Don’t Accuse Me of Blaming America When I Blame the Government

In discourse about public affairs, words matter much more than most people appreciate. We live immersed in language so twisted and abused, in part by the design of interested parties and in part by the sloth of inattentive speakers and listeners, that we often fail to notice or object to linguistic miscarriages that pass for intelligent expression. The examples are legion, but here I have in mind a particular turn of phrase that American conservatives, especially neocons, have employed in recent years as a counterstrike against critics of U.S. foreign and defense policy:  They describe such critics as “blaming America” or sometimes as “blaming America first” for attacks against this country or its citizens abroad.

Thus, for example, those who fault U.S. Middle East policies for creating the conditions that caused Muslim fanatics to attack Americans, both at home and overseas, are said to be blaming America for what the policy’s defenders’ take to be the unprovoked acts of terrorists bent on imposing Sharia on the United States, destroying this country’s freedoms, or attaining another such farfetched objective.

Applications to earlier events and policies include use of the expression to fend off the arguments and evidence of those who maintain that the Roosevelt administration waged economic warfare in 1940-41 to provoke a Japanese attack that would justify and lead directly to full-fledged U.S. engagement in World War II; and use of the expression against those who argue that the Truman administration bore at least partial responsibility for the onset of the Cold War. People accused of blaming America are commonly called “America haters.”

Although this riposte to criticism is the rhetorical tactic of first resort for the more simple-minded, flag-waving species of self-anointed patriots, it is by no means their exclusive property. Neocons writing in such elevated outlets as the New York Times and the Washington Post have not been bashful about smearing their critics as people who “blame America.” I noticed this linguistic resort most recently in a commentary by an intelligent, reasonable economist and was shocked that he would embrace this trope while suggesting that “pacifists” and others who criticize U.S. foreign and defense policies are unrealistically imagining that international disputes and warfare can somehow be eliminated from human affairs.

In my view, replying to policy critics by accusing them of “blaming America” is worse than linguistically crude and ideologically twisted; it is stupid.

First, and most important, let us recognize that the U.S. government is not America. Notwithstanding the ease with which politicians and their speechwriters toss around the idea that “American needs X” or “America should do Y,” the word America has so many distinct referents that it is extremely ambiguous. In currently common usage, America may refer to, among other things, the geographic area within U.S. borders; the population residing in this area; the traditions, customs, social practices, and norms that these persons regard as uniquely their own; the ideals that they have long expressed as their foremost aspirations; or a specific group of persons representing the United States in international organizations or competitions (e.g., “America won more medals than any other country in the Olympic games).

Only in discussions of international relations do we automatically understand America to be the same thing as the U.S. government. Thus, when we say that “America entered World War I in 1917,” it is understood that the statement means “U.S. government officials, specifically members of Congress and the president, declared the U.S. government to be at war against the German Empire and its allies in 1917.” And when we say that “America ratified the United Nations Charter in 1945, we mean that “a majority of the members of the U.S. Senate voted in favor of this treaty.”

Notice, however, that if one were to presume that the foregoing use of “America” – that is, the international-relations usage that takes America to be identical to all or part of the U.S. government – were the one being employed, it would make no sense to say that critics of U.S. policy are “blaming America,” because that statement would amount to saying that critics of U.S. government policies are blaming the U.S. government, which is obvious and redundant.

However, it is equally senseless for defenders of U.S. policy to suppose that the policy’s critics are blaming America in any of the senses specified in the third paragraph before this one. Critics are not blaming the geographic area, the resident population, the people’s traditions and customs, or their foremost ideals.

Critics who are said to be “blaming America” are in fact simply blaming the U.S. government, and defenders of the government’s policy who wield this polemical sword are implying either that the government and the people are one and the same or that the government indeed bears responsibility for adopting and implementing the policy in question, but should not be faulted for doing so. Either way, the defenders are standing on quicksand.

The government – the collection of politicians, soldiers, hired bureaucrats, and assorted flunkies who devise and carry out U.S. policies – makes mistakes. Of course, many of the actions and policies that sooner or later are generally regarded as mistakes were not mistakes at all, but merely actions and policies that, contrary to official declarations, did not serve the general public’s interests, although they served well enough the interests of key government officials and their major supporters. But set aside that class of actions. The government makes mistakes even in its attempts to attain objectives it truly seeks to attain. It cannot help but make such mistakes because its decision-makers have limited information, often poor judgment, biases of various sorts in the evaluation of information they do possess, and other shortcomings too numerous to recite.

So, why should anyone suppose that the government simply cannot be mistaken, and hence legitimately criticized for its mistakes? So far as the bulk of the American people are concerned, a great many U.S. foreign and defense policies – from the very beginning of the United States, but especially since the late nineteenth century – have been mistaken. For example, it is very difficult to argue honestly that U.S. engagement in World War I served the general interest of Americans. In ways great and small, Woodrow Wilson’s bid to play the role of global messiah had negative repercussions so horrifying that some of them continue to wreak harm to this day (e.g., the creation of artificial, unsustainable state boundaries in the Middle East). It is similarly difficult to argue that the U.S. war in Vietnam was a positive event for the American people at large. And how can anyone mount a strong argument that U.S. engagement in the Middle East since the early 1950s has not served to antagonize and destabilize the entire region and turn some of its young people into fanatics bent on revenge against Americans? Indeed, for some of us, who are not flying on pro-government autopilot, it seems that the bulk of the more important U.S. foreign and defense policies, particularly in the past hundred years, has been adverse to the general interest of the American people, however hyped up most of those people might have become when the government plunged into unnecessary wars and the people rallied round the flag, at least in the beginning.

Ambrose Bierce observed in The Devil’s Dictionary, “In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer, I beg to submit that it is the first.”  H. L. Mencken amended Johnson’s dictum by saying, “But there is something even worse: it is the first, last, and middle range of fools.” So, no one who criticizes U.S. foreign and defense policy should feel pushed onto the defensive when told that he is “blaming America” or acting as an “America hater.” Indeed, it might be best if he broke into laughter to indicate that such a response to his criticism betokens either a juvenile mentality or a shameless willingness to serve as a running dog of the U.S. regime.

I hold myself second to none in my adoration of the amber waves of grain and the purple mountain majesties. I revere the ideal that this nation should serve as a beacon of freedom to the world and a refuge for its huddled masses yearning to breathe free. I weep with pride each time I watch the ailing Lou Gehrig tell the crowd at Yankee Stadium, “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.” I don’t blame these beautiful, decent, and admirable aspects of America in the least for the chronic failure of U.S. foreign and defense policy to serve the general public interest.

With regard to the fools, mountebanks, unscrupulous opportunists, and psychopaths who have long played the greatest roles in devising and implementing U.S. foreign and defense policy, however, I hold a quite different and decidedly less favorable opinion.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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