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Hitchens and American Innocence

by Vijay Prashad

News from Tashkent, Uzbekistan comes to us that US military aircraft landed at a military airport yesterday. The first installment of bombers is poised to blast Afghanistan from the map, to render the region into the parking lot of Lyndon Johnson’s fantasy. Iraq will perhaps bear some of the brunt of the attack, since, as Stratfor (the intelligence forecaster) puts it “Iraq is very convenient for an air attack” and “extending the list of nations that supported the attackers [even without evidence] from one to two would solve a number of problems for the United States.”

Three aircraft carriers are in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf, and supply ships have entered the final stages of their journey into the Indian Ocean.

The Saudi’s say that they will not permit the US to use the retooled Prince Sultan Air Base south of Riyadh for retaliation against Afghanistan. During the Gulf War, in public the Saudis and the US said that these bases would not be used, but during the war, US planes took off from Arabia to conduct missions in Iraq. Similar things might happen when the bombs begin to rain. Four and a half thousand US military personnel sit at Prince Sultan, including a host of aircraft. The 5th Fleet is in Bahrain, Yemen says that the US can refuel, and Kuwait’s airports are always open for their liberators.

B-52s and B-1s are in the air, ready to drop an enormous payload, as RC 135 fuel tankers fly along for air-support along with a set of surveillance crafts. Some estimates tell us that over two hundred planes are on hand for the assault.

Diego Garcia and the bases in the Gulf are on alert, as, perhaps, is Quetta, Pakistan.

The Pakistani government, afraid of the outcome of the assault, has moved two brigades of its 16th Division from the Umarkot-Panaoqil sectors, along the border that divides it from Gujarat and Rajasthan in India. Eager to do its bit for the alliance, the Hindu-Right led Indian government’s foreign minister Jaswant Singh announced, “India had no intention to add to the complexities that the Government and people of Pakistan were faced with.” The convoluted grammar perhaps reveals the ambiguous sensibility of the government, otherwise eager to use any opportunity to put Pakistan on the margins of US policy.

The drums of war could not be any clearer.

And yet, many of us in the US remain shrouded in that classic American posture: innocence.

The demand for revenge comes without any consideration of the long-term costs of our actions. If profits can be posted each quarter without any sense of the long-term human consequences of our economic actions, why can’t our armies and state department act on the short-term as well? Why do we have to wait, when we can just act? Why does the long-term hinder our short attention span? Why doesn’t the military, like our children, suffer from ADD?

In 1822-23, G. W. F. Hegel ignored the Napoleonic wars that tore Europe up around him to hold forth for four hours a week on the philosophy of history. He concentrated his discussions on the “oriental world” (too much of either civil society or of state, an excess of things), on the Greek and Roman worlds (the correct, if primitive, balance between the people and their state) and the “German or Modern world” (perfection incarnate in the Prussian state). In a few pages he brushed off Africa, for whom “history is in fact out of the question,” and America. The Americas, by whom he meant the Native Americans, are “like unenlightened children, living from one day to the next, and untouched by higher thoughts or aspirations.” These enlightened thoughts are the privilege of Europe, but not necessarily the European immigrants to the Americas. America, he said, is “a land of desire for those who are weary of the historical arsenal of the old Europe.” For this reason he hoped that “America will abandon the ground on which world history has hitherto been enacted.” In other words, that America would recreate social relations, untrammeled by the weight of history, and offer a new sense of reality for the world.

But Hegel fears that this will not be so. Not because America will become Europe, but because in “North America, the most unbridled license prevails in all matters of the imagination.” Reality will give way to fable. The land itself, the “geographical basis” haunts the minds of the migrant Europeans and others who follow them, and makes them fly, like the Amerindians before them, into the imagination. If Hegel dismisses Africa for its lack of Consciousness (Spirit or the Geist), he dismisses America because Consciousness only enters as Imagination.

Or as Innocence. Hegel’s generally unreliable text (for it is filled with gross and untutored generalizations) points us to a prevalent mythology that comes to us at the origins of the European colonization of the Americas – the myth of innocence. The persecuted Europeans flee the guiles of Old Europe to make a place that does not replicate its complexity, deviousness and intrigue. They arrive in the Americas, wide-eyed and curious, desperate for a new life. These settlers do not care for the artificiality of feudal manners so they inaugurate a world of forthrightness, frankness and independence. Hardy, courageous, tough – this is the self-image of the colonial settlers.

A century after Hegel, Edith Wharton will both represent and skewer this conceit in her novel, the Age of Innocence (1920), a book on the dream-time of a people who resist the pangs of adolescence by enacting maturity and blinding themselves from the world’s evils.

The genocide of the Amerindians, the slavery of peoples from Africa, the widespread disruption of anti-colonialism in the name of anti-communism – this is the legacy that is lost by America’s innocent amnesia. In March 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders tendered its report on the uprisings of the decade, and it offered an indictment that covers this general sense of amnesia: “What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” Our inability to deal with racism is certainly a consequence of the innocent amnesia of whiteness, the grave desire to represent racism as the touchiness of the oppressed or as the province of an isolated group of Aryanists. Our history of white privilege is actively forgotten, that history of white suburbanization through federal assistance, of the creation of white equity, and of the immense amount of values appropriated without wages from a determinate set of peoples whose descendents for the most part are capital poor.

The black book of US violence does not by itself produce “fascism with an Islamic face” (as Christopher Hitchens puts it in the recent Nation), for the Islamicists have their own dynamic and their own historical agency. The US is not alone culpable for 9/11, indeed no one of the “Chomsky-Zinn-Finkelstein quarter,” in my estimation, is arguing that “the chickens are coming home to roost.” The stakes of the argument, on the other hand, are that the claim of the innocence of the US state is a blanket denial of history, that the US colluded with these right-wing forces, indeed gave them strength to demolish the left in their societies, funded them, trained them. Of course these groups had their own agendas, their own schemes, and they too used the US for their own ends. Now the ends collide: the US is addicted to oil, indeed it curtails its famous desire for democracy when it comes to its friendship with the most authoritarian allies, the Saudis and the other oilogarchies (UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, etc). The Taliban’s brand of Wahabbism is horrendous, but the Saudis’ monarchy is no better, although our oil addiction will prevent any indictment of the latter. The addiction to oil means that the US props up these withered monarchies and acts in cahoots with them when they suppress their own people. Such a policy creates distress, anger and frustration. Groups such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad emerge from anger at a regime that is beholden to Europe-US, which squelches the dreams of freedom of its own people, even as this nationalism rejects anti-colonialism for a form of Islamicist fascism. The Taliban, for instance, is not against the oil-pipeline concession, but it is eager to get the best return for its land rather than bow down to Unocal (“The Spirit of 76”) and turns to Bridas from Argentina for the deal. Fascism is comfortable with business, even Islamicist fascism.

[Aside: as Bridas and Unocal tried to lobby the Taliban, both turned to sources that show us how integrated the Taliban are to international sleaze and underworld terror – Bridas went with the head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki Faysal, while Unocal worked with the Saudi Delta Oil Company (whose head, Badr al Aiban, has the ear of King Faud of Saudi Arabia, a man with some measure of influence in the world of the social decay of orthodoxy) as well as with former US Ambassador to Pakistan and pipeline to the Taliban, Robert Oakley. The Taliban is not so isolated and madcap as the media sometimes claims.]

Of course no amount of anger justifies the terror of 9/11. But why do people, like Hitchens, get incensed when we recapitulate the main points of the oil-blood soaked history of the US in west Asia? Why does he suggest that when the “Chomsky-Zinn-Finkelstein quarter” outlines US barbarity that this is a justification for 9/11? The history of US-Taliban-bin Laden itself does not excuse the madness of 9/11; although it gives a measure of proportion to such asinine statements that the US lost its virginity on that day, or that the US state is as innocent as the cultural conceit of its population.

At Durban, during the World Conference Against Racism, the US abandoned ship when talk of reparations took center stage. The Europeans, being less keen on innocence, but no more forthright about its history, said clearly that any real apology for racism or any categorization as slavery-colonialism as “crimes against humanity” would bring forth expensive lawsuits. The US, being innocent, left as a defender of Israel, without too much comment on its own state racism. Within the press stateside there was that recurrent saw about why the descendents of the slavers, who are themselves innocent, should pay for the crimes of their forefathers. Or, indeed, can’t we all feel proud of our own separate and multicultural histories: the right-wing racist t-shirt with the confederate flag says its best, “you have your X, and we have ours.” Innocent of oppression, the US can be shocked that in this time of grief anyone would want to make us remember the past.

The guns are on their way to wreak havoc in southern Asia. An acquaintance says to me that he doubts that the US will actually fire on Afghanistan, or if the bombs fall they will be strategic and only directed at Bin Laden’s camps. There is that automatic faith in the goodness of the system, the desire to see evil in a few people (Bin Laden, Kissinger, Mother Teresa), but to feel assured that in the end the goodness and innocence of America will shine through. Such an attitude is na?ve only in that it is in denial of history, of the recent past of violence unleashed without care for human life – the 100,000 dead in Dresden, the 100,000 dead within minutes in Hiroshima, the hundreds of thousands dead in Cambodia and Vietnam, the half a million dead in IraqS.. numbers make death clinical and distance our capacity to empathize with those bodies.

Our remembrance of things past is not geared toward a justification of the madness of 9/11. Like all progressive historians, I am concerned that our innocent amnesia will not allow us to see why such a thing happened, indeed to render those who did those acts outside understanding. Such an attitude means we can do little to combat such vast acts of terror, since we can then only take recourse in some manner of prayers that the irrational madness does not strike again.

Our reaction too should be guided by the reasons for 9/11 and not just our grief for those dead. To go after bin Laden and his cohorts is to deal with the symptom of an international problem whose name is oil, and whose energy is able to satisfy the voracious appetite of the moneymakers. As the engines of the bombers warm up, as we get ready to take to the streets in protest against the inevitable war against the planet, let us refuse the conceit of American innocence. Anything is better than bad faith. CP

Vijay Prashad is and Associate Professor and Director of the International Studies Program at Trinity College in Hartford, CT.

Vijay Prashad, director of International Studies at Trinity College, is the editor of “Letters to Palestine” (Verso). He lives in Northampton.

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