From Liberty Street: Real Americans

John Turner


The Bush administration's tactic of calling in question the loyalty of U. S. citizens who oppose government policies raises the issue of genuine nationality. What is to be, really, an American here in the first decade of the twenty-first century?

It has taken a relatively short time for the image of Americans to be transformed in the eyes of the rest of the world. There is no doubt that we are no longer seen as good people. I was struck, yesterday, watching The McLaughlin Group, at how strongly the various members of the panel rated American unpopularity. Each member said he or she had never before seen anything resembling the level of dislike most of the world's people feel for our country. What's more, several panelists said it can only get worse.

In his entrancing little book, After the Empire, French theorist Emmanuel Todd points out that no nation can resist the changes brought by time. Who Americans were thirty or forty years ago is no longer who they are today. In the 1960s and 1970s, Todd says, the United States was a positive force in the world. Now we have become a problem for the rest of the world's people, a problem expressed by the question: "How does one deal with a superpower that is economically dependent but also politically useless?"

A nation's definition must necessarily be different for a foreign observer and a hopeful citizen. The honest foreigner sees the nation as it is at the moment and describes it forthrightly. The citizen sees the nation as it is in his heart and regards aberrations from that ideal as temporary. Only the future can tell us which of those perceptions is more charged with truth.

Right now it is impossible to say whether America is the nation envisioned by Jefferson and Lincoln or whether it is a nation defined by the behavior and goals of George Bush. But we can say that those two national visions are strongly opposed.

Todd argues that recent American actions seem bizarre to the world because neither the world nor Americans have assimilated what the United States has become. Here's how he characterizes this new thing that will, more and more, be recognized as the American reality:

Since a free and democratic order is slowly being sapped of its substance within the
United States, the country's goal can hardly be to defend such an order abroad. What
has become of prime importance is supplying the country with various commodities
and capital. From now on the fundamental strategic objective of the United States will
be political control of the world's resources.

Is he right? From now on, will the United States be a force which seeks to siphon both resources and capital away from the rest of the world, and which relies on its military force to ensure that nobody else dares to resist it? That clearly has been the policy of the Bush administration. But is it actually the policy of America?

It depends on what's in the hearts and minds of Americans.  I don't want my country to be the thing Bush and his cronies are trying to bring into being. I don't want us to be hated by the rest of the world because they see us as an engorged leech. I don't want us to use military force to bludgeon and torture other people. But whether I'm with the majority or my fellow citizens or, am now, a member of a shrinking and embattled minority, I can't say for sure.

It has struck me, lately, that when the president tells us what his duties are, he never mentions preserving and protecting of the Constitution of the United States. He does not appear to perceive himself as a Constitutional officer. How he sees himself, of course, affects government behavior in the short run. But the serious issue is how the people see the function of the president as we move deeper into the new century. If we demand from the president respect for the Constitution, then we will be growing from our roots. But if we expect the president to frighten and coerce the rest of the world on our behalf, then we will be transmogrifying into something else.

History is both a fascinating and horrifying process. It is open to wonderful developments, but it guarantees nothing. It certainly doesn't guarantee what Americans are or what their country is going to be. I find myself caught up -- as Mr. Jefferson used to say -- in a battle between the head and the heart. And in this case, I hope the heart will find a way to prevail.



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Harvard Square Commentary, September 25, 2006