Over the last month, Bernie Sanders, in slowly cobbling together what might be called a “Bernie Doctrine,” has introduced a radical concept into American politics: the idea that history matters, that every effect has a cause.
It seems a simple point—that actions taken in the past reverberate into the present—but it’s not. For America’s militarized brand of malignant exceptionalism is founded on the idea that the United States transcends history. That statement—that America believes itself exempt from the law of cause and effect—seems especially abstract. But the belief has a very concrete expression: a refusal to recognize the reality of blowback.
Blowback, as many Nation readers are aware, was a term introduced into popular circulation by the late political scientist Chalmers Johnson, an old Cold Warrior turned dissident. Johnson said the phrase was first invented by the CIA to describe the “unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people”—the mayhem and murder that resulted from US actions abroad, including support for coups, drug runners, and dictators.
The question of causality is complex. For some philosophers and physicists, time might not exist. And since cause-and-effect reasoning needs the concept of time—of one thing preceding another—the effort to establish causality is a mug’s game, an infinite regression of increasingly unanswerable questions. But in the everyday, finite world we live in, we, as sentient beings, need causality to make sense of things, to order our experiences, distribute resources and power more equitably, and create the conditions for a more humane and sustainable society. Hillary Clinton herself makes this point, using this quotation in her It Takes a Village as an epigraph: “We cannot live only for ourselves. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results” (though she misattributes it to Herman Melville, when it is actually from the Rev. Henry Melvill, circa 1855).
But US militarism depends on (and is responsible for, but that’s another argument) a disassociation of cause and effect, a refusal to consider how actions taken in one decade—the overthrow, say, of Iran’s prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1953—might produce an “unintended consequence” in another decade, such as 1979’s Iranian Revolution. There are different ways by which the oblivion that allows this disassociation is produced. I did a lot of work on declassified US documents, mostly memos and cables generated by the US Embassy in Guatemala City during the worst of that country’s political terror. And I was always struck by historical stupor of most foreign policy officials. Occasionally, there’d be a flash of insight, including the recognition that Guatemala’s death squads were in fact created and maintained by Washington policy. But then that official would be rotated out of country after his two-year post, with his successor once again portraying the death squads as outside of US control.