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Comments and Articles on
American sociology




Index:

Critical articles about American sociology

Branded a communist: Intellectual inquiry in America has strict unspoken and unconscious boundaries

Ignorance of the world has deep historical and cultural roots in the US

America's cultural icon amnesia

The Economist: Anti-Americanism

Americans: tell me what you mean by freedom? ...the responses are surprising and very disturbing

New York Times: Since 9/11, President Bush and his advisers have engaged in a series of arguments concerning the relation between freedom, tyranny and terrorism.

The Economist: Here's to the great American loser (Americans unhealthy obsession with success)



Critical articles about American sociology:

It never ceases to amaze me how readily American scribes prostitute their talents at the altars of power

From the Agence France Presse:
Democracy is the Free World's Whore..."American Empire" where "facts don't matter."

From the Miami Herald: Have we become a country that wears its hypocrisy openly and proudly?

A Nation of Cowards

From the Boston Globe: Why Americans Back the War. There is nothing new about the American population's refusal to face what is being done in our name.

The Nature of American Denial



Comments: Intellectual inquiry in America has strict unspoken and unconscious boundaries

I took a sociology class in college, and the professor and book talked about how there is no discussion of class in American society.

I thought at the time:

Wow, that is wierd, I wonder why?

I was left to figure it out myself...only today in fact I think I 'figured it out':

You talk about the absence of discussion of class in American society you are a praised 'Sociologist'.

You talk about why there is an absence of discussion of class in America, the root causes, and you are condemned and vilified as a
'Communist'.


Web critique: America's cultural icon amnesia

Excerpt of the review of "Mark Twain" (PBS series) by Ken Burns:

"It is also significant that the series makes only fleeting reference to the social changes that occurred between the time of the publication of Huckleberry Finn and Clemens’ death in 1910, even though they were the subject of much of his writing. It was the age of the consolidation of the “Robber Barons” in the US and the growth of great industrial cartels in all the advanced capitalist countries. The stage was being set for the emergence of imperialism (and later world war), which Clemens strenuously opposed. He served as the vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League from 1901 until his death; a fact that also goes unmentioned."


I searched on the web for information on this PBS series on Twain because a relative recommended it.


I knew that this series would completely ignore the last nine years of Twain's life, before I found this review. Unfortunately, it is really no surprise.

American media has a long history of being very selective about what American's remember about our cultural icons. (Charlie Chaplin, Mohammed Ali, and Helen Keller are two that also come to mind) Sasha, my wife, a Ukrainian, says that she probably knows more about Charlie Chaplin than I do. I agree. The Soviet Union had many television specials about Chaplin's socialist beliefs. The series would interview people who knew Chaplin and translate it.

[I wonder if there has been a book written on this American cultural icon amnesia?]



After all, if PBS mentioned Mark Twain's opposition to the war, PBS might have to mention why he opposed the war. PBS may have to actually mention the 200,000+ Filipinos that America massacred. Can't have that, and shatter American's image of a benevolent and good America, so *poof* nine years of Twain's writings just ceases to exist in this series, down the collective cultural memory hole.


If I recall the Soviet Union used to do the same thing to their cultural heroes too, conveniently void out large parts of certain people's lives that did not conform and go along with the official image of the Soviet Union. Actually every country does this.

I remember reading American articles critical of this facet of Soviet culture, the same magazines which void out large portions of our cultural heroes' lives. There is a word for this.

Here is part of Twain's life which you will never find on PBS, and will never be covered by any of the mainstream US media:


Mark Twain: Words for Our Times


Excerpts:


..."In 1901, Twain became vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League, an organization that opposed America's seizure of Spain's empire during the Spanish-American War. This conflict, described by scholar Jim Zwick as "a one-sided slaughter designed to make the United States a world imperial power," served as a touchstone for much of Twain's anti-imperialist writing. Despite propaganda to the contrary, the McKinley administration's primary motivation for the war was a desire to gain control over Spain's territories."...


..."Soon afterwards, Twain wrote "To the Person Sitting in Darkness," which Zwick describes as one of his most popular and influential anti-imperialist essays. It was "an acid indictment of the brutalities the British, French, German, Russian and American capitalist governments were committing all over the world." Twain ironically borrowed the title from the book of Matthew in the New Testament; the "person sitting in darkness" was a term then used frequently by missionaries when referring to the so-called uncivilized populations in lands being conquered."...


..."Twain noted: "The Person Sitting in Darkness is almost sure to say: 'There is something curious about this - curious and unaccountable. There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive's new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.'"...


Excellent collection of Twain's writings against war

History of the Anti-Imperialist League


International Socialist Review 10, Winter 2000, pp.61-65: The Mark Twain they didn’t teach us about in school


From The Economist Feb 17th 2005:
Anti-Americanism, the American left and the American right

THERE is no thunderbolt that the American right likes hurling at its foes more than the accusation of “anti-Americanism”. Most of its targets are foreigners. But, from the right's point of view, there are plenty of unAmerican leftists at home too. Conservative congressmen labor over laws to prevent leftists from burning the American flag. Conservative talk-show hosts are for ever uncovering anti-Americanism at Harvard or on National Public Radio. And conservative activists are forever shouting at liberals: “Why don't you move to France?”


Many foreigners might assume that charges of unAmerican behaviour went out with Joe McCarthy. But the past few weeks have already produced two much-discussed examples. First, the right foamed at the mouth over Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, when it discovered, somewhat belatedly, that he had written an article on the day after September 11th that described the victims of the atrocity as “little Eichmanns”. (“True enough, they were civilians of a sort,” the Boulder professor had opined, “But innocent? Gimme a break.”) Then the right foamed again about the revelation that Eason Jordan, CNN's chief news executive, had supposedly told a group of bigwigs at Davos that the American army was deliberately targeting journalists to kill them; he denies he said this, but admits he left the wrong impression.

Mr Jordan, who even under the worst interpretation was probably just sucking up to a group of glamorous foreigners rather than expressing any deeply held philosophy, has now resigned. Mr Churchill, being an academic, still has a job. But how widespread is domestic anti-Americanism? Is it really a doctrine that pervades the American left, as many conservatives charge? Or is it an eccentric phenomenon blown out of proportion by a vicious conservative attack-machine?

The right has two powerful arguments on its side. The first is that leftists, from the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss to John Walker Lindh (the Marin County-bred “American Taliban”), have been caught doing treasonous things. Lynne Stewart, a well-known radical lawyer, has just been convicted of helping one of her clients, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, to contact his supporters—an action that could put her in prison for around 20 years.

More generally, prominent leftists have indulged in language which, at the very least, is extremely critical of their country. Back in 1969, Susan Sontag reflected that “it is self-evident that the Reader's Digest and Lawrence Welk and Hilton Hotels are organically connected with the Special Forces napalming villages in Guatemala”; after September 11th, she interpreted the outrage as “an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.” Michael Moore has compared Iraqi terrorists to Minutemen and said modern Americans are the stupidest and greediest people on the face of the Earth.

Comrades Sontag and Moore would insist that they were opposed to American foreign policy, not America; but, to put it mildly, they were pushing it. They also represent a private tradition on the American left of rubbishing their countrymen as vulgar morons, especially when set alongside sophisticated Europeans. (If you doubt this, don a tweed jacket, assume a British accent, invite yourself to a dinner party in an American university town and wait until the Pinot Grigio takes hold.)

So anti-Americanism does exist on the left, but it is hardly its exclusive preserve. There are plenty of loud-mouth critics of American policy on the right. The American Conservative is as rude about American imperialism and the Iraq war as the Nation—but nobody really accuses Pat Buchanan of anti-Americanism. As for dismissing American culture, Mr Moore is less acerbic than one of the right's patron saints, H.L. Mencken. The Public Interest and the New Criterion worry about popular culture. Robert Bork thinks America is slouching towards Gomorrah. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell agreed that September 11th was a punishment for America's liberalism on abortion and homosexuality. Was that less anti-American than Ms Sontag?

By the left, quick march

Moreover, the odd thing about the American left—at least from an international perspective—is how caught up it is in passion for America. It is hard to think of any foreign left-of-centre party that would brandish the flag as often as the Democrats did in last year's election campaign, or that would have made so much of its candidate's warrior past. The American left seems no less convinced that America is a special country. They just have a different view of what makes America special.

Liberals think that America has been defined by its commitment to equality of opportunity (hence their worries about cutting inheritance tax); by its commitment to the separation of church and state (hence their worries about faith-based social policy); and by its enthusiasm for human rights (hence their worries about torture). When liberals created People for the American Way, they did not see it as a covert People for the French Way. The real battle-line in the culture wars is not between pro-Americans and anti-Americans; it is between two groups of patriots who have very different ideas about what makes America America (with the regional battle-lines, incidentally, bearing some similarity to those in the civil war).

This carries a warning for two very different sorts of people. The first is anti-American foreigners: they should not take clowns like Mr Moore or Mr Churchill as typical. Americans are a patriotic bunch—and, for the most part, this patriotism stretches from one end of the political spectrum to the other. The second is the American right. So far, conservatives have played the unAmerican card extremely well; but when it comes to unAmerican purges there is always a danger of overreach.


Americans: tell me what you mean by freedom? ...the responses are surprising and very disturbing.


NPR: Talk of the Nation, February 2, 2005

When President Bush delivers his State of the Union message, he's expected to emphasize the ideals of freedom and liberty, as he did in his Inaugural address. But what does freedom mean today -- and what did it used to mean?

We look at two perspectives on President Bush's use of the word "freedom"

Orlando Patterson, professor of sociology, Harvard University



Listen to the broadcast

Text of the NPR broadcast with Orlando Patterson:

Joining us now from the studio at member station WBUR in Boston is Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard University.

Good to have you on Talk of the Nation.

Professor ORLANDO PATTERSON (Harvard University): Good to be here.

CONAN: After the inaugural address, you wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times where you said, `The president speaks eloquently and no doubt sincerely of freedom both abroad and at home. But it is plain for the world to see that there's a discrepancy between his words and his actions.' What did you mean by that?

Prof. PATTERSON: Well, what I mean, first of all, is that if you look at his policies over the past four years, his claims about freedom are simply not realized from one perspective of freedom, namely the liberal democratic one, which emphasizes security, which emphasizes participation, which emphasizes equality and which emphasizes respect for civil liberties.

This administration, in the opinion of most experts, come closest to violating basic civil liberties in the way in which the Patriot Act has been applied, in the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, in the skirting with or within virtually accepting the possibility of torture of a means of getting responses from prisoners and in--more importantly, the way in which our privacy has been invaded repeatedly. And there's been a turnaround over the last four years in the relationship between the states and the citizen.

Traditionally, from the liberal democratic point of view, the citizens' privacy is sacred virtually and the state is kept at bay, whereas the state is supposed to be transparent. Now that's been turned around to what's called a new normal in which the state has become extremely secretive and however the individual's privacy, his medical privacy and other rights in the respect have been violated. So there's just a long string of ways in which freedom as understood in the liberal democratic sense has been violated by this government.

Now it's very surprising, nonetheless, that the president celebrates freedom, and my puzzle is `How does he get away with it?' And my explanation simply is that he gets away with it because the view of freedom which has emerged in America in recent decades is, in fact, departed from this liberal democratic view. And while the president may voice it on formal occasions such as the inaugural or in his speeches, address, to the world, his followers are--a substantial number of Americans, perhaps a majority, hold to a view of freedom which is very different from the liberal democratic one which they may voice formally but in practice, when you sit down with Americans and ask them, `Well, tell me what you mean by freedom,' as I have done, hundreds of hours of interviews, `Tell me what you experience when you are experiencing freedom. What actually are you engaged in?' the responses are surprising and very disturbing.

Basically, Americans now take freedom to mean doing what you want, getting your way. It means having choices. It means essentially being able to expound one's possession and one's power. It's a positive view of freedom. And it's just as interesting what's left out. I've spoken to Americans for hours and hours about freedom and they never once mention anything having to do with democracy or with rights. Indeed, one development is that rights are viewed almost with suspicion. You shouldn't forget that a president in recent decades actually taunted his opponent--I'm thinking of Reagan--with the view that he's a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Now one would have thought that in the land of the free and the home of the brave that it should be a badge of honor and of social pride to be a member of Civil Liberties Union, but in fact, it is used as a very telling weapon against his opponent. And, indeed, there's a great suspicion of rights as things which--associated with women being too uppity, with blacks liberation, with the poor, with immigrants and with criminals.

So that's the state we're in right now. Freedom, in a sense, to outrage Americans, excludes the liberal democratic notion. And the other thing which is, as I said left out, is participation in democracy.

CONAN: Well...

Prof. PATTERSON: This was perhaps the most significant finding, not only in my interviews but in my national surveys.

CONAN: Well, let's hear from some Americans about what freedom means to them. …Anyway, let's talk to Carrie who's calling from San Antonio, Texas.

CARRIE (Caller): Hi. Yes, I think that freedom has to do with equal access to opportunity through economic rights in our country. I think that the chasm that exists between those who have and those who don't have is just growing in America, and I think that the actions of this administration have contributed to that. And I think globally the same thing is true. I think the way that Americans conduct themselves affects everyone, and I think that freedom has to do with being able to sustain oneself and we have to be mindful of that. So that's what I think freedom has to do with.

[Notice how Carrie just proves Patterson's point]

CONAN: Carrie, thanks very much.

Orlando Patterson, you wrote about something similar to what she said in terms of the domestic policy...

Prof. PATTERSON: Right.

CONAN: ...in your piece to The Times. But I did want to ask you also about how you think that word `freedom' is heard differently by people overseas rather than people at home.

Prof. PATTERSON: Well, people overseas judge the president by his actions, both overseas and locally. What people overseas see from American foreign policy for the past 100 years is association with a string of tyrants and dictators: South Africa, Argentina, Pinochet's Chile, Brazil, all of the military--I mean, the list goes on. And if anything until...

CONAN: To be fair, some of them might say the liberation of Europe in the Second World War.

Prof. PATTERSON: Yes, we were involved. We were involved with actions such as that. But I'm talking about the Third World, especially, and not Europe really. Although, Europeans are also quite alarmed by developments in America now. But for the world, the Third World, the majority of people whom the president has in mind when he's talking, people in the Middle East, people in Asia and so on, there's the view that there's some hypocrisy here in the sense that American foreign policy has not only been too often associated with tyrants, for want to take this seriously--including current sort of behavior, the relationship with Pakistan, for example, and the fact that for such a long time America tilted against the world's greatest democracy, which is--the world largest democracy, shall we say, which is India. There are many other cases I can cite in that regard.

And it's--and people also look at American domestic policy and wondered what kind of freedom do we actually have in mind given the fact that America has--and this is in reference to what I said earlier--America has a Third World level of infant mortality, that a country--the richest country in the world has millions and millions of children without sort of health insurance and so on. And for the rest of the world, freedom means nothing unless it is associated and to some degree with security.

CONAN: Hmm. We just have a couple of minutes left with you, but I did want to ask--we will be hearing tonight from the president as he delivers the State of the Union about democracy and freedom on the march, and I have to ask if the elections--well, last year in Afghanistan and this past Sunday in Iraq change your opinions at all?

Prof. PATTERSON: Not at all. I mean, the--democracy, if it's to mean anything, must mean more than elections. I mean, we know that from scores of cases all over the Third World which achieved independence with grand sort of democratic structures, had elections and within a few years, they're all gone because the will was not there and the sort of basic sort of institutional support was not there. Democracy--what is happening in the world now, by the way, is that authoritarian governments have learned the trick of how you can have what the conservative magazine The Economist rightly calls `phony democracies,' in which you have elections every five years but you really do not have real participatory democracy. I think people are very skeptical about it.

Now let me say clearly that I'm one of those who strongly believe in the diffusion of freedom, that freedom--one of the best things that could happen to the world is that if every country were to become free. My basic problem is that I see us going about it the wrong way. You cannot force people to be free. You have to use persuasion. You have to use--engage them in a discourse. You have to sort of use the carrot more than the stick in persuading people that this is the best form of government.

CONAN: Orlando Patterson, thanks very much for being with us.

Prof. PATTERSON: Thank you.

CONAN: Orlando Patterson is professor of sociology at Harvard University


The Speech Misheard Round the World
New York Times, January 22, 2005

By Orlando Patterson

Cambridge, Mass. — SINCE 9/11, President Bush and his advisers have engaged in a series of arguments concerning the relation between freedom, tyranny and terrorism. The president's inaugural paean to freedom was the culmination of these arguments.

The stratagem began immediately after 9/11 with the president's claims that the terrorist attacks were a deliberate assault on America's freedom. The next stage of the argument came after no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, thus eliminating the reason for the war, and it took the form of a bogus syllogism: all terrorists are tyrants who hate freedom. Saddam Hussein is a tyrant who hates freedom. Therefore Saddam Hussein is a terrorist whose downfall was a victory in the war against terrorism.

When this bogus syllogism began to lose public appeal, it was shored up with another flawed argument that was repeated during the campaign: tyranny breeds terrorism. Freedom is opposed to tyranny. Therefore the promotion of freedom is the best means of fighting terrorism.

Promoting freedom, of course, is a noble and highly desirable pursuit. If America were to make the global diffusion of freedom a central pillar of its foreign policy, it would be cause for joy. The way the present administration has gone about this task, however, is likely to have the opposite effect. Moreover, what the president means by freedom may get lost in translation to the rest of the world.

The administration's notion of freedom has been especially convenient, and its promotion of it especially cynical. In the first place, there is no evidence to support, and no good reason to believe, that Al Qaeda's attack on America was primarily motivated by a hatred of freedom. Osama bin Laden is clearly no lover of freedom, but this is an irrelevance. The attack on America was motivated by religious and cultural fanaticism.

Second, while it may be implicitly true that all terrorists are tyrants, it does not follow that all tyrants are terrorists. The United States, of all nations, should know this. Over the past century it has supported a succession of tyrannical states with murderous records of oppression against their own people, none of which were terrorist states - Argentina and Brazil under military rule, Augusto Pinochet's Chile, South Africa under apartheid, to list but a few. Today, one of America's closest allies in the fight against tyranny is tyrannical Pakistan, and one of its biggest trading partners is the authoritarian Communist regime of China.

Third, while the goal of promoting democracy is laudable, there is no evidence that free states are less likely to breed terrorists. Sadly, the very freedoms guaranteed under the rule of law are likely to shelter terrorists, especially within states making the transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. Transitional democratic states, like Russia today, are more violent than the authoritarian ones they replaced.

And even advanced democratic regimes have been known to breed terrorists, the best example being the United States itself. For more than half a century a terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, flourished in this country. According to the F.B.I., three of every four terrorist acts in the United States from 1980 to 2000 were committed by Americans.

The president speaks eloquently and no doubt sincerely of freedom both abroad and at home. But it is plain for the world to see that there is a discrepancy between his words and his actions.

He claims that freedom must be chosen and defended by citizens, yet his administration is in the process of imposing democracy at the point of a gun in Iraq. At home, he seeks to "make our society more prosperous and just and equal," yet during his first term there has been a great redistribution of income from working people to the wealthy as well as declining real income and job security for many Americans. Furthermore, he has presided over the erosion of civil liberties stemming from the Patriot Act.

Is this pure hypocrisy - or is there another explanation for the discrepancy, and for Mr. Bush's perplexing sincerity? There is no gainsaying an element of hypocrisy here. But it is perhaps no greater than usual in speeches of this nature. The problem is that what the president means by freedom, and what the world hears when he says it, are not the same.

In the 20th century two versions of freedom emerged in America. The modern liberal version emphasizes civil liberties, political participation and social justice. It is the version formally extolled by the federal government, debated by philosophers and taught in schools; it still informs the American judicial system. And it is the version most treasured by foreigners who struggle for freedom in their own countries.

But most ordinary Americans view freedom in quite different terms. In their minds, freedom has been radically privatized. Its most striking feature is what is left out: politics, civic participation and the celebration of traditional rights, for instance. Freedom is largely a personal matter having to do with relations with others and success in the world.

Freedom, in this conception, means doing what one wants and getting one's way. It is measured in terms of one's independence and autonomy, on the one hand, and one's influence and power, on the other. It is experienced most powerfully in mobility - both socioeconomic and geographic.

In many ways this is the triumph of the classic 19th-century version of freedom, the version that philosophers and historians preached but society never quite achieved. This 19th-century freedom must now coexist with the more modern version of freedom. It does so by acknowledging the latter but not necessarily including it.

It is not that Americans have rejected the formal model of freedom - ask any American if he believes in democracy and a free press and he will genuinely endorse both. Rather it is that such abstract notions of freedom are far removed from their notion of what freedom means and how it is experienced.

The genius of President Bush is that he has acquired an exquisite grasp of this development in American political culture, and he can play both versions of freedom to his advantage. Because he so easily empathizes with the ordinary American's privatized view of freedom, the president was relatively immune from criticism that he disregarded more traditional measures of freedom like civil liberties. In the privatized conception of freedom that he and his followers share, the abuses of the Patriot Act play little or no part. (There are times, of course, when the president must voice support for the modern liberal version of freedom. The inaugural is such a day, "prescribed by law and marked by ceremony," as he ruefully noted.)

Yet while these inconsistencies may not bother the president's followers or harm his standing in America, they matter to the rest of the world. Few foreigners are even aware of America's hybrid conception of freedom, much less accepting of it. In most of the rest of the world, the president's inaugural address was heard merely as hypocrisy.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists January 1, 2004 Pg. 53:
Ignorance of the world has deep historical and cultural roots in the US
This article on Lexis-Nexis touches upon something which I stress often: how ignorant most Americans are and explains partially why.

Democracy or dominion?

When the American public pays little attention to political affairs, it pays the price. The question today is the same as it has been earlier in U.S. history--how great a price?


THE AUTHORS OF A HIGHLY REGARDED TEXTBOOK, American Public Opinion, include an aggregate analysis of more than 2,000 "pop quizzes" surveying American political knowledge since the 1930s. Only 13 percent of the adult public could answer correctly at least 75 percent of such questions. And only 41 percent got at least 50 percent right. Despite an enormous increase in the average American's level of schooling over the same period, the authors conclude that "Americans are no better informed about political matters than they were 50 years ago." (1)


Ignorance about U.S. foreign policy and the world is even more shocking. Forty percent of respondents in one poll believed Israel to be an Arab nation. (2) When asked what percent of the U.S. budget was spent on foreign aid, the median response was "20 percent." The actual amount is less than 1 percent. (3)

Perhaps the most disturbing of all poll results, however, was revealed in March 2003, the month the United States invaded Iraq. An astounding 51 percent of those polled answered in the affirmative when CNN/USA Today pollsters asked: "Do you think Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks, or not?" (4)

The result was especially disturbing because President George W. Bush had been asked at a January 31, 2003 news conference: "Do you believe that there is a link between Saddam Hussein, a direct link, and the men who attacked on September 11?" The president had replied, "I can't make that claim."

Had Bush been heard by the nearly half of those polled who told Knight Ridder earlier that month that at least some of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Iraqis (when none were)? Probably not. It should surprise nobody that 84 percent of those who believed that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11 supported the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq.

But it is a national disgrace.

The costs of democratic self-rule

Ignorance of the world has deep historical and cultural roots in the United States. It's been nourished by a utilitarian view of education, the belief that technology can solve all problems ("technological utopianism"), a "free press" that is not nearly free, punitive measures designed to stifle dissent, the rise of specialized bureaucracies, and, finally, purposive deceit and lies by political leaders.

The Founding Fathers played an indispensable role in ending British rule and establishing a unique form of government, but "democracy was a minor matter" to them, argues historian Robert H. Wiebe. (5)

The revolutionary leaders were "first-generation gentlemen." According to historian Gordon Wood, "It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of these new enlightened republican ideals of gentility for the American revolutionary leaders."

"By gentlemen," John Adams explained, "are not meant the rich or the poor, the high-born or the low-born, the industrious or the idle: but all those who have received a liberal education, an ordinary degree of erudition in the liberal arts and sciences." (6)

Nevertheless, actual democratic activity in colonial America during the Great Awakening, the settlement of the frontier, self-directed business endeavors, and especially the fight for independence, laid the groundwork for jettisoning these Revolutionary "gentlemen" soon after their revolutionary services were rendered.

Typical of the assault on the Federalist aristocracy was one leveled by Abraham Bishop, himself a lawyer and graduate of Yale. Bishop conceded that the revolutionary leaders were "superior to common, ordinary people--in wealth, in birth, in private character, in intellect, in education." But, he argued, "ordinary people ought not to be ruled by men greater, wiser, and richer than they," because "a nation which makes greatness its polestar can never be free." (7)

Spurred by this populist sentiment, artisans, tradesmen, mechanics, and laborers organized into associations and Democratic--Republican societies that demanded that people do their "utmost at election to prevent all men of talents, lawyers, rich men from being elected." In Wood's view, the "destruction of aristocracy, including Jefferson's 'natural aristocracy,' was the real American Revolution--a radical alteration in the nature of American society whose effects are still being felt today." (8)

Although it applied only to white men, self-rule was American democracy's radical new principle, and its health was measured by the economic success that flowed from self-directed work and technological development. Europeans who visited nineteenth century America were astounded by the industriousness that self-directed work generated. But they were equally appalled by the Americans' barbaric behavior.

To these Europeans, Americans appeared incapable of distinguishing civic freedom from chronic disorder. Alexis de Tocqueville observed derisively: "We are wont to look upon a restless disposition, an unbounded desire for riches, and an excessive love of independence as propensities very dangerous to society." Even Adam Smith thought Americans engaged in "unnecessary and excessive enterprise."

Henry David Thoreau, writing in Walden, complained that "most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them."

Dating back to Puritan New England, religious and civic leaders had emphasized literacy, especially sufficient literacy to read the Bible, as a means to bring civilization to their country. But, as Lee Soltow and Edward Stevens conclude, this push for literacy "was never more than a utilitarian value to serve greater spiritual and social ends." It was a "particular" sort of literacy; certainly not one designed to "open vistas of imagination." (9)

Nevertheless, literacy was very much a function of population density. Judging from evidence provided by army enlistees during the period of 1799-1829, 50 percent of the population in the South was illiterate, as was 34 percent in the North. And although illiteracy rates declined to 31 percent and 17 percent respectively during the period 1830-1890, few attended school past the age of 14. (10)

According to Sheldon Wolin, beyond these problems were the ones posed by workers and farmers who "accepted the educational ideology of a business civilization that unless education was 'practical,' it was useless." Throughout the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth, they were "indifferent or hostile to college education."

"Negativism toward education meant that there were no democratic pressures from below to shape education to the needs of political democracy during the nineteenth century, before political centralization and corporate concentration of economic power had hardened into their present forms."

It was not until after World War II, when the ruling elite in the United States decided to compete for global supremacy, that they encouraged American universities "to concentrate on developing scientific research, technical skills and methods, and forms of professional knowledge that aid in social control (law, medicine, public health, social welfare, and the management sciences)."

Tuition dollars flowed from the G.I. Bill of 1944. A massive influx of students bent on learning a trade created a paradox, writes Wolin: "The result was the radical alteration of the purpose of the university and college, from education to the pursuit and imparting of knowledge. It was at this point when humanistic education was being replaced by technical knowledge, that the masses went to classes." (11) And so it remains today.

The press was one institution whose members possessed both a civic and vested interest in literacy. From 1735, when a jury acquitted printer John Peter Zenger for "criticizing the royal governor of New York," to its inclusion in the First Amendment, to its reaffirmation by the Supreme Court in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case, time press came to be regarded as a "bulwark of liberty," essential to a genuine democracy. As the Court reaffirmed: "The press was to serve the governed, not the governors." (12)

Yet the press found itself unwilling or unable to disentangle itself from political control during much of the nineteenth century. And when Americans found their opportunities for self-directed work stymied by the closed frontier, population growth, immigration, the rise of corporations, and the dreaded assembly line, they turned to political action that compelled the nation's leaders to come up with ways to use the press to bring them in line.

Empire and the loss of self-rule

Labor unrest exploded between 1883 and 1886, followed in the late 1880s to mid-1890s by farmers' alliances in the South and West. As Wiebe notes, these alliances "rallied hundreds of thousands of recruits to protests that quickly spilled into political action and, between 1890 and 1892, the creation of the Populist party."

After the election of 1890 reduced the Republican majority in the House of Representatives to a paltry 88 members, the party transformed itself and America. The vision was provided by Secretary of State James G. Blaine, who believed the party's salvation "lay in launching under the Republican aegis a new assertive foreign policy for the United States, one that would put an end to its isolation and place it once and for all in the international arena as a major world power."

This change would begin the transformation of the United States from republic to empire. According to historian
Walter Karp, "an electorate growing restive over economic conditions would find its attention riveted to the spectacle of America's overseas power and pursuits, its republican sentiments diluted and deformed by jingo nationalism, its political energies absorbed by overseas problems and perplexities."

President William McKinley used fabricated allegations about Spain's mistreatment of Cubans, including American citizens in Cuba, as a pre-text for "liberating" the island, invading Manila as a prelude to acquiring a colony in the Philippines, invading Puerto Rico, and annexing Hawaii. In the name of liberation and "manifest destiny," the United States violated international law, but did it under the cover of the mysterious explosion of the battleship Maine, which aroused the nation. (Are the reasons the current Bush administration gave for invading Iraq much different?)

But what did turn-of-the-century Americans know? They were illiterate or schooled only in "practical" knowledge. And the press? According to Karp: "Of all the myths about the Spanish--American War, none is more frivolous than the assertion that the inflammatory reporting of the American press ... was an independent cause of the war. Nothing could be further from the truth, for there was nothing independent about the American press. It was, overwhelmingly, a party press, a press that echoed to the point of slavishness the policies and propaganda of one or the other major party." (13)

The press was to become more dependent still. Soon after the U.S. entry into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information (CPI) and named newspaper editor George Creel as its chairman. As James Mock and Cedric Larson noted in 1939, Creel's task was not so much to censor the press in the name of wartime security, but to "choke" the channels of communication "with official, approved news and opinion, leaving little freeway for rumor or disloyal reports."

In addition, "the Committee on Public Information had done its work so well that there was a burning eagerness to believe, to conform, to feel the exaltation of joining in a great and selfless enterprise." (14) But they also concluded that the CPI would have been much less effective had it not been backed by laws--the Espionage Act, the Trading with the Enemy Act, and the Sedition Act--which criminalized dissent.

The Sedition Act made it a crime, punishable by a prison term up to 20 years and a fine of $ 10,000, or both, to willfully write, utter, or publicize any "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the form of government of the United States or its Constitution, military or naval forces, the flag, or uniform of the army or navy, or to use any language intended to bring them "into contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute."

According to Karp, "Americans were arrested for remarks made at a boardinghouse table, in a hotel lobby, on a train, in a private club, during the private conversations overheard by the government's spies." (Was that experience different in degree, or in kind, compared to the arrests following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001?)

Suppression of dissent continued after World War I, a consequence in part of Wilson's decision (based on documents later found to have been forged) to dispatch U.S. forces to Russia in an effort to overturn the Bolshevik regime. Wilson's public anti-Bolshevism encouraged eager suppressors of dissent to shift their attention from supporters of the Hun to socialists and communists, paving the way for the Red Scare, the House Un-American Activities Committee, J. Edgar Hoover's anti-Communist excesses, and McCarthyism.

Mobilization for World War I also set the stage for the growth of the national bureaucracy. According to Wiebe, "as a national bureaucracy insulated domestic affairs from popular influence, basic foreign policy issues slipped even farther away from the public." Yet the subsequent call for more "intelligence" and the proliferation of such agencies would cause it to slip away even more.

Perhaps the starkest manifestation of the breakdown between public participation in decision making was a White House press release on August 6, 1945 (written by New York Times science reporter William Laurence, who had been secretly recruited for the Manhattan Project), telling both Japan and the American public for the first time about the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. (15) Although the bomb was the ultimate in technological utopianism, the American public had not been consulted in any way about the use of a weapon that would come to possess the potential to destroy all life on Earth.

Having observed the ease with which the Wilson administration manufactured consent and suppressed dissent during World War I, Walter Lippmann was moved to write his classic study, Public Opinion. Even today it merits close reading.

Lippmann painstakingly demonstrated why no individual, however intelligent, educated, and motivated, was capable of becoming an expert, let alone being an "insider," on all the important issues of the day. He also explained why the press could not possibly compensate--because "news and truth are not the same thing." (16) Further preventing citizens from becoming fully informed was the unwillingness of private and public insiders to reveal what they were up to.

If anything, matters have deteriorated since Lippmann's day. His doubts about the possibility of Jeffersonian democracy, given the near impossibility of a fully informed citizenry, were articulated before television became the primary source of news.

Beyond its tendency to appeal to emotions through graphic and symbolic visual images, the focus of TV news is on the immediate moment, thus depriving the viewer of the context required for informed decisions.

A classic example of the power of imagery over rational discourse occurred in 1984, when Lesley Stahl of CBS News attempted to show the hypocrisy existing between what President Ronald Reagan said and what he did. As journalist James Fallows recounts, after showing video of Reagan speaking at a Special Olympics competition, Stahl pointed out that his administration had cut funding for mental health. And after showing him in attendance at the opening ceremonies of a nursing home, Stahl added that he had opposed public health spending as well. (17)

The result? Stahl received a call from a White House official who was pleased by the reaction to her reports. "You television people still don't get it. No one heard what you said. Don't you realize that the picture is all that counts? A powerful picture drowns out the words." (Think of Bush's landing on the aircraft carrier and the banner "Mission Accomplished.") Symbolism over substance and reason has become the American way.

Perhaps Fallows best characterized how U.S. television covers world events: "Americans seeing the outside world on TV [can] be forgiven for believing that all countries fall into two categories: those that are so messed up we shouldn't waste time thinking about them, and those that are messed up in a way that threatens our security or moral sensibility, so we should invade them, withdraw quickly, and forget about them again."

Most Americans probably do not know that CNN executives met regularly, six months before the invasion of Iraq, to plan two separate broadcast approaches to the war--one for American viewers, another for the rest of the world. According to Michael Massing, "the executives knew that [Paula] Zahn's girl-next-door manner and [Aaron] Brown's spacey monologues would not go down well with the British, French, or Germans, much less the Egyptians or Turks. CNN International bore more resemblance to the BBC than to its domestic edition--a difference that showed just how market-driven were the tone and content of the broadcasts." (18)

A study dated October 2, 2003, by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) titled "Misperceptions, the Media, and the Iraq War" found that the audiences of Fox News, CNN, and the three major TV networks held more demonstrable misperceptions about the war in Iraq than did readers of the print media...the viewers of Fox News, which broadcast the most...pro-war coverage, resulted in the highest percentage of misperceptions of that war.

Beyond the failures of television news is the larger problem of stereotyping practiced by political leaders, embraced by the news media, and swallowed by the public. For example, rather than explain to a victorious but war-weary American public why so many things were going wrong in post--World War II Europe, President Harry Truman decided to attribute virtually all of Europe's problems to interference by a Soviet Union bent on world domination, setting up the Cold War "frame."

Early on, Lippmann had recognized how useful frames could be when he observed that "the more untrained a mind, the more readily it works out a theory that two things which catch its attention at the same time are causally connected." This insight goes far to explain how easy it was to convey the impression to a high percentage of Americans that Saddam Hussein was involved in the Al Qaeda 9/11 attacks.

The authors of Framing Terrorism: The News Media, the Government, and the Public conclude that, after nearly a decade of searching for a replacement for the obsolete Cold War frame, a new one was provided by the attacks of 9/11--the "war on terror" frame. They also argue that "what changed, and changed decisively with 9/11, were American perceptions of the threat of world terrorism more than the actual reality." (19)

With hindsight, one might look at the 1992 Defense Policy Guidance, prepared under Paul Wolfowitz's direction for then--Defense Secretary Dick Cheney as a first attempt at reframing post--Cold War American policy. At the time its call for American world domination was too much for the elder President Bush to countenance.

But Wolfowitz had been a part of the CIA's "Team B," which engaged in wild exaggerations of the Soviet threat to justify increased defense spending. Because Team B's exaggerations had been so successful, it was easier for Wolfowitz to contemplate how American military power might well be used to intimidate the world in 1992.

The then-discarded frame of world domination was soon replaced by a new frame on the dangers posed by rogue states, and especially by their capabilities to fire ballistic missiles. Within this frame, the Rumsfeld-led group, the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States (which included Wolfowitz), equally wildly exaggerated the threat by insisting on virtually every worst-case scenario in order to justify deployment of a missile defense. Iraq was one of the rogue states said to pose such a threat, and Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz, among others, targeted it for regime change years before 9/11.

But, as the authors of Framing Terrorism conclude, "after 9/11, a new 'war on terrorism' frame was rapidly adopted in the White House as the primary standard used to reinterpret and understand 'friends' and 'enemies' around the globe." This frame offered a new and more all-encompassing way for American politicians and journalists to construct a deceptively simple narrative tying together a range of diverse stories about international security, civil wars, and global conflict.

More precisely, it was a narrative for a population more focused, as usual, on the pursuit of practical knowledge, intimidated by Patriot Act legislation, rendered subservient to politically manipulated intelligence agencies, and awed by technological utopianism. As the invasion of Iraq revealed, in the last resort, the technologically superior U.S. military was expected to reaffirm the uniquely naive "American belief that all human problems have engineering solutions." (20)

And it doesn't require a cynic to notice that, while Democrats and journalists were rallying around the flag after 9/11, momentarily suspending disbelief, the Bush administration busily incorporated all of the failed foreign policy frames that had been advanced by today's Bush administration officials during the 1990s--including world domination--into the new "war on terrorism" frame.


Footnotes:

(1.) Robert S. Erikson and Kent L. Tedin, American Public Opinion: Its Origins, Content and Impact (New York: Longman Publishers, 2003), p. 54.

(2.) Paul M. Sniderman, Richard A. Brody, Philip E. Tetlock, eds., Reasoning and Choice: Explorations in Political Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 15.

(3.) "Americans on Foreign Aid and World Hunger: A Study of U.S. Public Attitudes," Program on International Policy Attitudes, University of Maryland, February 2, 2001.

(4.) Pippa Norris, Montague Kern, Marion Jus, eds., Framing Terrorism: The News Media, the Government, and the Public (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 302.

(5.) Robert H. Wiebe, Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 33.

(6.) Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1991), pp. 195-197.

(7.) Ibid., pp. 273-275.

(8.) Ibid., p. 276.

(9.) Lee Soltow and Edward Stevens, The Rise of Literacy and the Common School in the United States: A Socioeconomic Analysis to 1870 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 18.

(10.) Ibid., p. 52.

(11.) Sheldon Wolin, "Higher Education and the Politics of Knowledge," Democracy, April 1981, pp. 42-46.

(12.) Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthal, The Elements of Journalism (New York: Crown, 2001), pp. 22-23.

(13.) Walter Karp, The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic (1890-1920) (Kingston, R.I.: Franklin Square Press, 2003), pp. 11-12, 58.

(14.) James R. Mock and Cedric Larson, Words that Won the War: The Story of The Committee on Public Information, 1917-1919 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1939), pp. 6, 11.

(15.) Robert Karl Manoff, "Covering the Bomb: Press and State in the Shadow of Nuclear War," in "War, Peace, and the News Media Proceedings, March 18 & 19, 1983," David M. Rubin and Ann Marie Cunningham, eds., Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, New York University, 1983, pp. 197-198.

(16.) Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997), p. 226.

(17.) James Fallows, Breaking the News (New York: Vintage, 1997), p. 62.

(18.) Michael Massing, "The Unseen War," New York Review of Books, May 29, 2003, p. 17.

(19.) Norris et al., Framing Terrorism, p. 4.

(20.) MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray, The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300-2050, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 179.


The Economist Feb 24th 2005:
Here's to the great American loser (Americans unhealthy obsession with success)


THERE will be plenty of cuddlier films at this weekend's Oscars than Clint Eastwood's “Million Dollar Baby”. The film tells the story of a young woman, played by Hilary Swank, who escapes from a life of drudgery by spending her every spare hour in a boxing gym. For a while, it looks as if she is talented enough to escape. Then the fates deal her a terrible blow: she loses her championship fight, is horribly injured and persuades her trainer, played by Mr Eastwood, to kill her.

Dirty Harry's former friends on the right have reacted with horror to the film's unAmerican enthusiasm for euthanasia. In fact, the film is most remarkable as an extremely American parable on success and failure. When Ms Swank gets injured, her trainer is eaten up with guilt. But she tells him not to be so hard on himself: she is far happier to have tasted a little success and ended up a cripple than to have remained a nobody.

Americans have always been excessive worshippers of what William James called “the bitch goddess success”. Self-help gurus have topped the bestseller list since Benjamin Franklin published his autobiography. Americans are much more likely than Europeans to believe that people can get ahead in life so long as they are willing to work hard. And they are much more likely to choose a high-paying job that carries a risk of redundancy than a lower-paid job that guarantees security.

But you can't have winners without losers (or how would you know how well you are doing?). And you can't broaden opportunity without also broadening the opportunity to fail. For instance, until relatively recently, blacks could not blame themselves for their failure in the “race of life”, in Abraham Lincoln's phrase, because they were debarred from so many parts of it. Now the barriers are lifted, the picture is more complicated.

All of which creates a huge problem: how exactly should a hyper-competitive society deal with its losers? It is all very well to note that drunkards and slackers get what they deserve. But what about the honest toilers? One way to deal with the problem is to offer people as many second chances as possible. In his intriguing new book “Born Losers: A History of Failure in America” (Harvard), Scott Sandage argues that the mid-19th century saw a redefinition of failure—from something that described a lousy business to something that defined a whole life.

Yet one of the striking things about America is how valiantly it has resisted the idea that there is any such thing as a born loser. American schools resist streaming their pupils much longer than their European counterparts: the whole point is to fit in rather than to stand out. American higher education has numerous points of entry and re-entry. And the American legal system has some of the most generous bankruptcy rules in the world. In Europe, a bankrupt is often still a ruined man; in America, he is a risk-taking entrepreneur.

American history—not to mention American folklore—is replete with examples of people who tried and tried again until they made a success of their lives. Lincoln was a bankrupt store-keeper. Henry Ford was a serial failure. At 40, Thomas Watson, the architect of IBM, faced prison. America's past is also full of people who came back from the brink. Steve Jobs has gone from has-been to icon. Martha Stewart has a lucrative television contract waiting for her when she comes out of prison.

A second way to deal with losers is to celebrate them—or at least sing about them. Perhaps in reaction to the relentless boosterism of business life, American popular culture often sympathises with the losers. In Arthur Miller's “Death of a Salesman” Willy Loman chooses to commit suicide rather than spend the rest of his life “ringing up a zero”. John Updike's “Rabbit” Angstrom is a lecherous car salesman whose best days were on a school basketball court. Scott Adams's Dilbert is a diminutive Everyman trapped in a cubicle. Where would country music be without broken hearts and broken-down trucks?

The loser now will be later to win

But even in the loser-loving bits of popular culture, the American obsession with success has a habit of winning through. More often than not, born losers turn out to be winners in disguise. In one version of this idea, the loser turns out to be a winner by virtue of his very ordinariness. The hero of Frank Capra's “It's a Wonderful Life” is a small-town plodder who hovers on the edge of ruin; but in the end the film concludes triumphantly, “No man is a failure who has friends.”

In another version—the one that burst on the scene with James Dean and was rapidly institutionalised by the counter-culture—the loser turns out to be a winner because he is a rebel against society's repressive norms. He is freer than the average American because he isn't encumbered with property (he has nothing to lose); or he is more genuine because he lives according to his own lights, rather than artificial conventions. Bob Dylan was a master of counter-cultural inversion. “The loser now/Will be later to win”, he rasped at one point. “She knows there's no success like failure/And that failure's no success at all”, he moaned at another.

H.L. Mencken had a grumpy verdict on this attitude to success and failure: for him, the typical American was “vexed, at one and the same time, by delusions of grandeur and an inferiority complex”. Delusions of grandeur are certainly common: “American Idol” presents a limitless supply of talentless narcissists, each convinced he is the next Frank Sinatra. Inferiority complexes are common too: America is also full of perfectly successful people who are obsessed by their failure to live up to their self-help manuals. But Mencken still seems too cynical. The worship of success inspires not just extraordinary achievements but also worthwhile failures. That is the unsettling but very American message of “Million Dollar Baby”.
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