Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Myth of Morality

I’m only several pages into The Forging of the American Empire by Sidney Lens and I’m already struck by his summation of the animating impulse of American Empire under the phrase the myth of morality. So powerful and all embracing is this myth that we have committed the lives of men and women and our economy to the pursuit thereof, blind to the reality that underpins it.

The grace notes of this myth are on full display in the campaign rhetoric of the presidential candidates. We hear of democracy, freedom, equality spoken against a star-spangled backdrop of political tradition and we think we know what is being said. But what does democracy mean in a context of disenfranchising voters, a feat that if accomplished turns those thus affected in unpeople. The unpeople according to George Orwell are those who are not considered, whose viewpoints are not just ignored but negated. What does freedom mean in a context of indefinite detention, an ugly provision of the odious Patriot Act granted continued life by Obama? And what can equality mean against an overall backdrop of privilege, a disappearing middle class, and institutional racism?

Those questions, however, if raised at all, are answered with an insistence in the primacy of the myth and with impatience for what is deemed obvious. As Howard Zinn, in his introduction to Len’s book, writes:

            In early 2003, Michael Ignatieff, a Harvard professor, wrote in the New York

America’s empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest and white man’s burden. We are no longer in the era of the United Fruit Company, when American corporations needed the Marines to secure their investments overseas. The 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy.

Only someone blind to the history of the United States, its obsessive drive for control of oil, its endless expansion of military bases around the world, its domination of other countries through its enormous economic power, its violations of the human rights of millions of people, whether directly or through proxy governments, could make that statement.

As Zinn makes clear, we must ignore American misdeeds in order to derive solace from this “myth of morality.” We trumpet our bellicose international interventions in slogans such as “Freedom Isn’t Free” when, more to the point we should proclaim, “Free Markets (so-called) Are Not Freedom!”

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