RubinReports | By Barry Rubin
One of the highlights of the 1961 inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, 52 years ago, was a poem by the beloved Robert Frost. That morning I had watched the new vice-president, Lyndon Johnson, leave his home down the street and a bit later watched Frost read the poem on television that snowy day, looking at the same snow outside my window a few miles away.
The poem was entitled, “The Gift Outright,” and it began:
“The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials….”
That poem could not be read today and if it were the result would be attacks, condemnation, and derision.
Why? Let’s count the reasons:
- The poem defines the birth of America as based on a gift. Today it would be said to be based on theft.
- A gift from whom? The implication is from God. To claim such a thing would be seen as hubris and dangerous non-atheism.
- It claims the land during the colonial period belonged to the colonialists whereas it is assumed now that it belonged to the “Native Americans” and thus such a statement is racist.
- It identifies America with people from England which would be the kind of racist, chauvinist thinking that could not be more derided. After all, what about the slaves as well as the Native Americans?
The fact that Frost was basically correct, that America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries arose from English settlers, that it belonged as a nation to those who became Americans, that it shaped those people in a positive way, and that the founders (who Frost is echoing in the poem) saw things in a similar way, are all deemed irrelevant.
But how can America exist as a legitimate nation if Frost’s view is condemned, even if one takes into account the country’s later direction and development?
This discussion reminds us that the hegemonic elite in the United States today has largely achieved something never done elsewhere: it has convinced itself and a large portion of the country’s youth that America’s whole history is evil. There is one other country (I’ll mention below) that has far more logically convinced most of its people to believe just one part of its history is evil. See if you can guess.
I don’t want to exaggerate here. Obviously not everyone feels that way and equally this sentiment is not applied to all things. In his second inaugural speech, President Barack Obama put forward contradictory ideas. On one hand, he tried to bridge the gap by saying that the founders were merely outdated and that he had now assumed their mantle. On the other hand, he played subtly on the evil rich white male heterosexual slaveholder theme.
So they succeed in having it both ways: America was a great idea but the way it was organized is obsolete; America has a terrible bloodstained history because it is so innately corrupted. Either way it has to be fundamentally transformed. During the last century a portion of the intelligentsia in all developed states has always been eager to condemn its own country, but more likely — and sometimes justifiably — for its current policies rather than its entire history and far more likely a small minority of people and not a large portion of the entire population.
The patriotic trimmings when invoked by those in charge nowadays seem cynical afterthoughts for political advantage rather than sincere sentiments. This is especially true in many classrooms which are shaping the next generation. It is no accident that one of the main textbooks used was written by a genuine Communist. The left-wing fringe rhetoric of the 1960s has now become the new normal.
The main theme is that America has been unfair, racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, a bully in the world, an oppressor of its own working class, etc. And of course it stole the land from the original inhabitants.
That country certainly sounds like a disaster. Why did its people even bother to continue such a failed experiment? Clearly it must be fundamentally transformed, no doubt.
And yet the French don’t say: How terrible is our country based on a thousand years of feudalism — nobility grinding the peasants’ faces in the mud, the bloody revolution, 25 years of aggressive war by Napoleon, decades of revolution and repression, the collapse of four republics, humiliating defeats in war, collaboration in World War Two, a colonial empire, and imperialist wars in Algeria and Indochina. They don’t say we are evil; our system is rotten; our souls deeply corrupted; we need fundamental transformation.
Even if you downgrade the extent to which this image of guilt and shame has pervaded American intellectual, cultural, and even political life of late, as one looks around the world it seems as if Americans can say, “We’re number one” when it comes to self-hatred.
While Europeans are aware of their colonialist past, their guilt trip is far more limited. Why is that? On the surface, they have America and Israel to claim as real villains — scapegoats whose condemnation banishes European guilt — but there is more to it than that.
One thing is that the United States can be said to be, in Marxist terms, a settler colonial society. But Latin American societies are based on far more deliberate and systematic genocide of the original inhabitants. Specific tales can be told of specific, usually small-scale massacres in America or the exile of the Cherokee. But in Spain’s colonies in the new world, there were deliberate massive killings, including — unlike the United States — of those who never attacked the Europeans or even fought wars against them.
Similarly, African history is marked by tribal warfare, displacement, and even genocide. While in Asia, the Japanese perpetrated horrors on China, for example, second only to those of Hitler and Stalin in Europe but can barely be made to offer perfunctory formal apologies. While one can find atrocities on the American side in the Philippines around 1900 or in Vietnam there’s nothing comparable. And such deeds were never matters of national policy. Oh, there was the internment of Japanese citizens in World War Two.
Regrettable but to be honest understandable at the time.
Indeed, leftists (including those pretending to be liberals) routinely rationalize cultures and societies built on far more repressive, racist, undemocratic behavior which continues down to today. Perhaps that, too, is part of the answer. Criticism of one’s own society is encouraged; criticism of others is deemed racist.
Examining Europe more closely, Austria and Italy feel that they were victims, not allies, of Hitler’s cause. Russia is not repentant about Communism’s mass killings and repression, though of course it has been much discussed. France doesn’t consider itself born in sin despite the suppression of other nations within it (whatever became of the Burgundians, the Bretons, the Normans? How about the brutal massacre of the harmless Cathars?) or its colonial behavior. As a result, today a Socialist government doesn’t hesitate to send an expeditionary force to bomb rebels in Mali, and unilaterally to boot, without any of the Obama Administration obsession with multilateralism.
The French tend to bury the collaborationist past in World War Two. Belgians don’t shed tears over their country’s terrible behavior in the Congo, perhaps the world’s single worst record of bloody colonialism.
For Europeans, war and conquest are seen as more normal even if the view is that they have outgrown such things today. Americans often seem to find conflict to be unnatural and in the well-ordered society they wouldn’t exist, everyone would be rich and happy. Thus, at least as its being presented today, conflict is a matter of mean, selfish people who just don’t have the right ideas.
True, European ruling classes have in some cases lost confidence in their own civilization but they don’t gnaw at themselves.
So what’s different about America on this point? I am trying out some preliminary ideas.
- America was a democracy and thus evil deeds cannot be put off onto an aristocracy or monarchy that no longer exists.
- Other countries just came into existence and there they were! Some countries were the products of conscious nationalist visions. But the United States arose from a political and philosophical concept: how can one build a country that is a sustainable republic where citizens are treated as equal. Thus, it can be judged on whether it has met that goal.
- America’s success at integrating other groups and freedom has created internal points of criticism. There are large minority groups which aren’t afraid to speak out and complain about the past. Indeed, members of the “majority” who do so are amply rewarded.
- Americans have a problem with integrating history into their thinking. The narrative of other countries is accepted and seen as a whole. The United States is much younger than most and has focused so much on change it is hard for most people to see their national rootedness.
- Because it always looked more inward than other countries, focused on prosperity and had a relatively easy geostrategic situation, Americans never even considered world conquest and when the country had the opportunity to do so after 1945 acted with incredible modesty and constraint. Today, that sentence would be mocked but it is nonetheless true. Perhaps there is a parallel to antisemitism in which the failure to behave as other nations have done makes everyone all the more suspicious that one is plotting behind the scenes.
- Of course, the above points may be too over-thought and the easier explanation is simply a cynical, deliberate indoctrination to turn Americans against their own country and history. But then one still has to explain why this hasn’t happened elsewhere.
It is normal to refuse to endlessly dwell on one’s own guilt and shortcomings. People want to feel good about themselves and their country. Rulers usually — unless they are in the midst of fundamentally transforming the country (ah, there’s a clue) — don’t want to admit the evil-doing of predecessors with whom they feel a strong continuity.
One might say, as noted above, that America conquered the original inhabitants. But if one goes back far enough that can be said of virtually every country. America had slavery but so did other countries, albeit mainly outside their own borders so it was less visible. There are differences but not as large as they might originally appear to be.
The one potential exception is Germany, which is still facing its national socialist past as a factor that does affect its behavior. Yet I don’t think Germans believe that this era reflects a fundamental flaw in their national character or which pervades their history. And, again, the United States never had anything equivalent.
Part of the problem is the misunderstanding — often deliberate — of American history. Yes, there was slavery but it was repugnant from the very start to many Americans, even including slaveholders among the founders. Not just the Civil War but the political history of the United States from 1820 to 1861 revolved largely around battle over this issue. The correct way to view this history is not that America was guilty of the fundamental sin of slavery but that America had a great struggle over the issue and ultimately resolved it properly because of the strength, powerful concepts of democracy and equality, and conscience built into its system.
Perhaps the internal drive to delegitimize America is precisely because patriotism is a strong force in American life that must be overcome by those who would transform the country’s thinking. Certainly, the United States has taken a lead in international affairs in the last sixty years but frankly it did a pretty good job dealing with very tough situations and no-win alternatives.
In William Shakespeare’s play, “Julius Caesar,” Mark Antony gives a brilliant speech which well sums up how those who slander America misrepresent its history:
“The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.”
And who today seek to be America’s undertakers?
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, “Israel: An Introduction“, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include “The Israel-Arab Reader” (seventh edition), “The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East” (Wiley), and “The Truth About Syria” (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.