‘The Empire Of Liberty’: An Outsider’s Observations On American Exceptionalism

Posted in International, Politics by Karthick RM on October 12, 2013

Originally published on Countercurrents

In a telling scene in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, noticing his partner using excessive force to subdue a rioting mob, the masked vigilante Night Owl posits a question of conscience. “What happened to the American Dream?” To which the partner, The Comedian, a vicious vigilante with a particularly cynical view of the world, replies “It came true. You’re looking at it.”

Isn’t that what we are witnessing in the US of A today? A government that supports despots across the world, intervenes in conflicts often only to make them worse, pursues an economic policy that supports an oligarchy at the cost of other people and its own, while its rule at home is so fragile that it resorts to a shutdown over a tuff about a healthcare reform for its citizens?

Quite a few leftists would gleefully agree. The American Dream was just a facade for unbridled capitalism, an apology for an imperialist power and so on and so forth, they would argue. And this is not without truth. Yet, the American Dream is a lot more than that. In fact, it is a lot more than what is popularly perceived, i.e. America as a land of opportunity, individual progress, multiculturalism, liberal niceties and whatever.

The genealogy of the idea of the American Dream can be traced to the theory of American Exceptionalism, expounded by no less a person than Alexis de Tocqueville, a theory that contends that America of the New World is unique for the ideals that it holds. The radical emancipatory potential in the American Revolution was indeed unprecedented for its times – its universal appeal was such that Ho Chi Minh, an intransigent opponent of American imperialism if there was one, when reading out the Vietminh’s Declaration of Independence on 2 September 1945, quoted extensively from the American Declaration of Independence.

There are two things that make the July 4 Declaration absolutely fascinating. One is its categorization of the pursuit of happiness, by all standards an abstract ideal, as an inalienable right of man. It provides a moral imperative for the government to create conditions for one and all, irrespective of their particularities, to seek and achieve happiness as a universal standard. The other thing about the declaration – the more radical part – is its ethical imperative to the American people that should any government be destructive to these ends, “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.” Isn’t this precisely the spirit operating the consciences of a Manning, a Snowden or an Assange?

Taking a realist diversion, the nuclear world does require a global guardian. And if there is to be one, I would prefer that it be a country that was founded on an ideal of a universal emancipatory logic than a country like, say, China, India or Russia that lack anything close to it. But the corresponding realist question is, as posed by the Roman satirist Juvenal ages ago, quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Yes. America committed – and continues to commit – crimes that cannot be overwritten. Its history of persecution of indigenous peoples, of slavery, of support for the vilest murderers and mercenaries in Latin America and elsewhere, its disaster in Vietnam, its dubious foreign policy that sees ‘human rights violations’ at one place and a ‘war on terror’ at another dictated solely by geo-political interests. Yet, there have been American artists, intellectuals, writers, academics and just common citizens, who have vehemently opposed what the government claims to do in their name. It is they who have exposed to the world best that what the US does in the garb of promoting the Jeffersonian vision of ‘The Empire of Liberty’ is to facilitate plunder of the poorer nations by its military-business complex. Poignantly, it is such men and women of knowledge and conscience who represent the true Empire of Liberty. And it is sad, owing largely to America’s own actions that many left activists in the rest of the world do not associate American Exceptionalism with such people, or with the exceptional genius of a Poe, a Whitman, a Sinclair, or a Hemingway, but rather with the grotesque mediocrity that is Bushism.

America has the power to not just ameliorate the conditions of its own poor; it has the technology to positively intervene to do the same in rest of the world. A very simple example, the amount of money pumped into the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for creating new machines for wars that may never happen, could easily be invested in finding cure for tuberculosis, a killer that has consumed more lives in the past decade than any conflict in the same period. If only the will is there, the means are at America’s disposal. But will this happen in an America that refuses to provide free universal healthcare for its own citizens?

Others share my political consternation with America. Alex Pareene writing for Salon rightly said about America that “We are actually a very rich country with a lot of resources and the ability to do almost whatever we want”, but “we’re choosing to become a heavily armed failed state.” The Great American Tragedy then is that the ruling elite does not want to accept the responsibility of promoting an Empire of Liberty and live up to America’s Exceptionalism.

Though several of the actions of America can’t be defended, the idea of America, of its Exceptionalism, deserves to be. And it needs better leaders than what either the Democrats or the Republicans have been providing till now.

The redeemers of the Empire of Liberty are within America. And the eyes of the world are upon you.


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