Sunday, June 03, 2007

zombie lies

One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers lets the cat out of the bag:

Indoctrinated since birth in the idea that America is different, there aren't words to express the anguish that I feel that my country now finds itself in the position of saying "But the other guys torturers are much worse than our torturers."
This is one hard-to-kill notion. The reader is aware of and acknowledges that his/her loyalty to the idea of American exceptionalism is the result of a process of indoctrination that began before the reader could speak or even walk. But somehow this knowledge of assisted self-bamboozlement provides little comfort when the mental edifice so carefully constructed and maintained begins to crumble under the weight of contrary evidence.

It’s interesting that the reader would use that word: indoctrinated. The Free Online Dictionary gives us a definition:
tr.v. in•doc•tri•nat•ed, in•doc•tri•nat•ing, in•doc•tri•nates
1. To instruct in a body of doctrine or principles.
2. To imbue with a partisan or ideological point of view: a generation of children who had been indoctrinated against the values of their parents.
Perhaps I’m biased by my religious upbringing, but I tend to think of the second use of the word as more common. Most groups don’t like to admit that they are “indoctrinating” children to accept ideas they might otherwise reject. “Indoctrination” connotes “brainwashing.”

However, let’s take a look at the first, more innocuous usage, “to instruct in a body of doctrine or principles.” Looking closer at the word “doctrine,” we find this definition:
1. A principle or body of principles presented for acceptance or belief, as by a religious, political, scientific, or philosophic group; dogma.
2. A rule or principle of law, especially when established by precedent.
3. A statement of official government policy, especially in foreign affairs and military strategy.
4. Archaic Something taught; a teaching.
(2) is a strictly legal usage not applicable in this context, and using (4) would make the first definition of “indoctrinate” above circular and meaningless: “to instruct in a body of something taught.”

That leaves us with (1) and (3). American exceptionalism is certainly a stated policy of the U.S. government, but that is not exactly what Sullivan’s reader was referring to. The reader was talking about a patriotic belief that “America is different” which is inculcated in each American from a young age through school, church, parents, and community groups. That belief seems to fit the first definition of “doctrine” above: “A principle or body of principles presented for acceptance or belief, as by a religious, political, scientific, or philosophic group; dogma.”

But what body of principles are we talking about here? Here is a passable summary of American exceptionalism from Wikipedia:
The term has also come to describe the belief that the United States has an exceptional position among countries, and should not be bound by international law except where it serves American interests. This position is driven by a (usually implicit) premise that the United States cannot violate international law (and in particular international human rights norms) because of the view that America itself was largely responsible for instigating those norms in the first place. This view has come under stress due to perceived international condemnation of US human rights practices under the doctrine of War on Terror. (Also see: Human rights and the United States.)

The basis most commonly cited for American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States and the American people hold a special place in the world, by offering opportunity and hope for humanity, derived from a unique balance of public and private interests governed by constitutional ideals that are focused on personal and economic freedom[citation needed]. It is therefore used by United States citizens to indicate a moral superiority of America or Americans. Others use it to refer to the American concept as itself an exceptional ideal which gives the country a privileged position, and which may or may not always be upheld by the actual people and government of the nation.
And especially:
Proponents of American exceptionalism argue that the United States is exceptional in that it was founded on a set of republican ideals, rather than on a common heritage, ethnicity, or ruling elite. In the formulation of President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, America is a nation "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal". In this view, American is inextricably connected with liberty and equality. It is claimed that America has often acted to promote these ideals abroad, most notably in the First and Second World Wars, in the Cold War and today in the Iraq War.
That is some strange principle—by definition, America is an exception to the rules that apply to other countries. This is the opposite of principles as they are commonly understood—a set of rules which apply in all cases.

An essential component of American exceptionalism is the idea that American society is built upon the foundation of rule of law derived from the will of the people. That is fine as far as it goes, which is to the country’s borders and no further. There is no room in the full expression of American exceptionalism for robust international rule of law; the two ideas are contradictory. If America submitted to a comprehensive system of international law built upon meaningful global democracy, how would America then be exceptional? If the U.S. were constrained in its actions abroad by international rules, then the voice of its people would be muffled; American democracy would have been thwarted, even if the will of some greater number of people would have been satisfied. This, at least, is the view of the American Exceptionalist. The Voice of the (American) People must be heard!

The U.S., when acting abroad in violation of international rules that apply to other nations, often wields its internal democratic processes as a shield against criticism. Our vigorous political process, while impressive to be sure, isn’t quite the panacea to non-Americans we have collectively decided it to be.

To get to the root of the issue, Americans are generally supportive of international law until it means that the U.S. military would be constrained by outside opinion or that Americans would be held accountable for the actions of the U.S. military. Of course any meaningful conception of international law must include restraints on the use of force (in plain English, “killing people”) by individual countries.

Exceptionalist ideals are so deeply ingrained in the minds of most Americans that they don't even notice them. Exceptionalism isn't often explicitly addressed in the U.S. media because it is the crucial but unacknowledged background to much of what is reported. Everyone is indoctrinated, but few unlearn what they have come to believe and love, and those few are generally reviled.

I can tapdance around this bullshit all day, but at the end of the day, when the music stops, all we are left with is this transparently self-serving turd of an ideology, that we are better simply because we are us. That isn’t much to hang your hat on, much less your dreams and aspirations. Sullivan’s reader may be catching glimpses of light through the web of delusion in which most Americans are cocooned, and this would account for the anguish he/she is feeling. The reader is further along than most, but still has some nasty surprises ahead, I think.


Brian said...

How vigorous really is a democratic system with 40% participation?

Or, to put it more realisitcally, a system which so constrains policy choices that i's not really worth their while for many people to vote?

Yave said...

I guess I should qualify by saying "vigorous relative to most of the competition," meaning the US system works well for its citizens relative to the systems of Zimbabwe, Mexico, Argentina, Israel, China, Ukraine, or Thailand, to name a few. Yes, there are many problems with American democracy, but the domestic implications of those problems don't bother me nearly as much as the international ones, since I think the latter have far greater negative effects.

Brian said...

Ah, I know yave. I'm beind "difficult."

I really enjoy your writing and analysis (and appreciate your comments at Ioz as well).

Yave said...