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The National Image and Its Contradictions


Benjamin Disraeli once labeled Britain’s government “an organized hypocrisy.” That was in circa 1845. Things have not changed much and by now hypocrisy might well be seen as a common sin of democratic government. This is because in democracies straight forward honesty about behavior that runs counter to the idealized national image is usually bad politics. Among today’s democracies none proves this point more than the United States. The United States, like Great Britain in the 19th century, simultaneously acts like an imperial power and cultivates a national image as the world’s prime purveyor of good government, stability and progress. However, history has taught us that a nation cannot be both of these things at once. So the folks in Washington have created for themselves an environment wherein principle and consistency are impossible. Take, for instance, the following:

1. A stolen election in the Ivory Coast has resulted in active disapproval on the part of the U.S. government. After all, this is not good government. President Obama slapped sanctions on the fellows who stole the vote and urged the United Nations to send more troops (some 9,000 are already in the country) to set things right. On the other hand, the November parliamentary elections in Egypt (presently a U.S. ally) were an outright farce. The opposition was banned, jailed and otherwise intimidated. Not at all good government. And Washington’s response? Nada (nothing). If you claim to be the prime purveyor of democracy in the world, are you not suppose to be consistent?

2. Then there is the yet unproven Iranian nuclear weapons program. According to studies done by U.S. intelligence this program is a myth. Nonetheless, Israeli paranoia has stirred up U.S. Congressional passions. Iran is now proclaimed a destabilizing rogue nation. The United States has proceeded to apply one package of sanctions after another on Teheran. There are actually men and women among our elected officials (obviously more swayed by the whisperings of Zionist lobbyists than by U.S. intelligence reports) who are quite willing to go to war over this unsubstantiated threat. Considering the cost and horror of such action, I think that they, regardless of age or sex, should be in the front combat lines of any conflict resulting from their misplaced enthusiasm. Not to be undone in this effort, European Union countries also seek to put pressure on Iran to stop something that is not happening..

On the other hand there is Israel (America’s “strategic”ally), the source of much of this mania. That country is in violation of international law in ways that Tehran could never match. Its expansionist policies are the main destabilizing force in the entire Middle East. It is religiously devoted to the ethnic cleansing of an entire people while claiming that it is civilized and “Western.” And, Israel has 200 or more nuclear warheads, the missile systems to deliver them, and a leadership whose reckless disregard for world peace makes Amadinejad look like a model of sanity. If the United States seeks stability in the Middle East so that region may be a reliable source of oil, should it not be concerned with Israel as well as Iran? So, what does Washington have to say about the loaded warheads in Israel? Nada. And the EU, well, they plan to admit Israel into the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

3. Latin America has always been an arena wherein the U.S. preaches good government and development. But on the ground hypocrisy rules. Cuba, Venezuela, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador are or were hounded by one American administration after another because their leftist governments were, by definition, bad governments. Simultaneously, the same administrations backed the murderers and torturers who once passed for political leaders in places like Argentina and Chile. Washington also backed the Contras and called these violators of human rights, “freedom fighters.” It has gotten to the point where the number of people living south of the Rio Grande who now trust the U.S. government is dwindling fast. And some of those who still do so also cheer the South and Central American death squads funded by various American corporations and trained by the U.S. military’s infamous School of the Americans in Georgia. What does Washington have to say about this skewed situation? Nada.

These are just a few examples of the contradictions that beset the idealized U.S. national image. As the skepticism that can be found in Latin America, and now the Middle East too suggests, belief in this America really stops at the its borders. Beyond that point the ideal image is increasingly seen as masking a form of aggressive narcissism. Yet inside the borders, most are still true believers. Our national self-image dominates to the point that we can apply Andre Gide’s adage, “the true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity.” I think many of our politicians fall into this category.

Why are things this way? Well, as mentioned above, believing in a national image that is unhinged from reality has something to do with it. American politicians know that identifying yourself with the idealized U.S. (democracy, stability and progress, etc.) is a winning political formula. But how do you bury the contradictions? You either hide your hypocrisy behind a thick cloud of secrecy (a la the Wikileaks affair) or you obscure your double standards with mass propaganda. Washington uses both strategies. If you pursue these strategies long enough and consistently enough you build yourself a “thought collective”?groupthink on a national level. Within the thought collective self-deception and rationalization become high arts and soon both the leaders and the followers no longer notice the underlying hypocrisy. It also helps that most of the public is indifferent toward the world beyond their local sphere. Indifference results in ignorance and the void left by ignorance is readily filled with manipulative misinformation. Nor do the indifferent care about government secrecy on subjects that appear to have no relevance to their daily lives.

To make all this a bit clearer think about your own experience. When you act in the world things usually work out if the ideas and beliefs in your head match well with the reality outside you. However, when those ideas and beliefs do not match up with outside reality, things almost never go well. Indeed, at such times you can walk right off a cliff. America’s idealized national image, along with all the spin coming from its powerful political and media elites, constitute a good part of the notions floating around the collective “U.S. head.”

Over the last fifty years or more those notions have become ever more detached from reality. Viet Nam, Iraq, the September 11th attacks, were all symptoms of this growing fact. Much of the rest of the world can see this, but rather than face the grim truth, most Americans are determined to maintain their collective self-image through stubborn self-deception and hypocrisy. And, there is no telling how much longer this can go on.

LAWRENCE DAVIDSON is a Professor of History at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania.



Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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