Willful ignorance in the US

datePosted on 04:47, September 14th, 2011 by Pablo

Ron Paul was booed at the recent Tea Party GOP candidate’s debate when he said that Americans should think about what motivated the 9-11 attacks. Rick Santorum had already said that the US was attacked because the terrorists hated “American exceptionalism” and the freedoms it brings, a comment that brought cheers from the audience. Even admitting that the audience was full of Tea Party adherents, what is disturbing is that this sentiment–that the US was attacked for its freedoms and that the underlying causes of the attack are reducible to that–is generalized throughout the population.

Neither Paul or other thoughtful commentators have justified the attacks (and I am not referring to the Ward Churchill variant of commentary). They have simply sought to open debate on the nature of US actions that could prompt such an act of premeditated violence against the symbols of US power and the innocents caught in them. For that, they have been accused as anti-American traitors and terrorist sympathisers.

The hard truth is that Americans simply do not want to reflect on the impact of US foreign policy in general, and on its role in setting up the conditions in which the 9/11 attacks were carried out. Scholars (most notably Chalmers Johnson) have used the term “blowback” to describe the unintended effect of US neo-imperialism. But this is not acceptable in American political discourse because, in spite of its myriad problems, the narrative being sold is that the US remains the “shining house on the hill” that can do no wrong and whose impact on global affairs is always benign. Thus two wars of occupation are considered to be acts of bringing freedom and democracy to backwards places, even if the majority of citizens in those places openly oppose the presence of US troops. Extrajudicial rendition and enhanced interrogation techniques on “unlawful combatants” and a host of innocents are justified as necessary for freedom to prevail in the Islamic world. There is a hallucinatory aspect to the way in which US foreign policy and international behaviour is construed, and it is disturbing that so many average Americans buy into that construction.

Admittedly, Ron Paul calling for a reflection on what motivated the 9/11 attackers in a presidential candidate’s debate held on September 12 a decade after the attacks shows poor political judgement, for which he will be punished electorally. Equally understandable is that right-wingers in the US would seek to cloak all US actions in the mantle of righteousness. But it is profoundly alarming that even after ten years a majority of Americans appear to believe that the attacks were unprovoked, or at a minimum inspired by some form of jealousy on the part of Islamic evil-doers. It is also alarming that in the present political context no Democrat is going to disabuse the American public of that notion.

It may be hard to swallow, but the US public needs to understand that there is a direct link between US actions abroad and the resentment it breeds. It needs to understand that this resentment is long standing in some parts of the world (I am most familiar with Latin America), and that the desire to strike back is deeply embedded in many places. It needs to take pause and reflect on this cold fact in order to begin to address what the US international role properly should be. Many Americans think that it should act as the global policeman, not only because other states cannot but because this is what politicians and the mainstream press tell them that is the role it should play. But that view is not universally shared overseas, where moral authority, diplomatic leadership and economic exchange is more highly valued than carrying (in Teddy Roosevelt’s terms) a big stick.

Better yet, with its economy hollowed out and its military stretched across the globe fighting to preserve a status quo increasingly under siege, perhaps it would be wise for the US public to drop the blinders and reflect on the fact that it many ways the US is starting to look like the USSR in the 1980s–a military power increasingly left without the economic or political foundation to regulate the international system rather than simply clinging on to a role it once had, and which may never be again (remembering that the difference between a superpower and a great power is that the former intervenes in the international system (often using war as a systems regulator) in order to defend systemic interests, while the latter intervenes in the international system in order to defend national interests). Only by confronting the truth about the nature and impact of its actions abroad will the US be able to begin the process of re-establishing its international reputation, if not status.

That, it seems to me, is the root question that needs to be addressed a decade on from 9/11.

 

 

 

35 Responses to “Willful ignorance in the US”

  1. Phil Sage on September 14th, 2011 at 09:09

    Pablo – For me your views on this are quite wrong. In order to demonstrate to you quite how wrong they are, please consider deeply how and why the French are quite so anti American, whereas the Poles are not. Explain French antipathy to me in the terms you describe above with the context of its history and extant foreign policy

  2. Sanctuary on September 14th, 2011 at 09:17

    “…but the US public needs to understand that there is a direct link between US actions abroad and the resentment it breeds…”

    How willful is the ignorance though Pablo? Your quote above seems to me to pre-suppose that the US public has any idea of what its action abroad are, or or is properly informed of its actions abroad, or indeed knows what “abroad” might constitute, or indeed given how hard they work and even really has the time to find out and care.

    The American public largely doesn’t travel overseas much – American friends offer endless reasons for this, they tell me this is because Americans don’t like the taste of real food, or they prefer everything to be as it is at home, or that no one takes long holidays in case their job isn’t there when they get back, or that Americans only get two weeks annual leave anyway so they like to spend that relaxing in an unchallenging environment – so they’ve got no real idea of how they are perceived.

    The USA rugby team here for the RWC refused a waka ride out of fear of… Well, actually I am not sure what they were afraid of. meanwhile, the English team arrived and rushed out to hoots of delight to go bungy jumping, white water rafting and jet boating. Surely nothing more more neatly symbolises the insularity, ignorance and fear of “others” that pervades US attitudes to the rest of the world than that.

    When I watch US TV like Fox or US regional news stations I am struck by the relentless insularity of it all. Fox is an obsessively inward looking channel, endlessly cycling shock-jock opinion meisters who endlessly bluster about the same inward-focused topics. If TVNZ news is any guide (and I believe it is closely modeled on US regional news outlets) then local news channels in the US will deliver an exclusively local diet of crime, trivialised human interest stories, weather, state politics and sport. Any foreign news is presented as human interest (I bet Happy Feet got airtime in Missouri).

    Americans may be hopeless ignorant, but I am not so sure how willful it is for most of them.

  3. Phil Sage on September 14th, 2011 at 09:32

    Sanctuary – There are approximately the same number of people in Europe and the US. How many Europeans visit the US. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tourism_in_the_United_States how many Americans visit Europe.
    http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0778210.html

    10.9m Europe to US in 2007. around 11.7m us to europe in 2004.

    The non travel meme is a crock. Of course Germans will cross an international border to find some sun, Americans dont have to.

  4. Eddie C on September 14th, 2011 at 11:26

    Phil – those stats don’t actually prove anything. Germans can travel internationally extensively to neighbouring countries and, similarly, I would suspect most US international travel is to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. A more interesting comparison is passport holdership (which is now required for all international travel to and from the US – post 9/11, one can no longer go to Canada with just a driver’s licence). US passport holdership is about 30% (see: http://articles.cnn.com/2011-02-04/travel/americans.travel.domestically_1_western-hemisphere-travel-initiative-passports-tourism-industries?_s=PM:TRAVEL ). As that article points out, the UK has a 75% rate, and Canada 60%.

    Pablo – I’m interested in how much the US education system/media even acknowledges the existence of the extremely dubious ‘regime change’ actions during the cold war. Is it even part of the national consciousness that the CIA propped up a number of dictatorships and overthrew/assassinated a number of democratically elected leaders? I know every country likes to forget its mistakes, but are Pinochet, Lumumba, Nicaragua etc even acknowledged as mistakes?

  5. Hugh on September 14th, 2011 at 11:36

    (NZL has an 80% passport ownership rate, for the record)

    And personally I would not call Ron Paul a “thoughtful commentator” even if he’s pretty much spot-on on this issue.

  6. Hugh on September 14th, 2011 at 11:40

    Oh and Phil, I’m gonna step in before Pablo.

    France has pretentions towards Great Power status (whatever that means) and sees the U.S. as interfering with that; most French commentators take the view that the U.S. didn’t really win the Cold War, that the Soviet Union just collapsed on itself.

    Poles generally take the view that the U.S. did contribute majorly to the USSR’s collapse even if it wasn’t solely responsible, and since Poland’s national mythology is still very much caught up in the struggle against Soviet domination, they see the U.S. as something of a “natural ally”.

    And of course it isn’t uniform – I can direct you to some prominent anti-American Polish commentators, and some very pro-American French ones.

  7. hamshi on September 14th, 2011 at 12:52

    I’m getting a little sick of the “Americans don’t travel because they’re insular” meme too. Aside from the fact that most Americans simply can’t afford international travel, travel certainly doesn’t make you any less insular. If you don’t believe me, go to any backpackers hostel in the world and ask the inhabitants some basic questions about the local culture and politics.

  8. Hugh on September 14th, 2011 at 13:33

    “most Americans simply can’t afford international travel”

    Given that the average American earns more than the average European or NZer, I’m not sure this stacks up.

    “travel certainly doesn’t make you any less insular”

    That’s probably true to a point, and nobody’s suggesting that sending all those dumb rednecks who vote for Perry off on a backpacking tour of Andalusia would really change anything. But a country where people are disinterested in the world at large is likely to be one where people aren’t going to prioritise international travel.

  9. hamshi on September 14th, 2011 at 13:51

    “Given that the average American earns more than the average European or NZer, I’m not sure this stacks up.”

    I’m sure you’re aware that a cleaner on $13ph in Invercargill is wealthier than a cleaner on $13ph in Auckland. Extrapolate that to the USA, and then add in the reduced annual leave, the loss of medical insurance, and the difficulty in getting welfare after travelling. Peronally I’ve worked most of my life in very low-income jobs and have had several lengthy international holidays. I never would’ve had been able to do this if I grew up in the USA.

  10. Hugh on September 14th, 2011 at 14:22

    It’s true that the cost of living in the US is higher, but even adjusted for that, they’re still better off.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_%28PPP%29_per_capita

    The lack of time off is a factor, but I think that’s a case of egg, not chicken – US employers are relatively hard on people wanting time off to travel because they see this as an indulgence on the part of their employees, whereas NZ employers tend to see it as more of a life experience.

  11. Sanctuary on September 14th, 2011 at 14:46

    I get six weeks off PA in my job, I can’t imagine how horrible only two weeks would be.

  12. DeepRed on September 14th, 2011 at 17:16

    Pablo: “it many ways the US is starting to look like the USSR in the 1980s–a military power increasingly left without the economic or political foundation to regulate the international system rather than simply clinging on to a role it once had”

    That, in particular embodied by the Tea Party movement, sounds a lot like the League of Empire Loyalists in Britain after WWII. The Empire was no longer affordable by that time, but the League still went to any length to preserve it. After the League gave up on saving the Empire, it evolved into the modern-day National Front and BNP movements.

    And with the “Americans don’t travel” meme, the Internet has potentially muddied the waters. The only times I’ve been overseas have been to Australia twice, yet I’m still curious to explore nonetheless, courtesy of the Web.

  13. Peter Martin on September 15th, 2011 at 09:46

    ‘The hard truth is that Americans simply do not want to reflect on the impact of US foreign policy in general, and on its role in setting up the conditions in which the 9/11 attacks were carried out.’

    I’m not so sure that this is still the case.

    A very recent Pew poll has indicated :
    ‘In September 2001, a majority of Americans (55%) rejected the idea that there were things the U.S. did wrong in its dealings with other countries that might have motivated the terrorists to attack us, while 33% agreed with this idea. Public views are more evenly divided today: 43% say U.S. wrongdoing may have motivated the attacks while 45% say it did not.

    http://people-press.org/2011/09/01/united-in-remembrance-divided-over-policies/?src=prc-number

  14. Pablo on September 15th, 2011 at 10:05

    Much thanks Peter, for the updated information. The ten percent increase/decrease of those who think there is some fault on the US part and those who do not think so is salutory. Truth be told my current views are shaped by my exposure to US MSM coverage (I am a news junkie of sorts and lap up the media spectrum here in the US) and my impressionistic and snapshot interactions with family and friends in Florida and Massachusetts, none of whom are academics or intellectuals but who nevertheless try to keep up with the news.

    I agree with Sancutary that there is a lot of ignorance about the outside world in the US (heck, when I lived in Singapore I was asked more than once how I liked living in China, and have had the usual queries about NZ and Australia being a stone’s throw from each other). I have always said that is the big contradiction of the US: the most technologically advanced soceity the world has ever seen but in some sense one of the more culturally backward when it comes to understanding the “outside” world. Truth is, most of the US public believe that the US is the centre of the universe, although my travels and residency in more than a dozen countries tells me that the rest of the world does not see it that way.

    The lack of travel/ignorance argument may or may not be true, but in an internet era it is not a fundamental cause of US public lack of comprehension about foreign affairs. As Phil Sage and I corresponded in the previous (now begotten) thread, people just seem to prefer to deal with local issues that have a direct impact on their daily lives as opposed to dwelling on the more esoteric causes and consequences of policy decisions long removed from the immediate conditions of existance. The trouble is that in NZ this does not have an impact on global affairs, but in the US it does. In other words, as 9/11 demonstrated, in the case of US public (lack of) influence on foreign policy, ignorance (of foreign affairs) is not bliss.

  15. Sanctuary on September 15th, 2011 at 10:47

    Historically speaking, I have to say how astonished I am at how quickly the US sense of self-satisfied entitlement that underpins much of this ignorance – the view they have a God given right to consume vast quantities of the earths resources and as long as that right is maintained they don’t care much about anything else – has developed. Prior to 1914, the British were richer and anyone familiar with the “Grapes of Wrath” knows America was hardly the promised land into the 1930s and early 40s. The thrifty, hard working and basically decent American cliche of the 1940s and 1950s has in just over half a century morphed into an extravagent, selfish and wasteful stereotype with an assumption that he or she has an absolute right to continue to live in such a wasteful way.

    Still, if Israel can go from a socialist/Zionist experiment to a racist, authoritarian garrison state in just over thirty years, I suppose I shouldn’t be that surprised if America can change so much in sixty.

  16. Peter Martin on September 15th, 2011 at 11:13

    I wonder Sanctuary, how strong the idea of manifest destiny and its near relatives: American exceptionalism and romantic nationalism carries through to give the ‘US sense of self-satisfied entitlement’.
    Certainly, they are programming memes at Fox. ;)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manifest_Destiny

  17. Jude on September 15th, 2011 at 14:32

    Nice piece Pablo, some very valid and poignant thoughts. I completely agree that the US’s lack of introspection, and close-minded approach to the question of why in regard to 9/11, is disturbing.

    I’d like to have a deeper look for myself into the analogy with the degradation of the USSR’s political and economic foundation that fueled their military endeavours (that subsequently collapsed), but it’s a very interesting, and perhaps pertinent parallel.

  18. Hugh on September 15th, 2011 at 18:35

    Still, if Israel can go from a socialist/Zionist experiment to a racist, authoritarian garrison state in just over thirty years,

    I like how you think zionist is the opposite of racist/authoritarian.

    And really, Israel’s always been authoritarian, right back to 1949.

  19. NeilM on September 15th, 2011 at 20:16

    It may be hard to swallow, but the US public needs to understand that there is a direct link between US actions abroad and the resentment it breeds.

    strange then that none of the 9/11 hijackers were Palestinian. Wouldn’t that have been an actual direct link?

  20. Phil Sage on September 16th, 2011 at 00:43

    NeilM – No. No. No. The Palestinians have no complaint. It is all of those poor Saudi who have been enriched by the imperialist dogs buying the oil beneath their deserts that have the true complaint.

  21. Phil Sage on September 16th, 2011 at 00:46

    Clearly the French are completely justified in holding a massive grudge against the US whilst trying to merge their country with Germany. After all one of those countries invaded them twice whilst the other expended blood and treasure getting their freedom.

  22. Hugh on September 16th, 2011 at 01:26

    “Clearly the French are completely justified in holding a massive grudge against the US whilst trying to merge their country with Germany.”

    Quoted for humour.

  23. Pablo on September 16th, 2011 at 02:15

    Being snarky is one thing but being stupid is another. If you fail to see that US foreign policy has bred a lot of resentment in a lot of places, and that some of that resentment (which is not confined to the Muslim world) has translated into violence against US interest and allies, then you are as blind as a Tea Bagger.

  24. Phil Sage on September 16th, 2011 at 03:44

    Pablo – This is what the fully sighted tea baggers understand who oppose fiscal profligacy (whether from GWB or Obama) understand and you clearly do not. The US debt is part way down a very slippery slope
    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/finance/ambroseevans-pritchard/100011987/china-to-liquidate-us-treasuries-not-dollars/

    As a by the by Palin is making a huge amount of sense.
    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/jamesdelingpole/100104496/sarah-palin-totally-gets-it/

  25. Phil Sage on September 16th, 2011 at 04:01

    As a further by the by if Obama does not veto the Palestine statehood application in the face of this crude bullying he will gain my respect.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/israel/8762950/Israel-warns-of-harsh-consequences-of-Palestinian-UN-bid.html
    Israel warns of ‘harsh’ consequences of Palestinian UN bid
    Hardline Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned on Wednesday there would be “harsh and grave consequences” if the Palestinians persist with their plan to seek UN membership as a state.

  26. NeilM on September 16th, 2011 at 08:21

    If you fail to see that US foreign policy has bred a lot of resentment in a lot of places…

    well yes but people are also often most concerned with immediate practicalities such as over throwing dictators. The anti-Qaddafi forces didn’t sit around analysing the evils of past US imperialism before asking the US to bomb Qaddafi.

    And perhaps some enemies of the US are just bad people even if they claim to have similar motivations to the anti-US western left. Does anyone really believe that bin Laden and co had any real concern for the Palestinians?

  27. Sanctuary on September 16th, 2011 at 09:16

    I was reading about the good-natured banter between the American and Russian fans in New plymouth – apparently on a flight they agreed the Americans would sit on the right of the aircraft and the Russians on the left – and it occurred to me having national sports that no one else plays must powerfully reinforce the whole ignorance of foreign climes thing.

  28. Pablo on September 16th, 2011 at 09:32

    Neil:

    At first I thought that you were being deliberately obtuse but now I am wondering about the deliberate part. Among other things, Gaddafi was working with US and UK intelligence in the extraordinary rendition program and some of the anti-Gaddafi forces are led by Islamicists who have fought internationalist missions against the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tactical allies in marriages of convenience against an out of favour despot do not make for strategic partnerships or future stability. Moreover, most of the ME dictators that are being challenged by popular unrest are US allies, and even Assad has been useful to the West as the “enemy they know.” Those opposing the dictators are not all democracy advocates either, so the idea that they are is just naive and in some cases dangerous. Bin-Laden and his peers may not have Palestinian liberation as the foremost goal, but it is on the Islamicist agenda as much as if not more than US support for “democracy” in the ME. So please stop with the silly asides.

    Phil: The US will not have to veto the statehood application in the SC because someone else will do so. With the exception of China virtually all of the permament members see the ploy for what it is and the Gulf state’s leadership, to say nothing of those of Egypt and Saudi Arabia (as well as Turkey in spite of recent tensions with Israel), are opposed to it. So the US will use its diplomatic leverage, however decreased it may be, to get others to either abort the attempt prior to tabling or veto if it makes the SC agenda.

    I will not comment on US domestic politics in this thread but agree that Palin spoke truth when she railed at the “political-corporate elite.” But then again Marxists have been saying the same thing for eons (just ask our correspondent Red Dave), so her entry into the fold is a surprise but the accusation itself is not. Even so, now that she has been exposed as a cocaine-snorting serial adultress with a black penis fetish (I will not bother with links but you can google those key words along with her name for a good laugh), she might have a hard time convincing the Tea Baggers of the purity of her cause.

  29. Hugh on September 17th, 2011 at 06:38

    “Even so, now that she has been exposed as a cocaine-snorting serial adultress with a black penis fetish… she might have a hard time convincing the Tea Baggers of the purity of her cause.”

    I’m pretty sure her fans will simply write this off as as her being smeared by the left-liberal media establishment.

  30. DeepRed on September 18th, 2011 at 01:47

    I just came across an interesting article on The Nation about the Anders Breivik shootings.

    The author, a researcher for the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, has coined – or revived – a handy term for Breivik’s ideology, which the author says doesn’t completely fit traditional Aryanist/hyper-nationalist/religious fundy dogmas. The author calls it “macro-nationalism“, which is more akin to a clash of civilisations, and according to the article it equally applies to the al-Qaedas of this world.

    When I read of the antics of the Tea Party, the EDL, the counter-jihadis and Kahanists, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to conclude they’re not all that different to what they hate.

  31. Hugh on September 18th, 2011 at 12:07

    I don’t think the Tea Party are macro-nationalist. They’re just nationalist.

  32. DeepRed on September 18th, 2011 at 18:17

    “I don’t think the Tea Party are macro-nationalist. They’re just nationalist.”

    On the other hand, they’ve made nice with the EDL. And right now there’s debate within the movement over whether to be neo-isolationist (Ron Paul), or neo-imperialist (Sarah Palin) and support such causes as the Israeli hard right.

    What they all have in common is a kind of hyper-Islamophobia, not unlike the Cold War-era Domino Theory.

  33. Hugh on September 18th, 2011 at 19:35

    Ron Paul is Islamophobic?

  34. DeepRed on September 18th, 2011 at 20:10

    Not Ron Paul personally, but much of the wider movement. As mentioned in Pablo’s opening sentence, he was prepared to get majorly offside with the Tea Party in regards to 9/11.

  35. Phil Sage on September 24th, 2011 at 02:39

    Bill Clinton goes up HUGELY in my estimation. Hopefully his wife shares the same view.
    http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/bill-clinton-netanyahu-isn-t-interested-in-mideast-peace-deal-1.386222

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