Friday, March 21, 2008

Unenlightened Exceptionalism

Lenin at Lenin's Tomb wrote an interesting post earlier this week about the American Revolution and the role of slavery in it. I don't know enough about the specifics to comment on the bulk of his post, but in the opening paragraph he makes the following necessary point:
The fable of America's origins in liberty and rebellion, and its peculiarly missionary quality, is still one that commands a great deal of irrational support from various quarters, and it is the basis for an unenlightened exceptionalism whose function is to turn the global projection of violence and tyranny into a story of the expansion of human freedom.
And at the recent interesting roundtable at Filthy Habits about Nicholson Baker's new book Human Smoke (which I would very much like to read), Robert Birnbaum posted an excerpt from his forthcoming interview with Howard Zinn (scroll down quite a bit for the excerpt). Zinn refers to the "holy wars" of American history; that is, the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II:
I think it is worth questioning the justice of those wars. It's a complicated moral issue. You might say Vietnam is easy [to recognize as unjust - RC]. Iraq is easy. And the Mexican War is easy. And there are no wars which are more morally complicated [than the three holy wars]. But the fact that they re are morally complicated wars shouldn't stop us from examining them. The American Revolution, in terms of casualties, was the bloodiest of wars. A lot of people don’t realize that. .. and the question is, as questions in all of these holy wars, could the same objective have been accomplished, independence from England, ending slavery, defeating Fascism—could those have been accomplished at less than the bloody toll that was taken and without corrupting the moral values of the victors in the war? And with better outcomes. Those are question worth asking. The American Revolution won independence from England at the expense of the Indians, at the expense of the native Americans. The English had set a line, by the Proclamation of 1763, you couldn’t go beyond it into Indian territory. They didn't want trouble with the Indians. Independence from England takes place, the Proclamation of 1763 is wiped out. The settlers are free to move into Indian territory. Black People—most of them joined the British side rather than the American side. It was not a revolution for them. And the question I haven't seen asked. Canada won its independence from England without a bloody war. Conceivable? It's like asking the question about the nature for the Civil war. Slavery was abolished in all of the countries of Latin America by 1833. Without a bloody civil war. Now, of course, all those situations are different. And complicated. All that I am saying is that I think there are questions about history that so far have been untouched and untouchable and should. At least be opened up.
We don't want to open this stuff up. Americans are all too easily swayed by talk about freedom and democracy. Too many of us continue to believe in the myth of American exceptionalism; too many of us refuse to accept that our government does the things it does, and does them intentionally, with specific purposes in mind. Too few of us take the trouble to imagine what it might be like if some foreign power invaded our country, spouting nonsense about regime change and democracy. How might we react? What unsavory movements might develop here over the course of decades of continuous tampering and aerial bombardment? Even when Americans--mainly white Americans, let's face it--bother to acknowledge some of the bloody history, the reflex is still to dismiss events as aberrations, or as well-intended, or as mistakes, or as conditions we've "progressed" from, so completely do white Americans believe in the fanciful notion of the United States as the "mansion on the hill", as the last best hope for civilization (aren't these Barack Obama's ridiculous words?). This exceptionalism, unexamined, reflexive--this refusal to address the implications of history--is one of the major obstacles to any sort of real change in this country. The flap over remarks made by Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and Obama's response, are just the most recent cases in point. . . (about which, more to come, I hope. . .)

(Incidentally, I read a useful book last year on the revolution: Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, by Eric Foner. Foner traces Paine, of course, in his route from England to America, and his role as pamphleteer. More interesting to me, however, was the material on how the established leaders of Pennsylvania, for example, co-opted the more radical elements, before re-consolidating their power during the revolution itself, with the resulting system being far less free than many had hoped and fought for.)

1 comment:

Neil said...

Useful post about the US's 'holy wars' and exceptionalism. The revolutionary rhetoric of hard choices and tough decisions (hard on whom and tough for whom?) reverberates to this day and still harms those with the least to gain from it.

On slavery, Lenin's Tomb really should have and considered the preemptive strike against liberty represented by the Gulags...

Deary me.