The more I read history, the more I'm convinced that the United States, far from being God's appointed beacon for all mankind, was always a big talking, poor performing country in which the massive and willful stupidity of the majority engendered a moral rot incapable of withstanding manipulation and seduction by self-serving business/political interests. Thus, columnist Richard Cohen was merely acknowledging the latest example of such rot among the majority, when he asserted the Iraq War "was no mere failure of intelligence. This was a failure of character."
"Character" implies steadfast adherence to a moral code. But, as Walter Lippmann so cogently expressed it:
"No moral code, as such, will enable [a person] to know whether he is exercising his moral faculties on a real and an important event. For effective virtue, as Socrates pointed out long ago, is knowledge; and a code of right and wrong must wait upon a perception of the true and false." (Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Public, p. 20)
By disdaining knowledge unless it's practical (mainly in the service of business), technological (in the service of business) or biblically based — most Americans have proven themselves incapable of distinguishing between the true and the false throughout our history. Such willful ignorance has produced a culture of conformism (lending itself to manipulation) that was observed as early as the mid-19th century by Alexis de Tocqueville: "I know of no country where there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America."
In 1984, two scholars revalidated Tocqueville's observations in their book, The American Ethos. They concluded: "Most public debate in America…takes place within a relatively restricted segment of the ideological spectrum." Yet, more than 150 years ago, both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau thought they knew why.
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Long before business was centralized by dehumanizing corporate power, Emerson could assert in 1841: [T]he general system of our trade…is a system of selfishness; is not dictated by the high sentiments of human nature; is not measured by the exact law of reciprocity; much less by the sentiments of love and heroism, but is a system of distrust, of concealment, of superior keenness, not of giving but of taking advantage…."
And Thoreau, writing in Walden would complain: "Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them…Actually the laboring man has not the leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be any thing but a machine. How can he remember his ignorance - which his growth requires - who has so often to use his knowledge?"
Troubled by a culture based upon such "ignorance" and "taking advantage," civic and religious leaders, dating back to Puritan New England, "emphasized literacy, especially sufficient literacy to read the Bible, as a means to bring civilization to their country.
"But, as Lee Soltow and Edward Stevens conclude, this push for literacy 'was never more than a utilitarian value to serve greater spiritual and social ends.' [Soltow and Stevens, The Rise of Literacy and the Common School in the United States, p. 18] It was a 'particular' sort of literacy; certainly not designed to 'open vistas of imagination.'" [Ibid, p. 22, quoted in Walter C. Uhler, "Democracy or dominion," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 2004]
Because such "education" actually was designed to "instill proper beliefs and codes of conduct" [Soltow and Stevens, p. 22] rather than rigorous thinking in the minds of coarse, laboring Americans, one shouldn't be surprised that the mere ability to read the Bible didn't prevent the widespread propagation of the bogus "Curse of Ham" as the "most authoritative justification for 'Negro slavery.'" [David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, p. 66]
As actual readers of Genesis 9:18-27 should have known, Noah did not curse Ham, but Ham's son, Canaan. Moreover, Genesis 9:18-27 contains nothing to hint of race or color. That hardly mattered, however, because, as David Brion Davis has concluded, "it was not an originally racist biblical script that led to the enslavement of 'Ham's black descendents,' but rather the increasing enslavement of blacks that transformed biblical interpretation." [Ibid, pp. 66-67] Moral rot!
Professor Davis offers a devastating comparison of the immorality of late 19th century Southern Christians, still embracing the bogus "Curse of Ham," and the barbarian Tupinamba slaveholders in 16th century Brazil. According to Davis, the Tupinamba took great delight in humiliating their male slaves, before eventually murdering them and eating them - even saving specific bodily organs for honored guests. According to Davis, "[T]his freedom to degrade, dishonor, enslave, and even kill and eat gave the Tupinamba not only solidarity but a sense of superiority and transcendence." [Ibid, p. 29]
Although late 19th century American lynch mobs did not eat the blacks they murdered, a rotten superiority and solidarity were served as "Southern whites eagerly gathered as souvenirs the lynched victims' fingers, toes, bones, ears and teeth." They called them "nigger buttons." [Ibid]
Unfortunately, as Anatol Lieven has pointed out, "for a century and a half…the desire to preserve first slavery and then absolute Black separation and subordination had contributed enormously to the closing of the Southern mind, with consequences for America as a whole which has lasted down to our own day." [Lieven, America Right or Wrong p. 112]
For example, as Stephen R. Haynes has written, in Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery, the Rev. Benjamin Palmer delivered a 1901 New Year's Day, "Century Sermon" in New Orleans, in which he "utilized Noah's prophecy as an ex post facto rationale for his government's removal of Native Americans 'from the earth.'" And, as Haynes also notes, "when legal segregation came under concerted attack in the 1950s, the first impulse for many white Christians was to revive the curse to serve as a biblical defense of racial separation." [p. 103].
Keep in mind, (1) the Greater South extends beyond the borders of the former Confederacy, perhaps as far north as Route 40, which cuts across the middle of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois [Lieven, p. 107], (2) Southern evangelical Protestant religion has spread to other parts of the country [Ibid.] and (3) there are many Southerners and other Americans to whom these generalizations do not apply.
Nevertheless, says Lieven, "a process may have been at work in the United States which could be called the 'principle of the Claymore mine.'
"A Claymore is essentially a shaped plastic case packed with explosives and steel balls. The explosion, blocked at the rear and sides, hurls shrapnel in the direction of the enemy. Politicians and even media and business figures who express racist hostility to domestic minorities in public now often pay a very heavy price, even though everyone is well aware that, in private, such attitudes continue to stream through much of White American society.
"But as with a Claymore mine, the suppression of feelings at home may have only increased the force with which they are directed against foreigners, who remain a legitimate and publicly accepted target of hatred." [Ibid, p. 46] It's called bellicose nationalism.
And it's easy to tap into such moral rot. Take the candid 1989 admission by first generation neoconservative, Irving Kristol, the all-too-deserving father of the despicable "thug," William Kristol. It was the father who boasted: "If the president goes to the American people and wraps himself in the American flag and lets Congress wrap itself in the white flag of surrender, the president will win…The American people had never heard of Grenada. There is no reason they should have. The reason we gave for intervention - the risk to American medical students there - was phony but the reaction of the American people was absolutely and overwhelmingly favorable. They had no idea what was going on but they backed the president. They always will." [Ibid, p. 166]
Such moral rot explains why, when presidential candidate George W. Bush smugly asserted, "I may not know where Kosovo is, but I know what I believe," he was not judged to be a dimwit, but a man of character. Such moral rot also explains the ease with which an evil president and vice president — with the cynical aid of America's neocons — could manipulate the ignorant fears and blind rage of Americans into support for an illegal, immoral unprovoked war against Iraq.
Moreover, such moral rot explains why, even in the disastrous wake of the evil invasion he inspired, Darth Cheney could send out Christmas cards containing Benjamin Franklin's words: "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?" And, alas, such moral rot explains why President Bush - who, until two months before ordering his evil invasion of Iraq didn't even know that the country was populated by Sunnis and Shiites - could feel sufficiently confident about the collective stupidity of Americans to erroneously compare Iraq to Vietnam (a war that the moral coward supported, but worked so mightily to dodge).
Moral rot also explains American's current inability to see through Bush's "surge" propaganda. Simply consider two incontestable truths: (1) "As of late-August, no progress had been made in achieving the key objective of the "surge" - to provide safe space for political progress at the national level." [Anthony Cordesman, "Iraq's Insurgency and Civil Violence: Developments through Late August 2007," p. ii] and (2) such political progress, in the form of national reconciliation, cannot occur because the Shiites now in power consider their permanent political ascendancy to be predicated upon their ability to outlast the American occupation.
As the New York Times correctly noted: Mr. Maliki's government "is the logical product of the system the United States created, one that deliberately empowered the long-persecuted Shiite majority and deliberately marginalized the long-dominant Sunni Arab minority. It was all but sure to produce someone very like Mr. Maliki, a sectarian Shiite far more interested in settling scores than in reconciling all Iraqis to share power in a unified and peaceful democracy." ["The Problem Isn't Mr. Maliki," New York Times, August 24, 2007] Of course, it's difficult to foresee such problems, if you're a president who did not even know that the country he was preparing to invade contained such Shiites and Sunnis. Moral rot!
Finally, moral rot now explains what appears to be the inevitable march to war against Iran, or at least the bombing of its nuclear energy facilities. Having supported an illegal, immoral invasion of Iraq, which has inflicted untold suffering upon its people, most Americans - including Americans currently sitting in congress and running for president - find themselves incapable of thinking through just how to deal peacefully with Iran, the sole regional power to emerge preeminent from the debacle we initiated.
And, yet, we still consider ourselves an exceptional people!
Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA).
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