Henry Miller once said that the purpose of the artist is to "inoculate the world with disillusionment." We are in desperate need of disillusionment today -- disillusionment on a vast scale, disillusionment as a constant discipline. Arthur Silber is one of the greatest such artists now at work, and he has just released a remarkable piece aimed at one the deadliest illusions of our time: the myth of American Exceptionalism. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you read the entire piece, but below are a few excerpts to highlight some of the salient points.
Silber writes of the poisonous effects of the all-pervasive, ever-hardening Exceptionalist myth that has such a death-grip on the American psyche. In some ways, of course, this myth is just a variant of the same kind of self-deluding trumpery that powerful nations and tribes have told themselves down through the centuries -- "We are special, we are superior, whatever we do is good and right, because we are the ones doing it, etc." You could find beliefs like this going back to Rome, to Babylon, to Sumer, probably all the way back to Çatalhöyük or the Blombos Cave.
But the longevity and universality of this pernicious mindset is in no way a mitigation of it. It does not reduce by one iota the responsibility -- the blood-guilt -- of any society that adheres to such a myth, and uses it to "justify" (indeed, celebrate) horrendous crimes. It is American Exceptionalism that we must deal with in our time. And although the belief of this particular bunch of bare, fork'd animals that they are special is nothing new, the gargantuan, ravenous military force that backs up this delusion is unprecedented in world history. It is only in its destructiveness, real and potential, that the American system is indeed exceptional.
Silber gives a cogent description of the American myth [and see his original essay for the many important links]:
In the most extreme (and, one could argue, most consistent) version of this [exceptionalist] tale, non-Western parts of the world are less than human -- and they are subhuman by choice. They are immoral, and sometimes even evil. Since we represent the good and they represent the evil, we are surely entitled to improve them, by invasion and bombing if necessary. If they do not threaten us today, they might at some indeterminate time in the future. And while we might kill many innocent civilians in our campaign of civilization, those who survive will be infinitely better off than they would have been otherwise. Besides, how "innocent" can any of them be -- since they are members of inferior, less than fully human civilizations, and since they are so by choice?
Silber then points out the sickening consequences of this nationalist fundamentalism:
With this belief system as the unchallengeable foundation, a vast number of Americans render themselves completely unable to recognize the devastating consequences of the American State's actions abroad. Whenever those consequences threaten to announce themselves in an unavoidable manner, most Americans will explicitly deny or avoid them through an endless variety of stratagems. When all else fails, their ultimate defense will be the cloaked restatement of the myth's message: the lives of those other people are simply not of the same value as our own. ...
A terrifyingly awful example of this phenomenon is the disappearance of the nightmarish tragedy of Iraq from our national conversation. Remember that Iraq never posed a serious threat to the United States, and that our leaders knew that it posed no such threat. Therefore, the U.S. invasion and occupation represent an ongoing series of war crimes. This is not an arguable point in any respect. Since it cannot be argued, it is ignored altogether.
Silber points to a devastating article by Patrick Cockburn, one of the most experienced and knowledgeable Western writers on Iraq:
American troops leave behind a country that is a barely floating wreck. Baghdad feels like a city under military occupation, with horrendous traffic jams caused by the 1,500 checkpoints and streets blocked off by miles of concrete blast walls that strangle communications within the city. The situation in Iraq is in many ways "better" than it was, but it could hardly be anything else, given that killings at their peak in 2006-2007 were running at about 3,000 a month. That said, Baghdad remains one of the most dangerous cities in the world, riskier to walk around than Kabul or Kandahar ...
Going back to Baghdad last month, after being away for some time, I was struck by how little had changed. The airport was still among the worst in the world. When I wanted to fly to Basra, Iraq's second biggest city and the centre of the oil industry, Iraqi Airways said they had only one flight during the week and they were none too certain when that would leave.
Violence may be down, but few of the 2 million Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria think it safe enough to go home. A further 1.5 million people are Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), forced out of their homes by sectarian pogroms in 2006 and 2007 and too frightened to return. Of these, some half a million people try to survive in squatter camps which Refugees International describes as lacking "basic services, including water, sanitation and electricity, and built on precarious places – under bridges, alongside railroad tracks and amongst garbage dumps". A worrying fact about these camps is that the number of people in them should be shrinking as sectarian warfare ebbs, but in fact the IDP population is growing. These days refugees come to the camps not because of fear of the death squads but because of poverty, joblessness or because the prolonged drought is driving farmers off their land.
As Silber notes, Cockburn has much, much more on the fresh hell that America has inflicted on Iraq. This hell includes not only the million or more innocent people killed as a result of the American military aggression launched in 2003, but, as we noted here this week, the million or more innocent people killed by the American-directed sanctions against Iraq in the 12 years before the invasion.
Silber then goes on to make what is one of his most important observations: how the theoretical freedom of the press in the United States is used to impose a level of censorship on state crimes that the most hidebound totalitarian dictator might envy:
As deeply horrifying as these details [of Iraq's suffering] are, perhaps it is that these facts are not hidden or completely inaccessible that is most unsettling. What the U.S. has done -- death and ongoing suffering on a monumental scale, that "Iraq remains an extraordinarily violent place" and "is a barely floating wreck" -- can easily be known, if we seek to know the truth. Yet almost none of our leaders will acknowledge the smallest part of this truth, and most Americans are unaware of almost all of it. This reveals a notable danger in what is often held up as yet another singular virtue of the United States: that we have a "free" press, and that there is no official censorship. As a result, people believe that they do know the truth. After all, no one is being actively prevented from telling even unpleasant truths.
Such simplistic appeals to what is supposedly another aspect of American virtue disregard the complex operations of cultural "truths" that are widely accepted. It is almost impossible to imagine how official censorship could more successfully and comprehensively obliterate the actual truth. And I repeat: since people delude themselves that their leaders and media are telling them the truth, they feel no need to seek further for it. Moreover, facts such as those set forth by Cockburn, facts that are accessible to anyone if he wants to find them, have no reality for those whose identity and self-worth are critically tied to the myth of American exceptionalism. It is the myth that is real; facts that conflict with and undermine the myth rarely penetrate the consciousness of most Americans. Such facts are never admitted by those who would lead the American State.
Thus those who have been imbued from birth by the myth of American Exceptionalism become active collaborators in this censorship of state crime. It is actually a form of self-censorship. There is no need for the state to spend a lot of time and energy jailing or killing or silencing or even discrediting those who tell the unpleasant truth; most people, in their blind adherence to the myth, simply will not hear it. As Silber says:
...[M]yths which assume importance in the manner of the exceptionalist myth constitute life itself. It is crucial to appreciate that this is how it operates in psychological terms. In a contest between a belief system which provides identity and self-worth and facts which threaten that identity and self-worth, it is frequently the facts which many people choose to discard.
Occasionally, when the destructive (and self-destructive) effects of a belief system become sufficiently overwhelming, a person will decide to question and eventually dispense with the belief system. The process can be agonizingly difficult. Many people prefer to avoid it. Most of us are familiar with the tragic story of the individual who refuses to give up the myth that he still believes provides him consolation and meaning -- even when clinging to the myth leads to his own death. Countries can behave in the identical manner; history provides numerous examples of the same tragedy on a national scale.
In the murderous rampages of the Terror War (which its own practitioners confess are causing more terrorism), in the vast secret state of oprichniki and mercenaries that have swallowed the Republic, in the ever-more brazen dominance of our neo-feudal oligarchy (with its government retainers and its pathetic army of Tea Party serfs who worship the wealthy oppressors who are degrading their lives), in the thoroughly man-made "natural disasters" that are ravaging the environment, we are clearly seeing just such a national tragedy being played out before our eyes.
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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on July 22, 2010.