We Americans have become the most selfish people on the planet. In prior eras other societies had this honor, like the British, Dutch or Romans. But, now it's our turn. We buy things we don't need and discard them before they are worn out. We use resources wastefully. We all know this, but we don't like to admit it to ourselves so we live with a split personality.
The selfish side is hidden beneath another layer which represents our civic ideals. On this layer we proclaim our belief in liberty, justice and equality for all. These are the noble thoughts used by the founders of our nation to justify the separation from Britain. Peoples all over the world have been inspired by these sentiments and have attempted to create a society modeled after ours. We are proud of our moral leadership.
These two sides of our society help define our foreign policies. In order to maintain our wasteful standard of living it is necessary for us to obtain materials from the rest of the world at favorable (to us) terms. This causes us to treat others in our transactions in various unfair manners. A fact that we all know, but won't admit to ourselves. It is an instance of the old joke about liking sausage, but not wanting to know how it's made. We choose our leaders to "make the sausage" and go on with our lives.
In recent decades the area in which the biggest discrepancy between what we are willing to pay and what the sellers could charge has been the oil market. We have supported arrangements with governments and other entities which are completely at odds with our civic ideals. We justify this to ourselves by willfully ignoring this fact, or at least trying to. In our heart of hearts we know what we are asking our leaders to do.
Since this selfish image is so unpleasant we have created a public discourse which substitutes acceptable topics as the subjects for debate. Let's take the current hot topic as an example: Iraq. What was asked of our government at the unmentionable level was to ensure a continuing reliable supply of oil on the world market. Saudi Arabia has become unreliable, the government is losing its grip on the populace, its reserves are probably starting to decline, and it has forced our troops out of the country. So we needed to develop an alternative "partner". The obvious choice is Iraq, the country with the largest reserves. The problem was a corrupt government that wouldn't "deal".
We couldn't allow ourselves to say "lets overrun Iraq and seize its oil". This doesn't fit our preferred self image. So instead we used a series of acceptable code phrases: evil dictatorship, international threat, supporter of terrorism, etc. Thus we are justified in our intervention because of "humanitarian" concerns. If we are so taken with "humanitarian" issues why haven't we acted in Sudan or Zimbabwe, where the toll on the populace is much greater at this moment in time?
Let's evaluate our progress in Iraq in terms of our hidden agenda. We are building about fourteen military bases in Iraq which will replace the losses in Saudi Arabia. We are in the process of modernizing the oil industry. We have created a powerful presence in the region which we are using to pressure or intimidate the neighboring countries into being more willing to deal on our terms. So, in general, the war is achieving the aims the government was asked to do. There is lots of complaint that we are not providing the humanitarian aid we promised and the civic reasons given for invading were not "true". But we know this was all window dressing. Perhaps there are some true idealists who believed the socially acceptable reasons given, but everyone else knows what was secretly desired. Why would we care about the populace of Iraq when we care so little about the underpriviledged in our own country?
Because of our split personality the candidates are forced to use a coded language to get their (hidden) promises across. Thus when a politician says he is "strong on defense" he really means he is amoral enough to do what is necessary to promote America's interests even if this is unfair to the other party. A politician who speaks in only moral terms is perceived as being less willing to create unfair relationships. Talk of international "cooperation" is heard as a code word for weakness.
The anxiety at the hidden layer is why moderate politicians have not made much headway in changing the opinions of a large core of the population. These people like the status quo, know it is basically unfair, and want leaders who will maintain it while allowing everyone to mouth our civic ideals. Failure to acknowledge this underlying characteristic in our society is why moderate and progressive politicians have lost the vast majority of policy debates over the past twenty years.
Can America become a more compassionate society while simultaneously maintaining our standard of living and improving the lives of others here and abroad? If there is a way to do this then politicians need to explain how without resorting to obfuscating our true interests and failing to address these issues openly. Personally I don't believe we are ready to face up to our underlying selfishness and won't do so until the balance of power shifts in the world and we have no alternative. Within 50 to 100 years we will no longer be the dominant economic power and we will be forced to live with a lower standard of living as other societies are better able to defend their own interests. We can make this transition slowly starting now, or we can be subject to sudden shocks like wide spread inflation and unemployment in the future. Are we ready to face the truth?
Moral: Wishing doesn't make it so.
Click here to see all my essays in context.
If you have any comments you would like to add email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2004 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.