This is who we are

The idea of America has always been to claim freedom and democracy as a right not just for ourselves, but as a universal right. This has been true ever since the founding of our nation, ever since the opening lines of our Declaration of Independence were written and embraced.

That Declaration, of course, is not a legally binding document, and America has often failed — often spectacularly — to live up to its lofty assertion that "all men are created equal" and endowed with "certain unalienable Rights."

Yet despite its many failures, inconsistencies and hypocrisies, America remains a standard bearer for freedom and democracy. Promoting the spread of these values has always been an essential part of our national character. We have promoted them through treaties and trade, through diplomacy and suasion, and — most compellingly — by example.

And, when necessary, we have defended them through military force.

The current Big Idea is that America's military might can be employed not only to defend freedom and democracy, but to promote or even impose them in countries where their lack is a source of suffering.

This is not a new idea. A similar idea was the driving motivation behind the medieval Crusades. Those ambitious campaigns sought to spread Christianity at the point of the sword. If you consider the premise of the Crusades — that the unbaptized heathen were doomed to eternal hellfire if they were not otherwise convinced or compelled to convert — then you can understand how the crusaders came to believe that such a forceful intervention was a moral obligation.

In retrospect, the Crusades seem like a Bad Idea. They were a missiological disaster that continues, centuries later, to haunt and hamper the spread of the Christian gospel.

And the Crusades are only one of many historical examples that lead me to believe that the point of the sword and the barrel of the gun are not the most auspicious or appropriate tools for promoting the spread of democracy, freedom and human rights.

Because I believe this, and because, as I said, I believe the most compelling and powerful tool for promoting these values is to set an example — to model and embody democracy and freedom — I propose the following Grand Scheme.

Here is my plan: To create a model outpost of democracy, freedom and human rights at the very gates of tyranny and despotism.

This outpost — a little piece of America — would create a clear demonstration of the contrast between our values and the values of antidemocratic societies.

Ideally, to make this contrast as clear and stark as possible, this City on a Hill should be directly adjacent to one of the countries that persists as an opponent of American values. We would want this beachhead of democracy to stand in contrast to the tyrannical regime alone, uncomplicated by cluttering comparisons to other neighboring countries in the area.

The best situation, then, would be an island nation, preferably one nearby, where democracy and human rights were routinely denied. Our model American outpost could be established on a small part of that same island — some distinct cove or bay. And there our model outpost could demonstrate in microcosm who we really are and what we really stand for.

To multiply the impact of this bold example, we could find people from all over the world — especially people from places where tyranny is rampant and democracy is only a vague, foreign word — and invite them to come and live for a time in our model island outpost. There our guests would see and experience our American values firsthand.

Word of this experience would spread to their countrymen and their homelands: This is what America is really like. This is what America is all about. No amount of rhetoric on behalf of freedom and democracy could compete with the message such an outpost would provide. Our ordinary rendition of democracy and freedom is powerful, but this model, this extraordinary rendition, would be even more powerful.

If only we could find such a place.

[update: slight edit]

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  • theophylact

    Perhaps we could lease such a place?

  • Stephen

    Along with those Crusaders who sought to “evangelize the heathen” were others who believed that they were fully justified in raping and pillaging these same heathen because they “deserved it” for “rejecting Christ.”
    This attitude, it would seem, is alive and well. I believe that the desire for punishment is stronger than that for peace. I believe that there are many who agree with Ann Coulter, that we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. Unfortunately, punitive evangelism doesn’t work very well, nor does spreading peace by waging war.
    On how many levels, in how many ways, in how many places and with how many people must we fail to live up to the barest definition of a civilized society before America turns from the path of destruction and tyranny and begins the slow climb to what we have always aspired to be?
    And how long will Christians continue to deny Christ and mock his name before judgment comes? How long?

  • patter

    “America remains a standard bearer for freedom and democracy.”
    Good Lord, Fred, WHAT have you been smoking? Have you talked to anyone from a foreign country lately? The only ‘standard’ we’re bearing these days is that of an arrogant adolescent bully who takes what he wants and who doesn’t give a damn about the cost to anybody else.

  • Patrick J. Mullins

    I like Fred on the Crusade part and patter on the ‘what have you been smoking?’ part.

  • Michael

    Perhaps we could lease such a place?
    I do believe Theo has solved Fred’s riddle. ;)

  • Peatey

    “Perhaps we could lease such a place?” -theophylact
    Great idea, I think it should be a lease in perpetuity or until abandonment or by agreement. $2,000 in gold pieces a year sounds like a good deal.
    Fred, yet another great post.

  • Beth

    Let’s not invite any Brits though, ok? You know what Brits are like. They’ll just bitch and moan and give the whole place a bad name.

  • perianwyr

    gold pieces? Does it have 10HD dragons on it and 3d10 kobolds that you have to pay off?

  • R. Mildred

    It is obvious that Fred is talking about Cuba, and the terrorcamp we set up there, isn’t it? (I apologise if your sarcasm about fred’s sarcasm went over my head, but I’ve seen way too many examples of people just not getting anything that isn’t jammed forcibly down their throats recently)
    Just as a note about the crusade, not only was the first major massacre committed by the Christian crusaders actually a massacre of christians and not muslims (I think, a Christians town was massacred during the 1st one), but the crusades eventually led to the downfall of the byzantine empire, with cristian crusaders sacking byzantine to make some money and then going home without ever going near jerusalem during one of the late ones.

  • Sven

    I’m in the midst of an interesting book by Anatol Lieven, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism. He posits that the “City on a Hill,” or American Creed, strand of civic nationalism is in some ways just as dangerous as its counterpart – nationalistic chauvinism, belligerence and xenophobia.
    First, he says, while the United States is indeed a beacon to the word, the American Creed constricts debate about foreign policy options, stifles introspection, papers over historical lessons, and deafens American ears to what the rest of the world is saying. This, he believes, made the discussion of how to respond to 9/11 largely mythological.
    Second, while the American Creed is in some ways the antithesis to chauvinism, in others the two strands are inseparable. That’s particularly true when Americans feel threatened. Inevitably, the more bellicose among us want to rain death on the rest of the world. But couch their paranoia and contempt by invoking the unchallengeable American Creed. Blowing people up thus becomes “democratization,” and who could possibly question democracy without questioning the very idea of America?
    Naturally, the rest of the world begins to see this yawning gap between rhetoric and reality as profoundly hypocritical, which undermines genuine admiration for the American Creed and undermines American leadership.
    I haven’t yet reached Lieven’s prescription for resolving the paradox (if, indeed, he even offers one). He definitely doesn’t think America is evil, or that the American Creed is entirely misguided. He drops hints about his belief that part of the problem is the decline of historical studies and its replacement with “rational choice theory” (i.e., the contention that all social phenomena, regardless of culture, can be explained in terms of the rational calculations made by self-interested individuals). That, he contends, prevents people from developing the empathy – but not necessarily sympathy – necessary to understanding other cultures and social structures and therefore reasonable foreign policy. He’s also made some controversial remarks in interviews regarding America’s relationship with Israel.
    Anywho, Lieven may me as naive as he makes Americans out to be, but his thesis is interesting and challenging.

  • Dave Lartigue

    The analogy is more important, of course, but having just read a pretty interesting history of the Crusdaes (Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular DElusions and the Madness of Crowds I feel obliged to point out that conversion wasn’t really a goal. The point of the Crusades was simple: the Holy Land is in the hands of non-Christians, and must be taken back.
    It’s true that in the first Crusades the country that suffered the most was…Hungary. The first band of Crusaders, little more than a semi-harnessed violent mob, didn’t like how the Hungarians treated them and wreaked havoc in that country. They never made it to the Holy Land. Other Crusades did get far, though Constantinople (then the last bastion of Christianity) also saw a lot of violence at it when Crusaders were bored or felt slighted. The holy land was won back once, and then lost again. At one point the Muslims agreed to GIVE Jerusalem and environs to the Crusaders so long as they left Egypt alone, but the Crusaders didn’t trust them and decided to fight (and lose) anyway.
    The point is, saying the Crusdaes were a conversion mission misses the point, and similarly blunts the analogy to current times. It implies that there was a way to avoid bloodshed. There wasn’t, and isn’t. America is general, and this administration in particular DOESN’T like Democracy. They don’t want the will of the Iraqi people in a million years. It’s not a case of bending the Middle East to become like us, it’s about rescuing the Middle East from the heretics who own it.

  • Mabus

    So, Dave, why did we go to all the trouble of arranging elections?
    It’s not as though the elections will, in and of themselves, dampen the insurgency. The Sunnis who started it, then used it as an excuse not to vote, naturally did not win many seats, so they will not be pacified, even if we assume that they considered elections desirable–a dubious notion under the circumstances.
    So if all we want is to “rescue the Middle East from the heretics”, heck, why not just set up an overt dictatorship? If the Iraqis couldn’t overthrow Saddam, they can’t overthrow the people who ran him out.

  • Patrick J. Mullins

    It would have looked unseemly to set up an obvious dictatorship. This ought to look like one after awhile, according to what quagmires do or don’t transpire. Anyway, it’s not about rescuing the Middle East from heretics, it’s about owning the Middle East, more or less.

  • Buhallin

    Despite the obvious intellectual failings of this administration, you must credit them with an impressive ability to take the long view of things. This has started becoming more blatant, as numerous Bush domestic plans never kick in full force until he’s long gone. You can also see a definite belief in the “Foot In The Door” mentality, such as with his expiring tax cuts that nobody really believes will expire. Still, doing it this way separates the debate into smaller pieces, and it’s always easier to keep the status quo, which is now the tax cuts.
    I think we’re seeing much the same thing in Iraq. Patrick has it right – we may be imperialistic, but we can’t LOOK imperialistic. So, we liberate Iraq and let elections run their course there, at least for a while. In the meantime, we establish a permanent military presence in the region, and a few years down the road, the people of Iraq elect (or are manipulated into electing) a more US-friendly set. Democracy blooms!!
    Just an idea, but one that I can see the “We’ll be greeted as liberators!” administration believing in. I just hope it hasn’t backfired as badly as it seems to have. It would be truly ironic if we ended up installing a hardline government based on Islamic law.

  • Jesurgislac

    Mabus: So, Dave, why did we go to all the trouble of arranging elections?
    Because after masses of Iraqis came on to the streets and demostrated in favor of elections, and with the powerful force of a senior cleric (Sistani) on their side, Bush eventually had to concede that Iraqis could have elections. A year late, of course, because while elections could have been held in January 2004, and it would have been far better for the Iraqis if they had, their election results might well have affected American elections in November 2004.

  • Jesurgislac

    I’m sure Gary Younge’s glad to know his meme’s spreading!

  • cjmr’s husband

    And here I was thinking the island was Hong Kong. Or Taiwan.
    Big successes in spreading Democracy(tm) to the PRC in both cases…

  • J Mann

    This was a painfully well-done piece, Fred – thanks.

  • diddy

    “numerous Bush domestic plans never kick in full force until he’s long gone. You can also see a definite belief in the “Foot In The Door” mentality, such as with his expiring tax cuts that nobody really believes will expire.”
    I’d go along with this if I didn’t know that these policies are all designed to have their minimum impact/maximum benefit in 2008, the last year of Bush’s 2nd term. I don’t see it as a long, transformative view, but as cynical legacy protection. Any politician — even another Republican — will have to be a slash-and-burn demon to clean up the mess s/he will inherit in 2009, and in the short term the Bush name will gain prestige. I’m getting to the point where I believe Bush is to “cut the deficit in half” as Mussolini is to “made the trains run on time.”

  • SadieB.

    I’d like to add on to Dave Latrique’s observation that the Crusades were not about conversion but control of the Holy Lands. I’m not an expert on the Crusades, but it’s my impression people in those days were still very susceptive to magical thinking. Control of the Holy Lands was to them, not a symbolic but a real thing, it was control of a source of real power. “God’s Ear” if you will.
    So I have to agree with the Crusades analogy because I see oil as being the God of our times. Think about it. Isn’t it oil that creates and sustains everything around us? Isn’t oil a diety for whom any and all sacrifice is appropriate? Another element of the Crusades is that they were a means of unifying, at least temporarily, the “homefront” and rooting out dissidents within.
    Democracy is to to the current crusade what Christianity was to the previous ones, nothing more than the veneer of a “noble cause.” The one ray of light I can se in this whole thing is that we have been a lot quicker to catch on to it than our ancestors were.

  • Jame

    …preferably with clean running water and electricity…

  • John

    While crusading certainly didn’t turn out very well in the long run in the Near East, other crusading activity did have long term consequences. The most notable was in the Baltic, where the Teutonic Order and the Knights of the Sword launched crusades that converted the heathen Baltic peoples (Prussians, Latvians, and Estonians, largely) to Christianity…

  • Pontealist

    Yeah, and it’s about to get worse….take a look at the appointment of Negroponte as intelligence head – hardly a peep out of people, except:
    not a good sign….

  • Con los pobres de la tierra quiero yo mi suerte echar

    It’s a shocking lapse on my part that I haven’t put Fred Clark on the blogroll yet. Well, let’s fix that. And if you haven’t been there before, make this subtle and sorrowful post your first visit to Slacktivist.

  • Patrick J. Mullins

    Wasn’t it inevitable, with all appointments headed in the same direction, that there would finally be a conspicuous ‘non-peep?’ What with Greenspan sucking too, what’s to waste time ‘peeping’? Sometimes I think it’s just a matter of what kind of catastrophe we’ll get first, since the stage has been set for so many.

  • Sandals

    I like this post.

  • drieux just drieux

    Ok, so I have to agree with Mullins on this, what is there to ‘peeping’ about? Is anyone really surprised? Does anyone really expect diddly out of Negropante?
    I will disagree with Mullins on Greenspan. The comedy is that Greenspan used the ‘safe out’ when discussing the ‘privatization’ gambit of the current administrations approach to the SSI – since Greenspan contexted the issue with the ‘SSI and…’ gambit. One could just as easily say “SSI and the DOD budget” leads to a fiscal crisis that needs to be addressed. The comedy that we are doing in that space is to advocate ‘private national security accounts’ so that individuals will be able to control what happens with their personal accounts for DOD stuff… I mean if it suppose to be the majik wand for SSI – why not for DOD and ‘special warfare like ops’…
    Given that Greenspan has also referenced the threat of balancing the budget as a requirement – I mean, is anyone at all surprised about the “‘secret al qaeda cells’ at work in America” rhetoric that the CIA head was bleating before congress??? Isn’t advocating a balanced budget approach a direct attack on the president and the greatest military leader EVER! Isn’t that some sort of ‘act of treason in a time of deferring the tax burden onto the unborn’ that can only be corrected by rounding up the usual suspects and shipping them off to Gitmo?
    At which point we are back to the Negroponte problem.
    What exactly is the new NID idea suppose to get us? besides the expected bloat of the federal government? A problem once raised about the fiasco of the ‘department of homeland security’ – until it became politically required to support the need for the DHS as a ‘war winning strategy’.
    Unless the current administration works out whether they have any agenda other than getting W a guranteed retirement programme – all of this finding jobs for their friends is merely the same old nepotism that it has always been. I mean you really would not want to have these folks obliged to make a living in the private sector based solely on ‘merit pay’.

  • chris_uk

    firstly I’d just like to point out that no one in america seems to be mentioning the fact that the Kyoto Agreement came into effect this week….
    But then america isn’t at all interested in or even believing in global warming, so thats hardly supprising.
    This fact has made a significant proportion of the world populace fairly upset.
    secondly I’d like to link you to a report from a BBC correspondant to the US – which looks at the growing rift between the US and EU.

  • Matt McIrvin

    chris_uk, those of us in America who do believe in and care about global warming are too busy dealing with the government’s official ignorance of the subject, and the well-funded campaign to spread that ignorance, to spend much time mentioning Kyoto right now.

  • Kevin Hayden

    Such islands exist, but they are not necessarily American. Nor should they have to be.Isn’t their existence enough? Consider Sweden…
    I just don’t believe America comes close to its best evolutionary point anymore, except in select communities. At a certain point, you have to ask why bother saving the too far gone?

  • Patrick J. Mullins

    Kevin–much as I hate it, I actually feel that way too, although I would phrase it merely that the too far gone can’t be saved even if bothered with. However, ‘such an island’ would probably need to be American if it were to have the effect Fred is talking about, because a Swedish or Swiss one is kept invisible by the U.S., but I don’t believe in the concept any more than in the Heideggerian ‘god’ that would save us–unless it helps to be hopeful for as long as is possible.

  • Cecrops Tangaroa

    I was about to offer what I thought might be an intelligent post noting the founding of Liberia, the opportunity of leveraging Israel, and the existence of US embassies and American Culture centers worldwide, but I had to read the comments first and have R. Mildred plainly point it out to me. That went completely over my head. Brilliant. Just brilliant. I completely missed the “extraordinary rendition” bit too. I’m crying and laughing at the same time.

  • drieux just drieux

    p0: The Kyoto Accord Problem, I hate to say it, takes second place to getting americans committed to the idea that we are a nation of laws and not of persons.
    If we, as americans, are unwilling to be a nation of laws, then it does not matter which treaties we have or have not signed up to. Such treaties when ratified are only as good as ‘the great leader’ wishes them to be.
    p1: Where I disagree with Patrick Mullins is that some of us swore our oath of honor to defend the american constitution from enemies foreign or domestic. As such we have an Honor Code obligation to make sure that americans understand that we are still a nation of laws, and not of persons. The challenge for us is that we have to work out, perchance more precisely, whether that obligation means that we must take up arms to maintain our Honor Code Obligations.

  • Gus

    “While crusading certainly didn’t turn out very well in the long run in the Near East, other crusading activity did have long term consequences. The most notable was in the Baltic, where the Teutonic Order and the Knights of the Sword launched crusades that converted the heathen Baltic peoples (Prussians, Latvians, and Estonians, largely) to Christianity…”
    John… While this is true, the big question re: then AND now is — What gives anyone the right to DO that? Didn’t the Baltic Pagans have a right to live as they saw fit, and today’s Iraqis a similar right, rather than be FORCED to change? I would’ve been much more supportive of an effort to topple Saddam from the inside (especially when we had the chance after Gulf I) than by invasion & occupation.
    The arrogance we see today with the Bush II regime is, unfortunately, NOT unique. Our history is laden with incidents just like it, many of them lumped into the concept of “Manifest Destiny” : Native American tribes forced off their lands, the invasions of Mexico and Cuba (1800s), US intervention in numerous countries installing/supporting dictatorships in the name of “freedom from communism,” etc. The US wasn’t the only perpetrator of this: several European powers did it in Africa, Asia, Australia & the Americas, and the Chinese and Russians did it in Asia. Only the words they used to justify it changed.
    Crusading activity is a symptom of a much bigger problem in our “civilization,” one that has long been reinforced by organized religion but has much more to do with a more general attitude that says “Our way is the only way to live… not just for US, but for EVERYONE.” Unfortunately, if everyone threw their weight around like we do, nobody would be living very long, would they?

  • Josh

    Fred – look who else is reading your blog:
    “One might ask why so much attention is paid to Guantanamo, while our [Arab] countries are full of thousands of Guantanamos under American supervision and monitoring? The answer, in my opinion – and only Allah knows – is that Guantanamo exposes the truth underlying the reform and democracy that the US claims to be spreading in our countries. This reform will be based on American prisons, such as Bagram, Kandahar, Guantanamo, and Abu-Ghuraib.” – Ayman Al-Zawahiri

  • Josh

    I do get suspicious of those who have difficulty distinguishing between the Crusades (“you will believe what I tell you or die”) and democracy (“you will have the opportunity to freely express your beliefs – and your beliefs will influence the way you are governed”).
    One is an imposition and the other the creation of civil rights.
    Although I suppose that, in some sense, the end of American slavery, the enforcement of civil rights laws, and the destruction of Baathist oppression, were an imposition on those who enjoyed ruling by terror.
    I do wish we could turn back the clock and see what constituencies our differences in revolutionary fervor (Josh) and conservative caution (Fred) would have led to in the 1860’s or 1960’s.

  • Gus

    Hi, Josh —
    Based on your last post, I assume you’re referring in part to my last post.
    Maybe I wasn’t too clear — I KNOW there’s a huge difference between the Crusades and democracy, just as I know Saddam was a scumbag of the highest order and deserves just about anything we could imagine to throw at him. (He SHOULD’VE been locked up and/or killed 30 yrs ago… but wasn’t because he was “our friend.”)
    The point I (and others) are making is that the ends do not necessarily justify the means, esp. when the ends are still in doubt as they are in Iraq. Promoting Saddam and his ilk years ago got us INTO this mess and bred a lot of the hatred we now see from Bin Laden & company, while doing nothing to promote the spread of democracy. If anything, our behavior over the past 50-odd yrs stymied democracy in several countries (Indonesia, Iran, Chile…), some of which have shaken off a mantle of US-backed dictatorships in recent years, and failed to support homegrown reform efforts in others (again, Iran, Iraq, Burma, China, Saudi Arabia…)
    We cannot divorce today’s events from our policies of recent decades. If we want democracy to develop there, we need to lead BY EXAMPLE, not by force, and that means backing moderates and educated folks worldwide who want democracy, even if they don’t support us.

  • Fred

    Josh —
    Wait, you mean Zawahiri opposes torture?
    Gee, and Zawahiri is evil. So therefore I must take the opposite of his view. Ergo: To be a Good Person I must endorse torture.
    That syllogism is, well, tortured.
    Are you really willing to defend extraordinary rendition and torture as in any way compatible with the idealism you allegedly espouse? Or is this just more knee-jerk defense? You’ve lost the map. And the compass.
    (And what are you doing reading Zawahiri anyway? Subscribe to the same revolutionary newsletters?)

  • Fred

    P.S. —
    Josh, the point of the above post is that America’s gulag network is not just a betrayal of our core values, but also a PR coup for terrorists. So, in citing evidence of a prominent terrorist using this very hypocrisy as a recruiting tool, are you:
    A. Confirming the point of the post, or
    B. Refuting it?
    The answer, obviously, is A. So why does it seem you think B?

  • drieux just drieux

    Given that Muslim Extremists Believe in Logic, It clearly follows that all of those in the “reality based community” are all Terrorists.
    Kiddies, we got to do that one with noting that communists held that “2 + 2 = 4” and that therefore all Patriots opposed the belief that “2 + 2 = 4″….
    So what if the problem of pointing to GitMo was the complete folly of an administration that fails to understand that those pieces of ground under UCMJ law are still under American Law. This holds as true of GitMo as of Basram AFB in Afghanistan, as it does of Abu Ghraib, et al.
    That we have a court case of the canadian who was rendered to the Syrians crawling it’s way to the AMERICAN Supreme Court should put americans on notice that there is still the threat that american law may remain the law of the United States of America,
    even IN these ‘troubled times’.
    We now get to add to this list of interesting cases making their way through the american legal system the new one, of some american picked up in Saudi Arabia, in june of 2003, who has NOW been indicted in america for ‘terrorism’ – in a CIVILIAN COURT – rather than being rendered to GitMo… It will be fun watching the ProWar camp work out which position they want to believe in. Should we have show trials on a regular basis to keep reminding americans that we can get our ‘loyal allies’ to do the torturing for us? That we are not sure which side of the so called ‘war on tyranny’ the current administration really wants to be on???
    So I find josh’s ‘irony’ well, gosh, Ironic…

  • Anarch

    And here I was thinking the island was Hong Kong. Or Taiwan.
    Big successes in spreading Democracy(tm) to the PRC in both cases…
    Late to the party but, Hong Kong? No. Small success in spreading liberty, yes; close-to-absolute failure at spreading democracy. Chris Patten made some valiant attempts (1993-97, if memory serves) at making LegCo something other than a rubberstamp for Beijing, business or the governorship but those have pretty much been undone in the past eight years.
    Taiwan is a more credible case but there your claim is incorrect: Taiwan was never part of the PRC, as the erstwhile KMT will proudly tell you. The modern Taiwan was “colonized” by the fleeing Kuomintang, the Nationalist party, which wasn’t the slightest bit democratic at the time. It became marginally democratic in the mid-to-late 1970s after the death of Chiang Kai-Shek but has really only been a democracy for the past ten years or so. Democracy’s still cutting it’s teeth there (the KMT lost for the first time in 2000) so I’d be a little reluctant to call it a “success” yet, but YMMV.