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Just How Corrupt is the American Soul?

Photo Source Anita Ritenour | CC BY 2.0

In an oped piece published in Al Jazeeera on 15 November 2018, the Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi challenges the widespread assumption that “the American soul is something quintessentially good and even noble.” He goes on to point out that most of those who hold this view also believe that President Donald Trump and his policies and practices cannot possibly be representative of real American values.

Dabashi’s position is that both of these idealistic beliefs are nothing but ahistorical delusions. “We may, in fact, be hard pressed to find a single moment in American history when hateful racism, sexism, militarism, and xenophobia have not been entirely definitive to this American soul.” In addition, “those who view President Donald Trump as unrepresentative of American values are wrong.” In Dabashi’s view this president’s policies and practices are indeed who we are.

It is the liberals who Dabashi is particularly upset with for it is they who, in his view, have reinforced the facade of national goodness and held at bay, or perhaps simply ignored, any critical examination of this self-glorifying image. For instance, Dabashi notes that, while campaigning against Trump in the lead-up to the recent mid-term elections, Barack Obama asserted that “we [the U.S.] helped spread a commitment to certain values and principles like the rule of law and human rights and democracy and the notion of the inherent dignity and worth of every individual.”

Dabashi is having none of this. More often than not both Republicans and Democrats have “identically” supported dictators and the brutalization of entire populations. He notes that Obama is the president who “who gave billions of dollars to Israel to slaughter Palestinians with ease.” In terms of foreign policy, almost every president proceeding Obama has acted in the same culpable way, or worse.

Dabashi goes on to point out that the Democratic Party, the political party now opposing President Trump, is a “structurally corrupt” organization that is adverse to really basic change and so “it is crucial for us not to fall into the trap of thinking the enemies of the Trumpian loonies are the friends of any progressive politics.” In fact, it is Dabashi’s opinion that the United States is not, as the liberals say, “a divided country.” It is rather an “unmistakably racist, sexist, xenophobic and violent country obsessed with domestic gun violence and foreign conquest with a few pockets of wishy-washy liberal resistance here or there.” 

Qualifications

Is Professor Dabashi correct? Well, in terms of foreign policy there can be no doubt that he is. Such claims that the U.S. has made a project of spreading democracy, the rule of law, and the “dignity of the individual” are historically untrue, and I agree with his reaction of disgust when he hears such unfounded claims coming out of the mouth of someone like Barack Obama.

Domestically, despite a history of “corporate corruption” in politics, the picture is more complicated. Dabashi himself suggests that this is so. He tells us that “there is nothing in the DNA or “blood” of any people, Americans included, that makes them constitutionally susceptible to latent and blatant fascism. Millions upon millions of Americans gathered around the most progressive figure in recent US politics, Bernie Sanders, in the hope of liberating themselves from the shackles of this gridlock of corrupt corporate politics.” Such efforts at “liberation” through significant progressive efforts is not confined to the Sanders movement. There was, of course, the seminal civil rights movement of the 1960s—supported at that time by many Democrats and Republicans alike.

So it is not literally true that, domestically, there is not “a single moment in history” when America has not acted from the corrupt motives of racism, sexism, etc. However, I will go along with Dabashi as far as saying that America’s progressive moments are historically the exception. That is, they are reactions to an otherwise regressive norm.

There are some additional contextualizing observations that can be made about this imbalance between the uncivilized and the civilized.

+ The uncivilized attitudes and practices we find dominating United States history are certainly not uniquely American. In one form or another, they are probably universal and, in the era of the nation state, magnified by just how much power a nation possesses, how prevalent are minorities within its population, and how strong are its political and/or religious ideologies. There is always a wide range of denials and/or rationalizations that are used to turn the inexcusable into the excused.

+ In every case populations are held captive by remarkably effective, long-term brainwashing convincing them of the acceptability of their culturally inbred sins. This is how the nonsense of exceptionalism and noble national souls can be so convincing.

+ In most instances, it is probably the case that the leaders are as delusional true believers as the populace.

These observations only reinforce Dabashi’s bleak picture. In fact, it looks like we are all stuck in an age-old self-destructive rut. The classic conservative explanation for this is that it is due to the unchanging “evil” quality of human nature. But then how does one account for the humanitarian moments—are they somehow in defiance of human nature? That does not sound right.

Hope?

It is hard for those Americans, particularly those of color, who understand the “dark side” of the “American soul,” to lend much credence to the moments of humanitarian idealism that arrive periodically on the historical scene.

But these moments do come around, and not just in the case of the U.S. For instance, there was the remarkable effort to spread international law following the debacle that was World War II. And, one might hope against hope, that these humanitarian moments represent the accumulation of precedents that may underpin a better future.

However, as Professor Dabashi’s lament implies, history is not on our side (even now international law is being eroded away) and thus the prospect of a better future entails never-ending struggle. Nonetheless, as long as things like civil rights and international law are possibilities we can’t give up on them. I certainly don’t think that giving up is Dabashi’s intent. He just doesn’t want a bad situation denied based on delusional propaganda. Shaking loose from that propaganda is an essential first step—and perhaps, the hardest.

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

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