Letters

Is America a sociopathic child? Readers respond to Ann Marlowe's review of "Civilization and Its Enemies" by proclaiming "get stuffed!" and encouraging a New Zealand empire.


Salon Staff
February 28, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)

[Read "Why America Must Rule the World," by Ann Marlowe.]

From a Third World girl: Get real! Or better yet, get stuffed!

American rule doesn't work simply because the U.S. is too arrogant to acknowledge its own failings (see the Philippines, American commonwealth). Instead of working with the rest of the world on equal terms, you would propose to lead it. But what sort of leadership can you offer if you merely suggest that the whole world become as you are?

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The very title of the book is couched in adversary and arrogance. Do people really believe that the U.S. has a premium on "civilization"? Why must everyone who is different be viewed as an "enemy"?

Moral authority? Leadership? Please! When the U.S. wakes up from this consensual delusion that it can solve the world's problems, let me know, because it seems to me that most of the conflict in the last century was a direct result of this "white man's burden" frame of mind.

-- Lee-Yan Marquez

Lee Harris' contention that the U.S. must lead the world seems to spring from a vein of American thought that's not acknowledged in the article -- the unfortunate streak of insularity which makes some Americans believe that the rest of the world is inherently dangerous and culturally inferior.

But who am I to criticize? If the USA would like to count me among its citizens, feel free. Just give me the right to vote the current incumbent out of the White House.

-- Felicity Carter

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While I accept Harris' point that the U.S. represents the biggest nation with a focus on diversity, if he wishes the world to be run by one nation with genuine moral authority, might I suggest New Zealand?

Certainly they have mostly sheep, but they also have a history of inclusion, from treaties with their indigenous people to equitable and workable immigration policies today. With a multicultural society, a democratically elected government that actually won the election, and a social contract with citizens that includes healthcare and personal accident insurance, I think they are the morally superior nation.

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Admittedly they do not have much in the way of armed forces, but they are very, very persuasive people. They also do not have a small number of multinationals running their policy, nor an over-reliance on fossil fuels and bad agriculture that the Pentagon would consider worthy of a paper warning of impending doom.

-- DY Harrison

Starting with the perhaps obvious problems with the exasperating claim that "only the United States has the moral credibility to lead" the world, given the United States' often deplorable history of illegal intervention and realpolitik, I found Marlowe's review to be among the most uncritical and inaccurate things I have ever read, and am frankly shocked that Salon, which I generally greatly enjoy reading, would publish this kind of inaccurate tosh.

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I'll restrict myself to a few examples. Marlowe describes as "common sense" Harris' view that "if the Palestinian people were indeed a genuine state fighting a genuine war" they would have been entirely eradicated by the military force of the Israeli state. This view, of course, implies that any of World War II Germany or Japan, World War I Germany or Austro-Hungary, and many others fail to be a "genuine state." I can think of almost no examples in which a state has been "genuinely eradicated" following an armed conflict, except perhaps Carthage following the last Punic war, with the famous incident of salt being plowed into agricultural land. Presumably Harris' definition of a state is intended to imply that only the U.S. is a genuine state, but his definition can surely not be described as "common sense."

Another slight craziness is likening the United States' rather debased politics as something of a similar nature to the world's response to recent American politics. This is precisely the kind of blinkered response to other people's culture that has probably led to the acceptability of such doctrines as "democratizing" the Middle East.

-- James Cotton

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Hmm, so the mark of "fierce independence" is to assert the U.S. really is better than everyone else and they just want to be like us? I find it very revealing that Marlowe praises Harris for his isolated working as a glazier, and also claims that it is we, the West, who know about the East. Why, even our glaziers are experts!

Nowhere does she make the obvious point that our admirable diversity is a byproduct of our ravaging of the world through our foreign policy, not a sign of our moral authority.

-- Jesse Bacon

Although I agree with most of Ann Marlowe's criticisms of Lee Harris' book, I would like to point out that his argument might be original in its clothing, but hardly in its core: 19th century America was literally littered with pamphlets arguing the "moral superiority" of the United States (to Native Americans, to the Western Hemisphere, then to Cuba and the Philippines, to China...)

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I would also like to point out that Harris' definition of "legitimate authority" is murky, to say the least. If legitimacy, as the Constitution states, stems from the people and for the people, where does the legitimacy of the United States over the world come from? It seems that Harris has more faith in American power than the democratic ideals at the core of American values.

-- Nick Bodin

Not so long ago, I was told of an amazing book that offered insights on foreign policy that cut to the core of America's relationship with Europe. The New Republic called it "subtle and brilliant." Henry Kissinger said it was "one of those seminal treatises without which any discussion of European-American relations would be incomplete." In fact, it was implied, so much intellectual lightning was packed into that slim volume, I might never quite be the same after reading it.

So I picked up Robert Kagan's "Of Paradise and Power" and read a long, obvious and not especially convincing rationalization for United States dominance based on the assumption that we're from Mars and Europe is from Venus, and Europe should just button her lip and stay home cleaning her house and feeding and educating her kids while the big, muscular U.S. (which you can be sure doesn't waste his time on that girlie nonsense) strides the neighborhood with his guns and makes sure those swarthy guys down the block don't get up to any funny business. How this qualifies as "brilliant" still eludes me, though I guess the "subtle" part is that Kagan feels the U.S. should exert a little tact by at least pretending to listen to Europe before going ahead and doing whatever the U.S. wants anyway and making it up to Europe afterward by sending her some flowers or taking her out to dinner or something.

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Now there's Lee Harris' "Civilization and Its Enemies," whose author Salon's enthused reviewer praises for his "outspokenness and common sense." Unfettered by any significant doubts about our own righteousness and positive that "America is recognized globally as having not only the power but also the moral credibility to lead," Harris apparently advocates tossing aside any silly old concerns about the sovereignty of Third World countries. After all, "the United States represents the ultimate source of legitimacy in the world," which apparently makes everything we do legitimate -- including, I suppose, overthrowing the legally elected government in Chile and funding right-wing death squads in South and Central America. If I'm to believe Ann Marlowe's review, Harris is suggesting that as a country we adopt the beautifully simple, weirdly symmetrical worldview of what my old psychology professors called a sociopath.

This kind of argument seems increasingly popular among conservatives. To be fair, Marlowe does opine at the end of her review that it would have been nice if Harris had turned his "erudition and originality to the flaws in our society," but she doesn't seem unduly disturbed by this glaring omission in a book that bases its premise on our presumed moral superiority.

Reading this and other recent works by conservatives about the U.S. and foreign policy, I'm repeatedly reminded of that obnoxious stage young children sometimes go through, in which they discover that God will not in fact strike them dead if they lie, cheat or otherwise misbehave. At that age, the question, "Why not lie, cheat and beat up other kids if nobody stops me?" often seems like a stunning insight. Similarly, as the world's only remaining superpower, we now have a contingent asking that same question.

There's nothing brilliant about it. It's not even intelligent. It's little more than cupidity and narcissism decked out in elaborate rationalizations that fool nobody except those willing to be fooled.

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-- Pamela Troy

Ann Marlow quotes Lee Harris as saying, "There are many Americans who did not like Clinton as president, and many who do not like Bush, but only a handful disliked them so much that they would have preferred to see them removed from office at the cost of a civil war. This is how much of the world feels about the United States today. They bash us, and yet they recognize our legitimate authority ... Indeed, the world is beginning to show toward us that cynical disrespect for authority that has always been one of the hallmarks of our national character ... But this is fine, so long as the world is also displaying the other great hallmark of our national political character, which is to accept the legitimate authority even of men we can't stand."

Presidential authority at home stems from the mandate earned through popular (or, in the case of our current president, quasi-popular) elections. What is the foundation of our authority abroad? Superior military might? Far-reaching popular culture? The ability to employ thousands of sneaker makers? The major reason Americans aren't willing to go to war against our own president is that we know we get to vote him out every four years, and that we won't get stuck with him for more than eight. Not to mention our system of checks and balances that prevents the president from unilaterally shaping policy. Unfortunately, the rest of the world did not vote for U.S. supremacy, nor do they get to vote us out every four years. There are no viable institutions to check or balance our power. Rather than a utopian reflection of our American ideals, U.S. authority over today's world is exactly the kind of tyranny Jefferson, Paine, et al., so eloquently raged against.

-- Craig Santoro

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This might come to many self-absorbed Americans as a surprise -- the world outside the U.S. is not waiting to be delivered from its miseries by American munificence. There is something offensively patronizing about Ann Marlowe's suggestion that the rest of the world be turned into American states. Whether expressed in jest or otherwise, such a blinkered world view ought to be challenged.

-- Mayank Chhaya

I read Ann Marlowe's review of Lee Harris' book finding myself approaching a state of spontaneous combustion. Noting that I am responding to a review of a text that I have not yet read, and to the extent that Marlowe's review is an accurate portrayal of the argument, as a non-American I find the suggestion that America is the font of civilization offensive.

It would be funny if it was not so appalling that the conservative elements of the U.S. sociopolitical spectrum assert that America is superior to the rest of us as the embodiment of God-given values, whilst members of the left such as Harris suggest America is superior to the rest of us as the embodiment of liberal humanist values. Then we are told that Sept. 11, and America bashing subsequently, are incomprehensible other than as acts of jealousy. Harris should undertake a bit of soul-searching. Regardless of your value set, these values are not the property of some nation-state. An appropriate self-critical stance would suggest such claims as self-serving narcissistic fantasies. They are supported by a selective reading of history and engender the very distrust that Harris claims not to understand. A better world will only be affected by abandoning such self-congratulatory positions and exploring values that might ennoble all humanity.

-- Christopher Selth


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