On Independence Day, hold the self-congratulations

By Robert Jensen

Published in San Francisco Chronicle · July, 2000

On bandstands around the country this Fourth of July, politicians will offer heartfelt homilies about “the greatest nation on Earth,” the United States.

As flags wave in the background, we will tell ourselves a story of the great march of progress the United States has led around the world.

On the day we mark our independence from an old empire, we will talk about the fight for freedom, past and future.

The rhetoric is designed to make Americans feel good about America, but I’ve always felt uneasy with the Fourth, a holiday allegedly full of a reflective humility yet one that is reflexively self-congratulatory.

This year, the talk of the greatest of nations will ring more hollow to me than ever, because it’s become impossible to ignore some painful truths about the United States: The humility is false. The claim of greatness is actually self-deception. The progress has not always been so progressive. The march often has been over the broken bodies of victims whose cries we refuse to hear. And the freedom we claim for ourselves we are too often reluctant to grant to others.

On this Fourth, I will be forced to face a conclusion I have long wanted to avoid: We are the empire, soon to be judged by history the way all empires have been judged, as cruel and self-aggrandizing. If we want to escape that judgment, we as citizens of the empire cannot wait for our leaders or the wealthy to lead us, for theirs is the path to power, not greatness.

This Fourth of July, I believe that citizens of the United States have to commit the ultimate act of patriotism: We must stop being Americans.

By that I don’t mean we must give up on the truly noble ideals associated with the United States. Nor do I mean we must turn our backs on the many accomplishments of the people of this country. Nor must we turn our backs on each other. Instead, we must tell the truth about what being an American has come to mean, and we must find a way to rethink and reshape who we are. We are too busy congratulating ourselves; we need to be questioning ourselves.

Such talk may sound strange, especially coming at a time of great triumphalism in the United States. Across the globe our military, political and economic power is respected or feared, or both. But two questions nag: Would a nation that is truly great want to hoard such power? And how do we use that power? The answers require honest self-reflection about the gap between the values we tell ourselves we hold and the values reflected in our actions, at home and abroad. Such honesty means realizing that unchallenged power and enormous privilege can block us from seeing ourselves and our role in the world clearly.

Some recent vignettes from my life help explain my distress:

— At a political event, I was holding a sign that explained that the economic embargo on Iraq has killed 1 million innocent civilians and asked how many deaths will it take for the United States to abandon our failed policy. A man, an American, walked by, pondered, and said, “I don’t know — how about 2 million?”

— The wealthy American CEO of an Internet company joked at a meeting with employees about his new sport utility vehicle, the biggest on the market. “I bought it,” he laughed, “because it gets the worst gas mileage.”

— A woman from East Timor described to an American audience the beauty of the Timorese countryside but explained that there is no spot left in her country that does not conjure memories of massacres at the hands of the Indonesian invaders. “Do you understand that they have been killing us for more than 20 years with American weapons, with American support?” she asked.

— While walking with a 3-year-old one chilly winter morning, we passed a man sleeping in a doorway. “Why is that man sleeping outside?” the child asked. I had no answer, only another question: Would I have noticed the man if not for the child’s question?

Who are we Americans? Who are we to the Iraqi mother who watches her child die in her arms because there is no clean water or adequate food or medicine in her town because of our embargo? Who are we when we slowly choke the planet to death because of self-indulgent consumption that most people around the world find grotesque? Who are we to the survivors in East Timor, rebuilding their lives as they mourn loved ones dead from American weapons, all because we didn’t want to disturb profitable business dealings with the conquering Indonesians? Who are we when we step over our brothers and sisters on the street, their pain invisible to us?

What does it mean to be an American in the age of American empire? Can we tell ourselves the truth about that? Is there a mirror that can hold the enormity of that image? And if we do dare to look, where do we go from there?

The politicians and the wealthy are not going to dismantle the empire on their own. It is unlikely they will wake up one morning and suddenly discover a long-misplaced conscience. And if they magically did, the institutions and systems in which they work would not go away. We should expect those with power in the powerful institutions to continue to concentrate even more power in even fewer hands. The rest of us — the vast majority of Americans — face the challenge of forcing change, of making “American” mean something more than callousness, greed, smugness, orgiastic levels of consumption, disregard for the suffering of others and a willingness to kill to protect our privilege and power.

Make no mistake: That is what “American” means to much of the rest of the world. But it need not always mean that. Change is possible. We can start by refusing to repeat the misleading story about our greatness and benevolence. We can stop being loyal citizens of the empire.

The task is not as difficult as it may seem, in part because a portion of the story we tell ourselves is true: We do live in one of the freest societies that has ever existed. We can speak with little fear of retribution. We can organize. We can act.

This Fourth of July, we can challenge the holiday’s empty rhetoric. When the politicians talk about being the greatest nation on Earth, we can stand up and question the arrogance of such a claim. When they talk about the American commitment to peace, we can ask why the United States leads the world in weapons sales and routinely conducts military operations outside international law. When they talk about the booming economy, we can ask who benefits from the stock market and financial speculation, and who is left behind. Most important, when they tell us that being an American means being loyal to the empire, we can stand up and say, “Enough — I will be an American no longer.” Then we can step onto the long road to redefining ourselves.

We have to challenge our own privilege, question our own consumption, ask on whose backs our comfort is built. We have to realize that the things we have won have come with a price, that what we have taken has costs for others, now and for future generations. If we do that with commitment and compassion, it may well turn out we stop worrying about what it means to be an American and start concentrating on what it means to be a human being.