Today is the 4th of July, that day when we celebrate the myth many of us have been socialized to accept--this idea that America is this beacon of freedom and liberty to the rest of the world. We are the shining example of democracy and equality that is so much hogwash when the facts are analyzed.
I won't be flying the flag today, nor will I be attending any fireworks tonight. I used to enjoy fireworks, but I've become uncomfortable gathering where jingoism is openly promoted and flaunted.
I've developed a deep respect for Howard Zinn that began when I read his A People's History of the United States. I'm eternally grateful for that book, as it opened my eyes to that which I didn't want to believe--that the United States and its history was one of imperialism, not exceptionalism. I've read several other books by Zinn since then.
I had the good fortune of being able to attend a lecture by Zinn back in November of 2002 at Bates College. Along with my son Mark, home from college, we went to hear Zinn--at the time, 77 years old--clearly make a case for the injustice of that war. Here we are almost two years later, without a clear plan and no intention of leaving the region.
For your 4th of July reading, I've posted a portion of Zinn's essay from Boston Review; a deflation of the American myth of exceptionalism. You can read the remainder here:
The Power and the Glory: Myths of American exceptionalism
by, Howard Zinn
The notion of American exceptionalism—that the United States alone has the right, whether by divine sanction or moral obligation, to bring civilization, or democracy, or liberty to the rest of the world, by violence if necessary—is not new. It started as early as 1630 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony when Governor John Winthrop uttered the words that centuries later would be quoted by Ronald Reagan. Winthrop called the Massachusetts Bay Colony a “city upon a hill.” Reagan embellished a little, calling it a “shining city on a hill.”
The idea of a city on a hill is heartwarming. It suggests what George Bush has spoken of: that the United States is a beacon of liberty and democracy. People can look to us and learn from and emulate us.
In reality, we have never been just a city on a hill. A few years after Governor Winthrop uttered his famous words, the people in the city on a hill moved out to massacre the Pequot Indians. Here’s a description by William Bradford, an early settler, of Captain John Mason’s attack on a Pequot village.
"Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword, some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived that they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hands and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy."
The kind of massacre described by Bradford occurs again and again as Americans march west to the Pacific and south to the Gulf of Mexico. (In fact our celebrated war of liberation, the American Revolution, was disastrous for the Indians. Colonists had been restrained from encroaching on the Indian territory by the British and the boundary set up in their Proclamation of 1763. American independence wiped out that boundary.)
Invoking God has been a habit for American presidents throughout the nation’s history, but George W. Bush has made a specialty of it. For an article in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, the reporter talked with Palestinian leaders who had met with Bush. One of them reported that Bush told him, “God told me to strike at al Qaeda. And I struck them. And then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did. And now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East.” It’s hard to know if the quote is authentic, especially because it is so literate. But it certainly is consistent with Bush’s oft-expressed claims. A more credible story comes from a Bush supporter, Richard Lamb, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who says that during the election campaign Bush told him, “I believe God wants me to be president. But if that doesn’t happen, that’s okay.”
Divine ordination is a very dangerous idea, especially when combined with military power (the United States has 10,000 nuclear weapons, with military bases in a hundred different countries and warships on every sea). With God’s approval, you need no human standard of morality. Anyone today who claims the support of God might be embarrassed to recall that the Nazi storm troopers had inscribed on their belts, “Gott mit uns” (“God with us”).
Not every American leader claimed divine sanction, but the idea persisted that the United States was uniquely justified in using its power to expand throughout the world. In 1945, at the end of World War II, Henry Luce, the owner of a vast chain of media enterprises—Time, Life, Fortune—declared that this would be “the American Century,” that victory in the war gave the United States the right “to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”
This confident prophecy was acted out all through the rest of the 20th century. Almost immediately after World War II the United States penetrated the oil regions of the Middle East by special arrangement with Saudi Arabia. It established military bases in Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and a number of Pacific islands. In the next decades it orchestrated right-wing coups in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile, and gave military aid to various dictatorships in the Caribbean. In an attempt to establish a foothold in Southeast Asia it invaded Vietnam and bombed Laos and Cambodia.