FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Rhetoric Distorts Realities

by Robert Jensen

A history professor of mine once returned essay exams with the comment that some students’ attitude seemed to be, “Don’t bother me with the facts–I’m going for the bigger picture.”

George W. Bush wasn’t in that class, but I thought of the professor’s sardonic comment as I read the commencement address the president delivered at West Point earlier this month.

In addition to restating the Bush Doctrine (the United States has the right to destroy any society anywhere for whatever reason it chooses regardless of international opinion, law, or basic morality), Bush at West Point used one of the popular contemporary buzz phrases, “moral clarity.”

Given that no one really argues for moral unclarity, claiming moral clarity is really just a cheap way to dismiss other points of view without providing a compelling argument or dealing with the messy world of facts. The West Point speech shows just how morally murky the president is.

In that speech, for example, Bush endorsed John F. Kennedy’s and Ronald Reagan’s refusal “to gloss over the brutality of tyrants” during the Cold War. That’s accurate, if Bush meant the brutality of tyrants on the other side. American leaders have always been quick to condemn the crimes of enemies, which is perfectly appropriate.

But the United States has not only glossed over the brutality of tyrants on our side; it has often actively supported and funded such brutality. Where was the moral clarity when Kennedy backed an authoritarian regime in South Vietnam that had almost no support among its people? Where was it when Reagan supported vicious military dictatorships in Central America that killed tens of thousands of innocent people? In both cases, some moral clarity on the part of U.S. leaders would have saved lives.

“Targeting innocent civilians for murder is always and everywhere wrong,” Bush continued. No disagreement there, but what about the U.S. military’s direct attack on the civilian population of Vietnam through massive bombing and chemical warfare, or Reagan’s support for the Contra army in Nicaragua that focused on what were called “soft targets” (undefended civilian targets)?

Or, what about the record of Bush’s father, our commander in chief during the Gulf War? The U.S. military deliberately destroyed much of the civilian infrastructure of Iraq, including sewage- and water-treatment plants and electrical-generation facilities far from the supposed battle theater in Kuwait. The military itself predicted such attacks would kill civilians, as they were designed to do and did. The resulting civilian deaths continued long after the war, exacerbated by the cruel economic sanctions the United States demanded.

The point is simple: Calls for moral clarity, if they are to be more than empty rhetoric, require that we bother ourselves with the facts and pay attention to history.

Great powers have always gone about the business of conquest while explaining it was in the interests of the conquered. So, when the British ravaged India and extracted much of its wealth, it wasn’t described as greed but as the grand enterprise of bringing civilization and religion to the natives–the white man’s burden. The United States used similar rhetoric in its nearly complete extermination of indigenous people in the conquest of North America.

These days, we no longer talk of civilizing the natives, but about bringing freedom and democracy. Such a goal, if pursued in humane and lawful ways under the appropriate international institutions, would be to the good. But simply because politicians say that is their motivation for foreign and military policy does not make it so.

Upon examination of those messy facts, it becomes clear that the United States goes to war for the same reasons great powers have always fought–to secure markets and resources, to extend and deepen domination of strategic regions of the world. Old-style colonialism and conquest have been replaced with new modes of control through economic domination and the selective use of military power, but the goals remain the same.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in the Middle East and Central Asia. Although sold to the public as a war on terrorism, the war in Afghanistan and the war the Bush administration is planning against Iraq are about control of those strategically crucial, energy-rich regions. The United States seeks not to own the oil outright, but rather control the flow of oil and oil profits.

The plans for Iraq make this painfully clear. Given that no one has produced evidence connecting Iraq to al-Qaida, it’s hard to understand how Iraq is the next phase in the war on terrorism, as Bush officials proclaim. While it is true that Saddam Hussein’s regime is brutal and repressive, he was every bit as brutal throughout the 1980s when he was our valued ally (because he was waging war on Iran, our enemy at the time). Officials warn that Hussein is a threat to the region, but ignore the fact that the Arab nations have rejected U.S. plans for war and apparently don’t feel threatened.

It’s not morality or a concern for the safety of people that leads Bush to decry Hussein’s brutality, but an interest in replacing a hostile government with a client regime in a major oil-producing nation.

So, moral clarity, as the president uses the term, means just the opposite: the amoral–and sometimes immoral–self-interest of the powerful. An even more curious inversion of reality comes when those of us raising critical questions are accused of being moral relativists.

I am not a moral relativist. While I believe that we should be open-minded when considering the moral claims of others and humble in our own claims to having nailed down moral truth, I believe in the project of articulating and defending universal human rights. What seems to make me a relativist in the eyes of politicians such as Bush and intellectual attack dogs such as William Bennett is that I believe the United States should be as accountable to those standards as other nations. In other words, in this odd political climate, a relativist is someone who argues for moral consistency.

If moral judgments are applied consistently, it’s clear that the United States, like other great powers, has much to answer for. Making this simple point these days leads to further accusations that I must hate America, another curious claim. How is it hateful to apply moral standards to one’s own nation? If I articulate clear moral standards and try to apply them to myself as an individual, it is usually taken as a sign of maturity. But when done at the level of a nation, it is widely condemned as a sign of insufficient love of country.

So, to avoid confusion, here’s what I believe: All human life has equal value, whether rich or poor, American or not. The United States has long pursued policies in the world that work for the interests of the rich against the poor and that sacrifice the lives of non-Americans for the affluence and comfort of Americans. Those policies are wrong, and American citizens have a moral obligation to stop them, using all the political freedoms that dissidents have struggled for and won throughout American history.

That seems both moral and clear to me.

Robert Jensen is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the Nowar Collective, and author of the book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream and the pamphlet “Citizens of the Empire.” He can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu.

 

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (Counterpoint/Soft Skull, fall 2015). http://www.amazon.com/Plain-Radical-Living-Learning-Gracefully/dp/1593766181 Robert Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at http://robertwjensen.org/. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Notes. [1] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), p. 106. [2] Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). [3] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, edited and with a revised translation by Susan McReynolds Oddo (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011), p. 55.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
June 24, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Pepe Escobar
Goodbye to All That: Why the UK Left the EU
Michael Hudson
Revolts of the Debtors: From Socrates to Ibn Khaldun
Andrew Levine
Summer Spectaculars: Prelude to a Tea Party?
Kshama Sawant
Beyond Bernie: Still Not With Her
Mike Whitney
¡Basta Ya, Brussels! British Voters Reject EU Corporate Slavestate
Tariq Ali
Panic in the House: Brexit as Revolt Against the Political Establishment
Paul Street
Miranda, Obama, and Hamilton: an Orwellian Ménage à Trois for the Neoliberal Age
Ellen Brown
The War on Weed is Winding Down, But Will Monsanto Emerge the Winner?
Gary Leupp
Why God Created the Two-Party System
Conn Hallinan
Brexit Vote: a Very British Affair (But Spain May Rock the Continent)
Ruth Fowler
England, My England
Norman Pollack
Fissures in World Capitalism: the British Vote
Paul Bentley
Mercenary Logic: 12 Dead in Kabul
Binoy Kampmark
Parting Is Such Sweet Joy: Brexit Prevails!
Elliot Sperber
Show Me Your Papers: Supreme Court Legalizes Arbitrary Searches
Jan Oberg
The Brexit Shock: Now It’s All Up in the Air
Nauman Sadiq
Brexit: a Victory for Britain’s Working Class
Brian Cloughley
Murder by Drone: Killing Taxi Drivers in the Name of Freedom
Ramzy Baroud
How Israel Uses Water as a Weapon of War
Brad Evans – Henry Giroux
The Violence of Forgetting
Ben Debney
Homophobia and the Conservative Victim Complex
Margaret Kimberley
The Orlando Massacre and US Foreign Policy
David Rosen
Americans Work Too Long for Too Little
Murray Dobbin
Do We Really Want a War With Russia?
Kathy Kelly
What’s at Stake
Louis Yako
I Have Nothing “Newsworthy” to Report this Week
Pete Dolack
Killing Ourselves With Technology
David Krieger
The 10 Worst Acts of the Nuclear Age
Lamont Lilly
Movement for Black Lives Yields New Targets of the State
Martha Rosenberg
A Hated Industry Fights Back
Robert Fantina
Hillary, Gloria and Jill: a Brief Look at Alternatives
Chris Doyle
No Fireworks: Bicentennial Summer and the Decline of American Ideals
Michael Doliner
Beyond Dangerous: the Politics of Climate
Colin Todhunter
Modi, Monsanto, Bayer and Cargill: Doing Business or Corporate Imperialism?
Steve Church
Brexit: a Rush for the Exits!
Matthew Koehler
Mega Corporation Gobbles Up Slightly Less-Mega Corporation; Chops Jobs to Increase Profits; Blames Enviros. Film at 11.
David Green
Rape Culture, The Hunting Ground, and Amy Goodman: a Critical Perspective
Ed Kemmick
Truckin’: Pro Driver Dispenses Wisdom, Rules of the Road
Alessandro Bianchi
“China Will React if Provoked Again: You Risk the War”: Interview with Andre Vltchek
Christy Rodgers
Biophilia as Extreme Sport
Missy Comley Beattie
At Liberty
Ron Jacobs
Is Everything Permitted?
Cesar Chelala
The Sad Truth About Messi
Charles R. Larson
A Review of Mary Roach’s “Grunt”
David Yearsley
Stuck in Houston on the Cusp of the Apocalypse
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail