Fifty years ago, when I took eighth grade civics at Holy Rosary Academy in Bay City, Michigan, Fact to Remember One was that America "is the most peace-loving country on earth." Sister Charles Borromeo later made it perfectly clear that our country was in fact the most peace-loving in the history of the human race. In the 110% Americanism of ghetto Catholicism, such hyperbole was normal. In the interregnum between Al Smith and Jack Kennedy, Catholic Americans all tried to be Caesar's wives, above the least suspicion of unAmericanism.
Such ideological purity, then, accounts for the fact of this "innocence" about the real violence at the heart of the American experience. This, after all, was the Michigan of the sit-down strikes, of the Detroit race riot of 1943 (it broke out as I left for the Northern woods the summer of my junior year). As a swabbie in Pensacola, I was hassled by rednecks for drifting to the back of the bus as I used to do in Detroit.
It was not until graduate school, when my reading tilted leftward--first Commonweal, then the Nation and the New Republic, and finally Dissent and the National Guardian--that I began to understand how broad was the gap between the facile ideals of my Bay City boarding school and the gritty industrial realities of Detroit at the height of its power.
It is my increasing impression that Ronald Reagan's increasingly satisfied constituency still inhabits the Arcadian America of my youth. They are temperamentally incapable of conceiving that the non-American world has a deeply felt sense of having been abused by the American imperium--that only flakes (Khadaffi) or evil connivers (Ortega) are off-base enough to challenge the "What, me worry?" complacency of Disneyfied American polity.
Thus columnist Ben Wattenberg sneers at the sappy senility of Tip O'Neill's being influenced on his aid-for-the-Contras vote by his respect for the idealism of the Maryknoll religious and by his recollection of a relative who invaded Nicaragua in 1933 as a Marine pacifying a momentarily uppity banana republic.
How dare those nuns and priests commit themselves to a lifetime of Peace Corps-like identification with the economic underdogs of Central America? And, what the hell, bygones are really bygones when it comes to Marines putting down insurgencies; if you deplore that shortsighted tradition of American diplomacy (whose chickens are coming home to a red roost), then you're a commie lover.
What these "history is bunko" amnesiacs have long failed to see is that the highly vaunted American posture of bipartisan foreign policy really meant that respect for the egalitarian aspirations of other countries stops at our coastlines. Only an idealistic party-pooper would suggest that "our most important product" (contrary to Reagan's G.E. me-tooist teleblurbs) is our progressive social ideals, not our economic progress.
To most American politicians, other nations are surrogate fodder for "our boys" (surely the most contemptible narcissism in the history of geopolitics--as if only American boys had red blood to bleed). And to most American businessmen, foreigners are the ultimate union-busting tool--coolie wages with no back talk. This may turn out to be the tragic American error--to quarantine our idealism outside American borders (needless to say, there were internal forms of exploitation--of Indians, of blacks, of helpless steerage passengers--that predisposed the American establishment to embargo the export of Jeffersonian and Lincolnian lifestyles).
But spare us the intellectual blather of my childhood--of America as the paragon of peace. Paragon of pieces is closer to the truth. Piece of this Indian land, piece of that shipload of slaves. As long as we novocaine our minds with these childish caricatures of our truer selves--Eldoradans with Edenic pretensions--only then can we begin to devise policy rooted in the real world.
America is a loose cannon on the Spaceship Earth because its exceptional delusions of its true nature make it impossible to negotiate with. The paranoia about Communism (Isn't Havana still 90 miles from Miami? and aren't the refuges thriving in Miami as never before?) I believe derives from a bad American conscience about egalitarianism.
Going right back to Knights of Labor days, the agitators were trying to mock mainstream America to live up to its professed ideals. Is there a less exceptionable aphorism than the one that guided Eugene Debs--"Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization." And yet he ran for president from the Atlanta federal penitentiary, because his simple affirmation of basic American verities was perceived as disruptive by the plutocracy in power.
Is it not weird, on the edge of the absurd, that the same administration that is trying to boot leftist radical Margaret Randall out of Santa Fe for her beliefs rants and raves about the suppression of free opinion in Nicaragua? The Somocistas in Nicaragua are the historical heritage of bad American policy in Central America. They should have been "freedom fighters" for, say, the past 50 years when the banana republics were de facto colonies of ours. We had our shot, and we lost it.
Just as our purblindness over matters red vs. red, white and blue caused us to lend a deaf ear to Ho Chi Minh before the French lost its colonial empire in the Far East. Just as we nattered over Red China for a generation until Richard Nixon (who "earned" the "right" to recognize a de facto government by being stupidly anti-communist during the McCarthy Era) made his great breakthrough in 1972. I mean, how many times to we have to lose ourselves behind the Alfred Newman mask of our innocence?
As we're doing in our own unique way in the Middle East. The despised "ragheads" (how come the journalists who nailed Jesse Jackson for him Hymie talk don't nail Israeli supporters for their raghead denigrations, as ugly a racist streak as I've ever encountered?) won't go away. In our continued saga of self-delusion, we help maintain the fiction that only the PLO are terrorists.
If I were a Palestinian, and I had watched my homeland handed off (by Lord Balfour) in a bit of English oil territory derring-don't, I'd be a terrorist as well. The absurdity of a country (Israel) born in the bombing of Western diplomats and luxury hotels refusing to even consider Palestinian demands for land! I mean, it's what we did to the Indians. So I guess we'd be embarrassed by assuring a holier-than-they attitude.
And, notice, when desperate Arab factions blow a hole through a TWA 727, the first thing we hear are "how many American lives are lost?" And the second thing is, "How bad will it be for the tourist business?"
Heh, folks, those are human beings over there: and it's not Mare Nostrum: never was, never will be. Let's join the human race, while there still is one. Like democracy, it has imperfections, but it's the only race in town. And how about a permanent moratorium on Sister Charles Borromeo's naive version of America? It's a complex world out there, and our "innocence" adds unnecessarily to its dangers.