Thursday, June 19, 2008

George Orwell on Power

One of the subjects I come back to again and again on this blog is the doctrine of "American exceptionalism"; the idea that the United States -- and only the United States -- can preemptively invade any country on Earth in the name of fighting terrorism, promoting democracy, or securing "national interests". This perverse view, held by the vast majority of lawmakers in both major political parties, can more appropriately be described as the barbaric philosophy of "might makes right", but can more often be found cloaked in the rhetoric of "freedom" and "liberation" by good, respectable men and women at institutions such as the Brookings Institute and the New York Times.

It should come as no surprise that this almost religious belief in the goodness of American military power is merely a rehashing of age-old rationalizations for militarism and empire, but I was nonetheless surprised to find that George Orwell not only nailed down this prevailing imperial mindset in 1939, but that he did so in a review of the book by Bertrand Russell that I just mentioned the other day.

An excerpt:
If there are certain pages of Mr. Bertrand Russell's book, Power, which seem rather empty, that is merely to say that we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men. It is not merely that at present the rule of naked force obtains almost everywhere. Probably that has always been the case. Where this age differs from those immediately preceding it is that a liberal intelligentsia is lacking. Bully-worship, under various disguises, has become a universal religion, and such truism as that a machine-gun is still a machine-gun even when a "good" man is squeezing the trigger, and that in effect is what Mr. Russell is saying, have turned into heresies which is it actually becoming dangerous to utter.
As a senior in high school in late 2001, I remember wearing a shirt to school that pointed out, without further comment, that more civilians had died from the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan than had died in the 9/11 attacks. My purpose was not to diminish the tragedy of 9/11, but merely to note that the pain and anguish most Americans felt from those terrorist attacks was also being felt by Afghan mothers who may have lost a husband or child (or family) from a U.S. bomb dropped by a "good" American soldier in the name of a "good" cause.

As a result of wearing the shirt, I remember one girl at my school, who I had never talked to before, coming up to me and declaring, "you're not an American for wearing that shirt" -- the idea being that caring for the dead of non-Americans was, well, patently un-American. Now, that wasn't the most popular response by any means ("oh well" was), but I raise it because the incident made me truly aware of the degree to which militarism had become prevalent in the United States, even among typically non-political high schoolers. That became even more evident to me when a friend, who but two years earlier had joined me in denouncing the Clinton administration's aerial bombardment of Serbia (yes, I was one of those outspoken do-gooders, or at least I tried to be), now felt it necessary to heap vitriol on the French for their opposition to the Iraq war. So it goes.

One would hope that outlook has changed in the years since 9/11 , but it seems more likely that those considered "anti-war" now -- especially so-called "anti-war" politicians -- are merely reacting to the results of the Iraq invasion and occupation rather than having come to any epiphany about the nature of the U.S. war machine and the justness of maintaining a world empire. I'll be convinced otherwise when the anti-war movement (I use the term loosely) denounces President Obama for keeping tens of thousands of troops in Iraq for "peacekeeping" and for bombing Sudan to "liberate" Darfur -- but I'm not holding my breath.

(Thanks to Tom Stanley at the Bertrand Russell Society Library for sending me the Orwell review.)

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