You ever notice how our history seems exceptional?
I don’t mean American Exceptionalism the way it comes up in the State of the Union, or not exactly. I mean the way it feels when you think about it, compared to when you think about the history of Rome, say, or Mexico. There’s something less straightforward about it, something more nuanced; we have more shades of gray.
Whether or not you agree with any of that, meditate on it for a minute. Try the Vietnam War. Why were the French in Indochina in the fifties? Because of colonialism, simple. Why were we there in the sixties? Supporting our allies, maybe, or war profiteering, or as part of the containment policy and domino theory. Tell that story to yourself and see if it comes out as cut and dried.
It’s natural and almost inevitable to feel that way about your own history. If you’re American, you probably know more US history more intimately than anyone else’s, and that much just by osmosis. The same is true of French history if you’re French, Canadian if you’re Canadian. I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexican schools, and just like their counterparts in the US, they spend every single semester learning about the same group of guys who founded the Republic, repeated year in and out.
I’ve studied more Roman history, more Latin American history, and more European history than my own, but I have a better feel for how it looked and sounded in the back when in the US than in any other place. Everyone feels this way about their own country’s past, which is, just to note, why the phrase ‘American Exceptionalism’ rubs pretty much everybody in the world the wrong way.
One of the consequences of the conceptual divide between our history and their history is that we see other countries’ pasts as more objective and ours as more subjective, just like us and the French in Vietnam.
Take the Munich Agreement in the lead-up to the Second World War. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signs away the Czech Sudetenland to Adolf Hitler. You learn this in a history classroom in America and it’s a lesson in what not to do, in historical cowardice, in the rubbery backbones of the Europeans that eventually forced a reluctant United States into the war. We don’t consider that Britain had lost 1.2 million men in the Great War, one in every twenty-five, disproportionately among the young. We call Hemingway and his the Lost Generation, but Britain literally lost a generation. At that point in history, anything was justifiable if it would avoid a repeat of 1914. But to us, again, Chamberlain was a cowardly screwup.
On our side, we never look at FDR as a president who just waited until the most opportune moment to join a going war, when letting it continue might prejudice our current or postwar commerce. We see our reluctance to fight not as cowardice or a desire to capitalize on the war trade with Britain or self-defense at the expense of Europe but as a cunning plan by FDR; as an imperial president held back by isolationist traditionalists following the founding fathers; a hero president held back by cryptofascist conservatives until his hand was freed by Pearl Harbor; etc. We see perspectives and depth. In other peoples’ history (because we don’t get it nonstop in media and books and news) we see objective facts.
So an interesting mental exercise, especially in the context of this podcast and this blog, is to try to reverse your perspective. To think about current events in other countries as if they were your own is tough. Because for the most part we just don’t have the knowledge and the experience. So we can only go a little ways. But thinking about our history as if it were somebody else’s? That we can do.
Our foreign policy and even our casual thought are informed by the fallacy of the exceptionalism of American history, which is what allows us to, in good conscience, do the awful things to foreigners that we do.
Let’s break that down.
The subject of the first episode of this podcast is an American led coup against a democratically elected president named Arbenz in Guatemala. Arbenz was only the second freely and fairly elected executive in a country that had been dominated for centuries first by the Spaniards and then by its own entrenched elites. The CIA and the Eisenhower Administration used Arbenz’s quote unquote socialist policies as an excuse to remove him and install a military dictator that would be more amenable to American business interests, but Arbenz’s government wasn’t any more socialist or communist than FDR’s had been, and the programs he tried to enact later became standard operating procedure for the US-run Alliance for Progress.
So how is it that elites, that is, businessmen, presidents, spooks, and policymakers came to destroy Guatemalan democracy so offhandedly and so thoroughly? That intervention and every other one of the dozens like it over the last seventy years were only possible and only tolerated by the American public at large because of this mental break I’m trying to get at wherein people across our borders cease to be people in quite the same way that we’re people.
So in order to try to develop a human view and a human feeling towards those people outside the US, we’ve first got to turn inwards. See yourself as a foreigner might see you. Look at each individual fact in the news as though you’d heard it about someplace south of the US. And see if that informs the way you look abroad.
Imagine that this was just in from Mexico: Infrastructure is crumbling, education is on a downswing, the social safety net is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, but the military holds such sway over our society that even self-described liberals think a year-to-year freeze in defense spending is dangerously radical. Politics on the national stage is dominated by a few oligarchic families: the Kennedys, the Bushes, the Clintons, the Rockefellers, the Fords, and the Trumps, among others; some, like the Bushes, have used the State to wage wars as a means of greatly increasing their holdings abroad and their profits at home.
Everything sounds a little different. To us, campaign finance is a tortured mess that we have to live with. To a foreigner looking in: in the years since the end of World War II, the Republican party, now the party of wealth, succeeded in eroding all limits on spending in the political process. Millionaires occupied the majority of the legislature. And while previously respected as an independent institution with the power to curb these tendencies, the Supreme Court had become a political football, fought over by the President and the legislature.
You’re used to hearing about that in the news here, and you know the nuances and the ins and outs. But if you imagine that very same set of circumstances coming in from Germany or France, you’d say, “Whoah, that’s corrupt!”
I wrote this original post before the election, but it’s only gotten more and more applicable since then. My girlfriend’s Mexican, and every once in a while I’ll come down stairs and give her little summaries, just so I can wrap my own mind around what’s going on:
“So get this. When Trump was about to be nominated, he gives a big press conference about how he’s going to divest himself of his businesses, but his plan is basically not to divest himself at all. Then we find out that he’s also going to literally use his Mar a Lago retreat as a second White House, with the government footing the bill. Then we find out he’s also going to ignore Emoluments and pretty much allow foreigners to bribe him by staying at his hotels or buying his apartments. And then we find out that even the paper firewall between him and his businesses is fake and his sons are giving him biweekly updates on Trump co. And THEN he hires his son in law as a senior advisor, makes him a shadow Secretary of State, puts him in charge of opioid addiction, Middle East peace, and overhauling the government. Oh, and then like two weeks ago he hires his daughter too.”
And she’ll look up from whatever she’s doing and say, “Yeah, sounds a lot like Mexico.”
When you really try to see us how somebody else might see us, we start to sound less like a City Upon a Hill and more like Any Other Goddamned Place.
There are two conclusions to take away from this exercise, and if you’re really doing it, it’s hard not to come to them.
The first thing is that everyone else is like us.
To take Mexico again, we know it’s corrupt. And we imagine that Mexicans are somehow all okay with or complicit in that corruption. But it’s not that way. They feel about policemen and bureaucrats taking bribes and politicians taking much bigger ones the same way that we do about guys in Washington taking billions of dollars from Wall Street and K Street—somewhere between righteous anger and ‘well, what can you do.’ They feel the way we do.
The second thing, and it sounds the same the first but really is not, is that we are also like everyone else.
The converse of that is easy; it feels good to imagine everyone else is as good as you. This is harder, because what I’m saying is that we’re no better than anyone else, and we tend to think pretty terrible shit about everyone else.
So when you read about the next horrible, corrupt thing the Trump administration is doing, try to make an effort. Try not to think of it as the latest result of a series of very complex electoral and political circumstances. Try not to think of it as the natural result of Fox News and talk radio poisoning the minds of the American right. Try to think of it as you would news coming up from Mexico. “Boy, that’s corrupt.”
And then, if you can manage it, the next time you hear about some news from abroad, especially from a country somebody on Fox or MSNBC or in the White House Press Room has been telling you not to like, try to turn it around. Are the Iranians detaining American sailors because they “hate our freedoms” or because they’re defending their territorial waters from a military incursion by a country that has, historically, been their enemy?
You have to do it intentionally, but it’s just a small bit of effort to start seeing foreigners, even Farsi speaking brown ones, as people like us, with legitimate concerns and motivations and a complex relationship to their own government.
When a Latin American president enacts a slate of social programs and the Wall Street Journal tells you that it’s a new resurgence of red socialism, question whether maybe, instead, it’s a reaction to a set of complicated, historical internal circumstances that probably doesn’t warrant any kind of action or intervention on the part of the US.
And then every time you read about atrocities and oppression abroad, remember that there go we but for the grace of God.
This show is about American foreign policy, and here’s where it comes full circle. The synthesis of those two earlier statements, that everyone else is like us and we are like everyone else is this: what right do we have to impose our will by force on anyone? When we are not in fact exceptional but ordinary and well-armed? Not much of one, not morally. Every time we ignore the UN, ignore international law, ignore our treaties, remember that the only right we have to do so is that of the thug and the bully, of might-makes-right. You can stop wondering why people are so ungrateful when we liberate them and democratize them and Americanize them.
How would you feel if somebody did it to us?