Tuesday, July 05, 2005


Howard Zinn, the dean of progressive historians, has got his rant on again. This time he's exercised about "American exceptionalism."

The Wikipedia explanation of "American exceptionalism" is a good one that, I think, many historians would sign on to:

American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States and the American people hold a special place in the world, by offering opportunity and hope for humanity, derived from a unique balance of public and private interests governed by constitutional ideals that are focused on personal and economic freedom.

An even more serviceable, because less exclusive, definition is here:

Historical argument that the development of the United States was largely distinctive; contact with Western Europe was incidental to the larger development of the United States on its own terms.

Zinn, however, without alerting his readers that he's doing it, re-writes the definition of "American exceptionalism" before he attacks it. He draws a much narrower circle, and limits it to aggressive and unilateral crusading into a passive world on behalf of some perceived moralistic imperative. His exact definition is, "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 ...."

No longer are Americans merely different, but in Zinn's lurid version we insist on forcing other peoples to be civilized or free, with a presumed right to kill them if they resist. It's a straw man that would make Ray Bolger proud -- but then, whoever has the straw concession at Zinn's university must be a rich man by now. Having set up his artificial target, he goes to work on it, telling us this American perversion is nothing 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.

And so forth through the usual liturgical reading from "The Book of Why America is Evil." Forget "shining" in any sense. The American Revolution and everything that followed from it? Not freedom, not liberty. How could it have been good for the world? It was bad for the Indians.

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.

I can't tell you how proud it makes me to be, even peripherally, in the profession that is led by an academic whose statement about the American Revolution is no better than that. (No better, but broader. He writes a good deal about the Revolution in other places. All of it ultimately negative, of course.)

But Zinn isn't really interested in history here. He rarely is in the speeches I've read. He's focused on the present, and on shifting the future into the channel he wants to see it take. The past is just his chosen tool to effect that change. As if you didn't know, he's re-defined "American exceptionalism" for the sake of talking about Iraq.

Expanding into another territory, occupying that territory, and dealing harshly with people who resist occupation has been a persistent fact of American history from the first settlements to the present day. And this was often accompanied from very early on with a particular form of American exceptionalism: the idea that American expansion is divinely ordained.

And so the business of conquest and occupation -- the least exceptional thing about the United States -- somehow becomes the focus of "American Exceptionalism" in this article. Along with the horror of leaders who talk and really think about their religion, and who try to discover and do "God's will." And of "progressives" who are so far fallen from grace as to allow America's right to stop a terrorist attack before it happens.

What is the answer to the insistence on American exceptionalism? Those of us in the United States and in the world who do not accept it must declare forcibly that the ethical norms concerning peace and human rights should be observed.

Begging the question, "whose ethical norms?" He can't mean those of the Bill of Rights. That was just about killing the Indians, after all, so it has no legitimacy. Also going a-begging is the question of who does something about it when the Taliban's treatment of women, or Saddam Hussein's treatment of Kuwait, doesn't measure up to the "ethical norms" of peace and human rights.

If those sorts of crimes even register on Zinn's radar screen. They don't seem to. The odd thing is, Zinn exhibits a sort of negative reverse American exceptionalism by being obsessed with America's crimes -- real, alleged, or imagined -- without taking notice of the behavior of any other nation for purposes of honest comparison.

These are fundamental moral principles. If our government doesn’t uphold them, the citizenry must. At certain times in recent history, imperial powers — the British in India and East Africa, the Belgians in the Congo, the French in Algeria, the Dutch and French in Southeast Asia, the Portuguese in Angola — have reluctantly surrendered their possessions and swallowed their pride when they were forced to by massive resistance.

Wow, I knew so little about history until I started reading this! "Massive resistance" chased the Dutch out of East Asia? And here I thought it was the Allied naval defeat in the Battle of Java Sea along with invasion and occupation by the Japanese Sixteenth and Twenty-Fifth armies. Nazi devastation of the Netherlands prevented any serious attempt to resume the colony after the war.

"Massive resistance" overcame Dien Bien Phu? And here I thought it was more than 200 pieces of Soviet-supplied artillery, including Russian Katyusha multiple rocket launchers. The Portuguese in Angola? Pay no attention to that Cuban support for the MPLA.

But look at Zinn's "people power" list: all liberal Western democracies. Not a fundamentalist tyranny or a fascistic state on the list. Ever wonder why those Gandhi tactics don't work so well in countries that have real Gulags and real Dachaus?

And look at the indigenous governments that replaced the old imperial ones. In every case except India, the "life and liberty" of the citizens was measurably worse off. India, too, if you take the British colony as a whole, including Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Not just as a hangover from imperialism. The Belgians and Portuguese were particularly poor models of colonizers, because they spent so much time trying to engineer the lives of their native subjects. But what followed them into power did worse, and with less paternalism and more rapine.

Yet even with that, at the time of independence, the Belgian Congo had the highest literacy rate in Africa (42 percent) and a higher ratio of hospital beds to inhabitants than any country in Africa -- more than Belgium, in fact. Belgian rule was not brought down by a popular uprising so much as by rivalries of tribal leaders and mutinous army garrisons. Western interests quickly made peace with the thug who rose to the top, Mubutu, and they all got rich together. Within 20 years of independence, most major roads in the new nation (now called Zaire) were unusable, as were two-thirds of the vehicles that would have driven on them had they not crumbled into mud. Forty-two percent of the population under age 5 was suffering from malnutrition.

Fortunately, there are people all over the world who believe that human beings everywhere deserve the same rights to life and liberty. On February 15, 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, more than ten million people in more than 60 countries around the world demonstrated against that war.

Wow, so these people believe Iraqis had liberty before the overthrow of Saddam, but not after. Boy, this history stuff sure is fascinating!

The true heroes of our history are those Americans who refused to accept that we have a special claim to morality and the right to exert our force on the rest of the world. I think of William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist. On the masthead of his antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, were the words, “My country is the world. My countrymen are mankind.”

And that's the grand finale. Zinn spends a good deal of his speech deriding George W. Bush, Colin Powell, and their like for various statements they've made that betray, to Zinn, a lack of historical understanding among these men.

Then he turns around and with a straight face presents us a howler like this, expecting us to swallow it and applaud. Garrison? Refusing "a special claim on morality?" Garrison denying a "right to exert our force" for the sake of that morality? Good Lord, Zinn couldn't have picked a truer descendant of Jonathan Winthrop.

He blunders, unforced, into the most embarrassing -- for a progressive -- story of "the business of conquest and occupation" in American history: The violent subjugation and moralistic reordering of the culturally independent Confederate States of America after 1865. So was that a good thing or a bad thing?

He invokes as his ideal American a man steeped in religion, who violated every "ethical norm" of his time and place, for the sake of his moralistic vision. Zinn couldn't have found a more "exceptional" American if he tried.

William Lloyd Garrison shed his apolitical pacifistic beliefs the minute he saw the politically motivated Civil War as the means to achieve his desire to re-order the social fabric of America.

Even before the war began, in the late 1850s, when most Americans hoped for a peaceful resolution of the slavery conflict, Garrison was looking to a military solution. In 1856, The Liberator announced plans for a convention to consider immediate disunion. A resolution read, in part:

Resolved, that the sooner the separation takes place, the more peaceful it will be; but that peace or war is a secondary consideration in view of our present perils. Slavery must be conquered, peacefully if we can, forcibly if we must.

It's almost a straight precedent of Zinn's damning phrase, "to bring ... liberty to the rest of the world, by violence if necessary."

He had another motto on the masthead of his newspaper, not the one Zinn cares to notice, for years: "No Union with Slave-Holders." Having read the South out of the Union, and done everything in his power to make it an alien nation to his own, Garrison then turned around and lent his every power to the cause of military subjugation of that nation for the sake of transforming it through the moral imperative of his own home-grown ideals.

Garrison placed his personal moral vision above every ethic. He burned the U.S. Constitution in public at Framingham, Massachusetts, on the Fourth of July 1854. Even among his own anti-slavery peers abroad, in Britain, he insisted they adhere to his notions of what was a proper morality, or else he broke off from them entirely.

He spoke of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party in terms as fervently evangelical as anything George W. Bush ever uttered. They were "instruments in the hands of God to carry forward and help achieve the great object of emancipation." His own newspaper's masthead featured an image of Jesus.

This is all natural for a man whose mother was a lay preacher in the Baptist church, who founded women’s prayer meetings in most of the towns where she lived. Garrison was raised collectively by a deeply pious church community, and the form, if not always the content, of his crusade was entirely consistent with Christian missionary zeal. He tried first working through the Northern pulpits before he decided to go around them. Before he burned the Constitution at Framingham, he read aloud from the Bible.

When the Civil War began, the "No Union with Slaveholders" motto was jettisoned and in its place Garrison put "proclaim Liberty throughout all the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof," a verse (via the Liberty Bell) right out of Leviticus.

[More Zinn commentary here, and here.]

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