Even if you downgrade the extent to which this image of guilt and shame has pervaded American intellectual, cultural, and even political life of late, as one looks around the world it seems as if Americans can say, “We’re number one” when it comes to self-hatred.
While Europeans are aware of their colonialist past, their guilt trip is far more limited. Why is that? On the surface, they have America and Israel to claim as real villains—scapegoats whose condemnation banishes European guilt– but there is more to it than that.
One thing is that the United States can be said to be, in Marxist terms, a settler colonial society. But Latin American societies are based on far more deliberate and systematic genocide of the original inhabitants. Tales can be told of specific, usually small-scale massacres in America or the exile of the Cherokee. But in Spain’s colonies in the new world, there were deliberate massive killings, including—unlike the United States—of those who never attacked the Europeans or even fought wars against them.
Similarly, African history is marked by tribal warfare, displacement, and even genocide. While in Asia, the Japanese perpetrated horrors on China, for example, second only to those of Hitler and Stalin in Europe but can barely be made to offer perfunctory formal apologies. While one can find atrocities on the American side in the Philippines around 1900 or in Vietnam there’s nothing comparable. And such deeds were never matters of national policy.
Oh, there was the internment of Japanese citizens in World War Two. Regrettable but to be honest understandable at the time.
Indeed, leftists (including those pretending to be liberals) routinely rationalize cultures and societies built on far more repressive, racist, undemocratic behavior which continues down to today. Perhaps that, too, is part of the answer. Criticism of one’s own society is encouraged; criticism of others is deemed racist.
Examining Europe more closely, Austria and Italy feel that they were victims, not allies, of Hitler’s cause. Russia is not repentant about Communism’s mass killings and repression, though of course it has been much discussed. France doesn’t consider itself born in sin despite the suppression of other nations within it (whatever became of the Burgundians, the Bretons, the Normans? How about the brutal massacre of the harmless Cathars?) or its colonial behavior. As a result, today a Socialist government doesn’t hesitate to send an expeditionary force to bomb rebels in Mali, and unilaterally to boot, without any of the Obama Administration obsession with multilateralism.
The French tend to bury the collaborationist past in World War Two. Belgians don’t shed tears over their country’s terrible behavior in the Congo, perhaps the world’s single worst record of bloody colonialism.
For Europeans, war and conquest are seen as more normal even if the view is that they have outgrown such things today. Americans often seem to find conflict to be unnatural and in the well-ordered society they wouldn’t exist, everyone would be rich and happy. Thus, at least as its being presented today, conflict is a matter of mean, selfish people who just don’t have the right ideas.
True, European ruling classes have in some cases lost confidence in their own civilization but they don’t gnaw at themselves.
So what’s different about America on this point? I am trying out some preliminary ideas.
–America was a democracy and thus evil deeds cannot be put off onto an aristocracy or monarchy that no longer exists.
–Other countries just came into existence and there they were! Some countries were the products of conscious nationalist visions. But the United States arose from a political and philosophical concept: how can one build a country that is a sustainable republic where citizens are treated as equal. Thus, it can be judged on whether it has met that goal.
–America’s success at integrating other groups and freedom has created internal points of criticism. There are large minority groups which aren’t afraid to speak out and complain about the past. Indeed, members of the “majority” who do so are amply rewarded.
–Americans have a problem with integrating history into their thinking. The narrative of other countries is accepted and seen as a whole. The United States is much younger than most and has focused so much on change it is hard for most people to see their national rootedness.
About the Author: Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. See the GLORIA/MERIA site at www.gloria-center.org.
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