Reclaiming America
Learning to become free
By Luciana Bohne
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Mar 22, 2005, 23:14

The nineteenth-century English historian, Lord Macaulay, wrote, "Is it not under oppression that we learn to use freedom?"

A conservative, Macaulay was not a champion of revolutionary mass movements. Like Burke, he deplored the "excesses" of the French Revolution, particularly when these expressed themselves in popular rage against the autocrats of the Ancien Regime. Still, a guarded critic of "empire" (like Burke), he makes for intelligent reading, particularly since in post-Cold War America it is still not prudent or wise to cite incisive critics of imperialism like Lenin or -- perish the thought -- Marx!

It is ironic that, in a country in which liberty is taken to be its synonym, certain political thinkers are anathema, proscribed more effectively than if the prohibition were enforced by an inquisition of torturers. It is amazing that for half a century, American university graduates have been disgorged as obedient bodies from institutions of higher learning -- beings without the slightest notion of an alternative political system that might put the their own certainties to the test. Isn't the test of a sound system of thought passed by subjecting it to the challenge of another?

Today, Americans are caught in a historical reality with which they are educationally, culturally, and politically unprepared to cope: their country has gone imperialist. For this pernicious "innocence" they have the ideologues and institutions of the Cold War to thank -- a carefully crafted culture of fear of "communism" which handed to them a Manichean version of the world -- a simplistic reduction of the complexity of the planet's social upheavals to a struggle between "good and evil," in which they unfailingly (and contrary to the historical record) played the angelic role.

Nine-eleven came to them as a total surprise -- a bolt from the blue of their insulated illusions, which is why they were so hurriedly and menacingly told not to ask why. Inexcusable as that or any terrorism (including state terrorism) may be, it is always prudent to ask why a crime has occurred as a matter of prevention. But they weren't permitted to ask. Even before the season of mourning started, the flags were unfurled in battle, God was marshaled to their side, the ships went sailing, the missiles were loaded, and the bombers flew off to exact vengeance -- before the culprits were even found.

Now, at a point in the chain of violence only apparently yielding random effects, they watch in horror as horror upon horror unfolds before their now unjustifiably innocent eyes -- the jewel in that crown of horrors almost undoubtedly being Fallujah and its two-thousand missing corpses, its countless refugees, its use of lethal chemical weapons, napalm (or whatever its militarily-correct name might be), cluster bombs, ground-zero urban destruction -- and continued resistance. History is a nightmare from which they're trying to awake, as Irish writer James Joyce might have told them if history and literature had carried any real weight in their unfortunate and quite propagandized education, which presented a constructed view of the world as "natural," transparent and self-evident, when it was anything but that.

Today, so many Americans, tortured by despair, hounded by impotence, fleeing the news, the threats, the dire forecasts of the demise of a freedom that was only nominally real because unexercised, ask what they should do. I return to Macaulay's implied advice: "Is it not under oppression that freedom is exercised?"

To begin with, they must reject the war in Iraq and request the withdrawal of the troops. The war was illegal. Failing to work for an end to the war in Iraq means siding with nominated US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, whose diplomacy is summed up in this statement, "It is a big mistake for us to grant any legitimacy to international law." Unless they want him by their side at an ever more imminent Armageddon, as his mentor, Jesse Helms, wished, Americans had better denounce such infantile and pernicious boasts. Goering, Bolton's probable counterpart in the Nazi era on the point of international law, said that the Nazis used the Geneva Conventions as toilet paper.

Americans must begin to recognize the resistance as a legitimate form of struggle for independence in Iraq. That, too, is international law and a human right. The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Vice-Admiral Lowell Jacoby, told the Senate Armed Services Committee a few days ago that "the insurgency in Iraq has grown in size and complexity over the past year. Attacks numbered approximately 25 per day a year ago. Attacks on Iraq's election day reached approximately 300, almost double the previous one-day high of about 160 during last year's Ramadan. Since January 30 elections, attacks have averaged around 60 per day."

Americans must acknowledge that the shooting of whole families at checkpoints, the gulag of prisons housing the "disappeared," the coalition's torture chambers, the bombing of hospitals, the razing of cities, the elimination of journalists and scholars, the culture of criminality and beheadings, the national impoverishment by an unemployment rate of over 50 percent, Abu Ghraib, and the rest of the slaughterhouse follies that take place in Iraq today are the consequences of the war and that no democracy will come to Iraq under occupation. Contrary to what Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush claim, democracy is not on the move in Iraq. What is on the move are conquest and terror.

Consider that shootings at checkpoints afford Iraqis in their own land no legal redress. The Financial Times explains: "In such incidents, the victims have little legal recourse. According to the coalition order 17, enacted by the US administration shortly after the invasion, military personnel and most private contractors working in Iraq cannot be brought before Iraqi courts."

Above all, Americans must begin a process of de-Americanization -- by ridding themselves, for instance, of the rhetoric of an Americanism, by now greeted with hollow laughter in the world, broken by the helpless sobs of the rhetoric�s victims. Take liberty and patriotism, for instance. Macaulay was speaking of a latter-day school of shabby Greek historians but he may have been speaking of the Bush faithful: "[They] brought into fashion an offensive cant about patriotism and zeal for freedom. What the English Puritans did for the language of Christianity . . . they did for the language of public spirit. By habitual exaggeration, they made it mean. By monotonous emphasis, they made it feeble. They abused it till it became scarcely possible to use it with effect."

And Americans must give up fear. Take the war on terror. We were launched into this by the events of nine-eleven. Was the crime on that day commensurate with our actions (100,000 dead Iraqis; 1,500 of our own; 3,000 dead in Afghanistan, and counting) which today have destabilized the world, increased terrorism, garnered us the pity and contempt of the world for our violent ways and lack of psychological balance, shredded our Bill of Rights, and violated our Constitution? Do we want to live in a moral order derived from normal and ordinary conditions or are we prepared to live in a state of constant emergency, chasing a form of security without changing our policies, creating more enemies along the way? The latter is this administration's preferred choice, for, as Macaulay said, "Their ordinary rules of morality are deduced from extreme cases. The common regimen they prescribe for society is made up of those desperate remedies which only the most desperate distempers require."

Finally, Americans must cease being terrorized by slurs of insufficient or inadequate love of country. The Nazis coined the meaningless phrase "anti-German," which they applied to any German unfortunate enough to love Germany well enough to regret that it had fallen into the Nazis' vicious clutches. It doesn't require extraordinary wisdom or attainment to love one's country, anymore than to love one's parents or one's children. What every American should remember in this hour of his or her country's need for sane and rational citizens is that where love of country becomes obsessive, morbid, and intense, this sick love turns "states into gangs of robbers, [gives] a character of peculiar atrocity to war, and [generates] that worst of all political evils, the tyranny of nations over nations" (Lord Macaulay).

Luciana Bohne teaches film and literature at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at

Copyright © 1998-2007 Online Journal
Email Online Journal Editor