(This article is the foreword to my book of the same title)
“I believe in American exceptionalism with every fibre of my being.”
When Barack Obama spoke those words during the commencement speech he gave to graduates of America’s elite West Point Military Academy in New York on 28 May 2014, it was impossible to avoid the sense that an almighty betrayal had just been committed after two centuries of black and brown struggle against the beast of white supremacy, a beast which had and has defined the land of free far more than democracy since the nation was founded by white slave owners towards the end of the 18th century.
This struggle had borne witness to moments of progress and hope of transformative change, only to see both pushed back under the weight of a reactionary backlash time and again. The grim era of slavery had been ended by a brutal civil war. Reconstruction had then given way to counter-reconstruction, exemplified by the passage of ‘black codes’ designed to reassert the less-than-human status of former slaves at the hands of their former slavemasters and a culture in the Deep South which still today draws sustenance from a Christian bible in one hand and a metaphorical whip and chains in the other.
Jim Crow and segregation held sway for a century, until the Black Civil Rights struggle culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, followed a year later by the Voting Rights Act. The liberal deification of its leading voice, Dr. Martin Luther King, involved his legacy being shorn of every vestige of the radicalism he had embraced by the time of his murder in 1967, turning him into the benign monument to liberalism he is commonaly regarded as today.
Meanwhile, in what stands as a totem of liberal mendacity, the ‘new plantation’ era of mass incarceration was introduced by the country’s unofficial first black president, Bill Clinton, with a 1994 omnibus crime bill that established the nation’s prison industrial complex.
This brings us back to Obama, whose election as president in 2008 was depicted and packaged as the culmination of generations of struggle for black liberation and equality in the land of the free — a towering tribute to the legacy of MLK.
Such a foul rendering saw the actual history of the struggle for black emancipation defamed and defanged, along with its most courageous and brilliant adherents. Consider the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass, a self-educated escaped slave who developed his intellectual powers in refutation of the racist characterisation of black Africans as being endowed by their creator with lesser natural intellect and moral substance than their white counterparts. Rising to become the abolitionist movement’s most fearless champion and inspirational voice, his words resonated like thunderbolts of righteous anger and indignation at the fate of his people in a land that had the temerity to proclaim itself the home of liberty.
In a speech he gave to mark that most sacred and venerated of anniversaries in the American calendar — the Fourth of July — Douglass proclaimed,
What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all the other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
Of those who stood on the shoulders of the Frederick Douglass, none did so with more fidelity than Paul Robeson. Himself the son of a slave, despite being in possession of a preternatural gifts of physical strength and athleticism, intellect, and a voice which propelled him to stardom on Broadway and in Hollywood, Robeson dedicated his life to the struggle against racism, war and what he viewed as encroaching fascism at home in America in the context of the Cold War and the ensuing rise of McCarthyism. In return he was persecuted, demonised and disdained at the hands of the very system he could have chosen embrace as a symbol of black inclusion, receiving in return the comfort blanket of fame and celebrity that is synonymous with the enduring myths of the American Dream.
During his appearance in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1956, when it was pointed out to him that his colour had not prevented him achieving personal success and fame in the country and society he was so critical of, Robeson offered the following reply:
My father was a slave, and I have cousins who are sharecroppers, and I do not see my success in terms of myself. That is the reason; my own success has not meant what it should mean. I have sacrificed literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars for what I believe in.
It is hard to imagine either Frederick Douglass or Paul Robeson — or indeed any of the great men and women who have grappled with the beast of white supremacy in the land of the free — agreeing with President Obama’s championing of ‘American exceptionalism’. On the contrary it is safe to assert that the the only exceptionalism they would credit America with would be the exceptional brutality, violence it had engaged in over the course of its blood-soaked history.
This malign legacy, moreover, did not cease for so much as a day when Obama entered the White House. In fact not only did it continue it intensified during his two terms in office, the evidence of which is set out in the pages of this book.
Why, you may ask, is it important to stress the disjuncture that exists between the grim reality and liberal distortion of Obama’s legacy?
The answer is implicit in the arrival of Donald J. Trump onto the political stage as the most unlikely candidate for the White House possible to imagine at the start of the Republican Party presidential primaries in February 2016, leading to his even more unlikely election as the 45th President of the United States in November of the same year. In response to Trump’s arrival in the Oval Office there has been a painting of Obama in the kind of progressive colours that his record neither warrants or justifies. Because though Obama and Trump clearly differ in certain aspects — not least in terms of presentation, communication skills and respect for the country’s institutions — what they share is far more potent and important. This something is the very American exceptionalism Obama saw fit to laud during his West Point commencement address in 2014.
Just like Trump after him, Obama was committed to upholding and advancing US global hegemony. And it is this messianic devotion to the country’s hegemonic mission that this book argues has been and continues to be the single most grievous cause of war and conflict, economic dislocation, and human suffering in our time. In this regard, the difference between Obama and Trump has been one of approach rather than aims. Where Obama peddled the sophistry of inclusion, hope, democracy and human rights to justify the maintenance of obscene inequality at home and hegemony overseas, maintaining the by now frayed mask of progress over the ugly face of US power, Trump arrived in the White House and promptly removed the mask, demystifying the brute reality of US exceptionalism and its ugly twin of white supremacy.
This book will argue that this is and has been the fundamental difference between them.
On a personal level, I have long been fascinated by the United States and spent much time there. As a result, particularly fascinating to me has long been the contrast between the myths that sustain the idea of America and the harsh truths that underpin the reality. This book is an attempt to examine and explore those harsh realities from the standpoint of its countless victims. In this respect, though it covers events in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, along with Asia and Africa, the main thrust concerns events in the Middle East, as well as a section on the plight of American exceptionalism’s domestic victims.
This though is not to claim that either Russia or China, the two major powers currently challenging US hegemony, constitute a force for absolute good in comparison to Washington. Such a rendering would be facile and reductionist and so with this in mind I explore in some detail the internal problems both countries have encountered, are grappling with and remain challenged by. Yet despite those problems — despite issues surrounding human rights, corruption, the rule of law and political liberties concerning Moscow and Beijing — as counterweights and growing checks on the aforementioned hegemony of Washington, it is my contention that both are playing a vital role in global terms with the concept of a balance of power in mind.
Significantly, the embrace of the concept of a balance of power within the developed world and post Roman world, embraced with the objective of forestalling war and conflict, has only come after the devastation wrought by war and conflict. In what passes for a rebuke to those who throughout history have sought to invoke the verities of Western civilisation, the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia followed a Thirty Years War that had devasted Europe; the Treaty of Vienna of 1815 came at the conclusion of 23 years of French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars; and the UN Charter of 1945 was a product of the unparalleled devastation wrought by World War II.
The seeds of the latter were contained within the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I; said treaty being the very acme of a Carthaginian peace, one which led directly to the Treaty of Sevres (1920) facilitating the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, and which left Germany not only economically bereft but also humiliated and seething with resentment over punitive terms that were manna from heaven for a far right Austrian crank with a perverse Darwinian dream of racial and national destiny.
Central to this work is a belief in the concept of a balance of power among nation states that exist on the basis not of a drive to dominate and achieve hegemonic prominence, but instead to co-operate on the basis of mutual respect with the objective of the development of all in the interests of all, thereby facilitating a world in which war and conflict in the name of the domination of regions, markets, resources and peoples is finally viewed as the horrific inversion of human progress it is.
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