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Why Is the US Scaring Me?

Although I am an Israeli academic, I have long and deep ties to America. I have spent several years on both coasts of the United States. American publishers have published all of my books and most of my professional papers. Almost all of my non-Israeli professional networks are American. Moreover, since the very beginning of my adulthood I have been a great admirer of your country and the American tradition of democracy and self-government.

The writings of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, despite their anachronism and incompatibility with the Israeli situation, became a part of my personal “holy writ.” Their strong advocacy of personal freedom and their uncompromising stance in favor of civil liberties and citizen’s rights captured my imagination much more than the collectivist vision of the French Revolution, that was never implemented, or the utopian (and bloody) promises of the Bolshevik Revolution.

This is not to say I became a pro-American zealot. I was fully aware of the country’s genocidal policies against Native Americans, its unacceptable attitude toward nonwhite races, its wild capitalism, the ineradicable stain of McCarthyism, and the weird ideological wars waged in Korea and Vietnam. Yet, I still adopted Alexis de Tocqueville’s approach – that America is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon whose negative aspects are relatively negligible compared with he promises embodied in it.

However, following the events of September 11, 2001, which were tragic and traumatic indeed, I am increasingly disappointed by the American government and its unbearable willingness to jettison the basic principles of American liberalism and enlightenment both domestically and abroad. The American political system has always included strong elements of chauvinism, militarism, arrogance and xenophobia combined with a deep Amero-centrism. Fortunately, these elements were usually counterbalanced by a strong belief in the importance of constitutional government and a commitment to liberal and humanitarian values.

After September 11, most of these counterbalancing values collapsed and the watchdogs of American democracy, including the printed and electronic media, surrendered their traditional role and supported the government uncritically. Even if these values and institutions are slowly recovering, their disappearance during a period of crisis is a symptom of a deep-seated malaise in the American political system. This is a cause of anxiety, not only for the American people, but for people in the “rest of the world,” because the United States is the world’s only hegemonic superpower, a country whose military, economic, political and cultural might shapes the lives of billions of people.

In my position as a critic of my own political system and culture – the Israeli one – I have always argued that the quality of a democratic regime is measured and tested not during routine or happy times, but mainly during periods of crisis, stress and anxiety. Using this criterion, the American leadership, including its political, intellectual, and moral elites, completely failed after September 11.

My argument is not so much with the headlong rush of the Bush administration and the military-industrial complex to define the situation as a “War Against Evil.” They had a vested interest in inventing new enemies after the collapse of the Soviet Union. My puzzlement and disappointment is mainly with the famous watchdogs that are supposed to be whistle-blowers in such situations – the mass media, academics and intellectuals – the vast majority of whom lined up behind the Bush administration’s construction of reality with only the occasional, timid protests being uttered. That the dissent could be so muted after September 11 is chilling.

I am not anxious about America’s fate: It will recover from this crisis with only a few minor cracks in its self-confidence as it has several times following spasms of national paranoia. My concern is with the rest of the world, including my own minuscule country. Since America became the Master of the World and leader of the “good guys” in the supposed clash of civilizations, it has assumed a role as the world’s superego.

What America permits other countries and regimes to do is considered not only a political act guided by self-interest but an ultimate moral imperative. Take, for example, President George W. Bush’s long-awaited speech on June 24 about the Middle East conflict. Its rhetoric was very enlightened and followed President Wilson’s doctrine of national self-determination by promising the establishment, at some unspecified time in the future, of a Palestinian state with temporary borders. All these promises were conditioned upon the removal of Yasser Arafat and the “democratization” of the Palestinian Authority. Actually, President Bush granted Ariel Sharon the political and moral authorization to continue the re-occupation the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to eliminate the Palestinian leadership and to destroy the political identity of the Palestinian people. Assuming this will happen, is it, as we used to ask in Israel and America, good for the Jews? Not at all, my dear American fellow patriot. It is very bad for the Jews. These policies will prolong the Arab-Israeli conflict indefinitely and ultimately lead to the destruction of the Jewish state after radioactive rain has fallen on the entire Middle East.

After Bush’s speech, a Palestinian friend who, like me, is not an admirer of Yasser Arafat, reminded me of an old joke. A world survey conducted by the U.N. posed the following question: “Could you please give us your opinion about the food shortage in the rest of the world?” This was a huge failure due to the following reasons. In Africa, no one knows what “food” is. In Western Europe, no one knows what “shortage” is. In Eastern Europe no one knows what “opinion” is. In the United States no one knows what “rest of the world” means. Neither one of us laughed.

BARUCH KIMMERLING is a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Among his recent books are The Invention and Decline of Israelieness (University of California Press) and Palestinians: The Making of a People (The Free Press and Harvard University Press) with Joel S. Migdal.

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