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If you took all the uncomfortable truths omitted from mainstream media over the past half century, compiled and indexed them, and added a dash of withering sarcasm, you might end up with a book a lot like, America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy [Zed Books, 2013] the latest offering from serial dissident William Blum. Like his better-known peers Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn and Gore Vidal, Blum is a perennial gadfly on the imperial hide, puncturing falsehood and punctuating hypocrisy with an implacable zeal. On the back cover of Blum’s book Rogue State—and repeated in the current volume—is the following paragraph, probably the finest he has or may put to paper:
If I were the president, I could stop terrorist attacks against the United States in a few days. Permanently. I would first apologize – very publically and very sincerely –to all the widows and orphans, the impoverished and the tortured, and all the many millions of other victims of American imperialism. I would then announce that America’s global interventions – including the awful bombings – have come to an end. And I would inform Israel that it is no longer the 51st state of the union but – oddly enough – a foreign country. I would then reduce the military budget by at least 90% and use the savings to pay reparations to the victims. There would be more than enough money. One year’s military budget of $330 billion is equal to more than $18,000 an hour for every hour since Jesus Christ was born. That’s what I’d do on my first three days in the White House. On the fourth day, I’d be assassinated.
This paragraph was famously quoted by Osama Bin Laden in one of his grainy video homilies to the world in 2006. A minor media storm followed, hovering over Blum like a drone over a Waziristan hamlet. Once the furor subsided, however, Blum’s connection to OBL contaminated his reputation as a public figure. In the half dozen years since, Blum has received scant few speaking invitations from universities after enjoying a steady diet of engagements in the years prior. One can just envision the blandly decorous university administrator, seated in his mahogany office, dismissing out of hand a proposed invite to Blum, admonishing naïve student advocates to use a bit more discretion in their choice of speakers. But it was their loss.
Blum’s latest offering confirms that his exile from the college circuit has done nothing to dim his fury. The new book is a compilation of essays and articles dating from the middle of the Bush years through 2011, and covering a vast range of foreign policy issues. Blum writes with disarming informality, a writer with little time for the artful turns of the poet or novelist. His mission feels too urgent for anything but blank candor. In contrast to a more measured analyst like Chomsky, Blum holds nothing back. He launches salvo after salvo at the edifice of imperial falsification, a veritable babel of cloaked belligerence. Yet his indignation is leavened by healthy doses of humor, including a late chapter that envisions a global police state of comical extremes.
Blum’s central objective, it seems, is to expose the American mythology of good intentions. He states in the introduction, writing about the American public, “No matter how many times they’re lied to, they still often underestimate the government’s capacity for deceit, clinging to the belief that their leaders somehow mean well. As long as people believe that their elected leaders are well intentioned, the leaders can, and do, get away with murder. Literally.”
From this premise, Blum quickly establishes the central goal of U.S. foreign policy: world domination. The concept, so infrequently phrased like this—even on the left—may sound like something out of a Bond novel—the sinister plot of SPECTRE, hatched in some underwater command center. But as Blum begins to lay the foundation for his claim, the ostensibly fictive begins to feel factual. He asserts that the American military is the vanguard of American business, bent on corporate globalization by any means available to it, which happen to include state terror, undermining elections, bombing, assassination, support of autocratic mass-murderers, and a general suppression of populist movements. In fact any means by which it can vanquish the threat of economic democracy—a model that would needlessly tax and encumber corporations in their efforts to advance the bottom line.
Our Bipolar Worldview
Blum then walks us through a litany of foreign policy issues, throwing aside the façade of official doublespeak and subterfuge, and revealing the honest face of American foreign policy—and it is almost never a pretty or admirable or defendable reality. Reading through the cases, a disturbing polarity emerges. On one hand, the Noble American, whose civilizing missions abroad are always necessary interventions, conditioned by a desire to ennoble benighted peoples. On the other, the Terrorist, a shockingly savage barbarian frothing with fundamentalist ire at the profligate and infidel freedoms of the West. The Terrorist would reduce the western hemisphere to dust, given the chance. Hence the forward positions of our military—purely a defensive measure against a foe with whom negotiation is a fool’s errand.
According to received orthodoxy, U.S. foreign policy is at best an almost messianic force for global good, and at worst capable of blundering mistakes that misread the cultural character of the developing world. Note here the preclusion of even the capacity for immoral behavior. Misguided, yes. Unethical, never. Think of Barack Obama’s oft-cited claim that the Iraq war was the “wrong” war, a “dumb” war, and poorly managed. Not once in his 2008 campaign, or prior to it, did our future president even hint that the Iraq war was deeply immoral. If it wasn’t, it follows that none of the war’s prosecutors should themselves be prosecuted for war crimes. Hence Obama’s swift decision to “look forward” and permit criminals like George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld to stroll leisurely into the history books. It likewise follows that violations of our civil liberties can be effected with a clean conscience, since the government means only to protect its citizenry. What this perspective requires of the average citizen is the unstinting faith of childhood, an increasingly risible notion in the age of Wikileaks.
At the far polarity of the moral spectrum is the terrorist. Those we dislike—redistributive Marxists, agrarian reformers, big-government socialists, anti-totalitarians—are cavalierly labeled terrorists by our government, thanks to the magical euphemism of “material support.” Simply add a heavy dose of fearmongering and the general consent is induced. Thus, your freedom fighter becomes my insurgent. My indigenous resistance becomes your Maoist army. The terrorist is characterized as a moral degenerate, impossible to understand because fundamentally depraved—unlike us. As exemplified by state rhetoric, the terrorists always strike first. History begins with a car bomb and ends with a humanitarian intervention.
Blum exposes this perverted reading of history in scenario after scenario: Iraq and Iran; the Bush White House; the demonization of Wikileaks; the catastrophes of the former Yugoslavia; the bombing of Libya and the support of state terror in Latin America. In a chapter on the Cold War, Blum revises what is perhaps the 20th Century’s most serviceable fable by making the startling claim that the Cold War was not a back-channel battle between capitalism and communism, but was rather an American effort to crush populism in the Third World. Even the establishment has sometimes conceded this claim. No less than influential Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, said in a recorded private conversation in 1981, “You may have to sell intervention or other military action in such a way as to create the misimpression that it is the Soviet Union that you’re fighting. That’s what the United States has been doing ever since the Truman doctrine.”
There are plenty of forays into related terrain, including social ideology, environmentalism, the contradictions of capitalism, the effectiveness of government, religion, dissent, the mainstream media’s proclivity for deceit through omission. The chapter on media is smartly followed by a takedown of Barack Obama, who Blum’s strips of his public-relations façade as a progressive reformer. The president is revealed as a rhetorically vacuous warmonger, an ally of big finance, and a committed imperialist. To underscore the power of rhetoric to cloak not only venality but villainy, Blum closes the chapter with a stunning passage from a speech by Adolf Hitler in 1935, which sounds a chorus of pacifist platitudes and internationalism that might have been mouthed by any neoliberal elect in any developed economy. Among other statements of perfect liberal pragmatism, Hitler states:
Our love of peace perhaps is greater than in the case of others, for we have suffered most from war…The German Reich…has no other wish except to live on terms of peace and friendship with all the neighboring states. Germany has nothing to gain from a European war. What we want is liberty and independence.
Blum is a perfect portrait of candor when contending with rabid patriots and reflexive nationalists. When asked by one if he loves America, he bluntly replies, “No, I don’t love any country. I’m a citizen of the world. I love certain principles, like human rights, civil liberties, meaningful democracy, an economy which puts people before profits.” This characteristic and unadorned honesty shimmers throughout the book. On page after page, Blum translates the complexities of doublespeak into layman’s language, unpacking the malevolent aims of American militarism.
Outflanking Big Brother
As with most left screeds and polemics, there comes a final chapter in which much of the force and momentum of the preceding text is lost, and when the elephantine question is finally voiced, “So what do we do about it?” Fortunately, Blum’s answers are as simple and sensible as the rest of his work. For the author, the “sine qua non” for any real political change is clear: the removal of money from politics. To summon the kind of political pressure required to force such a systemic overhaul, we need an educated populace. Blum notes that the best we can do is educate ourselves on the imperial project. By unmasking the subtle and not-so-subtle deceits of state-sanctioned media, we can inform ourselves and others until we reach a critical mass of dissent, at which point change might be effected.
In a late chapter on resistance, Blum offers a measure of hope from a report from the Defense Science Board, a Federal outfit created to give independent advice to the Secretary of Defense. In 2004, the group critiqued global Muslim attitudes toward America. After debunking the myth of the Middle East’s irrational hatred of American freedoms, the report came to this lapidary conclusion: “No public relations campaign can save America from flawed policies.”
True enough abroad, but you would have to be asleep to miss the effectiveness of public relations on public opinion in the United States. We are presided over by the P.R. President, by whose invisible hand our reality is sanitized of its sanguinary character. We find ourselves seduced by the soothing platitudes of state-sanctioned media—putting people first, compassionate conservatism, change we can believe in, Camelot, a shining city on a hill, morning in America. Gustave Le Bon, a pioneer of mass psychology, once noted that the masses are especially susceptible to comforting fantasies, and that, “Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”
Blum cites some illusion-shattering work of the sixties counterculture, notably activist and musician Gil Scott-Heron, whose song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, warns America that a revolution is coming. Scott-Heron sings that people, in Blum’s paraphrase, “would no longer be able to live their normal daily life,” and—more incisively—that they, “should no longer want to live their normal daily life.” But in today’s tranquilized social climate, this last line feels at once terrifically apposite and sadly naïve. How many of us simply want to leave work, repair to our couch, sufficient alcoholic sedatives at hand, televisual narcotics coloring the living room, and slip into a state of unthinking reprieve? Creature comforts may be the opiate of the American people. Deflating this bubble of banalities, via the expanding tools of information, seems to be viable way forward.
And so long as lonely prophets like Blum soldier on, a handful of excavated truths may threaten to capsize the artfully constructed narrative of empire. A note of injustice may sound in the thought stream of a blandly acquiescent middle manager or tongue-clipped service worker. Mao Zedong once intoned, “A single spark can start a prairie fire.” Without that tremulous hope, the fact that Blum’s central premise of malign intent has been proved right so often is of little consolation. A Cassandra acquitted is little more than a salve to the ego of the gadfly. But given the damage done to democracy and its prospects here and abroad, which of us can safely say that this is not his fight?
Jason Hirthler is a writer, strategist, and 15-year veteran of the corporate communications industry. He lives and works in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.