The myth of the indispensable nation
Vinay Lal | 22 Jan, 2021
Donald Trump and Melania Trump leaving the White House, January 20 (Photo: AP)
A ‘date which will live in infamy’: such were the words used by Franklin D Roosevelt to characterise the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 and similarly invoked by Chuck Schumer, minority leader in the US Senate, on January 6th this year when Donald Trump’s overwhelmingly white stormtroopers descended upon the US Capitol with the declared intent to safeguard the Republic—many more would say to sow terror and confusion—and ‘stop the steal’. The presidency of Donald J Trump had come down to this: what had begun at his inaugural address as a promise that the ‘carnage’ would end with his ascendancy to the White House was now, after four years of bitter acrimony, a ruthless disregard for all norms of truth and civility, and a veritable call to arms to bring liberals and alleged ‘radicals’ to heel, being bookended with carnage in the ‘citadel of democracy’ as a violent mob swept through the US Capitol, vandalising offices, assaulting police officials, creating mayhem, smearing walls with excrement—and leaving behind five dead.
What transpired at the US Capitol has seemed utterly inconceivable to many around the world who, even as the US appeared as a bully on the world stage or faltered every now and then, thought of the country as ‘the shining city on the hill’. It was then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who in 1998 first described the US as ‘the indispensable nation’, words that would be parroted by Barack Obama in 2012 when, in addressing 1,000 graduates of the US Air Force Academy, he gallantly announced that he saw in front of him “an American century because no other nation seeks the role that we play in global affairs, and no other nation can play the role that we play in global affairs”. Whatever the arrogance of such a view, Obama almost certainly thought it within his rights to think thus: when he was elected for his first term in 2008, his triumph was celebrated in many countries as though he had been elected the president of their country. The people who behaved and thought such were echoing only the reality that was palpably present to them: the US does often decide the fate of nations. After all, people should at the very least be permitted to choose whether they would like their country blown to bits by a rabid Republican, an old-fashioned conservative, a liberal Democrat or—though the world was spared this spectacle the last four years—a vengeful president.
There is, it must be admitted, nothing quite like the idea of America in modern world history. No country has so thoroughly monopolised the world’s imagination. When America cries, the world starts shedding tears; when it exults, it expects the rest of the world to follow suit. And often the world willingly obliges.
Le Monde, the newspaper of the French intelligentsia and establishment, was practically beside itself with grief when, a little short of 20 years ago, the Twin Towers were brought down. ‘We Are All Americans’, it unabashedly screamed in a headline the day following the attacks, though France otherwise is a country that affects a haughty superiority when it comes to art, literature, language, wine, perfumes, lingerie and the infernal baguette. No one doubts that there would have been no such proclamation of solidarity—what in the characteristically anodyne, indeed insipid, language perfected by Americans is summarised in the phrase ‘thoughts and prayers’—if the Twin Towers had been brought down in Bogota, Islamabad, Nairobi or New Delhi. When the misogynists and serial sexual assaulters in the US found their match in women who launched the MeToo movement, suddenly every country had its MeToo awakening; when Black Lives Matter (BLM) created minor tremors in the US, a country into whose genetic code racism is all but inscribed, every country started having its own variant of BLM—even though racism in the US, whatever the forms it may take elsewhere, is a malady that, as James Baldwin would have said, began and can only end in the minds of white people. The world waits and watches for cues to come from the US—the indispensable nation, after all.
No country has ever been so spectacularly successful in the course of history as the US in making its own self-representation the template by which everyone else judges it. It is not entirely coincidental that it is in the US that advertising, even if Thomas J Barratt in the late 19th century wrought a revolution in London with his slogans seeking to bring Pears soap into every British household, was first established as a profession. But America was beginning to sell itself to the world long before Madison Avenue would become the byword for the cut-throat advertising agency. The fiction that America was a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which the white European had but to write his name, was intrinsic to the story of the ‘settlement’ of the land by the Pilgrims and later the Puritans. These English settlers were beholden to the notion that America is divinely favoured and they saw themselves as carrying out, in the phrase of the Harvard intellectual historian Perry Miller, an ‘errand into the wilderness’. Intent on carving out a sacred geography from what they largely conceived as emptiness, the European settlers gave no thought to the consideration that, in native American cosmologies, every stone, tree, mountain and body of water is imbued with sacred meaning. They were firmly persuaded that in the settlement of America by European Christians lay the fulfilment of sacred history: here, in America, which encompassed ‘the ends of the earth’, prophecy would itself come to an end. The groundwork had been laid some decades before the first permanent English settlement came into being in Jamestown in 1607: one writer, opining in a tract published in 1577, reasoned that ‘these Christians have discovered these countries and people, which so long have been unknown, and they not us: which plainly may argue, that it is God’s good will and pleasure, they should be instructed in his divine service and religion, which from the beginning have been nuzzled and nourished in atheism, gross ignorance and barbarous behavior’.
There is nothing quite like the idea of America in modern world history. No country has so thoroughly monopolised the world’s imagination
The arguments are instructive, pointing as they do to what would culminate over the decades and centuries in what is called ‘the American way of life’. The indigenous people and their lands were waiting to be ‘discovered’ and thus become ‘fulfilled’. The Europeans ‘discovered’ the Indians, ‘and they not us’: clear grounds for a hierarchy—one ordained by ‘God’s good will’. It is the further ‘pleasure’ of God that they, the savages mired in atheism, gross ignorance and ignoble customs, should be ‘instructed in his divine service and religion’. Yet the exceptionality of the European settlers still lay elsewhere, as the English theologian John Cotton, who would in time minister to the Puritans at the Massachusetts Bay Colony, made clear. He explained in 1630 that ‘other peoples have their land by providence; we have it by promise’. Thus the settlement of America by white Christians was no accident of history, even far more so than the design of history; it was the redemption of God’s promise to plant the seed of the white man on alien and purportedly barren land that was just there for the taking. Where the utopias previously envisioned by European thinkers looked to the past, here Christ’s kingdom on earth took on an entirely new meaning since, as it was imagined, neither history nor tradition encumbered the Puritans as they sought individual and corporate spiritual and material uplift. From the multiple perspectives of geography, time and history, the literary critic Sacvan Bercovitch has remarked, ‘America was ‘pulcherrima inter mulieres, the youngest and loveliest of Christ’s brides,’ the last, best hope of mankind, whether mankind knew it or not.’
It is only a minor point of difference that Lincoln was perhaps referring more to the democratic form of government rather than to the US as such when, in the midst of the Civil War, he beseeched Americans to recognise their country as ‘a light unto the world, the last great hope for humankind’. He was playing with the similarly ambiguous language broached by Thomas Jefferson in his First Inaugural Address (1801) when he implored those of his countrymen who feared that ‘a republican government cannot be strong’ to consider whether they would be justified in abandoning a government that had kept them free from the thraldom of theocracy and was doubtless ‘the world’s best hope’. The form of government in America, Jefferson would say, ‘is the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern’. It is these idealised expressions that have led to much ink being spilled on America’s Founding Fathers and the apparent nobility of purpose with which they were guided to steer their fellow colonists to chart a course independent of the British sovereign and create their own history. This history has been captured in the phrase, ‘no taxation without representation’, though of course most of the world and nearly all of America would love no taxation—with or without representation. As Marx would have it, to paraphrase but lightly from his essay on the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, those who do not represent themselves will have representation thrust upon them.
To read the American Founding Fathers is to come away with the impression that the white colonists singularly bore the brunt of English oppression. There is nary a hint in all the sermonising that is on witness when ‘the American people’ are addressed by their president and God is called upon to shower blessings upon America that ‘America’ excludes as much as it includes—and that the epic ‘story of American freedom’ as charted by thousands of sometimes well-meaning Americans over three centuries is handily eclipsed by the story of American unfreedom. Indeed, the very extermination of the native Americans and the subjection of Black people to a draconian and barbarous regime of slavery were viewed by the colonists as taking place at the will of God. ‘I am very clear in my opinion,’ George Washington was writing on September 7th, 1783, ‘that policy and economy point very strongly to the expediency of being upon good terms with the Indians, and the propriety of purchasing their lands in preference to attempting to drive them by force of arms out of their Country; which… is like driving the wild Beasts of ye forest… when the gradual extension of our settlements will as certainly cause the savage, as the wolf, to retire; both being beasts of prey, though they differ in shape.’ War is inherent in the condition of the ‘savage’: this is implicit in Washington’s seemingly generous attempt to lay out a policy of dealing with native Americans, an insight that would cannibalise the impulse of a generation of Jeffersonians to root out Indians and tear them apart from their culture. The fate of the people of African origins could be surmised from the slave markets where they were treated as no different from chattel; it would be sealed by the document that marked the birth of the Republic. The Constitution of the US, a document that has often been described as a miraculous example of human ingenuity and the ultimate expression of the aspiration of a free people to govern themselves, and which on January 6th this year was being bandied around during the Senate debate over the certification of Joe Biden’s victory by Democrats and Republicans alike as ‘the greatest document of freedom’ in the world, permitted states to count three-fifths of their slave populations to determine their representation in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College.
In plain English, the Founding Fathers agreed, a slave was only three-fifths a human being; nor is there any evidence to suggest that this munificent bestowal of dignity to the slave provoked outrage among lovers of freedom. Two decades later, across the Atlantic in the French colony known as St Domingue, staging what is the greatest revolution that has been seen in the Americas, Black slaves revolted and under Toussaint L’Ouverture created the first free Black republic in the world. The idea that Black people might aspire to be free was, as the late Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot so eloquently argued in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995), all but unthinkable to the great European philosophes and chatterboxes. They puzzled over why Black people, whom they conceived as naturally in love with their own serfdom, should be at all agitated by the thought of freedom. Jefferson, who was delirious with joy at the overthrow of monarchy or what Edmund Burke memorably called the ‘cashiering of kings’ in France, took a contrary view of the Haitian Revolution: slaves in revolt were nothing but a mob, at worst a beast unleashed upon the innocents, and moreover they might instigate slaves in America to revolt. He refused to recognise Haitian independence. It wasn’t until 1825 that France acknowledged Haitian independence, though not without exacting punitive reparations that, with the accumulation of interest, would not be paid until 1947; meanwhile, the US, the ‘last best hope of earth’, and this from Lincoln’s 1862 message to Congress, did not recognise Haiti as a sovereign independent nation until the same year. The ‘Great Emancipator’ had at long last been shamed—at a time when the notion of ‘shame’ was part of a common and shared vocabulary of emotions and had not been, as is the case today, virtually obliterated from the pharmacopeia of remedies with which good can be effected—into acting with the thought that he could not in good faith seek to liberate one group of slaves while failing to recognise the hardwon freedoms of another group of slaves.
The very extermination of the native Americans and the subjection of Black people to a draconian and barbarous regime of slavery were viewed by the colonists as taking place at the will of god
Even as genocide and slavery spilled out from the pores and arteries of American society, Americans persisted in the widespread belief, as the sociologist Robert Bellah noted, that God is ‘actively interested and involved in history, with a special concern for America’. What has emerged from this is a discourse that scholars and commentators characterise as ‘American exceptionalism’. We may require, however, a more nuanced and discerning language to understand the anomalous state of America in world history since even in its despotism it appears to radiate light over the rest of the world. Such a view cannot be remotely captured in the benign not to mention pubescent enthusiasm with which Francis Fukuyama, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, celebrated ‘the end of history’. As if one article in National Interest (1989) was not enough to expound on an embarrassingly trite idea, he followed it up with a book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), the thesis of which was merely that with the demise of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Bloc the ‘end point of mankind’s ideological evolution’ had been achieved and Western liberal democracy could be viewed as the ‘final form of human government’ just as the market economy could be construed as the perfect arena for the fulfilment of human desires. Fukuyama should have recognised his true calling as the hatchet man for retailers: shop till you drop dead!
What Fukuyama did not divine is the dream work at which America excels. No empire ever colonised as thoroughly as has America; none has done so with as much conviction in its own innocence and with such unctuous arrogance as to believe that, whatever the deeds of America, to quote from a speech given by President George HW Bush in January 1992, “the world trusts us with power, and the world is right”. To see the dream work of America in play, it is enough to consider the unfailing gratitude with which many immigrants speak so warmly of the multiple freedoms of mobility, opportunity and expression that they have encountered in the land of plenty. It will not be enough to ask whether these immigrants are acquainted with, or care to know, the history of the holocaust perpetrated upon native Americans, the Indian wars, the slave trade, plantation slavery, the countless wars in which the US has been engaged, the Asian exclusion laws and the similarly endless list of atrocities that have been catalogued by Noam Chomsky, William Appleman Williams, Howard Zinn, William Blum, Chalmers Johnson and many others. Indeed, this argument will not do at all: the fact that they have been catalogued, and can be discussed, is at once trumpeted as an instantiation of American democracy. What is more arresting, apropos of immigrants, is that those who come from countries that have been bombed, bullied, terrorised or constantly been put under the muzzle of the gun are precisely those who declare their fidelity to the American flag, the culture of guns, and the laissez-faire and radically conservative policies of extremist Republicans. It is no accident that, in the recently concluded election of 2020, the Vietnamese-Americans, Cuban-Americans and Iranian-Americans were among those immigrant communities who most warmed up to Trump and the Republican Party. First bomb them, then get their votes. This, too, is part of the dream work of America.
THE DREAM work of America, the modes by which it proceeds, are at once more subtle and insidious. The now somewhat forgotten historian of the American South, David M Potter, was much closer to an understanding of this dream work. As he argued in The People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character, a set of lectures he wrote in 1950, America did indeed have a ‘revolutionary message to offer but we have been mistaken in our concept of what that message was. We supposed that our revelation was ‘democracy revolutionizing the world,’ but in reality it was ‘abundance revolutionizing the world’—a message which we did not preach and scarcely understood ourselves, but one which was peculiarly able to preach its own gospel without words’. Perhaps, growing up in India as a teenager, I sensed how the gospel of America insinuated itself into the very fabric of our being. It was the early mid-1970s: India had signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, and at the school in Delhi which I attended, Springdales, visitors from the Soviet Union frequently showed up at the morning assembly. But even in my middle-class milieu of west Delhi, far from the more anglicised parts of south Delhi which seemed rather elite, Anglo-American culture absolutely predominated. The late afternoons andholidays were given over to pop music and rock and roll; the comic books of Dennis the Menace and Archie; steamy American novels with blondes, Cadillacs, and martinis;news reports on the boxing matches of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman; and scrutinising the ads for a ‘Bullworker’. No sooner did an American picture get released at the movie hall Chanakya, sometimes a few years after it had already had a run in the US, we made a dash for it—even though we got the worst lot of Hollywood, from the lachrymose Love Story to lighter and altogether B-grade comedy-drama flicks such as Butterflies Are Free. It was the same story in Indonesia, where I spent two years in the early 1970s. It is in this devoutly Islamic country that I gorged on television re-runs of I Love Lucy and I Dream of Jeannie—and, most importantly, Bonanza: big sky country, wide expanse, miles and miles of ponderosas, a land of abundance colonising my dreams. That was the story in much of the world and certainly in what these days is called the Global South.
The US, the ‘last best hope of earth’, and this from Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 message to Congress, did not recognise Haiti, the world’s first free Black republic created at the turn of 19th century, as a sovereign independent nation until the same year
Yet, if at all America ever was an ‘indispensable nation’, it was so only for a short period of time—substantially shorter, in any case, than the period during which the Union Jack held sway over seaand land. A country which has bequeathed to the world the notion that everything is disposable has finally shown itself to be—well, dispensable if not disposable. A few people groaned and fewer still expressed umbrage when President Trump unabashedly dismissed African nations, Haiti and El Salvador as ‘shithole countries’, but, truth be told, the vast majority of Americans did not care. There was no national uproar, not even the pipsqueak of a collective response, much less a demonstration against this outrageous insult, from Black Lives Matter. African countries are apparently good enough only to be dumping grounds, as Lawrence Summers made it all too clear in a memo he wrote during his stint as chief economist at the World Bank. Sub-Saharan Africa could be more readily integrated into the world economy, Summers gave it as his expert opinion in a leaked memo, if it could be persuaded to surrender its untapped reservoirs of mineral wealth in exchange for toxic wastes, asbestos, leaded gasoline and other pollutants. ‘I have always thought that underpopulated countries in Africa are vastly underpolluted,’ Summers wrote before elaborating: ‘Their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low in pollutants compared to Los Angeles or Mexico.’ This is Summers’ idea of a ‘fair exchange’ facilitated by the free market; it is nothing more than theft and sanctifying the noxious idea that non-Europeans do not know how to make efficient use of their land and resources. Summers would later seek to exonerate himself with the remark that he was only being sarcastic, not a far cry from the rather more infamous observation by Trump that he had only engaged in ‘locker-room talk’ when he was discovered to have said that powerful men like him could grab women by their genitals and get away with it. Both Trump and Summers knew what they were talking about and what was altogether permissible in a country that thrives on pillage and plunder: the New York real estate swindler would go on to win the presidency, not before characterising Mexicans as ‘rapists’; Summers, in turn, would go on to serve as a high-level functionary in the Treasury Department before becoming its secretary, later assuming the presidency of Harvard, where he had to be coaxed into resigning after impugning the intelligence of women, before finding yet another stint of life under the allegedly enlightened Obama—as director of his National Economic Council. If you are white and privileged, you can certainly count on getting a second chance in life—and more. This, too, is America—the land of the free and the brave.
No one imagines that the US will be eviscerated from the global cultural imaginary so easily, though Britain’s slide into second-class status and even dementia should sound a cautionary note to the US. Apart from the self-flagellation called Brexit and the mindnumbing antics of the various mediocrities who constitute the royal family, Britain is today the conversation for those interested in lovely heritage homes or the ‘wholesome’ entertainment for ‘the family’ for which the BBC is still known and admired. The Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine may jog the memory of those whose gaze has so resolutely been set upon the Ivy League universities, Stanford, MIT and other American educational behemoths that they have forgotten that Britain is not devoid of institutions of higher learning.
‘I couldn’t help but notice that, when the subject of college came up in any Korean context,’ wrote Colin Marshall for the Los Angeles Review of Books Blog on December 26th, 2015 of his time in Korea, ‘it was only a matter of time before someone mentioned Harvard’. For some Korean students, barring Harvard there is nothing else beyond their own shores. When there is talk of sending their children abroad for higher education, Indian middle-class parents can think of nothing else except the US—and Australia, Canada and Britain only appear on their horizon when, for one reason or another, the US is out of reach. Those who arrive in the lesser settler colonies, the country cousins of the great power, console themselves with the thought that they are experiencing America vicariously and may yet in time gravitate to its shores.
In plain English, the founding fathers agreed, a slave was only three-fifths a human being; there is no evidence to suggest that this munificent bestowal of dignity to the slave provoked outrage among lovers of freedom
Not only has the US made deep inroads into so many domains of life, wielding the stick of cultural imperialism that the American political scientist, and yet another Harvard professor, Joseph S Nye, banalised as ‘soft power’, but it has indubitably gifted the world much in the realm of literature, music and genuinely interesting thought. The immensely creative intelligence of its New England Brahmins, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; the swashbuckling poet Walt Whitman and, a century later, the song writer and balladeer Bob Dylan; the legion of dazzling blues and jazz musicians who, as Homer would have said, turned the woes and sorrows of their people into poetry; or the extraordinary galaxy of African American writers, musicians, dissenters and political thinkers from the 1930s to the 1960s, among them Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Claude McKay, Marian Anderson, Nina Simone, Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, Fannie Lou Hamer and Rev Martin Luther King: all of this and more is the gift of America to the world. I myself have been shaped by this effulgent splash of brilliance and ethical striving in the midst of so much darkness.
When all is said and done, there is still the noose. The Times of India captured what transpired at the US Capitol with a headline read around the world: ‘COUP KLUX KLAN’. The events of that day require no dissection, and at this juncture it suffices to say that neither Trump nor the rioters should even remotely be considered as mere anomalies to what is otherwise held up as the purportedly uplifting story of America’s unique tryst with providential command. We are called upon to read the noose dangling from the gallows that was set up near the Capitol not only as an unimpeachable evidence of the design, over the course of 400 years, to terrorise Black people into abject submission but also as the noose that America has become around the rest of the world. One can only hope that the wretched scenes at the US Capitol will signal to the world that it is time to forget America. The world has had enough of America but the noose of its dream work may yet be the most formidable challenge to the future of humankind.