They’re Gonna Like Us, Really Like Us

If [America] becomes militant, it will be because its people choose to become such; it will be because they think that war and warlikeness are desirable.

William Graham Sumner (1903)

Americans have come to notice, through all the smoke from burning American flags, sacked McDonald’s, and falling skyscrapers that the rest of the globe does not seem particularly enamored of us. Granted, our country is still the destination of choice for those who wish to live relatively free, but all the others who stay behind don’t look upon us with longing and desire. This bothers Americans, who live in Big Hug Nation, because we – like Sally Field – just pine for the day when we can gaze out upon the globe and squeal, “You like me, you really like me!” Why, we ask ourselves … sleepless … tossing and turning … does the world really, really hate us? Being big believers in “communicating,” that if only people speak their hearts to each other everyone then would just get along, we would like to explain ourselves.

I assure the people of the world that Americans are every bit as human as you. Just like everyone else, we love our children, hope for a better tomorrow, hate the French, and root, root, root for the home team. Human nature being human nature, we too are vulnerable to the Seven Deadly Sins. Since we’re no more or less human than anyone else, it’s the content of our American character that is our query.

Fortunately, our political system gives an answer. If you wish to know the character of a people who live in a democracy, as we do, just look at the people they elect to represent them. As the saying goes, “Show me your friends, show me yourself.” To know us, look to those we elect to be our face to the world.

Much has been written about Congress, little of it flattering. Americans seem to have a particular loathing and disdain for their elected officials, but like that ne’er-do-well idiot cousin you keep “lending” money to, Americans repeatedly send them back to Washington.

So why don’t we just unhook these fish from our line, throw them back in the ocean, and catch some new ones? Unfortunately, it seems America’s political ocean is all fished out. The American people, despite an educational system that spends more per student than your average country’s GDP, are dangerously ignorant of economics, history, and political philosophy. It is entirely possible to earn a high school diploma in our country yet be unable to read a newspaper. Is it surprising, then, that we elect a blundering, ham-fisted Congress, completely ignorant of economics, history, and political philosophy?

American statecraft was not always at such a low ebb. During our Founding Era, when asked what type of government the American people had been left with, Benjamin Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” History has answered that question with an emphatic, “No.” Constitutional republicanism expected too much from the American people. Americans have come to view government action not with a jealous suspicion for our liberty but with a childlike trust in the good intentions of those we vote into power. This is the primary reason that we have morphed into something our Founding Fathers never intended – a nation of democrats filled with a war-like, missionary zeal.

Americans have a mystical, religious faith in democracy, a system of government specifically designed to unleash the passions of “the people,” who, since all is done by, for, and in their name, will stand no limits to their power. It is, quite literally, the tyranny of the majority. We have convinced ourselves, as did all the socialist movements of our last century, that we have at last discovered the Holy Grail. We often use “freedom” and “democracy” in the same sentence as if they are indelibly linked. We refuse to remember that the democratic German people willingly voted themselves into the tyranny of Hitler’s National Socialism.

“We are here to help the Vietnamese, because inside every gook there is an American trying to get out.”

from the Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket

Americans get caught up in fads, such as Hula hoops, zoot suits, and pet rocks. Unfortunately for the rest of the globe, our latest fad is “nation-building” (i.e., spreading “democracy and freedom”). It’s not that the world isn’t already completely covered with nations both big and small; the map is undoubtedly full. It’s just that Americans, having fallen into a habit of anointing ourselves the self-righteous saviors of complete strangers, have decided to make certain nations “better.” Due to the fullness of the map, the term “nation improvement” or “nation enhancement” would be a more apt phrase, but “nation-building” just rolls smoothly off the tongue.

To further this goal, the American people, through our representatives at the federal level, show a lamentable predilection for war and foreign adventure. Where our forefathers made the dangerous voyage here to get away from the world’s unending conflicts, we have taken a fancy to sending our young ones back out into the world, looking for a slice of the trouble.

That this renewed desire for war and empire has blossomed at this time, so soon after the end of the Cold War, may make little sense. As recently as 1993 we supposedly had no more enemies, no people worth our while to lob a nuclear missile onto. But every collectivist society needs a unifying delusion, an ideology to get people out of bed in the morning. In “nation-building,” Americans have found one to stir our souls and set our eyes to the horizon.

We are, unfortunately for those nations who catch our eye as needing to be “better,” that most vicious of imperialists – those of good intention. Like all missionaries, we mean well; and as long as you behave exactly as we do, profess to believe what we believe, we will not send un-piloted drones to hunt your young.

Democratic presidential vote beggar John Kerry, in his book A Call To Service, describes America as “a world where most voters have little time or attention to spend on government or politics.” This, of course, is smart politics (never, ever, blame “the people” for anything, it’s bad for votes), and it is also a load of horse manure. While our federal government has become so all-pervasive and “Super-sized” as to make it a virtual impossibility to monitor all its numberless tentacles, it was allowed to become such because “the people” have completely abdicated our responsibility as free citizens. The overwhelming majority of Americans have never even bothered to read the Constitution, and, judging by their actions, the majority of our Congress haven’t either. Therefore, Americans are currently unaware (and, to be frank, unconcerned) of any illegal activity on the part of our government – such as invading foreign countries without a Congressional declaration of war.

“Empire Day; when we try to remember the names of all those from the Sudbury area who so gallantly gave their lives to keep China British.”

from the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life

So why does the world hate us? The hatred the British had won for themselves by their empire-building was noted over a century ago; we have today taken the mantle from them. The scarlet coat of Pax Britannia has been replaced on the world stage by the camouflage pattern of Pax Americana. That is the reason we are so hated. Foreigners are not curious to get to know what Americans are like – with our troops in over one hundred and thirty foreign countries they already know. It’s what our troops are doing here, there, and everywhere that perplexes and angers them.

It’s not that we Americans, by some odd cultural quirk, wish to have an empire. Most Americans when queried will vehemently deny we are an empire (the British historian Niall Ferguson calls us “the empire that dares not speak its name”). It’s just that we have, through our abdication of our responsibility as free men, allowed our government to run amok, unfettered by law. We choose repeatedly to elect to office those who favor sending our troops here, there, and everywhere. America’s empire, and the hatred we’ve earned from it, is entirely the fault of the American people. Unlike a majority of the people on this ball of mud, the American people, being a democracy, rule – so we are to blame for our government’s actions.

I fear what empire will do to us. Using history, the best predictor of human behavior, as our guide, America’s sordid love affair with empire will likely land her in the same pot as most of the globe. One day we will run out of money, blood, and national will to keep the world in thrall. When we weary of “nation-building,” we likely will be impoverished, riven by violent faction, and bereft of the rule of law. Then, and only then, the world will welcome us into their bosom, they will really, really like us, because then we will be equals, an international brotherhood of impoverished, angry misery.

Author: John Feffer

John Feffer writes for Foreign Policy in Focus.