Ever since I read Howard Zinn’s superb People’s History of the United States, I have tended to denigrate in my mind the the democratic pretensions of that great country as monstrous acts of hypocrisy, perhaps the greatest ever foisted upon history. If I may sound for a moment rather like Greta Thunberg, the indomitable 16-year-old campaigner for climate action: “How could they, those supposedly great statesmen, fill their founding constitution with such noble words, while at the same time holding in subjection millions of imported African slaves, on whose unpaid work rested their own wealth and prosperity?”
It must be a tough question for any American propagandist to confront. But in this past week or so I came close to being convinced of the propriety of their claim to be the exceptional nation, resting on their noble Declaration of Independence, including the opening sentence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
One would need to be a mindless robot not to respond to the nobility of this declaration of rights. It was when the Judiciary committee of the House of Representatives called up four experts in constitutional law to explain exactly where the concept of impeachment came from that I came close to wavering in my critical approach to the U.S. and its pretensions.
One after the other three of the four explained that the penalty of impeachment (a word that merely means “charge” so we have been told) came from the determination of the American colonists not to have any kind of king, nor to leave any possible opening through which an authoritarian-minded president might try to elevate his status to something equivalent to the kinghood that they were so determined to confront.
The constitutional lawyers, being experts in the art of explaining themselves, repeated, one after the other, that if a president ever committed what the representatives considered to be “crimes or misdmeanours”, there should be a clear process laid out for calling him to account, and, if necessary removing him. I have to say I warmed to the language, or, rather, to the clarity of the language, used by the three professors, Michael Gerhardt, of North Carolina, Noah Feldmasn, of Harvard University and Pamela Karlan, of Stanford University, and I certainly warmed to their enthusiasm for the founding impulse --- that is, to get rid of the unquestionable powers of the King--- to such a point that I found myself musing that I wouldn’t mind being their student.
Even the fourth, the dissenting Professor, Jonathan Turley, of George Washington University law school, who had the questionable brief of arguing in favour of President Trump, managed to do so with such a winning humour as to almost overshadow the expertise of his three colleagues, with whom, he insisted, he was on friendly terms, and with whom he could disagree in a respectful manner. His argument was that, notwithstanding the admittedly erratic behaviour of the man he was defending, his opponents had simply not managed to collect a convincing enough series of facts to prove their case. He said he had heard that some people were so worked up, they had gotten mad under the strain. “I might be said to be mad, my wife might be mad, my children mad, even my dog might be mad,” he said, but that did not amount to an impeachable case against any president.
Lost in admiration as I was for the way these men and women each filled their allotted ten minutes, I was forced back on to an undeniable fact that must (or should), confront every anti-American person, which is, that the United States is such a huge grab-bag of every human charaeteristic that any generic attack can only be made if one is ready to ignore their many American virtues. For example, speaking as a convinced political left-winger, I have to admit that the most coherent anti-administration, and thus anti-American arguments being made in the world today are usually those poured out day after day online by American activists themselves. The great republic, under no matter what strains, usually finds a place for every --- or almost every --- opinion (note here: they frequently backslide from this level of virtue, as in Senator Joe McCarthy’s heyday).
I suppose this --- my willingness to be moved by eloquent and elegant argument --- could be described as a
modified version of what we used to call “the embrace of the duchesses,” a cunning means by which metropolitan rulers (such as the leaders of the UK) could pull the wool over the eyes of easily-influenced colonials with a displasy of pageantry and splendour. In just such a way do I remember our Prime Minister of New Zealand, a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, making a trip ti the United Kingdom in 1949 to attend an Imperial conference of some sort and returning with the news that Winston Churchill had convinced him that New Zealand had to introduce conscription as its contribution to the anti-Soviet effort. (This was the more remarkable because this man, Peter Fraser, had got into politics in 1917 when he was elected while in jail for his opposition to conscription in the First World War. Ah, those duchesses!
I began to return to my normal moral bearings when someone sent me something that had appeared in some dissident Alabama publication. Here is what it said:
During yesterday's impeachment hearing at the House Judiciary Committee one of the Democrats' witnesses made some rather crazy statements. Pamela Karlan, a Stanford law professor, first proved to have bought into neo-conservative delusions about the U.S. role in the world:
America is not just 'the last best hope,' as Mr. Jefferies said, but it's also the shining city on a hill. We can't be the shining city on a hill and promote democracy around the world if we're not promoting it here at home.”
As people in Bolivia and elsewhere can attest the United States does not promote democracy. It promotes rightwing regimes and rogue capitalism. The U.S. is itself not a democracy but a functional oligarchy as a major Harvard study found, when it reporte: “Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
But worse than Karlan's pseudo-patriotic propaganda claptrap were her remarks on the Ukraine and Russia: “This is not just about our national interests to protect elections or make sure Ukraine stays strong and fights the Russians so we don't have to fight them here, but it's in our national interest to promote democracy worldwide.”
That was not a joke. From the video it certainly seems that the woman believes that nonsense.
This dissenting voice had the effect of somewhat restoring my threatened intellectual imbalance. And this march back to normalcy was aided when a few hours later I read a small report in the Guardian Weekly, to which I subscribe from London, commenting on the values of so-called American democracy. I cannot do better than quote the entire two paragraphs. First, it quoted from what it called the foremost non-partisan organization in the U.S. devoted to voting rights and voting reform, the Brennan Centre of New York University:
“In the last 20 years, reports the Centre, states have put barriers in front of the ballot box --- imposing strict voter ID laws, cutting voting times, restricting registration, and purging voter rolls. These efforts, which reeeived a boost when the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013, have kept significant numbers of eligible voters from the polls, hitting all Americans, but placing special burdens on racial minorities, poor people, and young and old voters.
“The measures these states have introduced affecting millions of Americans, are designed to suppress the vote, hence the term ‘voter suppression’. Such policies not only endanger the gains of the civil rights era, which ushered in the Voting Rights Act, but they also threaten the notion that the U.S. is at the forefront of liberal democracies.
“In an interview lsst year, Barack Obama said, “We are the only advanced democracy that deliberately discourages people from voting.”
I also remember him saying --- I will never forget it because I found it hard to believe any thnking person could say such a thing --- “I believe in American exceptionalism with all my heart and soul.”
With that, I suppose I can say the anti-American case rests, as those four eloquent law professors might say.