Just another country

Tom Nairn
10 September 2002

‘It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans…even occupy the same world,’ wrote Robert Kagan in the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review (reprinted in the August issue of Prospect Magazine). Tout au contraire, Monsieur Kagan – one longer-term consequence of the 11 September attacks is that Europeans and Americans are again occupying the same world. This situation will be better for both sides. America is, at last, turning into just another country, which the rest of humankind is not compelled to be either ‘for’ or ‘against’.

Todd Gitlin saw the trend almost at once, in the article openDemocracy published on 10 October 2001. It was titled ‘The ordinariness of American feelings’, and he contrasted these with ‘the cascade of whataboutism’ that had fallen upon the US after 11 September, above all from the left. The Twin Towers were dreadful of course; but what about Palestine, the Saudis, Chile, Kyoto, Timothy McVeigh, Kentucky Fried Chicken and…all the endless waterfall of Satanic imperial misdeeds? ‘Whataboutism’ rests upon the same shifty foundations as Kagan’s tub-thumping and Blair’s subservience – that is, the conviction of an American specialness or ‘exceptionalism’ guaranteeing it either Heaven’s reward, or a place in the choicest zone of Damnation. No one is allowed off the bus anywhere in between.

America’s intimations of mortality

But everybody lives in between, of course (that was Todd Gitlin’s point – Americans as well). It is interesting to see the same attitude surfacing a year later, in an essay in Harper’s Magazine, ‘A Year Later: Notes on America’s Intimations of Mortality’, by the Czech–American Mark Slouka. Americans are often better critics of themselves than the rest of us. Slouka underlines the ambiguity of the aftermath of 9/11. On the one hand, ‘the conviction that we were different, apart, a City upon a hill’ commissioned by either God or History to ‘bear the light of liberty’ (and so on). On the other hand, and at a much deeper level only now becoming clear, intimations of a common fate. He uses literary metaphors for the latter, such as Death: ‘That troubled brother, so long forgotten, so successfully erased, was standing on our porch in his steel-toed boots, grinning….’ His arrival aroused a powerful popular patriotic reaction, which Slouka describes with the colourfully inaccurate term ‘tribalism’. The US is of course not a tribe but a nation and, after the atrocities, what it went through was a wave of self-conscious nationalism – as ordinary as you can get, in the 21st century (and none the worse for that).

But the author goes on to note, wryly, how the God brigade at once appropriated such blessed ordinariness. Manifest Destiny was unlikely to miss such a chance. Always half-convinced that ‘globalisation’ might be its new meal ticket in disguise, it’s in the saddle once more – quite possibly heading for Baghdad, or even beyond. If al-Qaida’s attack was upon Providence itself, then a metaphysical attack must be answered in kind, and upon the same plane. So it’s back to special ‘Us’ against axis-of-evil ‘Them’. You’re either for or against Us, and no goddam lily-livered (and probably anti-semitic) European or Asian wimps will be allowed to get in the way.

In the Financial Times, John Lloyd recently described a hair-raising trip among the US elites who have let themselves be carried away by such one-eyed dementia. All this will breed is more of the one-eyed anti-imperialism Gitlin diagnosed and rightly scorned a year back: ‘they’re all in it together’, and Americans are all just gringos, rather than mixed-up vessels of passionate national mortality like everybody else.

‘America in our heads’

Most of today’s inordinate fuss about why people ‘hate America’ reflects the same exceptionalist delusion. They feel obliged to hate it because for far too long they ‘loved’ it, in an equally daft way. Like France in the 18th century, the idea of America had come to occupy an important corner in the minds of most educated people. It was a corner of transcendence, as it were, a deep cultural reference point: as Le Monde diplomatique put it neatly, ‘L’Amérique dans les têtes’. Such is the banal reality of the term ‘hegemony’, or rule by brain cells. Whenever this magic spell is broken, reaction tends to the extreme. A household God who has failed can only have been Satan all along, having us on.

The Wahabites of 11 September 2001 were, of course, promoting a Godly take-over bid. They in turn were after everybody’s brain cells. Islam stood no chance of success here – but, quite inadvertently, their effort did achieve something else. It de-sacralized ‘America’ in the transcendent cultural sense, simply by revealing a stricken country, visibly unprotected by either the CIA or Providence. The place was like anywhere else; fellow feeling was one result, properly publicized at the time. But it meant that the people over there are probably just like anyone else too, i.e. at a loss, puzzled and exploited, as well as ‘heroic’ (and so on).

Slouka’s way of probing this big shift is telling, and worth quoting at length:

‘I sense something…not visible perhaps to those blinkered by empiricism, something so large and amorphous that the radar of the pollsters cannot detect it — less a historical truth than a broadly cultural, intuitive one. Last year’s attack was so traumatic because it simultaneously exposed and challenged the myth of our own uniqueness….’

And what it left behind was a struggling American Republic, pulling itself together as a nation again, as, for example, it did after the White House was burned down by British invaders in 1812. In a talk in Amsterdam recently, Saul Landau said that foreign observers often fail to understand that the US is really a hippogriff, part pseudo-Empire and part original Republic – Mr Hyde and old Doc Jekyll respectively.

America as Jekyll and Hyde

The trouble with the latter is his age and infirmity. As the 2000 Presidential election grimly demonstrated, the hymned Republic of schoolroom legend is now in the condition of President Calvin Coolidge, posthumous victim of last century’s most famous joke. When Coolidge passed on in 1933, Dorothy Parker asked: ‘But how did they know?’ The honourable old nation is still around, sung and prayed to when trouble strikes. Regrettably, ‘twilight’s last gleaming’ is now swiftly overpowered by the Empire – a rude composite of corporate power, Neo-liberal mania and neo-Roman cadres, such as Rumsfeld and Cheney.

Kagan’s analysis completely neglects the cultural factors emphasized by Slouka. As Anthony Barnett puts it: ‘What is striking about Kagan’s overview is the absence of any reference to values other than the lexicon of strength.’ Kagan quite rightly underlines the growing contrast between American and European conceptions of power and international relations. As surviving hyper-power, the US finds an armed gendarme role unavoidable; the European Union has become more like Neighbourhood Watch, with a community policeman as its ultimate authority. Its weakness, he argues, ‘has produced a powerful European interest in inhabiting a world where strength doesn’t matter, where international law and institutions predominate, where unilateral action by powerful nations is forbidden, where all nations…have equal rights and are equally protected by internationally agreed rules.’ This is of course ‘what weaker powers have wanted from time immemorial’. But they can’t be allowed to have it – not in a world where terrorists and a superpower confront one another.

Breaking the hyper-nonsense spell

Under the new circumstances of globalisation, however, they will have to be allowed it. What was half-tolerable under the half-legitimate ‘hegemony’ of the post-cold-war world has now ceased to be so. All 9/11 did was to brusquely raise consciousness of an ocean-deep change already under way. The uneasy half-identification of globalisation with America and ‘Americanism’ was broken. It was absurd for a single berserk incident to break the spell. But then, it was never going to endure in any case. The US is simply one of the globe’s larger countries, temporarily a motor of general economic development like Britain in the 19th century, and with a culture industry that has given it unusual sway over other peoples’ minds. These facts pose big problems, agreed – but…that’s it.

After all, France and the UK have also passed through phases of hyper-nonsense, imagining they stood for Civilization, Providential Design — and they got away with it, in the sense of half-convincing others, as well as themselves. In those days also, brain-cell prostration allowed hegemonic spells to be cast over uncomfortably large tracts of the globe, accompanying the artillery and steel-toed boots. But once the spell was broken, between 1940 and 1956, their Cities upon a Hill vanished too. The extinguished beacons grumblingly resumed business as smallish countries, and within the wider development process then under way – a progenitor of globalisation – the rest of humanity gratefully acknowledged such ordinariness. Admittedly, the Thatcher–Blair UK retains a strong hangover from those times, but only thanks to regular injections of ‘Special Relationship’ toxin from the post-1956 hegemony. These have assumed overdose level since 9/11, but may soon cease altogether. The cure can only be what weaker countries have wanted from time immemorial.

One of the loudest corncrakes of Exceptionalism, Thomas L. Friedman, recently published a letter to schoolchildren entitled ‘Lessons for September 11’:

‘The plain fact is that our country, America, has, with all our mistakes and blunders, always been and always will be the greatest beacon of freedom, charity, opportunity and affection in history…Never forget our murdered brothers and sisters. No matter what your daughter’s political science professor says, we didn’t start this….’ (New York Times)

For his part, Mark Slouka went on a voyage into the small countries his family came from, Bohemia and Moravia. He found symbolic remnants of them in a Moravian charnel house topped by a wrought-iron skull: ‘Two columns so massive that for a moment I didn’t understand what I was seeing: not stone, or mortar, but thousands of human shin bones stacked lovingly each to each,’ and decorated by skulls and pelvic bones. The victims of 9/11 are mostly known, indeed better known than nearly all the innocents of history. But here were murdered brothers and sisters completely forgotten, and now almost unvisited. There were far better charnel houses quite nearby, he was assured by the impatient lad with the key who’d let him in.

‘Return to Egypt, filthy with history’ is his terse advice for Americans. Leave behind the Holy Lands of the Bible, the Qu’ran and the Torah for good. Globalisation has already outreached them. Europe is the future, because it has come to represent better this world where all nations are weaker, more ordinary and interdependent, more democratic, and more in need of equal rights and internationally agreed rules. The USA is becoming just one of these – as filthy, hopeful and ambiguous as the rest, but no worse either. Ordinary life-and-death nationalism is where everything starts from, not inherited patent-rights on either God or Reason.

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