraction of this was nearly one-third. Although it
is true that during the 1990s military expenditures amounted to
only 3 or 4 percent of the GDP, the figure is misleading, because
when we look at the discretionary budget, the fraction is huge:
nearly 50 percent during Fiscal Year 2001 (the last Clinton budget).
Indeed, Gore Vidal claims that during the Reagan years the military,
fraction of the discretionary budget was nearly 90 percent, and
we are, as of this writing, set to go through the roof once again:
in the wake of September 11, Bush's $2.13 trillion dollar budget
(which would put the country $80 billion in the red) would increase
the Pentagon's annual account to $451 billion by 2007-more than
the budgets of the next fifteen largest militaries combined. As
of 2003, the U.S. was spending more than $400 billion per year
on defense and another $100 billion a year for fighting in Iraq
The scholar who has done most to trace
the history of these developments is the late Seymour Melman,
in books such as Pentagon Capitalism and After Capitalism. After
World War II, he writes, the DoD dominated the affairs of more
than thirty thousand industrial laboratories, and the government
became the largest financier of research and development in science
and technology. From 1952 to 1994, the annual increases made available
to the Pentagon exceeded the combined net profit of all American
corporations. After 1991, the war economy was maintained at over
$250 billion per year in military budgets, and from 1940 to 1996,
leaving $5.8 trillion spent on nuclear weapons programs aside,
military outlays totaled $17 trillion (measured in 1996 dollars).
The sum of all new weapons plans announced by the Pentagon during
1996-97 amounted to more than $1.5 trillion, and some DoD officials
estimated that the actual cost could be twice as great. The truth,
says Melman, is that the DoD is the largest industrial entity
in the United States, and the president is its CEO.
As for the militarization of foreign policy,
the Washington Post's Dana Priest has documented the increasing
tendency of American leaders to turn to the military to solve
political and economic problems. "This," she writes,
"has become the American military's mission and it has been
going on for more than a decade without much public discussion
or debate." The latest version of this, of course, is the
plan to vanquish terrorism, about which General Anthony Zinni
told Priest, "there is no military solution to terrorism."
But certainly the Republican leadership doesn't want to hear this.
As for the Democrats, it is ironic, says Priest, that Clinton
had such an "antimilitary" reputation, given the fact
that he relied so heavily on the military to do his foreign policy
for him. He sent Zinni to India and Pakistan, for example, to
defuse tensions between the two countries, and then to Jordan
to negotiate the handover of terrorists. A gulf, says Priest,
had developed between America new leadership role in the world
and what the country civilian leaders were willing to do to fill
it. Quietly, and behind the scenes, the military stepped into
that gap, and on Clinton watch "the military slowly, without
public scrutiny or debate, came to surpass its civilian leaders
in resources and influence around the world." Clinton even
began to assign the military tasks such as humanitarian disaster
relief and disarmament programs. As we know, Clinton's successor
basically discarded diplomacy in favor of military "solutions,"
but as Priest points out, the pattern had already begun as far
back as the 1970s and 1980s. Thus politicians "asked infantry
and artillery officers and soldiers to help build pluralistic
civil societies in countries that had never had them. They required
secretive Special Forces to make friends with the nastiest elements
in foreign militaries and turn them into professionals respectful
of civilian authority." The invasion of Iraq in 2003-when
no weapons of mass destruction were in fact present-and the assignment
of the rebuilding of the country to the U.S. armed forces indicate
just how far this process has gone.
It was, in particular, after the Gulf
war that the US. military evolved into a global constabulary,
a kind of imperial police force. Between 1989 and 1999, the country
engaged in forty-eight open military interventions, as opposed
to sixteen during the entire period of the Cold War. Thus Andrew
Bacevich notes that after the Cold War, there was a greater reliance
on coercion as an instrument of foreign policy, with "the
emergence of a new class of uniformed proconsuls presiding over
vast quasi-imperial domains." What we saw under Clinton,
he goes on, was the appearance of American troops in all sorts
of out-of-the-way locales, many of them hitherto remote from even
the loosest definition of U.S. interests: periodic demonstrations
of U.S. capability in places like Kuwait and Kazakhstan; emergency
interventions to set things right in Somalia and Haiti; the establishment
of quasi-permanent garrisons in Bosnia, Macedonia and the Persian
Gulf; and the continuous dispatch of training missions and liaison
teams throughout Latin America and the former Soviet bloc.
With this too came a growing tendency
to use the military to initiate foreign policy in areas where
we didn't have easy access, such as Algeria and Yemen, and to
rely on it periodically to punish those we didn't like: the Serbs,
the Sudanese, the Afghanis, and of course, Saddam Hussein. By
the end of the nineties, "a militarized foreign policy was
something most Americans took for granted.
So Clinton paved the way, but the final
conversion of America from republic to empire was planned in the
closing years of the Bush Sr. administration, and then officially
unveiled when it was really safe to do so: after 9/11. There are
enormous costs to all of this-not just financial, but also moral,
political, and social. Gore Vidal writes:
Our Congress has been hijacked by corporate
America and its ' enforcer, the imperial military machine ....
We have allowed our institutions to be taken over in the name
of a globalized American empire that is totally alien in concept
to anything our founders had in mind. I suspect it is far too
late in the day for us to restore the republic that we lost a
There was ... a coherent foreign policy forming in the aftermath
of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but in the wings, as it were.
Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense, drew around him Paul Wolfowitz
(undersecretary of defense for policy), Lewis Libby (his chief
of staff), and Donald Rumsfeld. He asked them to think about foreign
policy at the grand strategic level, and Wolfowitz presented his
vision on 21 May 1990. This eventually evolved into the Defense
Planning Guidance (DPG) of 1992, which was essentially a blueprint
for American global hegemony in perpetuity In nearly final draft
form, the classified forty-six-page memo was distributed to the
top brass in the military on 18 February 1992. This then got accidentally
leaked to the New York Times the following month, which published
a front-page story saying that the Pentagon was planning to see
to it that we would have no other rivals in the next century,
that no other nation would ever become a great power. It also
advanced a policy of the use of preemptive military force against
states suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction; foretold
a world in which our military intervention would become "a
constant feature"; and stated that we had the right to ensure
our access to the oil of the Gulf region and could act independently
in lieu of collective action if we chose to do so. It made no
mention whatever of the United Nations.
... chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff,
Colin Powell ... told members of the House Armed Services Committee
that the United States required military power sufficient enough
to deter any other nation from even dreaming of challenging us.
"I want to be the bully on the block," he declared;
and in the wake of the press leak, he flatly stated that he saw
nothing wrong with America running the world. After all, he added,
our European allies were not afraid of our military power because
they knew that it "will not be misused ."
Powell excepted, however, the DPG of 1992
was rejected by the Bush, Sr. administration, and more or less
branded as a species of lunacy - something important to keep in
mind when evaluating the foreign policy ideas of the government
a mere ten years later. According to Andrew Bacevich, the document
implied a radical departure from the conception of international
politics from Wilson to JFK, which embraced a framework of liberty
and universal ideals. The DPG of 1992, on the other hand, "had
a decidedly alien ring" to it. Alien or not, the whole thing
refused to die. Out of office in 1996, Wolfowitz wrote an article
arguing for a preemptive attack on Iraq and for ditching the policy
of containment. In 1997, William Kristol and Robert Kagan of the
right-wing Weekly Standard drew on a number of neoconservative
think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute and the
Center for Security Policy, as well as on members of the military-industrial
complex, to form the Project for the New American Century (PNAC),
a group dedicated to the Reaganite policy of military strength
and "moral clarity." In September 2000, as a blueprint
for a new Republican administration, they issued Rebuilding America
Defenses, which advanced the ideas of U.S. global hegemony and
preemptive war, including recommendations for "regime j change"
in China, Iraq, North Korea, and Iran.
They create a wasteland and call it peace.
The Roads Not Taken
W. H. Auden poem "The Age of Anxiety"
"We would rather be ruined than changed."
Fifty years after the publication of Potter's book, Walter McDougall,
who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at the University of
Pennsylvania, came to much the same conclusion, expressed in somewhat
starker terms. There certainly is an American character, says
McDougall in 'Freedom Just Around the Corner'; it's called "hustling.
"We are a nation of people on the make, he argues, and this
certainly antedated Enron and Halliburton. To be sure, he says,
this hustling has a sunny, upbeat face to it, the Yankee "can
do" mentality. But the dark side is no minor aspect, and
it was present from Day One: nearly everyone in early America,
he suggests, had little interest in what was good for the colony
or the nation, and a very great interest in "what's in it
for me?" The overall picture is that of a scramble for profit,
and the result has been a nation that is not only endlessly competitive,
but remarkably violent.
The Jesuits were fond of saying
"Give us the child for the first seven years; after that,
nothing much matters."
In a very real sense, then, the American nation was born bourgeois.
Unlike Europe, it never went through a feudal phase. For sociologist
Seymour Martin Lipset, this absence is the key to "American
exceptionalism," one aspect of which is that social and political
alternatives to the American mainstream - communitarian ones in
particular - have never been able to get off the ground. Individualism,
laissez-faire economics, and the pursuit of private interests
were locked in from the beginning; deviations from that norm never
really had a chance. Whereas Europe had a feudal tradition of
noblesse oblige, which in the modern period took the form of welfare,
public housing and employment, and other ways to help the less
fortunate, the United States offers its underclass only the ideology
of individual mobility and personal achievement. The ethos of
the Revolutionary period, says Lipset, loaded the dice, making
America the most antistatist nation in the world. It is the only
major industrial nation without a general allowance program for
families with children and without national health insurance.
It also has the highest percentage of people living in poverty
among the developed nations. Yet surveys taken from the 1930s
through the 1980s reveal very little sympathy for the idea of
wealth distribution-even during the Depression. Given the successful
Revolutionary attack on hierarchy, aristocracy, and organic community
values, this should come as no surprise. As political scientist
Walter Dean Burnham once put it, "no feudalism, no socialism"-that
is, feudalism was the historical template on which a communitarian
ethos was built. Being "taken care of" is regarded as
un-American; instead, the emphasis is almost wholly on individual
success. Individualism has become the moral standard by which
everything is judged, and of which Americans are aggressively
proud. Yet by 1994, reports Lipset, two-thirds of the American
public said the country was seriously off track.
Future of Freedom, by Fareed Zakaria ... he argues that with the
major post-1960 assault on authority, it is not that the elite
disappeared, but that it shifted to another locus. Radical democratization
may have been touted under Thomas Jefferson, but we still remained
tied to the European model to some degree. For much of the twentieth
century, says Zakaria, professionals in the United States formed
a kind of modern aristocracy that was concerned with the nation's
welfare. In terms of museums, symphonies, public parks, and libraries,
"American democracy was well served by public-spirited elites,"
who set the cultural standards and whose guiding principle was
quality. If they acted on behalf of equality and of the democratization
of culture, they "did so by elevating people rather than
bring the standards down." The 1790s notwithstanding, there
remained enough of a public service ethic to act as a brake on
unbridled power and pure commercialism. That remnant finally ran
out, over the past few decades, and the new elites are lobbyists,
special-interest groups, and even fanatics, who have moved in
to fill the void left by the collapse of hierarchy. This phenomenon
might be called "misplaced egalitarianism," and its
result is that the only thing that matters anymore-in the arts,
education, urban design and so on-is mass appeal. What we get,
says Zakaria, is a loss of definition, of cutting edge. Popular
opinion is thus the lodestar of today's elites, which means that
American life and culture are almost completely consumerist in
nature. So if today's elites are concerned about the public, it
is only to take its commercial pulse, because the market lurks
behind everything in this country. Their horizon, in short, is
not the larger public good. "The greatest danger of unfettered
and dysfunctional democracy," concludes Zakaria, "is
that it will discredit democracy itself."
"It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies,
but to be one [Americanism]."
The presence of a "civil religion" in America was first
pointed out by sociologist Robert Bellah nearly forty years ago
and, as already indicated, it is the flip side of the "atomized"
society. The separation of church and state, wrote Bellah, has
not denied the political realm a religious dimension, for the
transcendent goal that America feels charged with is the obligation
to carry out God's will on earth. Thus the Declaration of Independence
contains four references to God, and religious expression permeates
Washington's first inaugural address. The Founding Fathers talked
a lot in these terms, but they were not referring to any particular
religion, Christianity included. Rather, writes Sidney Mead in
The Nation with the Soul of a Church, the American religion is
that of fulfilling a mission, of bringing a New World into being.
It is an activist and moralistic religion, not an inward or contemplative
one-a fact that is just now coming home to roost. For many Americans,
the nation "came to occupy a place in their lives that traditionally
had been occupied by the church." More than that, the nation
was seen by its inhabitants as the primary agent of God's activity
in history. Only America, wrote Lyman Beecher in A Plea for the
West (1835), could provide the "moral power to evangelize
the world." So our "moral" foreign policy was slated
to work in tandem with our commercial domestic one, and both of
these reflect and reinforce our specific individual behavior and
our value system on a daily basis.
This evangelizing kind of zeal has also
been a major factor in closing off any alternatives to the mainstream.
As Lipset correctly states, Americanism is an ism in the same
way that communism was. They functioned as mirror images (which
is why we now need terrorism-badly-to replace our lost doppelganger;
in general, religion cannot function without a satanic figure).
While other nations have a sense of themselves derived from a
common history-one cannot become un-English or un-Swedish, for
example-being an American is regarded as an ideological or religious
commitment and is not a matter of birth. Hence, those who (reject
American values are "un-American" by definition. "Americans,"
are utopian moralists who press hard to institutionalize virtue,
to destroy evil people, and eliminate wicked institutions and
practices. A majority even tell pollsters that God is the moral
guiding force of American democracy. They tend to view social
and political dramas as morality plays, as battles between God
and the Devil, so that compromise is virtually unthinkable.
Americans sit in Starbucks drinking homogenized, commercial coffee,
talking on cell phones, staring into their laptops, and having
no notion of what real café (or even social) life is all
about. They spend huge amounts of time sitting alone in steel
boxes on highways, driving to work and to huge shopping malls,
their new "communities" They have no understanding of
sacred spaces, places of quiet, or ones of relaxed public assembly.
From a European point of view, says sociologist Ray Oldenburg,
American suburbs are like prisons. There is no contact between
households, and one rarely knows one's neighbors. There are no
places to walk to, or cafés to sit where people drop in
and socialize or read the newspaper. And the "war,"
the endless me-first competition that we conduct with one another
(any appearance to the contrary), in lieu of having any real community;
is echoed in our foreign policy. Although our interest in geopolitical
control of the Middle East is a complicated issue, certainly one
aspect of that ill-fated project can be limned in the following
car culture + suburbia oil dependency
= war culture
This war culture can be seen not only
in our foreign policy, but also in the details of how we live,
both physically and emotionally. As Kunstler points out, "Indulging
in a fetish of commercialized privatism, we did away with the
public realm, and with nothing left but private life in our private
homes and private cars, we wonder what happened to the spirit
of community We created a landscape of scary places and became
a nation of scary people." We live, says Richard Sennett,
as though attack-and defense were the correct model of our subjective
lives. As Mother Teresa suggested, what could be more tragic?
But if huge numbers of Americans are scary,
they are also scared, and the foreign policy of "Fortress
America," coupled with an imperial policy, finds its domestic
expression not only in the suburb but even more in the gated "community?'
This quasi-military arrangement has had phenomenal success in
the United States; the number of people living in such places
went from four million in 1995 to sixteen million in 1998, which
ought to tell us something. Most residents surveyed say that security
is a key issue for them; and indeed, with gated communities, neighborhoods
are redefined by walls and guards. Social order is maintained
by policing and segregation, so as to generate a controlled and
homogeneous environment. All of this, writes Setha Low in Behind
the Gates, is part of the militarization of America-in effect,
an extension of the national security state. The irony, she reports,
is that the vigilance necessary to maintain this arrangement actually
heightens the residents' anxiety and sense of isolation. This
way of living mirrors the psychology of the SUV, as well as a
foreign policy that seeks to control the world but which increases
terror and instability instead.