Letter to America | The Nation


Letter to America

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Concerned that a much-needed international perspective is missing from the debate in this country over the course of American foreign policy and US relations with the world, The Nation asked a number of distinguished foreign writers and thinkers to share their reflections with us. It is our hope that, as in the early 1980s, when a "letter" in these pages from the late E.P. Thompson expressing rising European concern about the Reagan Administration's nuclear weapons buildup was instrumental in building common bonds beween antinuclear movements across the Atlantic, this series will forge bonds between Americans concerned about how Washington is exercising power today and the rest of the world. We begin with a letter to an American friend written by the South African writer Breyten Breytenbach, whose opposition to apartheid resulted in his spending seven years in prison.
   --The Editors

About the Author

Breyten Breytenbach
Breyten Breytenbach is a renowned South African writer whose opposition to apartheid resulted in his being convicted of...

Dear Jack,

This is an extraordinarily difficult letter to write, and it may even be a perilous exercise. Dangerous because your present Administration and its specialized agencies by all accounts know no restraint in hitting out at any perceived enemy of America, and nobody or nothing can protect one from their vindictiveness. Not even American courts are any longer a bulwark against arbitrary exactions. Take the people being kept in that concentration camp in Guantánamo: They are literally extraterritorial, by force made anonymous and stateless so that no law, domestic or international, is habilitated to protect them. It may be an extreme example brought about by abnormal circumstances--but the criteria of human rights kick in, surely, precisely when the conditions are extreme and the situation is abnormal. The predominant yardstick of your government is not human rights but national interests. (Your President keeps repeating the mantra.) In what way is this order of priorities any different from those of the defunct Soviet Union or other totalitarian regimes?

The war against terror is an all-purpose fig leaf for violating or ignoring local laws and international agreements and treaties. So, talking to America is like dealing with a very aggressive beast: One must do so softly, not make any brusque moves or run off at the mouth if you wish to survive. In dancing with the enemy one follows his steps even if counting under one's breath. But do be careful not to dance too close to containers intended for transporting war prisoners in Afghanistan: One risks finding one's face blackened by a premature death.

Why is it difficult? Because the United States is a complex entity despite the gung-ho slogans and simplistic posturing in moments of national hysteria. Your political system is resilient and well tested; it has always harbored counterforces; it allows quite effectively for alternation: for a swing-back of the pendulum whenever policies have strayed too far from middle-class interests--with the result that you have a large middle ground of acceptable political practices. Why, through the role of elected representatives, the people who vote even have a rudimentary democratic control over public affairs! Except maybe in Florida. Better still--your history has shown how powerful a moral catharsis expressed through popular resistance to injustice can sometimes be; I have in mind the grassroots opposition to the Vietnam War. And all along there was no dearth of strong voices speaking firm convictions and enunciating sure ethical standards.

Where are they now? What happened to the influential intellectuals and the trustworthy journalists explaining the ineluctable consequences of your present policies? Where are the clergy calling for humility and some compassion for the rest of the world? Are there no ordinary folk pointing out that the President and his cronies are naked, cynical, morally reprehensible and very, very dangerous not only for the world but also for American interests--and by now probably out of control? Are these voices stifled? Has the public arena of freely debated expressions of concern been sapped of all influence? Are people indifferent to the havoc wreaked all over the world by America's diktat policies, destroying the underpinnings of decent international coexistence? Or are they perhaps secretly and shamefully gleeful, as closet supporters of this Showdown at OK Corral approach? They (and you and I) are most likely hunkered down, waiting for the storm of imbecility to pass. How deadened we have become!

In reality the workings of your governing system are opaque and covert, while hiding in the chattering spotlight of an ostensible transparency, even though the ultimate objective is clear. Who really makes the policy decisions? Sure, the respective functions are well identified: The elected representatives bluster and raise money, the lobbyists buy and sell favors, the media spin and purr patriotically, the intellectuals wring their soft hands, the minorities duck and dive and hang out flags... But who and what are the forces shaping America's role in the world?

The goal, I submit, is obvious: subjugating the world (which is barbarian, dangerous, envious and ungrateful) to US power for the sake of America's interests. That is, to the benefit of America's rich. It's as simple as that. Oh, there was a moment of high camp when it was suggested that the aim was to make the world safe for democracy! That particular fig leaf went up in cigar smoke and now all the other excuses are just so much bullshit, even the charlatan pretense of being a nation under siege. This last one, I further submit, was a sustained Orson Wellesian campaign to stampede the nation in order to better facilitate what was in effect a right-wing coup carried out by cracker fundamentalists, desk warriors proposing to "terminate" the states that they don't like, warmed up Dr. Strangeloves and oil-greedy conservative capitalists.

I do not want to equate your glorious nation with the deplorable image of a President who, at best, appears to be a bar-room braggart smirking and winking to his mates as he holds forth his hand-me-down platitudes and insights and naïve solutions. Because I know you have many faces and I realize how rich you are in diversity. Would I be writing this way if I had in mind a black or Hispanic or Asian-American, members of those vastly silent components of your society? It would be a tragic mistake for us out here to imagine that Bush represents the hearts and the minds of the majority of your countrymen. Many of your black and other compatriots must be just as anguished as we are.

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