Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Shame and Pride in America


By Jack Random

It is a great shame that in America we cannot criticize our nation without being painted in the colors of betrayal and treason by the self-righteous and self-proclaimed defenders of American pride. Yes, even those who only yesterday led the nation to the edge of economic collapse and left our reputation torn and tattered before the eyes of the world retain their hold on power by defining patriotism with unwavering praise and effectively denouncing anyone who does not adhere.

So it is that our president on the occasion of his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize assumed the role of head cheerleader – a role better suited to his predecessor than to the candidate who succeeded on the promise of change.

It is a role that seemingly every president must assume yet to have embraced it so soon and on such an ironic occasion is deeply disappointing.

I cannot and would not deny that America historically has accomplished much for which we can be rightfully proud. Aside from very limited experiments in democratic rule, America gave birth to the modern republic. In our short history we have moved closer to the democratic ideal by expanding the electorate to include the landless, minorities and women. We have made advances in civil rights and civil liberties. We have fought for the rights of labor and against corporate monopolies when their powers grew so pervasive that they threatened the very heart of the republic. We have spilled American blood to defeat the imperialist-fascist dictatorships of Japan, Italy and Nazi Germany. We have fought back that peculiar form of elitist oligarchy that was known by the name of communist socialism. At times in our history we have stood strong in the cause of human rights and advanced the cause of science. We have eased the burden on the elderly with Social Security and Medicare. Against a backdrop of racial discrimination, we have elected an American of African heritage president. As in the recent $3.4 billion settlement with the indigenous tribes of North America, we have upheld the rule of law even at great cost.

For all this and more we can rightly be proud but there is a darker side to our history that we can neither ignore nor rationalize if we wish to realize the promise of our founding. It was that darker side that was oddly missing in our president’s skewed rendering of history before the Nobel audience in Oslo, Norway.

In compensation for our president’s omissions, in the interests of humility, honesty and justice, I offer the following sources of American shame. I offer them not to build a case against our nation but to direct us toward a better nation and one that will contribute to a better world.

First and foremost, all honest Americans know, despite centuries of misinformation and indoctrination, that our nation was born in something resembling original sin. When our European ancestors arrived on American shores they did not find a continent free of inhabitants. Some tribes were warlike and some were not but they were as proud of their cultural heritage and social order as we are today. They had not developed industry but rather formed a covenant with the land. They lived in harmony with their surroundings, respected the animals that shared it, and survived in relative peace. When the Europeans arrived with their industry and modern weapons, they claimed the land and methodically cleared it of its former inhabitants. When they could not eradicate all of the people, they killed the buffalo and cut off all means of survival, effectively accomplishing the same goal. The Euro-Americans called it Manifest Destiny. History calls it Genocide.

We have never made just reparations for this crime against humanity or for the crime of slavery and the recent settlement (compensation for cheating the tribes out of their allotments for stolen resources) is but one small step in that direction. That the surviving American Indians and descendants of African slaves have lived in dire poverty all these years is the enduring shame of our nation.

The magnitude of these crimes is so enormous they can never be set right but they must be acknowledged as a part of our heritage. They must serve to remind us what horrors can be committed when a people are incapable of admitting fault. We must constantly strive to ease the burden of those who suffered for our wrongs. For the Native American community, freeing Leonard Peltier before his death would be a meaningful symbol of contrition. For the African American community, Obama is the symbol and rebuilding our crumbling cities and the infrastructure that serves them would help.

In the critical area of foreign policy our president proclaimed our nation the defender of liberty for the last six decades. Well, at least he is not defending the Spanish-American War and the subsequent occupation of the Philippines. For the record, the peoples of Indochina, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa might take issue with that characterization. Certainly, the president has admitted in the past that Vietnam was a mistake. I would go further: It was an unnecessary, immoral and unwise war that cost as many as three million Southeast Asian as well as 58,000 American lives. Were we defending liberty in Vietnam or were we standing up a corrupt government in an ideological war? Were we defending liberty in Chile when we deposed Salvador Allende in favor of military strongman Augusto Pinochet? Were we defending liberty in Iran when we overthrew the most democratic government that region had ever known and elevated the ruthless Shah? As for Iraq, does this president really believe that the first Gulf War was justified on moral grounds? Or is he rather yielding to that historical analysis that proclaims the righteousness of the victor?

The truth is we have often fought on the wrong side for the wrong reasons. The truth is we have used other nations as the battlefield in a mission to impose our will and to expand our influence to the realm of empire.

For a nation that holds its esteem in the principles of justice and democracy, much of our history is a source of shame and one that we have only begun to address. But our shame (or rather that for which we should be ashamed) does not end with history. It lives on in a myriad of ways.

When all of Europe, a diverse group of nations if ever there was one, agrees on a moral imperative, it is highly probable that they are right. All of Europe agrees that affordable healthcare is a fundamental right. That America has not achieved that fundamental understanding of human rights is a source of shame. That we continue to debate the virtues of government involvement in healthcare while our private, profit motivated healthcare industry deprives coverage and charges excessive fees is less an indication of our independence than it is a sign of the failure of our democracy. It is the basic role of government to provide for the needs of its people. If we cannot provide healthcare then we have failed and we should be ashamed.

All of Europe agrees that the death penalty is an abomination and an abuse of the power of the state. That we stand alone among civilized nations in imposing capitol punishment, even as evidence emerges that our system of justice is fraught with error and literally thousands have wrongly been put to death, is another source of shame.

That our current administration has continued the policies of secrecy, mass surveillance, and detention without just cause or adjudication is shameful.

That our president has failed to explicitly repudiate the Bush Doctrine of aggressive, unilateral war is shameful. The president’s unwavering supporters may rightfully argue that his Afghanistan policy has not changed but his remarks in Oslo defending unilateral war without deference to diplomacy was a departure from the candidate so many of us chose to support.

If I were a member of the committee that chose to bestow the Nobel Peace Prize on this president, I would be shaken to the core.

America is a proud nation. That is what makes us a great nation when we are on the side of justice, when we are fighting for the good and the oppressed. It is also what makes us horrific when we take the wrong path. We are a nation that can never admit mistakes. We are a nation that to this day adheres to the maxim: might makes right.

Until we are prepared to accept our flaws and the errors of our way we will never achieve the greatness we desire. As the wise have always attested: True greatness lies in humility.



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