Reflections on the United States: Interrogating Dominance

by Richard Shapiro

Dissident Voice

November 4, 2002


How do we think the unthinkable?How do we continue to think in a world that produces horror, catastrophe, deprivation and socially unnecessary death as a regular consequence of its normal functioning? How do we refuse the forces that encourage emotional numbing, personal escape, collective amnesia, and reactive violence as the ways to cope with this unthinkable world?This past year is one in which the United States was brought more fully into the global reality of insecurity, despair, and political violence that characterizes life throughout much of the world. What has this meant to the people of this land? Can our grief translate into compassionate citizenship? Will we learn our national role in the cycles of violence that devastate untold lives significantly enough to begin to break these cycles?


What dominant narratives have arisen to mobilize particular self understandings of the United States in the current world order? What legacies in the history of the United States organize present discourses and practices in ways that mandate thought? How do these dominant narratives effect the U.S. government's response to the trauma inflicted last September 11th?How has U.S. culture and polity been organized and constrained since these acts of terror of last September 11th, in relation to self understandings of what it means to be "American"? What is problematic in the construction of "American identity" that requires our critical reflection? Are there emerging possibilities that may begin to shift "American identity" and U.S. political culture toward alliance with global movements for social justice and sustainable development? How can we deconstruct dominant self understandings at work in the U.S. to facilitate changes in these narratives where they reveal themselves as limiting and destructive? How might we begin to interrogate dominant U.S. discourses to lend support to ethical practices for peace, justice, freedom, cultural diversity and ecological sustainability.


The U.S. has foregrounded, in its dominant narrative about itself, those progressive dimensions of the bourgeois revolution that defined its founding.Free trade, representative democracy, protection of civil liberties like free speech, freedom of assembly, religious freedom in the context of separation of religion and state, and the individual as the basic unit of society to be safeguarded from intrusive government, are some of the conditions that define a nation as modern, free, and morally good.Nineteenth and twentieth century discourses include a picture of the U.S. as a nation of science and technology where free institutions allow continued economic growth.To continue to organize nature for human improvement increasingly becomes a question of proper management, as life itself is understood to be made up of human and natural resources needing management for maximization of potential.The ensemble of "free trade" capitalist economics, science and technology building a better tomorrow, individualism and freedom from authority, and the moral goodness of an evolving nation, define some key aspects of dominant U.S. narratives about itself.


This leads the U.S. to understand itself in numerous superlatives.We are the best. We are the most advanced. We are the richest country on earth. We are the most free.We are what the rest of the world needs to become. All progress leads in the directions we have already traveled.Further, what the United States has achieved is conceived as a reward for its goodness and rightness.This has both secular and religious versions that often coexist.Our advanced state is the result of a system that awards initiative, innovation and hard work. Our beneficence results from the grace of G-d, whose kindness may vanish if moral decay continues to spread throughout the social body.In any case, this self understanding emphasizes two "truths" that are particularly problematic. One, we are a morally good people.Two, the United States is the model for the world.


What are the practical effects of these two truths or myths in the present global context? As a good people we deserve good things. If bad things happen to us it is due to forces of evil.At times these forces of evil seduce us into being bad.In such cases, the bad things that happen to us are our fault. We acted immorally and we paid a price.In the context of international affairs, the dominant narrative does not ask if we have acted immorally. The assumption is that we are a good nation doing our best to help poor, corrupt, backward countries become more like us.We give aid. We support human rights, democracy, free trade, and everything that we value.If there are people and nations unhappy with us it is because they resent us, or they are afraid of freedom, or they are lazy and want handouts.The people whose terrorist actions killed over three thousand innocent people were evil doers who acted insanely. Such has been the dominant response to the unthinkable reality of last September 11th. Such a narrative forecloses reflection on what in U.S. foreign policy contributes to the production of the unthinkable.For us to remain heavily invested in seeing ourselves first and foremost as good people eradicates the space where learning may live.If I am a victim of evil, insane people then the most rational course of action is to annihilate the evil forces that have harmed me.The narrative of our nation as good contributes to violent, militaristic responses.That we are the most powerful nation on earth and still vulnerable to small numbers of evil doers only furthers the resolve to divide the world in two, as those who are for us and those who are for terrorists, and eradicate all who are our enemies.The world is a star wars drama of good vs. evil where good triumphs through a violence that purifies.


The view of the U.S. as a model that the rest of the world must emulate also vitiates against forms of reflection that might produce learning within political culture. Just as a narrative that emphasizes our fundamental goodness undermines critical reflection on our national and foreign policy, so too a view of ourselves as the farthest along on the trajectory of historical progress dulls critical reflection on ourselves as a nation. If the assumption is that others need to resemble us for us to recognize them as modern, advanced, developed, and fully human, then we are the ones who lead while others follow. We are the ones who teach while others learn. We are the ones with the most fully realized truth, while others are either hopelessly lost in falsehood or lesser versions of the truth than we embody. Such discourses not only produce the unilateralism for which the U.S. is constantly criticized, but reveal the proximity of such discourse to the missionary zeal of earlier periods of Christian dominance.


The terrible irony in these limitations in dominant U.S. narratives about itself is that the nation most in need of reforming its actions vis-ŗ-vis the rest of the world, is that nation least open to its role as receiver of knowledge from elsewhere.The U.S. as, undisputedly, the most powerful nation in the post Cold War era, needs to play a leadership role that promotes equity, sustainability, peace and justice. Such a role is certainly undermined by the structural links between government, military and corporations.Yet it is also the case that the role the U.S. plays globally is less susceptible to critique and transformation as long as these dominant narratives have a hold over political discourse.


For those of us critical of these dominant self understandings that circulate in and about U.S. culture, it is incumbent upon us to link these limited narratives to the tragic destruction of human lives within U.S. borders and outside U.S. borders.We need to become a less intellectually isolationist, ethnocentric, and self certain nation.We need to be more invested in constituting a rich public sector where critical reflection on this nation may live.We need to be less invested in understanding ourselves as good people and more concerned with the effects of national policy instituted in our name. We need to understand that the U.S. is not the model for the world as we affirm the multiple traditions and practices that make this country a vibrant experiment in freedom and multicultural polity.The basis for receptivity to learning from others, whether these others reside in the U.S. or elsewhere, is a critical relation to ourselves.Only when we understand that we are not what the rest of the world needs to become for progress to be achieved, can we open ourselves to the spaces of learning and reflection crucial to processes of social change toward sustainability, peace and justice.


The United States is not a sustainable economy. The U.S. comprises less than five percent of the world's population, yet consumes about forty percent of the world's resources. For the rest of the world to emulate this nation entails ecocide. The United States has not met its own promises to democracy, equality and freedom for all.Indeed, the centralization of wealth and power continues to define this nations history.This is not a nation that exemplifies freedom. We have the highest percentage of citizens in prison of any nation on earth. Racialized identities organized hierarchically permeate every aspect of U.S. society. People are rewarded for assimilating to middle class norms and practices and punished, in overt and covert ways, for resistance to assimilation. Social dislocation reveals itself in the neglect of our youth and elderly, extreme alienation, domestic violence, and self-destructive behaviors. The United States is not a force for global peace, sustainable development, and human rights. This nation spends more on the military than the next fifteen nations combined. In Johannesburg, our President was alone among prominent world leaders in his absence. The failure of the U.S. to endorse the Kyoto Protocol on climate change undermined global action to address environmental degradation. The U.S. resists expanding definitions of human rights endorsed throughout the Global South to include health care, livelihood, and education as human rights. This nation continues to undermine democracy abroad, supporting and overthrowing regimes based on narrow economic self interest, reflecting allegiance to corporate giants. The casualties of U.S. policy are disproportionately people of color, women, working class people, the poor, the young and the environment.


In the rigged game of global economics, the U.S. reproduces itself as number one while malnutrition, disease and politically produced death plague vast numbers of people on earth. The U.S. is not in any way the sole party responsible for the atrocities perpetrated in the contemporary global order. Such injustice and destruction always require multiple complicities. Yet the role of this country in the state of the world must be addressed. We have had a year to learn that this nationís actions have consequences.We must all do our part to facilitate reflection, learning, and action in this, the United States of America.


Richard Shapiro is the Director of the Social and Cultural Anthropology Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.