Here are some uncomfortable historical facts that are largely ignored, glossed over, or blatantly suppressed in most American school curricula:
1) The United States government (largely through the CIA and its predecessors) is directly responsible for the overthrow of at least half a dozen democratically elected governments around the world over the past hundred plus years. Among these are many of our neighbors in Latin America such as Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, and Chile in 1973. Further afield we have Iran in 1953, which is particularly ironic considering the dire straits of our present day relationship. This list doesn’t include the toppling of non-elected governments (almost all of them replaced by brutal dictators) such as Syria in 1949 and Ghana in 1966. It also doesn’t include direct invasion by U.S. troops such as the Philippines in 1898, Panama (first in 1895 and again at least eight more times since), Grenada in 1983, and most recently, Iraq in 2003. Although many Americans cannot even point these countries out on a world map and remain blissfully ignorant of American interference with their internal affairs, the residents of these countries have certainly not forgotten and in many cases haven’t completely forgiven us either. Can anyone blame them?
This long history of meddling with sovereign nations severely complicates geopolitical affairs in the present day in both practical terms as well in relation to our stated values and governing principles. For instance, in 2006, just months after George W. Bush gave a major speech on the imperative of spreading democracy throughout the world, democratic elections in Palestine resulted in a designated terrorist group, Hamas, coming to power – a result which led to an almost total boycott of the Gaza strip by most Western nations. The Arab Spring has further complicated matters as many dictators who had long been propped up by the U.S. have now been overthrown by populaces largely hostile to U.S. interests. Many of these countries seem likely to elect Islamist governments in coming elections, potentially creating a bunch of theocratic mini-Irans throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Such is democracy in action (but we can rest easy knowing any lingering resentment is due solely to them “hating our freedom.”)
2) The U.S. military is currently deployed in over 150 countries around the world. That’s over three quarters of all the supposedly independent countries on the planet. If neocon hawks have their way, Iran (see above) will soon be joining this list. Of those places where troops are already present, at least two of them are active war zones (Iraq and Afghanistan), and another is seldom considered one simply because most of us happen to live there. Thanks to passage of the NDAA, the U.S. military can now arrest and indefinitely detain American citizens within our own borders – a disturbing development vehemently opposed by the ACLU and one of the central grievances the American colonists had against the British king before declaring independence.
The purpose of stationing all these troops everywhere is presumably to act as a sort of unrequested and often unwelcome global police force, paid for by the generosity of the U.S. taxpayers. After all, the U.S. – accounting for just five percent of the world’s population – is responsible for over forty percent of global military expenditures. Curiously, despite the smug moral high ground we like to believe we inhabit (preferring the term “liberator” to “invader/occupier”), these Team America superheroes generally seem to step in only when there are high-dollar corporate interests at stake such as in Iraq or Libya, preferring to sit idly by as slaughter proceeds unchecked in economic backwaters such as Rwanda or Darfur. And if anyone dares to oppose U.S. global hegemony by so much as speaking out – even if it’s a close and historical ally like France – we respond with protests and product boycotts, or if all else fails there’s always the trump card of renaming foods in the Capitol cafeteria. Anyone care for some “victory cabbage” to go with their “freedom fries”?
3) The U.S. is single-handedly responsible for the total global prohibition of recreational drugs and the police state that goes hand in hand with efforts to curtail their production, distribution, and use. More specifically, blame for the “War on Drugs” and its many excesses can be squarely assigned to one unhappy individual with a messianic complex and a deep hatred for all things pleasurable – America’s first “drug czar,” Harry J. Anslinger. If you’ve ever stopped to wonder why, say, the leader of Nepal would care in the slightest if some hippy wants to smoke a chillum with a sadhu on the steps of a temple in Kathmandu, Anslinger’s the answer, for it was he that pushed his agenda to be adopted by the newly formed United Nations.
There is so much money involved in this failed enterprise – on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars a year in direct foreign aid for crop eradication and drugs interdiction, domestic policing, building and operating of prisons, propaganda efforts, plus the loss of taxes on some of the biggest cash crops across the globe – it continues to exist largely out of mindless inertia and economic habit. Despite the fact that recent polls show a majority of Americans now support outright legalization of marijuana, and despite pleas from the leaders of several of the Latin American nations most negatively affected by America’s insatiable appetite for mind-altering substances, even President Obama feels compelled to continue to oppose any change to the status quo. This stance was clearly on display at the recent Summit of the Americas meeting in Cartagena (for all those who read beyond the distraction of the auspiciously timed Secret Service prostitution scandal.)
4) While no longer the largest contributor of greenhouse gases thanks to China’s rapid industrialization in recent years, the U.S. continues to be the greatest impediment to concerted global action on addressing anthropogenic climate change. Back in 1997, following a meeting in Kyoto of delegates from nearly every country on Earth, a deal was reached agreeing upon a framework for reigning in worldwide CO2 emissions. Of the 192 countries who signed the protocol, only one has subsequently failed to ratify it. That’s right, one – the good old U.S. of A. Although the American delegation of scientists was fully in agreement with the overwhelming consensus on display there, after languishing in Congress for years awaiting approval, it was finally killed after being summarily dismissed by George W. Bush who claimed it would be too expensive to implement.
This line of unreasoning is beyond absurd. If facing a sentence of life in prison but offered the chance of near-certain acquittal simply by hiring the right high-profile attorney, most people wouldn’t hesitate to pay whatever it might cost to avoid incarceration. Likewise with disease. If faced with a life-threating illness, having a world-class surgeon available to perform life-saving surgery would be priceless, and most people would willingly give away everything they have if it meant they could go on living. We as a nation obviously don’t seem to care much about the plight of the polar bears or the fate of places like the Maldives, who, through no fault of their own, are on track to sink beneath the waves within the next century, but just looking at the freakish weather and severe storms of the past few years, it’s clearer than ever that global warming has arrived on our doorstep. To paraphrase the founder of the modern sustainability movement, “The real question we should be asking when discussing the economic impact of environmental measures is, ‘Can we afford to exist?’” Are we really prepared to answer that question, “no”?
Pundits and hyper-patriots love to talk about “American exceptionalism.” In plain terms this translates as, “Don’t mind us. We’re just better than you.” How incredibly arrogant and off-putting to everyone else. It seems to go hand in hand with another favored myth, “Manifest Destiny,” which supposedly justified our genocidal land grab against the native inhabitants of North America. It also ties into “God Bless America,” which implores the all-powerful creator of the entire universe to play favoritism with one particular segment of upright primates, who happen to live within an arbitrarily delineated geographic region of one small planet, circling an ordinary yellow star, in the outer reaches of one of at least a hundred billion galaxies. Wow. Furthermore, if we’re going to talk the talk, we sure as hell better walk the walk to back it up. As related above, our actions continually fall far short of the lofty rhetoric we proclaim to the world (and to ourselves). No wonder there’s so much rampant anti-Americanism on display among the other ninety-five percent of humanity.
The great irony of it all is that I guarantee many people will read this article and consequently brand me a traitor, a naysayer – any number of derogatory, reactionary terms to draw attention away from things they would prefer not to think about and certainly don’t want advertised. While not surprising, it’s profoundly discouraging (not to mention childish, unfair, and counterproductive.) It’s like a monkey throwing poo at his handler for bringing him medicine.
Despite all the travesties I’ve just listed, I love my country and I care deeply about what happens to it. If I didn’t why would I bother to write about it? My family has been here for eleven generations and it’s the place I call home. Having traveled extensively on five continents, I can honestly say the U.S. is still one of my favorite places when it comes to natural beauty, civil liberties, and the kindness and generosity of the people. I’m proud of the many amazing things we as a nation have achieved: the first functional democracy since ancient Greece, the first national park anywhere, invention of the airplane and the Internet, landing a man on the moon… even our “Colgate smiles.” Yet loving one’s country does not preclude it being a tough love nor does it require monogamy, for I also love my planet and the fact that we exist as conscious beings to enjoy it.
Right now we’re heading down a dark path. We’re destroying our environment and we’re pissing away our hard-fought freedoms faster than we can fix things. We cannot simply carry on with business as usual, plundering the world’s resources and bullying anyone who opposes us. America has long fancied itself “a shining city upon a hill.” Just as a city choked with smog and traffic jams and plagued by rampant crime and high unemployment doesn’t make for a very desirable place to live, we had better work on cleaning up our act if we expect anyone to respect us or take us seriously. If average citizens don’t begin standing up and loudly demanding change, then we’re on a one-way road to ruin. We’re heading the way of every empire in all of history – the Romans, the Mongols, the Ottomans, the British. It’s far better to scale back on our own terms than to have those terms thrust upon us by the inevitable confluence of events. The best way to accomplish this is to change course now, and any meaningful change must start with the facts; otherwise we’re not just misguided but downright delusional.
I’ll wind this down with two pieces of advice, and these apply to anyone willing and able to make the required effort. First, unless you’re desperately poor and struggling just to put food on the table, then if you don’t have one already, obtain a passport and go visit other parts of the world, even if just Canada or Mexico (only 35% of Americans have passports – double the number from a decade ago but still far less than in many other developed countries.) There is no single greater way to literally expand your horizons; to dispel xenophobia and see life from a totally different perspective. You’re way less likely to want to bomb people whom you’ve spoken with, laughed with, spent time and shared meals with. It doesn’t have to break the bank either, for living as a backpacker often costs far less than working a dead-end job to pay for a crappy apartment. Even if you hate everything about traveling abroad, you’ll at least know what else is out there and perhaps learn to appreciate what you already have (and are rapidly losing) that much more.
Secondly, gather as much information as possible about history, about current events, and about science, and try to then integrate these ideas into your worldview. We’re living in the Information Age. We are surrounded by information, deluged by it. Although in many ways it’s harder than ever to sort through it all to separate fact from fiction, give it an honest and concerted effort. Read things that make you uncomfortable. Follow people on Twitter whom you disagree with. Click the hyperlinks in interesting articles and follow up with your own research. Question your most basic assumptions. If they’re sound, you have nothing to fear. If they’re not, you have everything to gain and you’ll emerge a wiser, better person for your efforts.
It seems that we are currently experiencing a fairly rough patch of what has been an incredible experiment in people power, but we as a nation still have enormous potential to do good. Despite all the mistakes we’ve made and the trust we’ve betrayed, we’re still the world’s only remaining superpower and we still wield enormous influence. Let’s use that influence to tackle humanity’s most pressing problems and to steer us all toward a brighter, happier, more just and peaceful future, for the alternative is too depressing to even consider.