“The shining city upon a hill” was how John Winthrop, one of the early Pilgrims, described America, his new homeland. Winthrop was making reference to the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus had addressed a large crowd:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:14-16)
This vision of the United States as a God-ordained shining example has attained truly mythic proportions. John F. Kennedy sampled the same biblical metaphor in a speech just days before his inauguration in 1963. Ronald Reagan made it a focus of his farewell speech in 1989. (‘Farewell address to the nation,’ January 11, 1989;)
The “city on a hill” was also repeatedly invoked by Justin Webb, senior BBC Washington correspondent, during his recent three-part BBC Radio 4 series, ‘Death to America’. (Broadcast on April 16, 23 and 30, 2007;)
The series was billed as an examination of “anti-Americanism” – an interesting phrase to which we will return – in which Webb would question “the common perception of the United States as an international bully and a modern imperial power”.
Webb began emotively, describing how his own recently departed mother had been a protester, an “energetic duffle-coated figure who wanted to ban the bomb, stop wars of all kinds and suffering anywhere”. (‘Death to America,’ BBC Radio 4, April 16, 2007; see also Webb’s article, ‘Anti-Americanism examined,’ BBC news online, April 12, 2007;)
But as a youth, Webb began to notice a curious bias:
“The protests against nuclear weapons, for instance, concentrated on American weapons. The anti-war rallies were against American-led wars. The anti death penalty campaign focused on Texas.
“A pattern was emerging and has never seriously been altered. A pattern of willingness to condemn America for the tiniest indiscretion – or to magnify those indiscretions – while leaving the murderers, dictators, and thieves who run other nations oddly untouched.”
In his quest to understand “anti-Americanism”, Webb journeyed variously to France – “where”, we were informed, “it all began” – and to Venezuela and Egypt. Webb noted of Venezuela that “the nation’s leader Hugo Chavez compares George W Bush to Hitler”. Unmentioned was the fact that Chavez had been responding in kind to then US secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, who had himself likened +Chavez+ to Hitler. (‘Julia Buxton responds to Times article,’)
In setting the scene, Webb described a strain of French thought that regards the upstart American nation with disdain:
“The kind of anti-Americanism fostered by French intellectuals down the centuries revolves around intense dislike of what America +is+ – not what it +does+.” (Original emphasis)
Webb was then ready to base his task on the following assumption:
“It is time that we understood that this attitude, this contempt for what democracy can do, is at the heart of at least some of the anti-Americanism we see in the world today.”
A Smokescreen Of Ignorance
Turning to the United States’ neighbours to the South, Webb observed:
“Latin American dislike of the United States and its leaders is a grittier substance than the smooth and heady French cocktail… This is not metaphysical hoity-toityness. Latin America’s brew contains real sweat, real tears. Tears from a past where the southerners were the servants; the northerners, the masters. This is, after all, Washington’s backyard.”
Note the familiar clichÃ© of Latin America as “Washington’s backyard”. This homely description nestles comfortably into the establishment presumption that the region is rightfully part of the US sphere of influence: an ideology that extends back to the imperialist Monroe Doctrine of 1823. And while Webb was careful to mention “real sweat, real tears”, no mention was made of the real +blood+ spilled under US-sponsored wars, tyranny and oppression. (For details see our Media Alert, ‘Vision of the Damned,’ June 10 and 15, 2004:and )
“You’ve got to wonder if there is any end to the capacity of the rest of the world to blame the United States for its problems. Nowhere is that more the case than in Latin America, where out of roughly 500 million people, 200 million live on less than $2 a day.
“Is it all the fault of the imperialists from the north? Or is just a little of it the result of local attitudes to poverty, local attitudes to honesty in government, and local attitudes to the rule of law?
“In other words, in Latin America as elsewhere in the world, is anti-Americanism a smoke screen, a very convenient smoke screen, whose noxious fumes hide the reality of local failure?” (Webb, ‘Anti-Americanism in Venezuela,’ BBC news online, April 20, 2007;)
In an email to one of our readers, Webb emphasised the same point: namely that the “failure of Latin economies cannot just be the result of US intervention”. (Email from Justin Webb to Neil Laurenson, April 25, 2007)
There has certainly been a “failure of Latin economies” for the bulk of the population, but not for the US-based corporations that have long exploited the region for private profit – an issue we will examine in detail in Part Two of this alert.
Webb bulldozed through decades of horror and misery in stating glibly: “The US has behaved badly” in the past, but it is still “a shining city on the hill” and “in their heart of hearts, everyone here knows that.”
In contrast to this remarkable comment, consider the testimony of John Pilger who has also recently visited Venezuela:
“Chavez and the rise of popular social movements, from Colombia down to Argentina, represent bloodless, radical change across the continent, inspired by the great independence struggles that began with Simon Bolivar, born in 1783 in Venezuela.” (Pilger, ‘America’s new enemy,’ New Statesman, November 14, 2005)
Bolivar understood the nature and intentions of the new colonial master to the north who had kicked out the Spanish:
“The USA,” Bolivar said in 1819, “appears destined by fate to plague America with misery in the name of liberty.” (Ibid.)
The plague rampaged for the next two centuries with popular, reforming governments stamped out and replaced with US client states – torture regimes – in Chile, Argentina and elsewhere in the region. By the end of Ronald Reagan’s two terms of office there were 300,000 corpses in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala as a result of US-sponsored wars and oppression. In a recent interview about the making of his new film, ‘The War on Democracy’, set in Latin America, Pilger said:
“Our filming was concentrated in the barrios where the continent’s ‘invisible people’ live in hillside shanties that defy gravity. It tells, above all, a very positive story: that of the rise of popular social movements that have brought to power governments promising to stand up to those who control national wealth and to the imperial master. Venezuela has taken the lead… This is not to suggest that complete independence has been won. Venezuela’s economy, for example, is still very much a ‘neo-liberal’ economy that continues to reward those with capital. The changes made under Chavez are extraordinary – in grassroots democracy, health care, education and the sheer uplifting of people’s lives – but true equity and social justice and freedom from corruption remain distant goals.” (‘The U.S.’ War on Democracy,’ interview with John Pilger, Pablo Navarette, May 1, 2007;)
The BBC correspondent next travelled to the Middle East. This is a region that has long been coveted by US power. In 1945, State Department officials described Saudi Arabian energy resources as “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history”, with the Gulf Region considered “probably the richest economic prize in the world in the field of foreign investment”. (Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, Hamish Hamilton, 2003, p.150)
In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, a war fought to maintain control of this “prize”, a United Nations team visited Iraq and reported that “the recent conflict has wrought near-apocalyptic results upon the infrastructure… Most means of modern life support have been destroyed or rendered tenuous…” (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, HarperCollins, p.599)
Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser for Jimmy Carter, declared that the “benefits” of the war were “undeniably impressive”:
“First, a blatant act of aggression [by Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait] was rebuffed and punished… Second, U.S. military power is henceforth likely to be taken more seriously… Third, the Middle East and Persian Gulf region is now clearly an American sphere of preponderance.” (Ibid., p.599)
In the 1990s, Iraq was further brutalised by a cruel regime of US-UK-led sanctions that led to the deaths of over one million Iraqis, half a million of them children under five. Denis Halliday, the senior UN diplomat in Baghdad, resigned in disgust in 1998, describing the impact of the sanctions as “genocidal”. His successor, Hans von Sponeck, similarly resigned 18 months later.
For Justin Webb, none of this merited a mention. As Harold Pinter put it in his Nobel acceptance speech:
“It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.” (Pinter, ‘Art, truth and politics,’ The Guardian, December 8, 2005;)
Instead, Webb began his final radio programme from the Middle East thus:
“June 2005. US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice flies to Cairo and at the American University makes a speech that will go down in history:
“‘For sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East; and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.’”
Webb then told his listeners in all seriousness:
“I believe the Bush administration genuinely wanted that speech to be a turning point; a new start.”
One simply has to ask: On the basis of what evidence, exactly? That Webb could simply take at face value – with no evidence required – Rice’s claims of a massive, unprecedented U-turn in US foreign policy; that Washington would now engage in “supporting the democratic aspirations of all people” when the whole drive of American policy has been precisely in the opposite direction since the end of the Second World War, is truly breathtaking. And that he could blithely pass over what US-supported “stability” in the Middle East has actually entailed – such as the suffering of the Iraqis, and the appalling treatment of the Palestinians under an Israeli state massively supported by the US – tells us precisely where Webb stands.
In truth, Webb is the latest in a long line of journalists who periodically announce the great ‘change of course’. No matter the consistent depredations of state power, no matter the essentially unchanging structures of power and privilege dominating foreign policy, mainstream commissars are only too happy to declare a revolutionary and humanitarian change in direction based on nothing more than the words of the current Dear Leader.
Birth Of A Myth
Webb continued with his superficial analysis and loaded questions:
“So who are the Middle East anti-Americans?”, he asked. The tone was measured, reassuring, almost magisterial; echoing the style of John Simpson, the BBC’s veteran world affairs editor, perhaps deliberately so.
He answered his own question:
“They do exist, of course, and some of them, particularly those motivated by religion, are potential mass murderers. Most Americans would put them at the top of the list of threats to their nation and to them as individuals. Yet, in many ways, it’s the others, those who’ve not said goodbye to reason and humanity, who pose the bigger long-term threat [sic]. The bombers, after all, are a tiny minority and they can be arrested or suppressed or killed. These men and women, the peaceful haters you could call them, deny American legitimacy and deny too the fundamental decency of the American ideal; and they carry those thoughts on into future generations. They do so with a vehemence that takes the breath away.”
What followed was an Egyptian academic’s critical but articulate observations about US history and that country’s role in world affairs. But, for Webb, such radical views constituted “vehemence”: a familiar, pejorative framing whereby incisive critics such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Pinter and others are dismissed as angry, self-hating, or otherwise lacking in reason and relevance. (See our Media Alert, Brilliant Fools, December 19, 2005;?)
Webb spoke glowingly of America’s “core values”, about how it represents “a set of ideas about human conduct”, and of how “the heart of America’s unique status as a great power whose legitimacy, at least in theory, rests on the freely-given support of its own citizens and of those it assists.”
It has long been a standard convention in the mainstream to assert that the United States was forged as a nation dedicated to the democratic ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. US political leaders have long made reference to this ideology.
Consider, for example, a high-level internal document written in 1950, National Security Council 68, which grandly proclaimed the “system of values which animates our society” and which includes “the principles of freedom, tolerance, the importance of the individual and the supremacy of reason over will.” “The essential tolerance of our world outlook, our generous and constructive impulses, and the absence of covetousness in our international relations are assets of potentially enormous influence.” (Quoted in Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, pp.10-11)
Academics have also played a useful role in preaching this doctrine of US benevolence and grand ideals. According to Michael Howard, then Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford:
“For 200 years the United States has preserved almost unsullied the original ideals of the Enlightenment: the belief in the God-given rights of the individual, the inherent rights of free assembly and free speech, the blessings of free enterprise, the perfectibility of man, and, above all, the universality of these values.” (Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, Vintage, 1992, p.16).
Respected media commentators have also done their bit. James Reston of the New York Times, for example:
“I don’t think there’s anything in the history of the world to compare with the commitments this country has taken in defense of freedom.” (Ibid., p.18)
And Matt Frei – like Justin Webb, a senior BBC correspondent based in the US:
“America encapsulated the principles of the Enlightenment – Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – wrapped them in the pursuit of happiness, underpinned them with an inalienable right and turned an IDEA into a country. It took the missteps of the French and the English revolutions and it made them work.” (Matt Frei, ‘Washington diary: Land of ideas,’ BBC news online, May 2, 2007;)
This was the ideological framework into which Webb’s radio series snugly fitted.
But the assumption of a benevolent state historically founded on a deep commitment to equality and freedom collapses under scrutiny. Consider, for example, what actually happened when the United States gained its independence from Britain. Historian Edmund Morgan summed it up:
“The fact that the lower ranks were involved in the contest should not obscure the fact that the contest itself was generally a struggle for office and power between members of an upper class: the new against the established.” (Zinn, op. cit., p.84)
And to what extent did the revolution, and the founding of this new nation, respect the equality and freedom of the original inhabitants, the native American Indians? Howard Zinn answers:
“They had been ignored by the fine words of the Declaration, had not been considered equal, certainly not in choosing those who would govern the American territories in which they lived, nor in being able to pursue happiness as they had pursued it for centuries before the white Americans arrived. Now, with the British out of the way, the Americans could begin the inexorable process of pushing the Indians off their lands, killing them if they resisted. (Ibid., p.86)
Indeed, Alexis de Tocqueville observed bluntly that the United States was able “to exterminate the Indian race… without violating a single great principle of morality in the eyes of the world”. (Noam Chomsky, Failed States, Hamish Hamilton, 2006, p.4)
As for the much-vaunted US Constitution itself, Zinn observes:
“When economic interest is seen behind the political clauses of the Constitution, then the document becomes not simply the work of wise men trying to establish a decent and orderly society, but the work of certain groups trying to maintain their privileges, while giving just enough rights and liberties to enough of the people to ensure popular support.” (Zinn, op. cit., p.97)
All this, recall, is the “shining city upon a hill”.
Part Two will follow shortly…