February 06, 2006

Walking into the Iran Trap, IV: The National Myth that Sustains Us -- and Its Inevitable Racism

[Part I: A Decision of Policy -- and the Intelligence Won't Matter

Part II: The Folly of Intervention

Part III: Mythic War, and Endless Enemies]

I have reposted what I think is one of my better essays from last fall: Myths of New Orleans: Poor, Bad Blacks -- Who Got What They Deserved. Most of that article chronicles the vicious lies that were peddled about those people who were unable to leave New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina struck. Relying on an excellent article by Tim Wise, I set forth the evidence that comprehensively rebuts the repeated myths that led far too many Americans to conclude that those who suffered the worst of Katrina's effects simply "got what they deserved." At their foundation, all of those myths, without exception, relied on vicious racial stereotypes.

For the sake of clarity (and hopefully to deflect invalid criticism, which I will no doubt receive despite this effort), I state the following: I am firmly convinced that, in terms of its founding principles, the United States represented a unique and glorious chapter in human history, most particularly because of the fundamentality of individual rights in the conception of this country -- and the idea that the sole legitimate purpose of government is the protection of those rights. But those founding principles began to be consistently and repeatedly eroded toward the end of the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century saw their compromise to an extent that, I seriously suspect, will prove to be irreversible. We are now in the grip of a massive and constantly growing corporate statism, a statism that is neofascist in both character and tone. The melding of purportedly "private" industry with the brute force of government (and especially with the military sector of government) is all but complete, and it finds expression not only in our domestic affairs -- but in our foreign policy, where it is on full display in the debacle of Iraq.

And despite what I consider the true nobility of this country's founding principles, there was a very significant and profoundly repellent streak woven into the fabric of the United States from the outset. That streak was a virulent racism, which targeted not only blacks who were slaves -- and an institution more evil than slavery is not known to humanity -- but reached out to another group as well: the original inhabitants of North America. If you are willing to see any number of your beliefs about those first Americans profoundly questioned and entirely overthrown (and I say that even if you consider your views on this subject "enlightened"), I strongly recommend Charles C. Mann's fascinating book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. I plan to include some excerpts from Mann's work in future essays, and I can assure you that, after reading it, you will not see the world in precisely the same way. And your view of American history will be significantly altered.

But the racism I refer to reaches out still further and, as terrible as the consequences have been within our own borders (and still are today in many ways), it reaches out still more destructively. That is because it stems from the kind of general worldview that I began discussing in Part III of this Iran series and, by implication, it affects many Americans' view of the entire world and all the many peoples in it. Because I knew that I intended to write much more on this theme, I outlined this worldview -- this national myth that the majority of Americans insist upon -- at the beginning of the essay about the Myths of New Orleans. And I connected this worldview to both its international and domestic consequences:
The attacks of 9/11 tore aside a significant part of the veneer of civilization that had shrouded us from certain continuing, ugly truths about ourselves. In the wake of the attacks of that day, many of us -- led by our president, cheered on by the neoconservatives, and also by many conservatives and liberventionists (those alleged "libertarians," who think government should stay out of our lives at home but should simultaneously seek to rearrange the globe by military force -- and who appear to think it represents the apex of intellectual integrity never to even acknowledge this contradiction, let alone try to justify it) -- enthusiastically embraced a simple storyline: Western civilization, more particularly the United States, constitutes the highest point of possible human development. It is only "freedom" and "democracy" as practiced in the West that can guarantee a future of peace. (Never mind the West's uninterrupted history of warfare within its own ranks, and never mind the West's unending, centuries-long interference with the rest of the world.)

The West has the answer to successful human life. Since it does, and because certain elements in the rest of the world have now chosen to attack us on our own ground (and never mind that we have invaded and ruled over vast portions of the rest of the world since time immemorial), we must enlighten those benighted portions of the globe in our defense. Our chosen method of enlightenment is brute military force, to be deployed even against countries that did not threaten us. The lack of a genuine threat is no argument against spreading our version of "civilization," for our mission is grounded not only in self-defense: it is also a moral mission. Our success and our "peace" directly correlates to our virtue. Those countries and those civilizations that do not enjoy the same success and peace are without virtue. In the most extreme (and, one could argue, most consistent) version of this 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?

This story may have the virtue of simplicity and the attractiveness of notions that support a faltering sense of righteousness -- but it is also grievously, terribly wrong. It ignores the long sweep of history and complex questions of philosophy, morality and politics. I will be discussing many aspects of these errors in the weeks to come. It should be noted that, besides being wrong for countless reasons, this story contains the seeds of immense destructiveness. The destruction we have seen in the last few years may only be the prelude to infinitely greater destruction still to come. [None of this is to deny or minimize the fact that we have genuine enemies who must be confronted. But our current foreign policy is no longer primarily targeted at those enemies, and it has not been since we invaded Iraq. The fable told by those who defend our foreign policy is crucial to the current project of "remaking" the globe, in the name of "benevolent worldwide hegemony." Utopians of all kinds who seek to make their delusions real always have need of such destructive tales. As I indicate, I will have much more to say on this subject.]

The fable peddled after 9/11 addressed questions dealing with the entire world. The wake of Hurricane Katrina unmasked a corollary to this tale. This time, the storyline was contained within our own borders -- but it was no less ugly for that. In fact, the domestic fable that has taken hold in large parts of our media and among many so-called "respectable" intellectuals has confirmed that ancient hatreds have never left us. Those hatreds reveal the most virulent form of racism -- and they ought to give pause to all those who champion the kind of "civilization" they contend we are morally justified in exporting by means of missiles, bombs and bullets.

What is most horrifying about the tenacity of these prejudices is the immense extent to which they are contradicted by the facts. But when people are ruled by fear and by the demands of a false belief in their own superiority, facts are easily dispensed with, if they are even considered in the first instance. We have no reason to be surprised by these recent revelations: in a culture where peddlers of racist propaganda like Charles Murray and Michelle Malkin are accorded numerous opportunities to spew their ignorance and blatant falsehoods to huge audiences, prejudice and unreasoning hatred are not merely a comparatively insignificant adjunct to the discussion: they are the staples of our diet. We ought to recognize the lethality of such a diet: if we do not seek to alter it and bring it into accord with the facts, it will finally kill us.
You can see how this national (and more generally Western) myth very closely correlates to the "mythic reality" of war described by Chris Hedges and the Western "Idea of Progress" examined by Robert Merry, both of which I discussed in Part III.

In the last several years, we have witnessed periodic and regrettably predictable outbreaks of a vicious racism directed against Arabs and Muslims. Even a glancing familiarity with American history would reveal that this was only to be expected. In a post from May 2004 -- "The Flames of Hatred, Then -- and Now" -- I documented the anti-German hysteria of World War One (not World War Two, I emphasize), and offered parallel examples of hatred directed at Arabs and Muslims today. I draw your attention to two brief excerpts from that earlier post. First, about World War One:
A second propaganda technique used by the CPI [the U.S. Committee on Public Information] was demonization of the enemy. "So great are the psychological resistances to war in modern nations," wrote Lasswell "that every war must appear to be a war of defense against a menacing, murderous aggressor. There must be no ambiguity about who the public is to hate."
And the second, from a particularly blatant and repellent hawk propagandist of today:
[T]he administration seems to be completely unaware of how sick and tired of Arabs the average American has become, unaware because it is politically incorrect to express such sentiments of outright hostility: but what is politically incorrect to express is all too often the motive force behind those sudden and spontaneous movements of the popular psyche that only seemed to come from nowhere because they came from a place unfamiliar to most pundits and paid prophets, namely, the gut level feelings of the average guy.

Many Americans simply wish the Arabs would go away; others wish to blow them away -- and wish to blow them away not because they see this step as inevitable and tragic, but because they rejoice at the prospect of getting them back for what they have done to us. Most normal Americans today just don't care any more about the Arabs and their welfare, or about their humiliation, or about their historical grievances, simply because all the images that come to us from their world horrify and appall us, including the disturbing images of Americans doing things that no normal American would ever dream of doing to other people back at home, if only because they would never be given the opportunity.

This is how most normal Americans now feel...
I have reread this passage a few times in the past week, and I am at a loss to express how profoundly sickening I find it. To call it deeply inhumane and completely antithetical to the very idea of civilization itself does not even begin to capture its disgusting and barbaric quality. To put it very simply: this is the voice of a monster. And note the unbelievable presumptuousness of what this writer says: he contends, without the smallest glimmer of doubt, that "most normal Americans" are consumed by hatred and by the desire to murder many millions of people -- most of whom have done no harm to any American, and most of whom do not wish to.

This is the most primitive kind of racism -- a racism animated by murderous, blind and utterly unreasoning hatred, wishing to obliterate huge numbers of people, simply because they happen to belong to a group that has been singled out for revenge and destruction. This is the kind of monster one would encounter on the lowest rung of hell. A human being cannot be more contemptible. This is not merely sub- or non-human: it is anti-human.

Tragically, as these excerpts reveal -- and as our own history of slavery and our destruction of those peoples who lived in America before the Europeans arrived also confirms -- such hatred is a constant theme in our history. Because so many Americans refuse to acknowledge this incontestable fact, and because this strain in our national history is critical to understanding what is transpiring today, I will now offer some further examples -- concerning the same type of racism from World War Two.

The following excerpts are from Thomas Fleming's illuminating and informative book, The New Dealers' War: F.D.R. and the War within World War II. If you are unfamiliar with the details of this part of our history, you should be sitting down as you read the following:
On the other side of the world, race hatred was being preached with a ferocity that equaled anything Joseph Goebbels was producing in his Berlin propaganda mill. Here, the preachers were Americans. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor sent Americans into paroxysms of racial and even genocidal rage against the Japanese. Time summed up the standard American reaction: "Why the little yellow bastards!" Yellow became an epithet as well as a descriptive adjective in innumerable references to the Japanese.

One American weapons manufacturer boasted his new submarine gun was especially good at "blasting red holes in little yellow men." Reader's Digest featured an article on Japanese psychology that began: "Let us look into one of these yellow heads and see what it contains." Newsreels regularly referred to the Japanese as "yellowbellies" and "yellow bastards." ...

Admiral William "Bull" Halsey, the most outspoken of the Pacific's military commanders, was fond of saying that after the war, Japanese would be spoken only in hell. "The only good Jap is a Jap who's been dead six months," Halsey said, topping the savagery of the frontier attitude toward Indians. Even after the war, in his memoirs, Halsey referred to the Japanese as "animals."

The concept of the decent German, trapped in the evil Nazi undertow, remained alive in most American minds throughout the war. There was little or nothing to be found in film or print or speech that encouraged the idea of a decent Japanese, also trapped by his nation's headlong plunge into militarism. Everyone from journalists to President Roosevelt routinely used the dehumanizing slang term "Jap," and regularly compared Japanese soldiers and civilians to monkeys, baboons, and gorillas. Admiral Halsey was especially fond of the monkey metaphor, invariably attaching "yellow" to it. At one point Halsey said he could hardly wait to put to sea "to get some more monkey meat."


Rats was another favorite metaphor to describe the Japanese. A huge patriotic parade in New York in 1942 featured a float with an American eagle leading bombers in an assault on a group of scurrying rats. It was one of the most popular exhibits in the parade. Small wonder that American marines went into action in the Pacific with "Rodent Exterminator" stenciled to their helmets. Or that Americans and Australians found it easy to kill the few Japanese who offered to surrender on Guadalcanal, New Guinea, and other islands.

New Dealers and others around the president made no attempt to alter this dehumanizing war against the Japanese. In September 1942, Admiral William Leahy, Roosevelt's White House chief of staff, told Vice President Henry Wallace that Japan was "our Carthage" and "we should go ahead and destroy her utterly." Wallace noted this sentiment without objection in his diary. Elliott Roosevelt, the president's son, told Wallace some months later that he thought Americans should kill "about half the Japanese civilian population." New Dealer Paul McNutt, chairman of the War Manpower Commission, went him one better, recommending "the extermination of the Japanese in toto."
And here is a passage from later in Fleming's book:
In the Pacific, the war with Japan mounted in intensity. Americans were staggered by the ferocity and tenacity of the Japanese resistance. The first island chain attacked were the Gilberts, with the atoll of Tarawa the main target. Surrounded by an air and sea armada that rained more than 3,000 tons of bombs and shells on their sandspit, the 5,000 Japanese refused to surrender, and inflicted horrendous casualties on the assaulting marines as they waded ashore. After a day and a half of sanguinary combat, the remaining Japanese radioed Tokyo: "Our weapons have been destroyed and everyone is attempting a final charge." Screaming the emperor's name, they flung themselves into the muzzles of the marines' machine guns.

This heroic behavior provoked a new level of race hatred. The Americans began writing in popular magazines that the Japanese soldier was "a moronic individual." A marine wrote that the Japanese were "plain crazy, sick in the head." The American Legion Magazine ran an article entitled: "These Nips Are Nuts." This belief in Japan's national insanity was combined with a growing perception that race was at the root of the struggle. A Hearst paper portrayed the war in Europe as a "family fight" whereas in the grapple with Japan the future of Western civilization was at stake. Another Hearst paper saw it as a "war of the Oriental races against the Occidental races for the domination of the world."

Some Western writers with a knowledge of Asia were appalled at this rampant racism. Pearl Buck risked her status as a best-selling author to condemn it in speeches and in her 1943 novel, The Promise, about the British and Chinese fighting the Japanese in Burma. She depicted the British as infected with all but incurable racist attitudes, which led them to see Asians as subhuman, even when they were allies. Buck warned that the white men were blundering into a ruinous future war between the East and the West.
Now we are told yet again that "the future of Western civilization [is] at stake," and that we are in a war "for the domination of the world." And we see once more the same unreasoning, hate-filled racism -- but it is now primarily directed toward the peoples of the Middle East.

As Chris Hedges notes, we are the exact mirror image of the militant Islamists in this crucial respect: "In mythic war we fight absolutes. We must vanquish darkness. It is imperative and inevitable for civilization, for the free world, that good triumph, just as Islamic militants see us as infidels whose existence corrupts the pure Islamic society they hope to build." We insist upon our view, as Merry expresses it, that "America and the West represent a culminating universal culture that offers peace and happiness to the world's other peoples if they will simply embrace it..." -- and if they will not embrace it, then we must demonize them, all of them.

And inevitably, we must destroy them -- all of them.

To be continued.