Arrogance and amnesia
DATE : 9July 1998
SOURCE : Al-Ahram
BY : Edward Said
Like all people, Americans are so involved in the daily problems of life -- keeping a job, paying for their children's education, worrying about their retirement -- that they seem to have no time to recall or think about America's quite extraordinary role in the world. It is also true that historically this continent is so removed from the difficulties of Africa, Asia and even Europe, it is so vast and so encircled by miles of oceans, that most Americans have very little direct connection to what is being one abroad in their name. They neither know in most instances, and when they do, they are fed the information by an ideological media information system that keeps the idea of "America" pure, altruistic and an infallible source of good, so much so that they never question the systematic horror of invasions, genocide, unjustly supported dictatorships, sheer scheming interference (like the 30 years rgar rhe US singlehandedly supported Suharto and his family and cronies): all this is supposed to be a source o powerful rectitude in a world essentially made up of snivelly smaller states or of jealous powers like France and China who are anxious to steal "our" authority. It should come as no surprise therefore that during the current World Cup session there was universal rejoicing at Iran's solid defeat of the US, which was forced to exit the competition designated the worst team in the world. So strong has resentment grown against the US's overbearing, wasteful and cruel ways that a mighty wave of anti-Americanism sweeps the globe.
The paradox though is that even European powers, to say nothing of the Arab states, nations like India and Pakistan, the countries of Latin America, or most of Asia and Africa, fail to engage the US in anything like a critical dialogue of equals. Take as an instance the egregious US habit of laying sanctions on states it doesn't approve of, or those it has designated terrorist or rogue or pariah countries. The list grows longer everyday. Many of these states (Sudan, Syria, Iran, Iraq) are Muslim states, and several -- like India and Pakistan, against whom sanctions were levied unilaterally in a fit of US petulance and pique -- are considered inferior, less developed, not like "us". Since 1991 Iraq has been subject to the most cruel sanctions that have devasted any country in the history of the world, sanctions that have literally murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent people. With appalling arrogance the US has made it seem that the sanctions are to last forever. Sadism is the essence of the practice, not security, since even Iraq's close neighbours who have cause to fear Saddam's dreadful regime openly say that he is no threat. Yet the US reminds everyone of its objections, cavalierly forgetting its own blemished record of doing more damage than any other country in history.
In the meantime the US continues to support the Algerian regime which, whether you believe is fighting for law and order or killing for the sake of its own diseased perpetuity, is certainly guilty of a large number of abuses of its own citizens. But Algeria has oil, and that is what concerns the powerful US corporations who now make up Algeria's major trading partners: so Algeria is not a pariah state. The US declared its displeasure with two major subcontinental countries for exploding nuclear devices, and has hit them with its displeasure and economic sanctions. This despite the fact that more than any other power the US has exploded nuclear devices for over 55 years, has attacked Japan with them at a cost of several hundred thousand civilians, and still refuses to acknowledge that particularly damning history of genocide. When the Smithsonian Institution wanted to mount an exhibition on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including showing the actual plane, the Enola Gay, that dropped the only atom bomb in history, a huge outcry in the Congress and among various "patriotic" citizens' groups forced the Smithsonian to cancel the whole thing. The exhibit was characterised as nothing less than an attack on America: our country, right or wrong, runs the slogan, which means nothing less than that America is always right.
This is a phenomenon unique to the US even though, of course, most states try to inculcate their citizens in the supreme virtue and blamelessness of their culture and heritage. By virtue of its size and immense global reach, more so than any other empire in history, the US has involved itself literally with the entire world. In 1954, because it disapproved the Arbenz presidency (considered communist) in Guatemala, 10 per cent of the population was killed directly under US auspices. Cuba has been under an embargo for 40 years not because it threatens the US -- a tiny, economically depressed island which is hardly a match for the US colossus -- but because Senator Jesse Helms and his Florida colleagues simply repeat "that we want Castro out of there," as if Cuba, or anywhere else for that matter, is supposed to exist at the US's pleasure. But the special thing about the US is that a mechanism for amnesia exists in the public realm which has not been properly addressed by intellectuals, who in large measure (with some notable exceptions) have gone along with the pervasive idea that America is an exceptional country, with a unique mission in the world. All its past misdeeds are buried in the memory hole, to be re-concealed every time they are raised by an assiduous researcher or group.
Public amnesia has gone along with occasional public rituals of fraudulent expiation, confession and regret. Two years ago, Robert McNamara, one of the principal architects of the Vietnamese catastrophe in which over three million South East Asian peasants were murdered, their land and cities and villages obliterated as an act of wanton self-assertion by the US using the highest war technology ever employed 10,000 miles away from its shores, wrote a book admitting with a great deal of unseemly agony and appearances of anguished regret that he had been wrong. Wrong, that is all: wrong to have been the cause of such untold catastrophe to millions of Americans and especially Vietnamese. Wrong. The word fairly sticks in one's throat. Aside from the indecency of the whole thing -- he should have turned himself in as a war criminal -- the book was an occasion for him to endlessly appear on television, painfully going over all the lies and poor decisions he made. What was grotesque was McNamara's contention that he made an "honest" mistake -- note, a mistake that lasted for two administrations and approximately 15 years. So aside from giving McNamara the opportunity to produce his maudlin lies and justify himself, the ceremonies of public confession had the effect of confirming, but by no means questioning, the US's criminal behaviour as really altruistic, trying to save the world from communism, etc.
When it comes to Israel (leaving aside Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Bosnia, Chile, Iran, Grenada, Panama, and many other places where the US bears responsibility for international terrorism) there is a sublime sense constantly projected that the US is on the side of right, justice, morality and peace. All challenges to that view are considered terrorism, unless Israel does it. So that the bombing of Lebanon, military occupation, annexation of territory, plus the whole-scale dispossession of an entire people: all this is simply negligible while the US protests that it and its equally blameless ally Israel are fighting for peace and justice. Nothing else, and only those, just good old-fashioned American peace and justice.
The trouble is that as Arabs we never seem willing directly to engage the US intellectually and morally in ways that highlight the crimes committed against us. I have long said that the dismal ignorance of the US that exists in the Arab world -- an ignorance blithely disconnected to the system of US exploitation and its organised cruelties against the non-white peoples of the world -- makes us prey to the illusion that America is the only arbiter, the last superpower, the power with the greatest chance of giving us our due. At the core of our difficulty is the lamentable disunity of the Arab world, where rulers think in terms of the narrowest interest and no concern is given to the way in which Arab states are used against each other, traduced, robbed, punished and endlessly manipulated. To the official US we remain only "the Arabs," an undifferentiated mass of turban-wearing nomads much given to fanaticism and violence. We develop our consumer instincts more than we do our cultural and scientific talent, and we manifest so widespread a degree of helplessness and incompetence with our endlessly proclaimed summits, the new state of Palestine, the new danger of an explosion, that we cannot even take ourselves seriously.
America cannot be confronted by brave slogans and the purchase of more new weapons from it. Like everything in this secular world of ours the US has to be faced in detail, its policies exposed, its positions disallowed and unaccepted. What else is the unseemly begging directed at the US to continue its putrefying "peace process" now, after Netanyahu and the US have made (as they always intended to) a shambles of the whole thing, what else is this indecent appeal to revive the process but a shabby admission of impotence and acquiescence? Why don't the Arab states in their greater wisdom declare their own peace plan -- in which the whole world concurs -- and prove to the whole world that no amount of American chicanery or cruelty will deflect us from our resolve? I suppose that to wait for such determination is like waiting for Arab leaders with policy intellectuals and makers in tow, to come to the conclusion that if we need anything now it is a complete revaluation of our policies vis-à-vis the United States, led by a critical analysis of such arch-villains as Henry Kissinger, whom any Arab today would simply love to meet and have breakfast with. "As Kissinger said to me yesterday over coffee" -- you can imagine one of them ponderously saying.