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Clash of Visualizations | The Nation

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Clash of Visualizations

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"We" means the United States. The Europeans, frightened of their own past, have lost the nerve to defend liberal civilization. Europe has "always needed to be rescued from its own manias" and now ignobly hopes that "by lying low [it] would avoid attacks on itself." They can at least stay out of mischief, Berman advises. Let the French, obsessed by capital punishment, wax eloquent about it. Let the Germans explain to credulous Muslim intellectuals, "overwhelmed by German philosophies from long ago," that Marx, Fichte and Nietzsche have been refuted. Meanwhile the United States, unhindered by shameful memories or a bad conscience, and always ready to offer "a steadying arm" to faint-hearted Europe, will do what needs to be done--beginning with an "anti-fascist war" in Iraq.

About the Author

George Scialabba
George Scialabba is the author of Divided Mind and, most recently, What Are Intellectuals Good For? and The Modern...

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How did the United States come by this good conscience? According to Berman, it results from an existential choice we made in our defining national moment, the Civil War. The North might have chosen the path of virtuous isolationism, letting the South secede and becoming an egalitarian social democracy. Instead the North chose, at a great cost in blood and treasure, to repair the Founders' mistake and render "the whole concept [of liberal society] a little sturdier." In so doing, it took on a "universal mission": "the defense of democratic self-rule...for the entire planet."

This is a dubious interpretation of the Civil War, which was fought as much to make the Western territories safe for capitalism as for any "concept of liberal society." If the South had been defeated quickly, the slaves might not have been freed for a very long time. Putting that aside, did the United States really take on the "universal mission" of "defending democratic self-rule" wherever possible? Did it (as Berman recently wrote in a special March 3 issue of the New Republic) become "more revolutionary, not less; by offering, in some form or another, liberty and solidarity to the entire world"?

Though this notion virtually defines the conventional wisdom in contemporary American political culture, I find it preposterous. In the nineteenth century, as Henry Cabot Lodge acknowledged, the United States compiled "a record of conquest, colonization, and expansion unequalled by any people." Its record in the twentieth century was no less execrable. The idealistic Woodrow Wilson made war on both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, killing thousands, in order to block constitutional rule and fortify the position of international investors and domestic elites. In the 1920s and '30s the US military occupied Nicaragua and Honduras for the same purpose. In 1954 the United States organized the ouster of a moderate democratic regime in Guatemala, and in 1965 invaded the Dominican Republic to prevent the return of one, resulting, both times, in horrendous violence and retarded development. In Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973 and Argentina in 1976 the United States instigated or welcomed the overthrow of democratic governments by murderously repressive (but investor-friendly) military juntas. In the 1980s the United States orchestrated fanatically bloody insurgencies and counterinsurgencies throughout Central America, invariably against movements or governments with more popular support than the US client. And the United States casually disregarded international law in order to invade Panama and Grenada, again with (in the former case) thousands of civilian deaths resulting. I have already alluded to US terrorism against Cuba.

This is a very partial list, restricted to US sins and crimes in the Western Hemisphere. A global reckoning would obviously be much more extensive. Not one of these episodes is mentioned in Terror and Liberalism. I cannot imagine why Berman judged all of them irrelevant to the question of whether the United States is truly dedicated to the "universal mission" of "defending democratic self-rule...for the entire planet."

Perhaps because Berman dislikes being reminded forcefully of the enormous factual record that demonstrates the absurdity of this claim, Terror and Liberalism includes a lengthy attack on Noam Chomsky. Ten pages of this slender book are devoted to painting Chomsky as a prime specimen of the left-wing "simple-minded rationalist," whose inability to comprehend the "mystery, self-contradiction, murk, or madness" of totalitarian movements leads him to attribute all the evil in the world to the "greed" of "giant corporations and their intellectual and governmental servants."

After the Indochina war, Berman writes, Chomsky had no way to explain the atrocities in Cambodia. He therefore set out, basing himself on his "customary blizzard of... obscure sources" (an ungracious remark, this, coming from the author of so lightly documented and empirically thin a book as Terror and Liberalism), to demonstrate that "in Indochina, despite everything published in the newspapers...that genocide never occurred," or if it did, was all America's fault.

What Chomsky and Edward Herman actually set out to do in The Political Economy of Human Rights was to show how differently the crimes of official enemies are treated in mainstream American media and scholarship than are those of official allies or of America itself. Accepting without argument the existence of "substantial and often gruesome atrocities" in postwar Cambodia, Chomsky and Herman reviewed the sources uncritically relied on in the mainstream, showed how inferior they were to sources that told a less convenient story and pointed out that equally credible sources that told of roughly equivalent atrocities within the American sphere of influence (for example, Indonesia's in East Timor) were generally ignored. Not the one-dimensional soundbite Berman alleges. But he is hardly alone in misrepresenting The Political Economy of Human Rights. Dealing fairly with the book's argument requires a modicum of discrimination, attention to detail and polemical scruple, courtesies rarely accorded Chomsky by his critics.

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