We are f***ing sadists: We are not decent, and we are not a democracy

The torture report requires us to look in the mirror -- and accurately assess the monster that we see

Published December 17, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

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“You’ll comment on the torture report?” a friend in London asked just after the Senate’s revelations came out last week.

“No, everybody and his in-laws will be on it within hours. Besides, I do foreign and there’s no angle.”

Wrong times 10.

True enough, better thought than this space could offer has come out in the past few days, not least from Salon’s Elias Isquith. Read it here and here. “Now that we know some of the harrowing details of what was done in our name,” Isquith wrote with acuity, “it’ll be easier for us Americans to step a bit closer to the mirror and see what we’ve become.”

Charles Blow made a similar point on the opinion page in Monday’s New York Times. It is here. “America, who are we?” the headline asked, and Blow’s piece earned the head. It is the Miracle on Eighth Avenue that he gets this kind of thing in the paper from time to time.

Who we are and what we have become are exactly the questions before us. Their implications for foreign policy were not immediately evident, at least not to me, but they are now and they are of monumental importance. Elephant in the living room, I have to admit.

And as soon as I started thinking about the Senate’s torture report in the context of America’s conduct abroad, many other things seemed immediately of a piece. The string of police murders. The Surveillance State. The license granted corporations and the wealthy to purchase elections. No welfare for the poor but welfare for Wall Street. A minimum wage no one can live on. The bold-faced biases of our highest court—and when the judiciary goes, I learned during my years as a correspondent, all else is either gone already or on the way down.

The list goes on, of course. The reality in plain sight is that America is not the nation many of us think it is and we are not the people we think we are or claim to be. It follows: If we continue to act abroad as we have it will be to our loss and at our peril, given what we have just had our noses rubbed in, as Glenn Greenwald put it in the interview he gave Isquith.

Let’s look closely at why this is so. The core question in the foreign policy debate today, no matter what one’s stripe, is American exceptionalism. Are we exceptional, indispensable, or whatever the term du jour, or not? To put the torture report and all else just noted in the context of foreign policy is 1) to see how they are related and 2) to recognize that the exceptionalists have just sustained a critical blow — fatal, were logic to apply. And the task before us now is to make it apply.

In the torture case, certainly, and in most others, too, we face two crises, and I weight them equally. We have the facts before us: apparent sadists torturing others (and sometimes Americans), apparent (often obvious) racism endemic in law enforcement agencies, corporations classified under law as people. And we have what those in authority are doing about these facts: nothing, unless we count creating or worsening them as action. The sadists are patriots and the skinhead cops are doing a tough job well. Wall Street can self-regulate.

These two crises are what I see when I look in Isquith’s mirror or answer Blow’s question. The one tells us we are not decent and the other we are not a democracy.

It is an awful moment toward the end of an awful year, surely. Being possessed of that sunny optimism for which Americans are noted, I view this as a moment of rare opportunity, too. The dark side of our moon is very dark; the light side does not exactly shine, but there is candescence, and we can make immense use of it if we so choose.

This is the biggest “if” of our lifetimes, in my reckoning: what we can do if we decide to do it. Nowhere is this decision weightier than on the foreign side, as I will explain.

Self-knowledge is always hard won, and in my experience nobody acquires much unless circumstances force it; the process is simply too painful. Having entered into a condition of pain — and if you do not think this nation is in pain, please explain in the comment box — we can face the truths that practically drown us now and alter course decisively. This is our opportunity.

Stephan Richter, editor in chief at the Globalist, published a piece Tuesday, and here it is, in which he takes history as his guide, as those thoughtful Germans have a history, indeed, of doing. Sour but savvy, he sees no prospect that our leadership will grasp this nettle.

“Expect a merry season of verbose handwringing, with endless protestations of (momentary) embarrassment and mellifluous promise of immediate betterment. Even emphatic claims of ‘Never Again!’” Richter writes of the likely response to the torture report. “Just don’t believe it. All the statements by ever so embarrassed Senators, in the end, are but a highly ritualized form of appearing apologetic.”

Richter sees with the detached eye of the foreigner, and he is almost certainly right. He describes the second crisis noted above: Having complacently sold off our democratic institutions to private interests, we are powerless to remedy our own revulsion.

For the moment, that is. If we insist on living in an economy of possibility, as all right-thinking people must, we cannot forgo consideration of the chance we have to change our fundamental direction. In foreign affairs, this means curing ourselves of our long addiction to exceptionalism.

Americans have struggled since the Gilded Age and the Spanish-American War to resolve one problem more than any other. We have a mythical idea of what this nation and its occupants are, and we have another idea rooted in history — this is to say, things as they are — man-made, not God-given. At home and overseas, myth and history contend to determine what Americans do. The book noted at the end of these columns develops the thesis in full.

With few exceptions, if any, myth has defined America’s foreign policy since it first developed one in the late 19th century. Wilson, son of a Presbyterian minister, codified the mythical mission — make the world safe for democracy — when he asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany in April 1917. We have had Wilsonians and neo-Wilsonians ever since. Bush II, in the very kindest description, was of the neo persuasion. So is Obama and his crew of archangels — Kerry, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, all the neoconservative true-believers at State.

The myths are more than simply preposterous now. They grow dangerous in a world of rising aspirations and alternative poles of power. The importance of our moment is this: What sustained the myths for many decades — the supposed superiority of America’s political, social and economic arrangements — has been shredded.

Let me copy-edit that to get the verb right: We have shredded all claim to superior political, economic and social arrangements.

When the Tea Party first emerged back in 2008 or so, I looked at the knee breeches and the tricorn hats and thought, O.K., these are the bearers forward of the myths, more literally than one would ever have guessed. These are history’s enemies.

This is only partly so, I now think. Exceptionalism animates a great many people who consider themselves liberals or even progressives. In my view it is through these latter that exceptionalism does its most destructive work: The unconsciously conveyed line being, We are the world’s chosen, and it only stands to reason.

Our mass media are one inspiration for this thought. Another that is closer to home, I will now say, is the comment thread attaching to many of these columns.

Suggestions in this space that America acts other than honorably overseas prompt shrill, irrational protests. These are especially plentiful when Russia and its president are at issue. I find nothing persuasive in these arguments and much that is regrettable, for they are a measure of how thoroughly Americans remain in the grip of the old myths, nothing more.

Here is where the chance comes on the foreign side, bitter as its arrival may be. A nation guilty of torturing its prisoners, shooting minority children, fortifying its oligarchies and surveilling its population 24/7 and everywhere has nothing to teach the world about democracy, justice, civil rights or the other values we profess but do not any longer live by. We have surrendered the franchise, such as it was ever ours.

To put this in specific terms, all Russophobes are now obliged to stack the object of their atavistic hatred against their own nation’s record. And I trust they all went to Washington last weekend to shout, “I can’t breathe,” horrified as they are at the sight of authority answerable to no one abusing the citizenry.

We cannot see ourselves. This is the simple point. If we learn to, we can at last acknowledge we are a nation among others, better or worse as each case may be. We can dispense with our exceptionalism and get on with the business of building a century better than the one we named after ourselves. Regrettable events challenge us with this chance.

I see two very deeply rooted problems in the American predicament as it is before us. One, the American consciousness was severely scarred as we waged the Cold War, and the wounds prove slow to heal. We heard too much propaganda too incessantly and (not unrelated) watched too many John Wayne movies. Anything other than a black-and-white world perplexes us. Russians dress in black, naturally.

William Pfaff, one of his generation’s outstanding foreign affairs commentators (and a friend from Herald Tribune days), told a story a few years ago in his book “The Tragedy of Manifest Destiny.” Just before the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, Bush II telephoned Jacques Chirac twice to urge the French president to join the invasion. He did so with lectures each time as to how the moment had arrived when the biblical Gog and Magog would be confronted and all the world’s evil vanquished at last.

See what I mean? We cannot think straight.

Two, we cannot achieve the distance — not necessarily physical — that human beings need to see themselves as they are. Think about Stephan Richter another moment: He knows America, having lived here many years, but as a German by birth he has a natural detachment. A second pair of eyes, I came to call this capacity when I saw it in Americans who lived overseas a long time. Too few of us have these eyes.

Or think about this. During a medical treatment some months ago, I asked the physician’s assistant, a Romanian, how she found life in America. I expected to hear cascades of praise and blasts against Ceaușescu’s brand of communism.

“In the end it’s about the same,” she replied a little laconically. When I asked her to explain she said, “There are more freedoms, yes, but not that many more. It’s a form of communism here, too. The government gives a lot of functions to the corporations and your oligarchs, but what’s so different otherwise? Not the exercise of power, I can tell you.”

Privatized communism? American oligarchs? I cannot buy in without a lot, lot, lot of thought, but two points arise: This is what America looks like to some people, and I have not forgotten this conversation since I had it, for the technician’s point cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Speaking of oligarchs, one more display of blindness comes to mind. A neoconservative think tank inhabitant named Christian Caryl recently reviewed Ukraine’s plans for reforms in Foreign Policy. Here is the piece. Caryl notes this some way through: “And they’re also forging ahead with plans for European-style public financing of political campaigns — in an attempt to curtail the huge political influence of the oligarchs, the powerful business tycoons who still dominate Ukrainian politics.”

Thank goodness we do not suffer such problems. Or do we want the Ukrainians to come show us how to get it done once they do? I leave it to readers to consider the silliness — the paradox, maybe — of such an observation coming from an American.

The missing attribute here is perspective.

Nietzsche was famously eloquent on this topic. In one of his best-known metaphors he urged us to push off from our familiar shores to see ourselves properly. “Looking back at the coast from this distance we command a view, no doubt for the first time, of its total configuration,” he wrote, “and when we approach it again we have the advantage of understanding it better as a whole than those who have never left it.”

It is the time in American history to do this. Recent events open this door. There is no pedestal to climb down from, as we must now accept and as almost any non-American will tell you, but it is time to climb down from the one we continue to insist is there. Better all around.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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Charles Blow Cia Dick Cheney Glenn Greenwald John Kerry Media Criticism New York Times Samantha Power Torture