Last Thursday, the New York Post ran a piece of mine in which I compared the antiwar movement to a religious cult “hoist on tenets of faith rather than points of evidence — and, thus, in the final analysis, no more responsive to counterarguments than guys who stand on street corners in sandwich boards forecasting the end of the world next weekend . . . no, next weekend . . . no, next weekend.”
It was, I thought, a clever little piece, and I knew it would get under the skin of protester types — which usually means a dozen or so e-mails telling me what a right-wing fascist I am, what a neocon blowhard, etc.
What I didn’t count on was the column getting read on air, in its entirety, by Rush Limbaugh. (Memo to Rush: Next time you read a column of mine, mention my novel. It’s called Africa Speaks. Now available in paperback.) In the space of three minutes, I was transformed from irritating stick insect to cause celebre. By the time I returned home after lunch, I had 175 e-mails, and over the next 48 hours, I received around 300. The first wave was overwhelmingly positive; among dittoheads, I was the bee’s knees. But as the column made its way gradually leftward, the replies became more and more ferocious.
Now nothing pleases me more than antagonizing folks on the political left — it’s an especially bloodless version of bear baiting — but in this case I noticed an odd phenomenon. The rage seemed to coalesce not only around the antiwar-movement-as-cult metaphor but also on another line, a throwaway, in which I mentioned that the blame-America mindset characteristic of the antiwar movement’s true believers was difficult to maintain “in light of the manifest truth that America is the most benevolent world power in the history of the planet.”
Astonishingly, that sentence just set people off. I say “astonishingly” because the proposition that the United States is the most benevolent world power in the history of the planet is only slightly more arguable than the proposition that the Nazis did mean things to Jews during World War II. Denying that the U.S. is the most benevolent world power in the history of the planet is indeed akin to denying that the Holocaust happened in the sense that it’s so beyond debate that it’s pointless to begin laying out evidence in support; the effort only dignifies the irrationality of those who would deny it. To deny it, in essence, is to deny that real world exists, that the past really happened — which perhaps excuses postmodern intellectuals, who deny such things on a regular basis. But the rest of us are left to ask who are America’s chief competitors for the title of most-benevolent world power? Ancient Greece or Rome? The Mongols under Genghis Khan? France under Napoleon? The British Empire? Nazi Germany? Imperial Japan? The Soviet Union?
To be sure, America clawed its way to world-power status and left in its wake a trail of bloody victims. As is the case with all world powers, America is even now a blundering, big-footed Gulliver walking among squeaking Lilliputians; a certain degree of squishing comes with the territory. But in the century since its ascendancy, judged by the decency of its intentions or by the consequences of its actions, American benevolence is without precedent.
Still, one reader replied, “The U.S. has bombed over 200 countries since WWII. Good thing we did it benevolently. Cheerleading for the rich and powerful killers you worship has you in the gutter. Have fun wallowing in your bloodlust and ignorance.”
Another wrote, “Why don’t you tell 5,000,000 dead Vietnamese, 5,000 dead Panamanian citizens, every black American, or every single pure blooded Native American (there is not a single one left alive) that we are the most benevolent government there is?”
And another: “America being the most benevolent world power ever . . . you are really not a student of history are you? When was the last time you saw a large number of Native Americans? How much longer did America cling to slavery when the rest of the world had long since realized the evil of it? Who was the first and only country to ever use their weapons of mass destruction? Who has the largest store of weapons of mass destruction?”
And yet another: “‘Most benevolent in the history of the planet’ — and you’re calling me a ‘true believer’?”
There’s something more significant going on here than a profound lack of historical perspective or a skewed understanding of the scholarly record. Both of those are signs of ordinary ignorance. But this is willful ignorance — which is much more insidious. It’s as if the very suggestion of America’s fundamental benevolence triggers an intellectual gag reflex among hardcore leftists. It cannot be tolerated; the system rejects it whole, regardless of the mental contortions that follow, because allowing it to penetrate would gum up the entire works.
Concede American benevolence — concede, in other words, what cannot be denied by a reasonable observer — and the epistemological underpinning of radical politics crumbles to dust. Can Gore Vidal continue to publish once that concession is made? Can Noam Chomsky continue to deliver speeches? Can Tim Robbins even go out in public?
In such circles, it’s become a matter of self-preservation to posit America’s essential evil. To posit, in short, a condition contrary to fact. Precisely because our policies seem so well intended, and their outcomes so often benign, critics who operate on the assumption of American malignancy must turn to conspiracy theorizing in lieu of inductive logic. Thus, for example, they will note that Bush has personal ties to oil company executives . . . and that Iraq has lots of oil . . . ergo, the true purpose of the invasion of Iraq must be to enrich oil companies. What’s wrong with this analysis, apart from its dubious grasp of market economics, is that it takes as axiomatic moral monstrosity. It presupposes that the president of the United States would, in effect, commit mass murder in order to line the pockets of his friends; it presupposes further that the Republican party is wicked enough to nominate such a person, that the electorate is depraved or callow enough to support him, and — since there’s no evidence of genocidal tendencies in Bush’s past — it presupposes the innate capacity of the analyst to peer into the furthest recesses of his soul. You can dress up an argument of this type with rhetorical flourishes, and publish it in a respected journal, but, in terms of its sophistication, it’s really of a piece with those “Bush = Saddam” signs that crop up at antiwar rallies.
It’s just false.
The truth, I reiterate, is that America is the most benevolent world power in the history of the planet. If you cannot recognize this, you might as well be reading tealeaves.
— Mark Goldblatt is the author of the novel Africa Speaks, now available in paperback.