Collective Innocence


A few weeks ago while running at the gym, I was listening to a podcast of an interview on the Leonard Lopate Show with the now infamous William Ayers . While I am not qualified to comment on the veracity of Ayer’s accounts of the 1960s, I did find the following remarks by Ayers to be thought provoking:

We have never come to terms with the war in Vietnam, what we really did, what was lost there. in terms of purpose and so on. We haven’t learned what it means to invade and occupy a country. We haven’t accounted for responsibility. So while I get held up as somebody who was violent which I reject. I was not violent. Henry Kissinger gets a pass. There is something wrong with that. We ought to really have truth and reconciliation process if we want to understand what went on.

His words reminded me of another podcast I had listened to last year in November at the airport in Paris on my way back to Madrid. It was the Bill Moyers Journal podcast, and James H. Cone was talking about the history of lynching in America and how as a nation we refuse to recognize our collective guilt. For whatever reason, we take ourselves out of the historical context of our nation’s sins, and think of ourselves therefore as collectively innocent. How can I be responsible for slavery, the genocide of native Americans, or any serious of morally reprehensible actions committed by the nation before I was even born? As a matter of fact, even bringing up any of these matters can often times be considered anti-patriotic.

Why were Michelle Obama’s (politically unskilled) remarks about it being the first time she was every really proud our her country so blasphemous?  Would it be so bad to say that God should damn the historic misdeeds of our nation’s past, were that Jeremiah Wright’s intentions?

For argument’s sake, let’s give Bill Ayers the benefit of the doubt (even though Charles Lanes in the Washington Post has just disagreed  vehemently with Ayers’ version of events). Two thousand Vietnamese were being killed per week by the U.S. armed forces. Ayers was an anti-war activist, some of his tactics were sloppy and criminally negligent (he says he was a vandal not a terrorist). While is Ayers being demonized today for his vandalism, no one is questioning what we all know to be true: then Secretary of State Kissinger had fabricated evidence to keep us in a war that killed both U.S. military and Vietnamese civilians in the thousands. And for what? John McCain even gets to proudly boast Kissinger endorsing his campaign. Follow Ayers’ logic, and we should probably starting questioning how many civilians were killed on McCain’s bomber missions before he was shot down and became a hero. Ayers who killed no one is a villain, Kissinger and McCain are heroes because in an American self-image that denies any responsibility for its collection actions, the deaths of civilians by American armed forces is always justifiable collateral damage.

Even today when we discuss whether to pull out of Iraq, we think about the death toll in the U.S. military and the validity of the war, but we almost completely ignore the civilian tragedy — close to one million Iraqis. As mentioned, I don’t know enough about the Vietnam War or Mr. Ayers to support Ayers’ claims. Nevertheless, the willful blindness and that lack of synchronicity between what we think of our mission in the world and how we go about engaging in that mission is astonishing. We see ourselves, not only as a force of good, but as an ultimately infallible and guilt-free one. No wonder we refuse to ratify the International Criminal Court. It would shatter our identity.

But America’s exceptionalism and innocent self-image isn’t so exceptional. I see it here in Europe as well. In Spain, perhaps due to the excuse of 40 years of dictatorship, there is absolutely no sense of guilt for the country’s distant and recent histories of colonialism. Can you believe that Spain celebrates its conquest of the Americas with a military parade? That’s right, October 12th — the day Christopher Columbus discovered the New World under the Spanish flag — is both the Fiesta Nacional de España (the National Holiday of Spain) and Día de la Hispanidad (Hispanic Day). You would think that someone would realize that the Conquistators were not such a peaceful lot and that a show of military might is not the best way to commemorate worldwide Hispanic culture.

And the French are even debating whether the history they teach their children about French colonization (in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia) should include the positive effects of colonization. Which would those be? It’s like the Americans teaching that slavery was good for African Americans because they’d probably be poor were they living in Africa today (probably in a country that was a former French colony).

Then this morning on Talk of the Nation, Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, was asked by a caller why the U.S. assumed a leadership role in resolving the world’s problems, especially those of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Haas said that the lesson from 911 was that the U.S. had to get involved in these problems because they presented a risk to America and that the U.S. was able to affect the world “hopefully” for the better.

Here we go again: we are the innocent, exceptional country who is acting in self-defense or altruistically to save the world. The fact of the matter is that we need stability in the region, not because of a military threat but to maintain our consumer lifestyle. We need cheap oil in the Gulf so we can continue driving big SUVs, and we need China to keep financing our debt (so we won’t have to raise taxes) and we need China exporting consumer goods that we buy for almost nothing at WalMart. And who is directly between the oil and the Chinese? Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

We may be a force in the world, but let’s call a spade a spade. We’re a force of good for the U.S. in the world. Everything else is just collateral damage.



Filed under Essays

3 responses to “Collective Innocence

  1. ReWrite

    Excellent post

  2. eric

    I was thinking that it was too radical. Now that you like it, I KNOW that it is radical. 🙂

  3. ReWrite

    Yup. I think you have moved towards the left since the inception of this blog.

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