After 9/11 my wife put an American flag bumpersticker on our car. Some lefty friends were opposed to flagwaving then, but my wife said she was reclaiming the things she loved about America, from Walt Whitman to John Muir.
In the years after 9/11 she and I both moved into political camps where many folks dislike America, and blame America first, hate the idea of American exceptionalism. I held out against that feeling. As Pete Seeger said to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1955, “I love my country very deeply, sir.”
There’s no flag bumpersticker on our car these days; it’s a time of deep shame for Americans. And it should be. The Senate’s report on CIA torture is a landmark in the course of American status in the world. The report shows we can be brutal bastards, that the cruelty and sadism went well past even the official benchmarks of acceptable behavior set by the thugs at the top. It’s a national disgrace. Even Senator Feinstein’s courage in exposing it has been overshadowed by the absurd conversations from Americans who oppose its exposure: Wolf Blitzer saying it has aided ISIS. Thereby defiling the First Amendment, by which he prospers. John McCain’s great speech applauding the disclosure has been overshadowed by all the Republicans who oppose it and the reporters prevaricating about whether terrorizing a prisoner and dragging him naked through the cold is torture. White House press secretary Josh Earnest’s effort to restore “the moral authority of the United States around the world” at the White House press conference today looked like something out of SNL or South Park.
It’s not just the CIA. The Senate’s document drop about rectal savagery and other forms of invasive and inhumane treatment follows on the Garner grand jury and the Ferguson demonstrations, and the fresh awareness of racial inequities in our criminal justice system– along with cable TV lawyers seeking to defend the police slaughter of a man for selling loose cigarettes. On the Senate floor two days ago, Cory Booker denounced the terrible imbalance in incarceration rates on a racial basis– three out of ten young black men, one in 78 young white men face a future with prison, as I recall the statistics. My wife has been doing prison tutoring and advocacy for the last two years and I know that the imbalance is structural: bright young men are deprived of equal opportunity. In the last year, my wife and Ali Abunimah have both been talking up Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. When Max Blumenthal said to me two years ago, There’s apartheid in America, I bridled and started to ask where else would you want to live. Now I shut up. I can hold no brief for this criminal justice system; and friends say there are a lot of other good places to live.
In retrospect, my argument for America in the last ten years was largely neoliberal. Like Cory Booker (or Stephen A. Smith, who praised law enforcement on ESPN even as he described his routine harassment), I’d been lifted by America, felt it was hypocritical to be biting the hand that fed me. Now I ascribe my good quality of life to the accident of empire, material good luck, in which there’s little virtue and plenty of exploitation. I used to believe our record on civil and human rights was special. Now that pride has gone down the tube. I think of my leftwing lawyer friend who said to me a year ago, “Just about everything the U.S. does overseas makes people’s lives worse.” I have no answer to him.
The whole country is ashamed. Tom Friedman’s column yesterday was the best sign of this; only someone with his pomp and insensitivity could begin a column the day after the Senate report with such cheap nationalist propaganda: “Why do people line up to come to this country? Why do they build boats from milk cartons to sail here?” We’re still the greatest, he said, and everyone wants to emulate us.
Yes: Sweden, Poland, and Thailand and the other black sites. They’re no better than us either.
And if others are just as bad, so what? What’s the point of mounting a defense to the actions the Senate detailed? This is no time to be explaining this away on realist terms, it’s a time to hang your head, a time to be listening to the victims, criticizing the political culture from Washington to Washington state, exposing the militant nationalism that propelled us into the Middle East disaster, and granting more discursive power to the lefties who have been telling us this about the country all along for the last ten years. Like Chris Matthews putting on Joe Margulies, Abu Zubaydah’s attorney.
Time to reassess our ideas of ourselves. Myself I have no idea where that will take me, except that I’ll be looking hard at my own belief in American exceptionalism. I had it, I don’t think I ever want it back. It was a mythology. Losing it feels like the only good thing about this moment.