Empire at Home

excerpted from the book

Freeing the World to Death

essays on the american empire

by William Blum

Common Courage Press, 2005, paper


Conversations (sort of) with Americans

One of the joys of being an author, of being interviewed and having many essays floating around the Internet, is that it brings me into contact with a lot of swell folks I wouldn't otherwise be in touch with: morons, Jesus freaks, New Agers babbling about "the pure rhythm of the essence of the universal life force", those whose idea of intellectualism is turning off the TV for an hour, those who have swallowed the American Dream and the American Empire whole without even spitting out the pits, those who believe that any foreigner with half a brain would rather be an American... the whole primitive underbelly of this supposedly rational society. In sum total, a group that represents one of the 12 signs that the world is ending.

My contact with these charmers arises when they call in questions during radio interviews, or sometimes it's the person who's actually interviewing me. They also pop up in audiences I speak before, but mostly it's via email that I have the pleasure of encountering their fine minds.

I'm waiting to receive my first e-mail with anthrax in it. Well, there are viruses in e-mail, why not bacteria?

When New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called the anti-globalization demonstrators in Seattle "a Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates", Noam Chomsky observed: "From his point of view that's probably correct. From the point of view of slave owners, people opposed to slavery probably looked that way."

And that's the way that people like me and Noam look to my interrogators. Honed to an unusual deadness of perception by years of Monday night football, Fox News Channel, the local tabloid, and Rush Limbaugh, they are scarcely aware that large numbers of people simply do not think the way they do, that there's an alternative universe of facts and opinions out there. Inasmuch as their core political and social beliefs reflect the dominant ideology in the United States, they are not challenged as often as those on the left are. They thus tend to take their beliefs for granted and are not used to defending them as much as the left is, are not as practiced at it. I think the hostile manner in which they first engage me stems partly from the shock that such people like me even exist and are actually speaking to them over one of their favorite radio programs, or that words written by such a person have found their way to their Internet mailbox. To them, I've just stepped off the number 36 bus from Mars. And I'm upsetting their tranquility. I may even appear scary.

I present here several fragments of my conversations with these lovely creatures as well as some typical questions from other types.

Q. Why do you hate America so much?

A: What do you mean by "hating America"? Are you asking me if I hate every building in America, every park, every person, every baseball team? Just what do you mean? What I hate, actually, is American foreign policy, what the United States does to the world.

Q. If you don't like the United States why don't you leave?

A. Because I'm committed to fighting US foreign policy, the greatest threat to peace and happiness in the world, and being in the United States is the best place for carrying out the battle. This is the belly of the beast, and I try to be an ulcer inside of it.

Q. What other country is better than the United States?

A. In what respect?

Q. In any respect.

A. Well, let's start with education. In much of Western Europe university education is free or considerably more affordable than here; even in poor Cuba it's free. Then there's health care

[Note: I think that the people who ask this question truly believe that there's no good answer to their challenge; my response invariably marks the end of the dialogue.]

Q. Do you regard yourself as patriotic?

A. Well, I guess you're speaking of some kind of blind patriotism, but even if you have a more balanced view of it, what you're thinking about me would still be correct. I'm not patriotic. In fact, I don't want to be patriotic. I'd go so far as to say that I'm patriotically challenged. Many people on the left, now as in the 1960s, do not want to concede the issue of patriotism to the conservatives. The left insists that they are the real patriots because of demanding that the United States lives up to its professed principles. That's all well and good, but I'm not one of those leftists. I don't think that patriotism is one of the more noble sides of mankind. George Bernard Shaw wrote that patriotism is the conviction that your country is superior to all others because you were born in it.

Q. Do you think the United States has ever done anything good in the world? How about World War Two? Would you have fought in that war?

A. Okay, get ready to scream now. If I had been old enough, and knowing what I know now, I would have been glad to fight against fascism, but I would not have been enthused about fighting for the United States, or for the United States government to be more precise. Our leaders bore a great responsibility for the outbreak of the world war by abandoning the Spanish republic in the civil war. Hitler, Mussolini and the Spanish fascists under Franco all combined to overthrow the republican government, while the United States, Great Britain, France and the rest of the world, except the Soviet Union and a couple of others, stood by; worse than standing by, American corporations, like the oil companies and General Motors, were aiding the fascist side.

At the same time, the US and Britain refused the entreaties of the Soviet Union to enter into some sort of mutual defense pact. The Russians knew that Hitler would eventually invade them, but that was fine with the Western powers who were nudging Adolf eastward at Munich. (It was collusion, not appeasement.) This finally forced the Soviets into their pact with Hitler, to be able to stall for time while they built up their defenses. Hitler derived an important lesson from all this. He saw that for the West, the real enemy was not fascism, it was communism and socialism, so he proceeded accordingly. Stalin got the same message. Hitler was in power for nine years before the United States went to war with him-hardly a principled stand against fascism-and then it was because Germany declared war on the United States, not the other way around.

[When the subject is Iraq and the questioner has no other argument left to defend US policy there, at least at the moment, I may be asked:]

Q. Just tell me one thing, are you glad that Saddam Hussein is out of power?

A. No.

Q. No?

A. No. Tell me, if you went into surgery to correct a knee problem and the surgeon mistakenly amputated your entire leg, what would you think if someone then asked you: Are you glad that you no longer have a knee problem? Of course you wouldn't be glad. The cost to you would not be worth it. It's the same with the Iraqi people, the cost of the bombing, invasion, occupation, and daily violence and humiliation has been a terrible price to pay for the removal of Hussein, whom many Iraqis actually supported anyhow.

Q. Don't you realize that the wars you criticize give you the freedom to say all the crap that comes out of your mouth?

A. Oh that's just a conservative cliché. Our wars are not fought for any American's freedom. There's been no threat to our freedom of speech from abroad, only at home, like the Red Scare, McCarthyism, Cointelpro, and The Patriot Act.

Q. Why do you put down the establishment 'media so much when you cite them so often as your source?

A. The main shortcoming of the establishment media lies in errors of omission, much more than errors of commission. It's not that they tell bald lies so much as it is that they leave out parts of stories or entire stories, or historical reminders, which if included might put the issue in a whole new light, in a way not compatible with their political biases. Or they may include all the facts, leading to an obvious interpretation, but leave out suggesting an alternative interpretation of the same facts which stands the first interpretation on its head. But the information they do report is often quite usable for my purposes.

Q. You make no distinctions among US presidents since World War Two. Do you put Truman in the same category as Reagan?

A. There have been all kinds of differences in the political views of the administrations from Truman to Bush Jr. but virtually all the significant differences concerned domestic issues. In foreign policy, they were all habitually interventionist, brutal, fanatically anti-communist, concerned mainly with making the world safe for US multinational corporations, and unconcerned about human rights (although they all paid a great deal of lip service to the concept). Truman was a major architect of the Cold War. Clinton's bombing of Yugoslavia was just as illegal, immoral and based on lies as Bush, Jr's bombings of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Q. So much of what you say just builds a wall between people, blaming one side for everything. Don't you think that we all share the blame and that you should stop thinking in simplistic terms of US and THEM?

A. I've been an activist since Vietnam, and you can't blame me or people like me for Vietnam, any more than you can blame us for Iraq, or all the other bloody American interventions in between. WE have been protesting what THEY have been doing for decades. THEY make their decisions and Congress is in bed with them and WE have virtually nothing to say in the matter. And don't tell me to elect different people to Congress unless you're prepared to provide a billion dollars to change the many state laws making it so difficult for third parties to get on the ballot; and that would be only a tiny first step.

"Is there anything the US government tells you about foreign policy that you don't believe?"

... America's state religion: patriotism, a phenomenon which has convinced many of the citizenry that "treason" is morally worse than murder or rape...

Patriotism, like religion, meets people's need for something greater to which their individual lives can be anchored.

Winning Hearts and Mindless
[The Ecologist, London), September 2003]

Since the United States thumbed its nose at the world by invading Iraq, the burning question among the ranks of the anti- war movement here as well as elsewhere has been: How do we stop the monster before it kills again?

In the absence of European and Arab governments showing a lot more courage to stand up to the empire, it's the American people we have to look to, for no one has the potential leverage over the monster than the monster's own children have. And that's the problem, for the American people are...well .,.how can one put this delicately? ...like one in every 50 adult Americans claims a UFO abduction experience; a National Science Board survey found that 27 percent of adults believe the sun revolves around the earth; according to a Gallup poll 68 percent believe in the devil (12 percent are unsure); and most Americans believe God created evolution.

There are all kinds of intelligence in this world: musical, scientific, mathematical, artistic, academic, literary, and so on. Then there's political intelligence, which might be defined as the ability to see through the bullshit which every society, past, ç present and future, feeds its citizens from birth on to assure the continuance of the prevailing ideology.

Polls conducted in June showed that 42% of Americans believed that Iraq had a direct involvement in what happened ( on 11 September, most of them being certain that Iraqis were 7 among the 19 hijackers; 55% believed that Saddam Hussein had close ties to al Qaeda; 34% were convinced that weapons of mass destruction had recently been found in Iraq (7% were not ) sure); 24% believed that Iraq had used chemical or biological weapons against American forces in the war (14% were unsure).

"If Iraq had no significant WMD and no strong link to Al Qaeda, do you think we were misled by the government?" Only half said yes.

Given the intensive news coverage and high levels of public attention [to the events in Iraq]," said one pollster, "this level of misinformation suggests some Americans may be avoiding having an experience of cognitive dissonance." That is, having the facts conflict with their beliefs.

One can only wonder what, besides a crowbar, it would take to pry such people away from their total support of what The Empire does to the world. Perhaps if the government came to their homes, seized their first born, and took them away screaming? Well, probably not if the government claimed that the adored first born had played soccer with someone from Pakistan who had a friend who had gone to the same mosque as someone from Afghanistan who had a picture of Taliban leader -. Mohammed Omar on his wall.

We're speaking here of people who get virtually all their news from the shock-and-awe tabloid weeklies, AM-radio talk shows, and television news programs which, because of marketplace pressure, aim low in order to reach the widest possible audience, resulting in short programs with lots of commercials, weather, sports, and entertainment. These news sources don't necessarily have to explicitly state the above falsehoods to produce such distorted views; they need only channel to their audience a continuous stream of statements from the government and conservative "experts" justifying the war and demonizing Saddam Hussein as if they were neutral observers; ignore contrary views except when an expert is on hand to ridicule them and label them "conspiracy theories"; and never put it all together in a coherent enlightening manner. This constant drip-drip of one- sided information, from sources who can be described as stenographers for the powers-that-be, can produce any benighted variety of the human species.

One company, Clear Channel, owns 1,200 US radio stations and sponsored "Rallies for America" which promoted the White House plan to attack Iraq.

Many Americans, whether consciously or unconsciously, actually pride themselves on their ignorance. It reflects their break with the overly complicated intellectual tradition of "old Europe". It's also a source of satisfaction that they have a president who's no smarter than they are. They could be happy under totalitarianism, might well come to prefer it, and may be helping to advance it in the United States even as you read this.

This, then, is a significant segment of the target audience of the American anti-war movement, which has the unenviable task of winning hearts and mindless.

"Mit der Dummheit kampfen Gotter selbst vergebens," wrote Friedrich Schiller. "With stupidity even the gods struggle in vain."

... amongst the developed nations, the United States is the worst place to be a worker, or sick, or seeking a university education; or, in the land of the two million incarcerated, to be a defendant.

Freeing the World to Death

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