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Several commentators and activists have remarked in the past week that, if Martin Luther King, Jr. were still alive, he likely would have supported the left-wing protesters at Obama’s inauguration, rather than celebrating the event as some kind of culmination of the civil rights movement. More prominent analyses, predictably, drew parallels between King and Obama: Richard W. Stevenson wrote in the New York Times that the Inaugural Address reflected the “I Have a Dream” speech in various ways; Will Haygood, in the Washington Post, suggested that “[f]uture generations may mull the divine meaning of Barack Obama’s celebration and pageantry taking place on the very day set aside to honor” King. Given the way Haygood and other influential writers covered the event, odds are the day will be remembered in those terms, with scant attention paid, say, the anti-drone demonstrators condemning the crimes of “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” That was King’s description of the U.S. government in 1967—but you won’t find that quote on his memorial, as Don DeBar pointed out in Black Star News over a year ago.
This type of imposed historical ignorance is one of the main features of U.S. intellectual life, and the society more broadly. The country “from its inception has been a nation blind to itself—its past, its present, and its future,” historian Gabriel Kolko wrote in the preface to Main Currents in Modern American History, citing “pervasive self-satisfied chauvinism” as one of the malaise’s chief causes. No doubt we can all think of striking examples of this myopia. I remember singing a paean to genocide at my college graduation, along with thousands of others—students, family members, alumni and faculty—on the quad of one of the world’s most respected universities. The hymn was Leonard Bacon’s “O God, Beneath Thy Guiding Hand,” which notes that, when “our exiled fathers crossed the sea” to reach this “wintry strand,” they brought with them only “laws, freedom, truth and faith in God.” Bacon was a prominent 19th-century preacher and writer, remembered as a progressive anti-slavery advocate whose work influenced Lincoln. In one of his histories, he ridiculed the notion that “the New England fathers…treated the Indians with great injustice” as typical of “sentimentalists,” explaining that “the general course of the policy adopted by our fathers in respect to the Indians, was characterized by justice and by kindness.” These statements are not particularly surprising. But it is striking that, 170 years later, thousands of ostensibly sophisticated thinkers intoned them, having been too well-educated to understand what they were saying.
The “self-satisfied chauvinism” Kolko described also influences interpretations of ongoing events, as he pointed out. Consider the notion that the U.S. government is currently fighting a war against terrorism, which “we have not so much won…as Al Qaeda has lost” (the editors of The Nation). True, there have been differences between Bush’s and Obama’s prosecutions of this war, given the latter’s success at “compressing his predecessor’s expansive, grandiose-sounding ‘Global War on Terror’ into a narrowly focused, unremitting campaign against the remnants of the al-Qaeda network” (Joseph Lelyveld in the New York Review of Books). And there have been missteps, as when Washington “launched and botched an invasion of Iraq” (Mitchell Cohen in Dissent, suggesting that the attack on Iraq was fine in principle, just poorly executed). The overall policy, though, is fundamentally decent and worthwhile—as the name “war on terrorism” implies—much in the same way that there were only isolated “instances of wrong on the part of white men in New England towards the aboriginal inhabitants,” as Bacon, considered broad-minded for his time, wrote in 1839.
The notion that the U.S. government is a “purveyor of violence”—that violence is the basis of its immense power—would perhaps strike the aforementioned commentators as ludicrous. Bacon likely thought the same of fundamental challenges to his religious system; the subject matter is different—God, government—but the intellectual approach essentially identical, marked by a rigid adherence to the acceptable body of thought. The points Nicolas J.S. Davies brings to light in a recent AlterNet piece can rarely be raised, if ever, since they might “infect” untutored minds with the wrong ideas. Davies mentions, for example, that Obama’s overseas bombing campaign—in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries—averages out to a strike every 1.75 hours, and therefore is more intense than Bush’s, which “amounted to an air strike about every 3 hours;” in the world the New York Review of Books inhabits, this means Obama has scaled back Bush’s “war,” focusing it more narrowly on the ostensible enemy. Never mind the massive civilian death tolls: Davies suggests that the number of inaccurate bombings would be around 10,000, if targets were hit 90% of the time—and of course the strikes are nowhere near that accurate. Also beside the point is the fact that the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database indicates a sharp increase in terrorism since 2001, confirming a 2007 report by NYU’s Center on Law and Security, which found “that the number killed in jihadist attacks around the world has risen dramatically since the Iraq war began in March 2003,” Patrick Cockburn and Kim Sengupta reported in the Independent. And forget about John Cherian’s remark in Frontline last summer, delivered during a discussion of the U.S. government’s selective opposition to al-Qaeda, considered “an enemy of the West” in Afghanistan and Yemen, but “aligned with groups supported by Washington” in Libya and Syria. All of these issues are irrelevant in most of what passes for informed analysis. There is a “war on terror,” writers insist, which we are waging successfully on the whole, and for the right reasons.
It would be difficult to overemphasize the extent to which state religion’s tenets exert a grip on the minds of U.S. intellectuals. But we should also recall that their claims to legitimacy rest on traits supposedly differentiating them from the rest of the public. Like those I sang Bacon’s hymn with several years ago, they are intelligent, perceptive, unlike most others—so the story goes. If scrutiny reveals them as irrational and dogmatic, however, the simple distinction between “smart” and “dumb” people—classifications encouraged by our education system—begins to dissolve. We are left only with individuals, each with the ability to develop the independence of mind and skepticism necessary to make informed analyses of world affairs. Those are the exact qualities that must come to the fore, if we are to successfully deal with the challenges that global warming and nuclear weapons—among other looming threats—present.
Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.