BLINDED BY AMERICA
How nationalism blinds us and why seeing clearly matters
By Khalid Adad
[This essay was published in the Portland State University Vanguard, 5/17/2005. Khalid Adad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
The United States is a magnificent entity, true and right, that works for the betterment of all mankind. Democracy! Freedom! Peace! Et cetera! Or that’s what you may think, if you care from the United States.
To many people in the U.S., this is a land of beneficent intentions. We don’t know exactly what the U.S. is doing in the world, but we do know we’re all for it. With every action, we see the same things: good intentions with good results, or good intentions that lead us to commit “mistakes.”
A perceptive, witty, high-profile liberal like Al Franken, who has documented the bullshit lies of the president, looks at the Iraq war, sees a mistake and says “we went over there with the best intentions,” but Bush “ignored all the planning” of the U.S. Army War College, and now our noble goals have gone astray.
That the mistake was not a mistake and the goals not noble, that the war was wrong, not just the “wrong war at the wrong time,” would never occur to him. His nationalist identity supersedes his identity as a “liberal,” so he says: Bush lied, true, but he lied with the best intentions.
People don’t want to see themselves as monsters and want to have a positive self-image. When we apply a label to ourselves, it becomes part of our identity. When others label themselves similarly, we identity with them, even if we’ve never met them. If we call ourselves “Americans,” then “American” will have a positive image, as will terms associated with it. These will keep their image, but lose their meaning.
This is how democracy, the idea that people should have a say in the decisions that affect them, to the extent they are affected, becomes “you will do whatever we tell you to.” Peace becomes war. Freedom becomes “we will rule over you for your benefit.” For us, these terms describe whatever the U.S. happens to be doing, whenever it happens to be doing it.
It’s easier to see why other countries do things than to see why we do. In 1990, Iraq went to war with Kuwait. Why? Saddam Hussein says he “defended Iraq’s honor” from the tiny gulf state, which was about to “reduce Iraqi women to 10-dinar prostitutes.”
We look at that and laugh – he wasn’t defending Iraq, he was attacking Kuwait. He invaded Kuwait to set up a puppet government, to control the oil and increase his own power. Obviously.
When our president, the ultimate symbol of the United States, sends the most incredible military force in the history of the world to Iraq he says it’s to protect people in the U.S. from Iraq. Later, he says his interest was actually to establish democracy. The Iraqis will have elections and, as Colin Powell put it, “the United States and its armed forces will go home, having made yet another friend.”
In this country, no one laughs. We associate this with our nation. The United States is a force for good – end of story.
If, in our efforts to establish a democracy in Iraq, we illegally rewrite Iraq’s laws without Iraqi participation and make democracy meaningless, or we ignore Iraqi opinion and do things our own way, that’s fine, it’s still democracy. How could the U.S. do anything undemocratic? Impossible! Whatever we do is democratic, by definition.
We feel a need to justify the government’s actions taken without our knowledge3 or input, even if we were lied to, even if they were carried out in secret because we wouldn’t have allowed them to be carried out if we had known. Nationalism can be good if it means we care about the people of our country, but nationalism can also prevent us from seeing the reality and judging the morality of what we’re doing.
We don’t assume what Saddam says is true, we look at what he does. When his actions and words don’t agree, his words are good for laughs and nothing else. We should look at ourselves the same way with an initial skepticism.
We shouldn’t assume whatever we happen to be doing is a boon to all the world. If we want to call ourselves Americans, and we want to be honest and moral, we need to look at our actions, not just words of amorphous meaning.
It’s far more important for us to criticize ourselves than it is to criticize others. If we want to promote democracy, freedom, peace and all the other wonderful things we say we do, we should ensure that our words match our deeds – anything else is complete hypocrisy.