Not So Much Of The Shock and Awe

Not so much of the Shock and Awe: How an American born outside the U.S. responds to the NADA

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The US imperialists lord it over even their puppet military dictatorship regime allies making them second-class citizens in their own country; placing their aggressive capitalist flag above that of the Iraqis

"The way I look at it, why should American progressives and human rights advocates be so shocked when what the U.S. has historically done to so much of the rest of the world, beginning with its own indigenous people, finally starts happening to them?"

 By Pubali Ray Chaudhuri
December 21, 2011-- The U.S. is now giving itself powers to capture American citizens and hold them indefinitely in military detention without trial. Apparently I am meant to be very shocked by this, because Americans are such a special rara aves, such a unique species, so it must be a tremendous earth-shattering blow when one hears that this noble race of thoroughbreds is to be treated like the rest of the non-American world—like criminals even though they have never committed any crime.
That sort of fate must be reserved only for lesser human beings like Iraqis and Afghans, common mongrels who were minding their own business when they were suddenly treated like criminals en masse. Not one or two people—not suspicious characters or activists or politicians, but the whole fucking country. Their lands were invaded, their lives turned upside down, their people butchered and maimed, law and order turned into a distant memory, and the massive trauma of being an occupied and reduced people, a trauma that deprives a community of its most precious resource—belief in itself, making progress a very shaky process even after the departure of the invader—ripped from them for centuries to come. There is little shock to spare for them if we compare it to the shock we are supposed to feel that American citizens are to be subjected to any of the same fates that have been visited upon Iraqis and Afghans.
That’s what really jumped out at me when I read the various articles, when they say, repeatedly, “Americans” or “American citizens” as if that is the real shocking part, not that it is happening to anyone at all, American or not. But that is what you get in the media in the United States, even in the “progressive” media. An event is not unjust, not really, honest-to-god, set-your-pants-on-fire and make-you-leap-out-of-your-chair-screaming unjust, unless it happens to Americans or at least to American citizens. That’s why, too, most denunciations of U.S. foreign policy that are written by American authors tend to mention their soldiers first among the dead, and only then “countless (or uncounted, or amorphous, or unreal; it’s much the same thing) Iraqi or Afghan civilians killed or wounded.” It makes you wonder. Suppose a news article today mentioned the number of dead German soldiers first, and then talked of “countless Jewish people”—how would such an expression of priorities be received? One doesn’t really have to stretch her imagination too far to arrive at the answer. But then the Nazis lost, while the Americans haven’t—not yet, anyway.
So it continues to be okay to talk of Iraqis and Afghans like they are not quite human, and their deaths regrettable, but definitely nowhere near as apoplexy-inducing as a threat to a real human being—an American citizen, the only kind of human being possible to the “progressive” American imagination. I see this differentiation, these double standards, again and again, even in antiwar, progressive writing, because an article written from any other perspective—say, from a non-Ameri-centric perspective—that committed the heresy of not automatically placing Americans at the centre of the universe, would either not be comprehended by most Americans, or make them so angry they wouldn’t be able to take in anything else the writer said. So you’re hamstrung from the beginning because you can’t be progressive and fully human at the same time.
This is so all the time, every day, 365 days a year; the world in the minds of Americans revolves around the U.S.A., so I have no doubt you will hear me speak of this again, in the not too distant future. One has to do so when one is living in the age of America. The American Age. Everything you do and think and are is affected by it, but that does not mean what so many Americans think it to mean—that non Americans are thereby intrinsically lesser human beings who bleed significantly less when pricked, or whose blood is a paler, more washed-out, less immediate red. It’s what they believe, what they wish were true, but actually, of course, it’s not true at all. Non-American blood flows just as readily, and thanks to U.S. policy abroad, we see it flow in much more copious amounts. Or wait—perhaps we prefer not to see it at all. Perhaps we prefer to think of it as the inevitable consequence of “war,” not of a colossal act of aggression started and carried on by our country against them.
Since I’m very fucked up in that the world for me does not revolve around the U.S. and it’s not a gazillion times more shocking when a American bleeds than when a non-American does, I can’t say that I’m leaping out of my chair much at this latest assault on civil and human rights. So I shall have to resign myself to feel like a perpetual alien, because the possibilities of being human, the human identity itself, have become inextricable from being American, have become Ameri-centric. You have the feeling that, especially when speaking of U.S. foreign policy, and even of uber-capitalism, if you do not adopt a perspective that is not Ameri-centric, you will not be understood at all, let alone taken seriously. Consider, for example, an article—one typical of many such—that talks of the “ true costs” of the Iraq war—costs in terms of American dollars—806 billion of the best. See what I mean? Ameri-centric. In a world where humanity comes first, the true cost would be measured in terms of the losses, all kinds of losses, financial and otherwise—to the victims of this war of aggression, the people of Iraq. This calculation of losses to the U.S. exchequer is akin to a burglar’s totting up the cost of his break-in tools and finding to his dismay that the price of pick-axes and crowbars has gone up something awful. The burglar then sets up a loud lament that honest burglary and brigandage is getting too costly these days and someone ought to write a strongly worded letter to the newspapers about it.
And then someone does. Seriously.
There are entire books, even, to argue what should be obvious to all human beings—that it is a heinous crime to attack, invade and occupy a nation where the people never attacked us and never did us any harm. These books have titles like: “Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal” and “The Case for Withdrawal in Afghanistan,” and are written by groups of distinguished journalists and academics. I am not suggesting that such books ought not to be written; if I were, I would not be providing the Amazon links to their purchase. What concerns me is what it reveals about how Americans view the world that the writing of such books, explaining in exhaustive detail what should be self-evident to the common intelligence, becomes necessary. Okay, let us drop the fig-leaf of academic detachment that the word “concern” implies. The fact that such books should need to be written and that progressive Americans should need to read them horrifies and sickens me. The case for withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan? From foreign countries thousands of miles from the U.S. where not a single American in combat uniform has the ghost of a right to set foot, wheel or wing? How would it seem if a thug cannoned into you in the street, cold-cocked you unconscious, beat you to a bloody pulp, and left you lying there with the only prospect in your immediate future being a long hospital stay to heal your physical wounds and extensive counseling to heal your unseen, psychological wounds? And then suppose the thug’s relatives and friends came up with a book: The Case for Having Left You Alone in the First Place? Or if the relatives and friends of a rapist wrote a book: The Case for Not Raping Women?
Difficult, I know, if not impossible, to imagine. That crushed and bleeding body and that severely traumatized psyche is the plight of entire nations—from Vietnam to Chile, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya—where the U.S. has started aggressive wars or supported repressive regimes. More difficult to imagine yourself in the place of that beaten and bloodied creature, especially if you’re an American reading this, for Americans, whether they acknowledge it or not, consider themselves to be the purple of the world, its royalty, a special breed with special privileges. Some things simply cannot happen to Americans. What is sauce for the non-American goose must be Beluga caviar for the American gander. That is why the above analogy might either strike many Americans as bizarre nonsense or even as hatred for Americans in general. It is always useful to throw up emotive buzzwords like “hatred” or “hostility” when usually overlooked truths are spoken. The hope is that if you scatter enough of these distractive red herrings, the truth will remain overlooked and buried and your critic, for fear of being labeled in pejorative terms, will fall silent and retreat into calculating once more the “true costs” of the war to the ÜberStates and the case for withdrawal from devastating entire nations whose inhabitants posed not the remotest threat to us by any stretch of the imagination.
My journals are therefore always “irregular” because, although written in English, they are not written from an Ameri-centric perspective, but from a humanocentric one. So I’m going to persist in these columns in thinking in terms of humanity as a whole, what affects or can potentially affect us all—not just a certain group that that a precise historical moment happens to be getting, and therefore feels itself entitled to, all the attention. This is the perspective from which I write and think, which is why I do not react precisely in the same way as Chris Anders of the ACLU and other progressive writers and activists to news that Americans are now to be treated, at least marginally, in ways similar to that in which the U.S. has been treating entire communities and nations for decades.
It should be superfluous to belabour the point that I do feel outraged by the new NDAA, but not any more outraged than I feel when the U.S attacks, occupies, and reduces to smoking rubble other countries like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya or when it props up murderous dictatorships in Latin America or foments Islamic terrorism in Saudi Arabia. The way I look at it, why should American progressives and human rights advocates be so shocked when what the U.S. has historically done to so much of the rest of the world, beginning with its own indigenous people, finally starts happening to them? And let’s face it—the U.S. has done unspeakably, infinitely worse to the non-U.S. world than it has done to its own (non-Native) citizens. No military jackboots tramp rhythmically up and down the streets of American suburbs, no tanks roll menacingly past residences, no men (mostly men) stalk about armed to the teeth and bark orders at local residents. No depleted uranium, no carpet bombing, no unmanned drones, no smart bombs, no predawn raids disturb the peace of most of America as they have long done of the countries where America has brought “freedom” and “democracy” and where American soldiers have “served” and “sacrificed.” Not even the sounds of gunfire to accompany the shouts of children playing in American streets. What do American progressives think? That the war machine, the “military-industrial complex” that has brutalized hundreds of thousands, nay, millions, of non-Americans will never ever touch the lives of American citizens? If they do think so, then they are complicit in the jingoism that I have already pointed out holds that Americans are at the centre of the universe and that American lives and dignities are more important than those of non-Americans. If they don’t think so, if they are aware that Americans have no special claim to special rights more than other human beings, then why so much shock when what’s happening to the rest of the world seems poised to happen, in however watered-down a form, to us?
I am not shocked at what the NDAA is about to do to the human rights of American citizens, because in my mind the U.S. is not and never has been the centre of the universe and Americans, no matter what they themselves think, are not a breed of Übermenschen but common clay like everyone else. For someone who thinks from a non-Ameri-centric perspective, what’s happening with the NDAA is not surprising. Quite the contrary. Common sense says that we should have expected something like this. Common sense would have expected something like this and made the connections between the U.S.’ treatment of the rest of the world and its possible treatment of its own citizenry. It is only when there is a hidden assumption that what happens to the non-American world, however horrible, matters little compared to what happens to Americans, when there is a hidden assumption that Americans are greater, more important, more deserving, just more, than the non-American world, that we get the shock and surprise expressed by American progressives when the civil rights of Americans come under attack by the same system that has been decimating civil rights around the globe. Once we eschew this assumption of American exceptionalism, then common sense once more can tell us what should be obvious—that this is only the beginning, that things will get much worse, because the same leaders, global banksters, and neoliberal politicians rule with the same agendas and perpetuate and protect the same oppressive system all over the world.
You know how if you keep eating too many sweets, you will keep gaining weight, and that there is nothing surprising about such a consequence? This is the same thing. The same oligarchic, übercapitalistic, superexploitative system prevails, and controls most aspects of our lives, whether or not we happen to be Americans—so the same consequences will result—increasing poverty, shrinking economic prospects, greater control of public life, media brainwashing, and dumbing down of the masses. What surprises me is that the intellectuals, thinkers and activists of America seem to expect that somehow Americans will be exempt from the clutches of the same system that holds so much of the non-American world in a death-grip.
Coda: Be no longer a Montague
When I feel, as should by now have become evident, intense frustration at the seemingly immovable idea even in the American progressive mindset that Americans matter most of all, I am reminded of an eloquent plea that seems still to resonate today. The demand I see myself making, and have made in this essay, was also made four hundred years ago in a context that, though with differences, does speak to other situations of conflict and exclusion, Juliet’s challenge to Romeo: “Wherefore art thou a Montague? . . . Deny thy father, and refuse thy name.” Her plea bears repetition as an appeal to Americans: deny that your first and most important identity is that of an American. Cease to view America as the centre of the world and only Americans as real human beings, while the rest of humanity is distorted and reduced to some bizarre shadow-play of reality. Only by abjuring the hostility that came with being a Montague could Romeo truly look outside himself and fall in love, fall in understanding, with another human being. To become fully human he had to repudiate what had defined him since childhood—traditional family enmity with the Capulets. So must the American who wishes to become a responsible and useful citizen of the world turn away from the incestuous thinking that keeps love turned inward and confines empathy only to the chosen group—other Americans. Unless this crucial step is taken, the American progressive will find herself sharply limited in her use and finally, her relevance to the rest of the world.
Romeo was not being asked to disown his parents, his community and his friends of the Montague clan or to stop loving them. He was being asked to broaden his perspective, to imagine a world where being a Montague did not utterly define him as a human being. He was being challenged radically, to go where no one in his family had ever ventured before, gloriously to re-imagine what it meant to be human in a far deeper sense than anything he had hitherto experienced. Nor is such a challenge an easy one, being fraught with danger and uncertainty. Those who have defined themselves as part of one group to the marginalization of others will feel no small trepidation in venturing out into a wider unknown. They will face the incomprehension and even the hostility of people both within and without the group. But once one’s outlook has widened, once one has taken the perilous but indescribably rewarding step outward, there can be no going back. How could one go back to narrowness from illimitable vistas, to poverty from abundance, to a clique from boundless community? How can one say no to all of life, or return from a Juliet to a Rosalind?
The challenge that the young lover confronts on the threshold of his first mature relationship and as a condition of it is a rite of passage into adulthood, the moment where we understand, accept, and engage with the world beyond our immediate community. Of course, many of us, faced with this same challenge, choose to turn away from it and retreat to the comfort of the known, preferring to let new experiences remain unexplored and therefore ill-understood, and therefore, too, at some level, feared and even hated. The effort of stepping out of one’s comfort zone with all its prejudices and familiarities can be daunting, and the rewards can seem less than immediately forthcoming, or there may appear to be none at all.
Nor is this challenge one that confronts only Americans—far from it. If the need to broaden one’s perspective had been unique to Americans, the analogy to Romeo’s situation would have no relevance and would make no sense. Reconfiguring our identities to be more, not less inclusive, more, not less human, is a choice that confronts many of us in many different situations; whenever, for instance, we come up against an idea, a way of looking at things, that pushes at the limits of how we define ourselves. Americans face that choice of redefining themselves with not their country and people alone at the core of their concerns, but to place at that core the citizens of the one earth that we all inhabit and where we are all connected. To move beyond what I have called “incestuous thinking,” where love is turned inward, to replace that thinking with a truly humanist outlook where the group widens out to include all human beings as equally important, equally deserving, equally equal. That is the fundamental challenge confronting American progressives, but it is one that many of them don’t even seem to realize exists. Perhaps an American born outside the United States and with the perspective conferred by that extra layer of identity can make it her humble contribution, as here, to awaken her fellow American progressives to the existence, urgency, and above all the indispensability of that challenge.
Pubali Ray Chaudhuri is an Associate Editor of Intrepid Report

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