America: Ideals versus Privilege

Immanuel Wallerstein quotes then writes,

To suggest that the universal civilization is in place already is to be willfully blind to the present reality and, even worse, to trivialize the goal and hinder the materialization of a genuine universality in the future.

-- Chinua Achebe4

[T]he opposition between globalization and local traditions is false: globalization directly resuscitates local traditions, it literally thrives on them, which is why the opposite of globalization is not local traditions, but universality.

-- Slavoj Zizek5

The story of U.S. and world power can be resumed quite simply at this moment. I do not believe that America and Americans are the cause of all the world's miseries and injustices. I do believe they are their prime beneficiaries. And this is the fundamental problem of the U.S. as a nation located in a world of nations.

Americans, especially American politicians and publicists, like to speak about our ideals. An advertisement for the "bestselling" book of Chris Matthews, Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think, offers this excerpt: "When you think about it, we Americans are different. That word 'freedom' isn't just in our documents; it's in our cowboy souls."6 "Cowboy souls" - I could not have said it better. Our ideals are perhaps special. But the same people who remind us of that do not like to talk about our privileges, which are also perhaps special. Indeed, they denounce those who do talk of them. But the ideals and the privileges go together. They may seem to be in conflict, but they presuppose each other.

Click here for John Williamson’s article on the evolution of the term “Washington Consensus.”

I am not someone who denigrates American ideals. I find them quite wonderful, even refreshing. I cherish them, I invoke them, I further them. Take for example the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - something correctly remembered at all the appropriate ceremonies as incarnating American ideals. Let us, however, recall two things about the First Amendment. It wasn't in the original Constitution, which means it wasn't considered a founding principle. And public opinion polls have often shown that a majority of the American public would change, diminish, or even eliminate these guarantees, in whole or in part, even in so-called ordinary times. When we are in a "war" such as the "war on terrorism," then neither the U.S. government nor the U.S. public can be counted on to defend these ideals, and not even the Supreme Court can be relied upon to hold fast to them in an "emergency." Such defense is left largely to an often timid organization with at best minority support in public opinion, the American Civil Liberties Union, membership in which is often cited as a reason not to vote for someone in a general election. So, I am in favor of freedom of speech and freedom of religion and all the other freedoms, but sometimes I must wonder if America is.

The reason of course is not that there is absent a Voltairean streak in the American public, but that sometimes we fear that our privileges are in danger of erosion or disappearance. And, in such cases, most people place privilege ahead of ideals. Once again, Americans are not unusual in this regard. They simply are more powerful and have more privileges. Americans are freer to have the ideals because they are freer to ignore them. They have the power to override their cowboy souls.

The question before Americans is really the following. If American hegemony is in slow decline, and I believe it unquestionably is, will we lose the ideals because we will have less power to override them? Will our cowboy souls erect barbed wire around our national ranch in order to guard our privileges in danger of decline, as though they could not escape through the barbed wire? Let me suggest here another metaphor that comes from the Twin Towers. Towers that are destroyed can be rebuilt. But will we rebuild them in the same way - with the same assurance that we are reaching for the stars and doing it right, with the same certainty that they will be seen as a beacon to the world? Or will we rebuild in other ways, after careful reflection about what we really need and what is really possible for us, and really desirable for us?

And who is the us? If one follows the statements of Attorney-General Ashcroft, seconded by many others in the U.S. government, in the press, and among the public in general, the "us" is no longer everyone in the U.S., not even everyone legally resident in the U.S., but only U.S. citizens. And we may wonder if the "us" may not be further narrowed in the near future. As Zizek points out, globalization is not the opposite of localism, it thrives on localism, especially the localism of the powerful. The "us" is by no stretch of the imagination homo sapiens sapiens. Is homo then so sapiens?

Read the entire essay at Social Science Research Council. "America and the World: The Twin Towers as Metaphor"

More Wallerstein coming up.


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