[Translated from GegenStandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 4-03, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich]
A small-scale cultural war has broken out in the feature pages of Europe’s newspapers. The authors are taken aback by the militant way in which America has begun to reorder the world. They are repulsed by the narrow-minded partisanship with which the majority of U.S. citizens support war and vent their hatred at the enemies and opponents of America’s wars. They are delighted by every critical voice emerging from the United States that has something — anything — to criticize about the “stupid white men” in charge. They pose as beacons of the age-old occidental wisdom that America’s “black and white thinking” lacks. And they also have a much less self-righteous opinion of God when it comes to his role as the patron of the “national cause” than do the “overly pious” Americans.
This attitude is ridiculous. Nothing these cultivated Euro-Westerners accuse “the Yanks” of is alien to themselves. If there was an attack from anywhere on the European Central Bank or on the French ministry of war, all the representatives of oh-so-sober-minded “old Europe” would demand a national persecution mania and war-readiness of their leaders with the same fierceness as their kindred spirits across the Atlantic — and that’s just what they would get. And because Europeans are aware to some degree of their basic agreement on the need for similar antiterrorist measures in such a situation, their anti-American ressentiment and general head-shaking about the U.S. government’s “Wild West behavior” and the state of alarm it has stirred up is mixed with a good portion of admiration for the way American citizens rally behind their President “in tough times.”
In this regard, and this is something that envious Europeans have to concede, U.S. citizens are indeed exemplary. No other citizens show such mastery of the art of patriotic partisanship for the imperialism of their native country. And how could they? Not even the most powerful among its competitors can demonstrate a degree of imperialist success that even comes close to that of America.
After the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, patriotic Americans didn’t need a single second of horror, and certainly not a lecture from their President, to come to the realization that this attack on two significant office buildings was meant for them personally and their peaceful civil existence. The way they see it, these terrorists took aim at what U.S. citizens take to be their nation’s typical way of life, beyond all differences with regard to salary and class, something that each of them in his own way has set up for himself between the office towers of American world business and the command center of American military force. Either they refuse to recognize, or they simply don’t recognize any difference between the locations and representative structures of their nation’s economic and military might, on the one hand, and their own private, work-a-day, family and community lives, on the other. They see themselves in the crosshairs of all the terrorists and all the rulers that their President labels as being “rogues.” They are ready and willing to accept all the foreign military actions and domestic control measures that their government carries out, as precautions for the sake of protecting their own lives and those of their loved ones. They take all the anti-American machinations in the world, of which they are daily informed, to be a personal challenge — to do whatever, but in any case to toe the line and close ranks behind their national leader.
Seen in a purely objective and unbiased way, there is something absurd about this reaction on the part of America’s citizens. After all, through the terrorist attacks and through their government’s wars in faraway places and the internal control measures it has placed on the agenda, they are currently experiencing firsthand the kind of massive, violent and dangerous venture they are involved in; a machinery of power and interests extending far beyond the scope of their personal needs, pursuits and abilities, but that they are nevertheless part of by virtue of being U.S. citizens. This is a power at home in every corner of the globe with money and weapons, creating dependents and allies to an undreamed-of extent, along with some fairly powerless enemies, while “back at home” subjecting all the activities of its normal citizens to a set of general laws and special measures that no individual has any power whatsoever to escape. As private subjects, none of them is in any way able to make such enemies all over the world, for instance among Arab holy warriors. Even less is anyone among them in a position to preventively attack and smoke out their actual or potential bases. What their state undertakes is not only of a completely different caliber, but also of a completely different kind from anything that average private individuals could ever undertake for themselves on their own account. Whenever a union is forged between a nation, with its violent interests and far-reaching machinations, and the individual citizens, the latter are in one way or another victims. They are very directly victims when killed by suicide bombers attacking America’s financial and military power in the form of buildings and their occupants — casualties that these bombers in their practiced cynicism do not regret, for they take them to be living representatives of American state power. But also, when their government fights “back” with “shock and awe” to redefine the world order, U.S. citizens are called upon not as individual rational beings, but as pawns to be deployed by their national commanders. They are victimized by being subsumed under the necessities of the state affair at hand, and the sacrifices demanded of them may in extreme cases once again mean becoming a casualty.
Nevertheless, such “borderline situations“ involving war or quasi-war, in which individual existence and state affairs are equated in the most brutal fashion, are the last thing that will alienate citizens (of all nationalities!) from the state power that has taken control of their lives so one-sidedly for its own purposes. In fact, the exact opposite is the case — at least for those people who demonstrate the behavior of decent citizens and live up to their “identity” as a national people. In this regard, the reactions and actions of U.S. citizens are in fact absolutely exemplary. They feel and profess their complete and total identification with everything that the terrorists wanted to send a signal against and therefore attacked on September 11. And they identify themselves quite literally with all the national interests, plans and endeavors implemented by the government in charge of the massive American state apparatus. For this act of identification, patriotic U.S. citizens don’t even need to take any further notice of these state affairs, let alone try to make coherent sense of them and then give to them their considered consent. Apparently they don’t even need to abandon the viewpoint of the everyday struggle in their business and family lives even for a second to then take up a separate political position towards the matter. To them, there is simply no difference between the two. In upholding the ideal of the “American way of life,” they regard their private lives as affairs of state, and vice versa; their everyday existence and the “nation’s cause” are seamlessly combined.
America’s citizens here display a partisanship for their national community — again, in an exemplary way — that is in fact pretty much tacitly and very much as a matter of course present in normal everyday bourgeois life. Even if people normally don’t account for it much, being far too caught up in the practical necessity of coping with their day-to-day lives, this bourgeois life follows nothing but the guidelines of public power, i.e., the regulations and institutions of the legislating and executing state power. People set up their own personal existence within all kinds of state-enforced and state-managed constraints, above all those of the market economy. No one can avoid participating in the already fully established world of state-supervised competition, competing as best they can with whatever economic resources they may or may not have, thus conforming to the prevailing social interests and political aims that have developed into fixed and all-but-objective living circumstances. On the basis of this forced conformism, however, it is a false and fatally momentous step to affirm the world in which one finds oneself, and affirm the authorities that watch over the establishment of this world; a fatal step indeed, but one that is all too logical for those willing to go along and put up with the rules of free competition; not least in the form of venting all one’s discontent with these established conditions at the same power that has established them, while expecting proper remedies from no other source than the very authorities who exercise this power. In this way, modern citizens act — in their jobs, their businesses, their family life and leisure time — as “character masks” of a system of social labor, profit making, individual reproduction, etc., which the national monopolist on force has imposed on them. And as decent citizens, they willingly and habitually acknowledge the ensemble of state-defined conditions of existence as the quasi-natural sphere of their freedom.
It is on the basis of this willing participation that a state, taking its people at their word so to speak, commissions them for tasks beyond the everyday demands it places on them as mere pawns for its established business and power interests, having them answer with extra-special kinds of sacrifices for certain extraordinary consequences and problems of the nation’s deployment of power. In extreme cases, they might even be called upon to sacrifice their own lives and to be prepared to take those of others. Conversely, when outraged U.S. citizens draw their direct connection between the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and their own personal way of life, they demonstrate just how much of this willing subservience they have in them — thereby providing the world with a shining example of patriotic morals.
The attitude that the American people display towards other states is the product of precisely this exemplary civic sensibility. Without a second thought, they accepted their national leaders’ declaration that pure evil was behind the 9/11 attacks, and that this evil made its home in certain “rogue states” — first in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, a year later in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and the list continues. An official announcement from above and the people don’t hesitate to accuse entire nations of being a home to blind hatred for America’s praised system of freedom. No one takes into consideration that a foreign state power might have its national reasons for seeing itself harmed by America’s foreign policy; nor that the people living there do the same thing in principle as the Americans, by relating the harm their state suffers back to themselves and their morality, and then cultivating a correspondingly abstract notion of America’s immorality. Patriotic partisanship simply doesn’t leave any room for such a comparison. Doubts may arise as to whether Washington has really done enough to convince the rest of the world of the American world power’s fundamental goodness, or whether a wrong man for the office of president has once again unnecessarily bruised foreign sensibilities — but this is nothing but self-criticism concerning style. In this case as well, the patriotic logic is identical: from the presence of what the government has defined as a “rogue state,” one deduces the presence of a highly suspicious foreign people. And it is then high time for another admonition from up top and a good-willed discovery from below that of course “not everybody” who looks like an Arab is a terrorist or sympathizes with evil. After all, even among these people, there must be some decent ones who are merely interested in going about their peaceful business…
With regard to this tolerant side of the national judgment concerning the people in and from states suspected of anti-Americanism, patriotic U.S. citizens once again display a standard-setting imperialist self-image. They completely accept and can’t but approve of their government destroying a declared enemy by superior military force, letting its mighty Air Force do most of the work and making it crystal clear that their bombs never kill any innocents. The lesson from the Vietnam War that the only good Vietnamese is a dead Vietnamese is a lesson the nation hasn’t forgotten. But with its “war on terror,” the U.S. government is pursuing a much further-reaching goal then the “mere” destruction of an enemy power. By deploying its most convincing instruments of force, it is practicing a policy of radical non-recognition towards all governments with anti-American tendencies, and is only slightly more lenient towards those governments that, according to Washington, give too much breathing room to anti-Americanism. America refuses to tolerate a situation in which such falsely oriented governments are free to rule over entire countries and peoples which America lays claim to as parts of a world controlled by its military, utilized by its capitalists and enlisted for its interests. After all, the bottom line is that America regards the whole world as its “vested right,” and takes this to be so self-evident that it accuses such rogue governments of depriving America of what it is entitled to. They must consequently be deposed and replaced so that the human and material resources under their control can fulfill their sole true purpose as useful contributions to the American global mission. The label the U.S. government uses for this goal is “democratization.” This is quite fitting, for the United States thereby declares not only its enmity towards wrongly ruled states, but also its genuine jurisdiction over the domestic situation within these states and over their political and general social conditions. The United States just goes over the heads of foreign rulers and claims supremacy over the peoples they rule, thus opposing their claim to sovereignty. In this way, the United States does not simply subsume these foreign peoples under the enmity it declares towards their rulers, it subsumes them primarily under its own claim to sovereignty, declaring them to be objects of its own control competence and treating them accordingly. In the name of the human material that has up until now been “abused” by their governing rulers, America takes action against the latter, declaring its own extortions and military actions to be nothing but measures taken for the liberation of foreign subjects. And America does indeed “liberate” these subjects: it sets them free from their old rulers, thus setting them free for subordination under the new world order and for world business under the American regime.
This equation, according to which one’s own wars per se create democracy, is something that is completely clear to patriotic Americans. Their most extreme antipathy towards foreign peoples in the four corners of the world that their government classifies as being hostile to American interests is something they seamlessly combine with their most absolute certainty that people with anti-American attitudes can only have been forced, or at worst inveigled, into thinking this way. After all, these people must in their heart of hearts also want to be decent human beings who peacefully earn their money and love their families — i.e., people who therefore essentially do exactly what Americans see and treasure as their own “way of life.” The truth of this notion is, however, completely alien to them; while as a mild suspicion it does from time to time graze the self-awareness of the dissatisfied “simple folk” in nations of lesser rank — namely as the idea that “those on top” are essentially the same crooks everywhere and “the common man” always the “dope.” This isn’t to say that these feeble remains of a socially aware self-image — which is always in competition with a national self-image — are actually still very widespread elsewhere in the world. But a loyal U.S. citizen certainly couldn’t muster up so much unpatriotic detachment towards his own “American way of life,” especially when looking at other countries. After all, these other peoples obey governments that can’t even hold a candle to America’s might, so how could Americans recognize the subjects of such governments as people of their own kind?! What American patriots do recognize and acknowledge immediately is the heart’s desire of all Earth’s peoples to become just like them, and they don’t even need to detect such a longing; they simply presuppose it as the most natural thing in the world. For what else could a fulfilled business and private life look like — one that all decent people desire — if not like it does in America, in between the Pentagon and the World Trade Center?
In this way, American citizens most personally identify with their national leaders’ imperialist standpoint of domination and their claim to sole jurisdiction over the world. And the nation’s imperialist success affirms its citizens’ perspective, for the world of states really does revolve around the United States of America as a worldwide ordering force and global economic power; it is dependent on the dollar as the primary world currency, occupied by U.S. firms as the biggest capital investors, supervised and controlled by public and secret agencies based in Washington and Virginia. And of course, American brands are to be found everywhere. All over the world, people are not merely confronted with the outer trappings of the “American way of life,” they are placed under conditions of life that the United States has contributed to establishing and enforcing as the creator and beneficiary of these conditions — even when a national government attempts as well as it can to fence off the living conditions it imposes from “American influences.” In no way does this make all of Earth’s occupants into virtual Americans; on the contrary, the American-managed order of global affairs makes for much different kinds of misery than those included in the “American way of life.” It disintegrates modes of existence and their corresponding social mores, ruins countries and peoples to such a degree that in the end, any kind of participation at all in the life of the “first world” becomes the sole chance of survival and the goal of all these victims. Be that as it may, everywhere they look, cosmopolitan U.S. patriots nevertheless find confirmation for their certainty that the world basically only wants to become like America, and that the only thing stopping it are the rotten rulers who are in the way.
This attitude makes America’s citizens an object of envy, and therefore an annoying model, for all democratically civilized nations that measure their imperialist ambitions and achievements according to the standards America sets. The leading governments of the European Union, for instance, demand the same regulatory competence as does the big world power when it comes to the relationship between peoples and their leaders in countries they see as disturbances to world order. For the time being, however, they make this claim mainly in a more modest European framework. But just like the United States, they insist that their interventions are intended to see peoples’ mistreatment righted against wrong rulers. And the citizens of these European powers have learned that not only do their rulers possess the power to allow less “developed” peoples to participate in the blessings of their so fabulously successful democratic political culture and free-enterprise ways; but also that they themselves, due to these glorious traditions, have a right, if not a duty, to help these foreign peoples down this path, with force if necessary. Of course the mission is not intended to make these peoples equally successful, so that they can start acting like they’re in charge of other backward nations. The point is not to bring them up to “our” level, but to take charge of them. And this is precisely how Europe has in the meantime also come to regard and present its imperialism as a democratizing venture. However, the blissful feeling of being the goal towards which the other parts of the world community strive — regardless of whether or not they see it that way themselves — is a bit dampened by the fact that in the case of America’s second-rank competitors in Europe, the unconditional partisanship of their citizens for the democratic and free-enterprise way of life, by which private individuals identify with their state power’s imperialist ambitions, doesn’t coincide so simply and seamlessly with a patriotic commitment to their very own special home country. The only reason for this is, as stated above, the fact that the European fatherlands still lack the power to go out and “democratize” the world solely in accordance with their national interests, while verifying with corresponding imperialist successes that their own “way of life” is indeed the inevitable telos of world history. This isn’t to say that this ideological flaw can’t be dealt with. Europe’s eagerly propagated conception of the world, according to which America’s violent way of ordering the world is merely the second-best path to the achievement of freedom and human rights everywhere, while Europe with its (weaker and therefore) more “peaceful” means has chosen a better method of establishing democracy and market economy across the globe, helps here quite a bit. Still, U.S. citizens have an easier time of it. Their imperialistic patriotism isn’t blemished by even the smallest discrepancy between their national, political and other customs and universally valid human rights; between the pursuit of happiness in dollar form and the rest of humanity’s fight for survival in the market economy; between U.S. nationality and true humanity. And the only reason for this is again the circumstance that the American state power accepts no difference between itself as the agent of world control and the principles with which it justifies its rule. It is by means of its successful world power that this state vouches that its citizens’ way of life is solely and universally valid.
This seriously intensifies the American people’s desire to see its enemies destroyed, for the American state power owes its citizens what it promises them if somebody dare lay his hands on an “average Joe.” If this happens, the demonstrative use of superior force must literally kill any doubts about the superiority of the American way of life. It is in this spirit that many a peace-loving U.S. citizen will demand from time to time the bombardment of countries whose names they don’t know and that they couldn’t find on any map, just as soon as their president tells them that Americans are poorly treated there. They hardly have any qualms in this regard, precisely because they see such punishments as parts of their blessed country’s destined quest to bestow its gifts on less fortunate regions of the globe. In other words, their great nation shares its blessings, not by actually sharing something, i.e., by handing over some of its wealth, but by spreading around its exemplary “way of life.” America gives the world the gift of freedom and free enterprise; and good Americans are absolutely certain that this is just what the world has been waiting for, because they simply can’t imagine anything else but that all the people of the world would most prefer to be Americans — and in fact already are Americans in their heart of hearts, if only they could be given their freedom. The wars that the president nevertheless deems necessary for the export of this gift only go to show how much false leadership there is in the world, leadership that suppresses people and prevents them from living as they actually want to.
As stated above, American patriots are convinced of the sole and universal validity of their national way of life. They unconditionally agree with the living circumstances and ethical maxims prevalent in America, and they idealize their own view of what life’s all about as a universally valid norm. All this implies a very special affirmative stance towards the traditional epitome of moral obligation; that is, American citizens see themselves as partners of “God’s own country.” However, in referring to the Almighty as the special patron of their own nation, they in no way assign normative power over their daily life to any specific religion with its rules for living a God-pleasing life taken from God knows where. Even less is there someone among the many religious maniacs in the country who seriously pursues the project of an American “theocracy.” American faith in God functions in the exact opposite manner: Americans are absolutely convinced of the righteousness of their “American way of life,” and will recognize every god who affirms the absolute correctness of this conviction; conversely, they will recognize no god who denies it. Thus the specific content of religion is merely secondary to its function as an authority that confirms the national moral edifice.
With this standpoint, American citizens have become paragons of the virtue of religious tolerance. Originally, in the early days of bourgeois society, this cultural-historical achievement had the deeper purpose of qualifying in practice the absolutely servile attitude administered by church authorities. It was time to banish the authority of religion from the world of public law and political power into a separate private sphere, thereby settling the rivalry between spiritual and secular leadership over the people’s obedience once and for all in favor of state authority, and making the actually existing polity the sole and ultimately binding moral authority against the claim to absoluteness made by the faith-based Kingdom of God. That is why the struggle for tolerance and religious freedom regularly took on antireligious tones. Religion ultimately hasn’t been dispensed with in bourgeois societies; yet bourgeois state power, in establishing itself, disclaimed competence over its citizens’ religion, while at the same time laying down the incompetence of the various gods and their commandments with respect to the morally binding authority of the state monopolist on force. American citizens, without revoking the politically destined private role of religion, go ahead and apotheosize it. A wholly subjectively concocted “supreme being” confirms how unassailably respectable the life of a decent citizen is, a life that every good American strives to lead. Since this “American way of life” is nothing but the prevalent way of life within America’s borders, and since the competitive struggle for private success is nothing but the ethos of the national community, the product of private religious fantasy is per se nothing but a subjective variant of the divinity that watches over all Americans and the success of the entire nation. That’s why it is proper for every decent American to worship some god or other, even if this takes the form of the professed atheist’s absolute faith in the superfluousness of an other-worldly authority for his own moral existence. Absolute faith in the national way of life, a life that unites the private struggle for existence and the cause of the nation, should indeed dwell in the heart of every “national comrade.”*
It is thus, of all things, the American state’s neutrality with respect to a person’s private world view that secures a permanent place for the absolute and supreme being in the emotional life of decent Americans. This simultaneously grants the Almighty a prominent role in public life wherever private individuals want to display their unconditional loyalty to the nation. There is plenty of praying done in Congress and in the Senate, on TV, in schools and just about everywhere else. The president constantly calls upon the Supreme One, and the whole country carries out its pursuit of mammon as a perpetual service to God. It even prints its profession of faith on its dollar bills — “In God We Trust” — thereby demonstrating the credit (from the Latin for “trust”) that the giving and taking of dollars is ultimately founded upon.
That’s why the president doesn’t make a fool of himself when he poses as the representative of the true Islamic faith, excludes Islamic terrorists from the Islamic community as heretics against the spirit of this grand and peaceful religion, and condemns their actions as a politicization of faith not backed by the Koran. As the true protector of all private religion, he just knows that Islam — when properly understood — can’t possibly be hostile towards a country that allows the practice of this faith just as it does every other. And the president certainly doesn’t appear ridiculous when he utilizes a religious justification for himself and his national cause that doesn’t differ much from the justification he refuses to accept from the Islamists. When America invades other countries, frees the world from anti-American terrorists and locks “unlawful combatants” away like animals in cages, then it is of course fulfilling a mission given from on high —“It’s God’s will!” and “God is on our side in this war!” That’s not an Ayatollah speaking in Washington, just a red-blooded American who does his job as honestly as every other U.S. citizen — his particular job may be to mobilize the world’s largest military force, but what’s the difference?! He is displaying his most personal good conscience, speaking straight to the heart of every true American — and not embarrassing himself as long as his nation’s superior instruments of power and their successful deployment continue to justify his commissioning of the supreme guarantor of success. For it is precisely the successful use of power that is the real source of America’s trust in God.
* German: Volksgenosse. National Socialist term.
© GegenStandpunkt 2005