Sunday, July 28, 2013

The United States of Amnesia

Why is it that the trip home messes up my routines more than the trip out?

Anyway, I finished reading Richard Seymour's American Insurgents: A Brief History of American Imperialism (Haymarket Books, 2012), and I recommend to anybody who might be interested.  It's especially good because it's relatively short -- only a little over 200 pages -- and because it connects the past to the present, almost up to the publication date, so it's good for younger people who want a manageable introduction to our history from this point of view.  Zinn's People's History, for example, is also a good introduction, but looks intimidatingly hefty.  American Insurgents is more like Noam Chomsky's Hopes and Prospects (also, by a nice coincidence, published by Haymarket Books, 2010), which covers roughly the same period with a focus on economic history.  Chomsky's Propaganda and the Public Mind (South End, 2001), one of his books of interviews with David Barsamian, is useful in the same way for those of us who have trouble remembering the Clinton years.  It's good to know this history, because defenders of the status quo like to switch between insisting that this or that current atrocity is just an aberration in the otherwise glorious cavalcade of American greatness, and (when faced with the history) accusing critics of dredging up the dead distant past, which nobody cares about, just to make America look bad, but we've fixed all that now.

But back to American Insurgents.  Seymour does a nice job demolishing some of the partisan divisions that structure mainstream American history, as I was taught it in school and by the media.  "Isolationism," for example.  There may be a few people who want to turn the US into a Hermit Republic, but usually the people who are called isolationists are quite happy to have us imposing our will on other countries.  As in the passage I quoted in Thursday's post, Pat Buchanan supported the US invasion of Vietnam, and was "a co-architect of Reagan's aggression in Central America."  Many "isolationists" see the Western hemisphere as part of the US, to be invaded, played with, and disciplined as our leaders see fit.  Their non-interventionism is highly selective, guided by expediency and the needs of American corporations for markets and raw materials.  Opposing aggression by one's government is not isolationism, however much patriots would have you believe otherwise.

Another theme he stresses is the involvement of working people, and of African-Americans, in anti-imperialist movements; educated elites were more likely to support imperialism.  (His account of the flipflop of American progressives and liberals about the First World War is illuminating.)  But even in among that popular bogeyman class, college students, the picture is more complicated than the mainstream would have it:
In truth, US students had long ceased to be the children of privilege, and a large number of even Ivy League students were recipients of financial aid.  Moreover, opposition to the [Vietnam] war was not concentrated among affluent college students.  Every scientific study has shown that opposition to the war was inversely proportional to wealth and education.  Blue-collar workers were doves, favoring withdrawal, while the hawks were concentrated among the college-educated high-income strata.  What can also be said is that most Americans were unwilling to fight the war, pay the necessary taxes to support it, or vote for candidates who, like Barry Goldwater, pledged a fight to victory.  From 1964 through the end of the war, every candidate except Goldwater professed to be a "peace" candidate [127-128].
But he also cautions that although "the divisions between 'hard hats' and students" -- many of the latter, I repeat, were children of those "hard hats" -- "have been caricatured, they weren't fabricated" (128).  But then much of organized labor, especially the bureaucracy at the highest levels, already collaborated with the elites.  And "the ultraleftism of some of the protesters alienated labor ... Nevertheless, there were always those in both camps who sought to keep open channels, and the spread of antiwar sentiment among workers was encouraging enough to New Left activists to raise the possibility of acting together" (128-9).  Additionally the rise of antiwar veterans of the war as a major sector of the antiwar movement must be remembered.

Another theme running through American Insurgents is "the pattern, which persists to this day, for Republicans and Democrats to criticize one another's wars, channeling popular discontent into their own campaigns where it is disarmed, while preserving the ideological underpinning of US imperialism" (112).  Barack Obama didn't invent it; it goes back at least to the First World War.
War fever didn't have to last long -- it never does, and its effects are necessarily superficial.  It relies on a certain forgetting, an "innocence" (as we sometimes call willful ignorance) about American's role, against which the best antidote is the condensed knowledge of internationalist political movements [167].
American Insurgents offers a manageable, and well-made, dose of that antidote.