The United States claims to be the exceptional nation. Perhaps what makes it particularly exceptional is not just its belief in but also its consistent commitment to two things that are only seemingly contradictory: democracy and war. Most people, after all, associate democracy with ideas such as justice, fairness, tolerance, peace and collective problem-solving.
The US constitution formalized the idea of democracy around the notion of “general welfare” and social peace by removing the privilege of a superior class that commands the destiny of ordinary citizens. History over the past two centuries shows that there are other ways of granting quasi-absolute social control to self-conscious elites, even when the existence of a ruling class is denied and the formal institutions defining that class abolished. Generations of politicians have put in place a looser system that nevertheless ends up duplicating the same class logic.
Democracies will always struggle with the preservation of democracy’s promise of equality and justice. As for war, it came into existence thanks to a war of independence that Americans still refer to as “the revolutionary war.” To the extent that the war liberated a European population from the thralls of monarchy, it was revolutionary in its effect, if not in its intent. The colonists simply wanted to run their own affairs. They did not seek specifically to overturn monarchy itself. Congress even debated “as to whether the delegates should address the president as ‘His Majesty the President’ or ‘His Highness the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties.’” Oliver Cromwell, who beheaded a king, bore the title of Lord Protector of the Commonwealth.
Even if the founders of the nation were not revolutionaries, the idea of revolution became quickly woven into the core of American mythology. Revolution signifies a moment of instantaneous and irreversible progress. It became conflated with the religious tradition imported into North America by England’s Puritan settlers who framed human struggle as the battle by the forces of good to rid the world of evil. This idea underlies the constantly repeated — indeed obsessive — commitment of every State Department in modern times to the goal of “regime change” in nations across the surface of the globe that fail to bend to American will. And Americans continue to believe that the destruction they foment is “for their sake, not ours.”
Myths have great power over people’s minds. But let’s try to be honest. Whether it’s Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, Libya or Russia today, American officials have consistently engaged in subversion and war in their territories justified by the belief that these other people were itching for “our freedoms.” In every case, the authorities predict that once the source of evil infecting those foreign environments is surgically removed, an era of happiness and prosperity will follow, for which those they have liberated will be eternally grateful.
One advantage of turning every rivalry into a contest between good and evil, at least for the media, is that wars can appear to share the same logic as a sporting event. Everything hangs on the suspense concerning who will be the winner and who the loser. In sport, there is no sense of nuance or subtle reasoning about who deserves to win. It’s only about fan loyalty. If wars that pit complex interests on both sides against one another can be reduced to events whose significance is reduced to winning or losing, governments prosecuting those wars and their media are spared the tedium of examining historical reality. We are currently living through such a moment in which the media have invited history to sit in the background and remain silent.
The New York Times offers a perfect example of the media’s framing of war in the same terms as a sporting event. In the email announcing its daily newsletter titled Morning Briefing, Times journalist Natasha Frost announces “We’re covering forecasts for the war in Ukraine.”
Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:
An attempt to avoid wasting time explaining background and complex considerations of cause and effect by focusing attention on a unique final, decisive outcome.
The idea of forecasting is most often associated with either the weather, financial planning or the outcomes of sporting events. A “forecast for the war in Ukraine” could theoretically include the idea of negotiations that seek to define a compromise based on the multiple parameters of a complex geopolitical situation. But the Biden administration has avoided even invoking such a hypothesis. Its British lackey — the generally clueless British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — gave Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy his marching orders when he recently told the Ukrainian president not to negotiate and added, “if you are ready to sign any agreement with him, then we will not be part of it.” The “we” obviously included if not designated the US. In other words, you can be Putin’s puppet or — “like myself” Johnson might have added — accept to be the vassal of the US, for the mere cost of years of war and bloodshed.
Negotiations have become an officially forbidden topic, even to mention out loud. The American media understands that and has dutifully followed suit. “As the war in Ukraine settles into a prolonged conflict that may last years,” one sentence in NYT’s Morning Brief begins. The nation that brutally settled the Western frontier clearly feels comfortable with the idea of “settling” at the expense of other people’s lives.
The Times either accepts the utter lack of agency of Ukraine to reach a settlement, or it is blindly repeating what the US government tells it. This is not what one usually expects from a “paper of record.” The consensus, now presented by the media devoid of analysis to support or even explain it, seems to be that the US is at war with Russia and Ukraine is simply the chosen battlefield.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, after pushing through a monumental $40 billion aid package for Ukraine, offered this trite explanation, in a language usually reserved only for Israel. “With this aid package, America sends a resounding message to the world of our unwavering determination to stand with the courageous people of Ukraine until victory is won.” Alluding to the central tenet of US culture – “Time is money” — she explained why there is no need either to explain afterwards or even think before making a decision. “Time is of the essence — and we cannot afford to wait.” What she really means is that there’s a midterm election in November and the Democratic candidates are counting on two things: the generous funding provided by defense contractors and the voters’ taste for tough-talking administrations.
More than two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson feared the worst for his own nation. “Experience hath shewn,” he wrote, “that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”
It may sound extreme to call the US in the 21st century a tyranny, but the system of decision-making clearly has little to do with implementing the will of the people. There is a ruling class of political decision-makers — a combination of economic influence and politicians playing scripted parts — that will always prevail. Even the decisions to promote a state of war designed to be indefinitely prolonged will never be reported as a decision. Instead the media treats it as a quasi inevitable fact. In his book Propaganda, Edward Bernays, the father of public relations and counselor of CEOs and presidents, admiringly described the phenomenon in these terms: “We are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
The Second World War taught the US a lesson that it never fails to apply. For all its innovative concern for social justice, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal never managed to put a failing capitalist economy back on the rails. The war effort that the US began in 1941 miraculously cured the cancer of the Depression. At the end of the war, the US was the world’s creditor. Investing in more war, sometimes hot (Korea and Vietnam), sometimes Cold — and using the almighty dollar to the full extent of its coercive power — the US permanently structured its economy around not just the military sector, but the military mindset. The traditional isolationism of a majority of the political class melted away as the American empire spread, first to aggressively counter communism and then to crush any form of resistance to its model of technology-fueled consumerism.
But all is not well. With the latest exaggeration in these policies, embodied in the $40 billion contribution to a distant war, the public is beginning to notice Washington’s addiction to military adventure, even if it focuses on producing a war economy without putting boots on the ground. People are still dying, property is being destroyed and valuable resources are being diverted from addressing the true issues to invented ones, in this case, invented precisely for the sake of reinforcing a military economy and mindset.
In such circumstances, Jefferson invoked a weather forecast to predict the political future when he wrote, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, & as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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