Wittingly, or, as seems increasingly likely, unwittingly, Trump is gearing up to start a war that his advisor Steve Bannon hopes will decide the fate of the world in a conflagration between Christian Capitalism and Islam.
Now it might seem absurd, imagining that Trump, Bannon, and Co could conjure a war out of nowhere, but our last two major wars were made exactly that way, sui generis. We experienced a terror attack on 9/11, yes, but we didn’t invade Saudi Arabia, where the attackers were from and from where they received much of their funding. Instead, we attacked first Afghanistan and then Iraq, neither of which had launched 9/11. The Taliban had hosted al-Qaeda, sure, but so had, to a greater extent, Pakistan, and a goodly number of other countries. Iraq, meanwhile, had no connection, and we’ve still got troops there 14 years later. I don’t want to re-litigate the Bush wars, but just to point out that even on September 12th, 2001, a foreign war, let alone two, and against those particular countries, would have sounded just as nuts as it does now.
So the podcast has been out for about twelve weeks now, and I’ve gotten a couple of scattered comments and responses on two different subjects that I think, in the end, come to the same thing.
And I think they’re valid and I think they’re important.
So I’m going to talk about them.
The first suggestion is that I ought to make an effort, in the podcast, to avoid offending listeners who might come from somewhere further to the right on the political spectrum. And the second is that I ought to be getting more into why all this happened, why the government of the United States was somehow invested in these terrible goings-on in Guatemala. It’ll take a while for my responses to come back around and meet each other, but bear with me.
In response to the first thing, I guess I’d ask a question. Is it that the show is partisan? Or could it be that listeners are coming to the show with a pre-existing and implicitly partisan complaint?
Because the only way that the show could immediately turn you off is if you were under the impression that the US could do literally no wrong.
I could try to emphasize at the beginning of every episode that Democratic presidents were just as culpable as Republican ones or vice-versa, but that would put the show in the “fairness” business, and it’s not in the fairness business. It’s in the history business.
Part of what I want to get at in this blog and in the cast is why we as a country, culture, people do what we do abroad. Why and how we can continue seeding these disasters overseas. Part of the answer, unavoidably, is that we don’t see foreigners as people, not in the most important sense. Trying to overcome that barrier to human feeling was part of the post I wrote on Looking at History from the Outside.
Another element, I think, is optimism. Historical optimism. I don’t know exactly when the US as a country acquired that outlook, whether it came to us at some point or whether it was baked in from the beginning, but it’s thoroughly ours. One of the many definitions of the American Dream is providing better for your kids than your parents did for you. America, especially once we’d left the gold standard and gotten into Breton Woods, had a hand in creating a global economic system whose goal is year-over-year growth, forever. There’s a philosophy behind both those ideas and many other aspects of American life, which is that things are getting better, in the long run.
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.