By Charles Derber with Yale Magrass (2008).
A review by Dom Nozzi
Morality Wars, the book I read in March 2011, persuasively shows how the US, in an Orwellian way, convinces most of us that engaging in criminal wars and aggressive, militaristic imperialism is “good” for our victims because, by definition, the US is moral and just and is the only nation capable of bringing freedom and democracy and civilization to the world. How dare anyone question our hideous murder of countless civilians? War is peace. Pre-emptive militarism is defense of American liberty
The Roman and British empires similarly used moralizing rhetoric to justify their barbarism and imperialism. Those empires brought “liberty and freedom and democracy” to the nations they colonized or otherwise obliterated. Confederate leaders in the 19th Century engaged in this form of “immoral morality” by claiming that slavery brought freedom and democracy and Christian civilization to African slaves. We enslaved them for their own good.
By engaging in this form of immoral moralizing, the US makes it nearly impossible for anyone to argue the US is ever wrong about anything it does in its worldwide moral crusade, no matter how many innocent people we kill. “…Bush [and now Obama] carried out his wars and pro-rich policies in the very name of values and God. The war was to spread ‘God’s gift of liberty,’ the torture was to protect civilization from ‘barbarians,’ and pro-rich economics was to promote prosperity for all…We define immoral morality as principles and beliefs that help justify socially harmful or unethical behavior or policies…immoral morality is used to gain or retain power…to get or keep wealth…to punish or humiliate others in the name of developing their character or moral fiber…It is one thing to do evil, another to do evil in the name of good…The Religious Right and President Bush say they are driven by values and God, but then they plunged the nation into illegal and unethical wars and social policies in the name of lofty principles.”
Even slavery in the South was touted as morally just and admirable (and “good” for the slaves). “Southern moralists filled Southern churches…with ringing affirmations of the goodness of slavery…’Although they [African American slaves] are inferior, we took them to our homes and taught them Christianity, and how it protects, supports and civilizes him…they have more liberty than a free laborer of the North…Our Negroes are not only better off as to physical comfort than free laborers, but their moral condition is better…Such Southern moralism helped keep Southern white plantation owners in power and made it extremely difficult for Southerners to challenge slavery on principled grounds…Since force and terror are insufficient and inefficient for sustaining most exploitative regimes, virtually all turn to this approach – which Orwell called ‘reality control’…”
This form of immoral morality has a long history of use by previous empires. “Moral leaders of great empires – from the Egyptian pharaohs and Roman emperors, to Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung – have been, like Hitler, notorious immoral moralists who knew how to bathe their conquests in moral or spiritual legitimations…if immoral morality is sincere and resonates with many ordinary Americans, it becomes far more difficult to define or reveal as illegal or unethical…Virtually all empires have conquered, ruled, and killed in the name of a higher moral creed…[justifying] war in the name of peace, conquest in the name of self-defense, and occupation in the name of civilization or God…empire is not just moral – it is a moral obligation.”
Long before Bush’s (and Obama’s) reign as America’s leader in fighting the “War on Terrorism,” and his insistence that we must fight the terrorists overseas before we are forced to fight them here in the US, the Roman Empire used precisely the same rationale. “Security [for the Roman Empire] required taking out the barbarians on their own playing field, before they got to Rome. This ancient ‘security’ code – defense requires offense – becomes an underpinning of empire from Augustus and Virgil to George W. Bush…By enslaving the barbarians, Romans were bringing them the freedom of civilized life. A Roman slave was at last free of the moral shackles of barbarism, free as a slave to imbibe the great moral values of Roman civilization…’slavery is freedom.’… “
Several centuries ago, the Roman Empire sounded much like today’s American Neoconservatives. “We can summarize the pagan Roman Code as follows:
1. Rome, the city of seven hills, is destined by fate, fortune, and the gods to rule the world.
2. Rome’s values are universal and represent the highest form of civilization.
3. Rome’s values and majesty…the Roman people embody the rule of law, nobility, courage, wisdom, personal virtue, compassion, prosperity, and peace.
4. Rome has a moral obligation to spread these civilized values to all peoples, including barbarians and heathens…
5. Pax Romana is the only and best way to govern the world peacefully and spread civilization to all…”
Similarly, the Roman Emperor Constantine issued commandments that seem to suggest that they were plagiarized by modern-day Neoconservatives and the American Religious Right. “The Constantine Code can be summarized as follows:
1. The Roman Empire is chosen by the Christian God, the one true God, to rule the world.
2. No other god, other than the Christian God, is to be tolerated…
3. …Although He may have preached peace in His lifetime, Jesus’ truth is to be spread by any means necessary, including the sword.
4. Roman victories are the victories of Christ. Anyone opposing the empire is opposing God…
5. …The morals of Rome are those of Jesus and all Romans must live according to these values.
6. Rome has a moral obligation to defend and spread its empire to serve God.
7. True Christians must spare the heathen’s soul eternal torment, but this may require the enslavement, torture, or destruction of his mortal body.”
In addition, the beliefs often expressed by American Neoconservatives sound like they were directly lifted from the playbook of the British Empire. “The British Empire Code:
1. Britain is a chosen and superior nation…
2. …The British have a moral mission to spread [democracy, civil liberties, and the rule of law]…everywhere…
3. Some people must be saved from their own barbarism…”
Furthermore, we can see that before the American Empire found an obligation to spread peace and democracy and economic prosperity to the world (and engage in wars overseas to “defend itself”), the British Empire had pursued a nearly identical path before its decline. “Without Britain, there would be only warring tribes in Africa or clashing ethnicities and religions in Asia…Britain’s own self-defense became equated with the defense of empire. Britain conquered and then redefined those who fought for their freedom as terrorists. Defending the boundaries of the empire in India and Africa became equivalent…to defending Britain itself [today, U.S. leaders insist their dirty warfare abroad is necessary to promote “American security”]…The British devastated much of India’s textile industry, turning the Indian economy backward in the name of development. The British created a slavish dependency of Africa on Britain, in the name of liberating the continent from slavery. The British also attacked Asian and African natives who fought for independence as aggressors, claiming the honor code of self-defense to crush them and disguise the empire’s own aggression…”
Curiously, American citizens rarely see the US in this way, despite our overwhelming and unilateral global power, and nearly endless imperialist, Roman Empire-like actions. “Americans have been particularly reluctant to see themselves as an empire – a startling fact given that the US is the most powerful nation in history. While showing classic signs of overstretch and imperial decline, the US remains a military, economic, political, and cultural colossus astride the world. Its power makes Rome and Britain, at their height, look pitifully weak…Kinzer details 15 different regime changes forced by American intervention, often through the CIA, involving the overthrows of democratic governments replaced by US-supported dictatorships…American scholars and pundits all across the political spectrum have chronicled the endless imperial US interventions, regime changes, and wars.”
The imperial, immoral morality engaged in so openly and aggressively by Bush and Obama did not start with them. “From the beginning, Americans saw themselves as a chosen people destined for greatness. They were also always intensely moralistic…American capitalism and the religious and moral ideology of the Founders created an empire project that defined the nation since its beginning.”
The authors note five periods of Empire engaged in by the US in its history. The second one, in the 19th Century, had as one of its important proponents President Andrew Jackson, who used immoral morality to show the moral goodness of the removal of Native Americans. “[Jackson, in discussing his expulsion of Native Americans from all land east of the Mississippi…noted] how ‘removed Indians’ would, under US guidance, advance from barbarism to the habits…of civilized life…[Jackson proclaimed that] ‘toward the aborigines of the country no one can indulge a more friendly feeling than myself, or would go further in attempting to reclaim them from their wandering habits and make them a happy, prosperous people.’”…[Jackson concludes that Native Americans] must accept their removal and control by the ‘superior race,’ for it will teach them the virtues of a civilized nation…Jackson equates Indian resistance to extermination as aggression and the US fight against such ‘aggression’ as honorable self-defense. This was analogous to the 19th century imperial British, who defined Africans resisting colonization as ‘terrorists.’”
It is often believed that the age of America as a self-acknowledged “global policeman” had its start with George W. Bush and his response to 9/ll. But it seems clear that the foundation for this global US role began 50 years before Bush. “In 1950, [President] Truman signed National Security Document 68…that solidified Truman’s view of the Cold War as a moral emergency…the aim of the Soviet Union was the ‘complete subversion or forcible destruction…of society…and replacement by an apparatus…subservient to and controlled from the Kremlin..a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere. [This] locks in Truman’s imperial definition of global interventionism as honorable self-defense…[the American] moral obligation to police the world…America is the bastion of goodness because of its Constitution and the unquestioned commitment to freedom that America represents…[President] Reagan spoke of a father he had heard reacting to the fear of Soviet aggression: Communism and our way of life were very much on people’s minds. And he was speaking to that subject. And suddenly I heard him saying, ‘I love my little girls more than anything.’ He went on: ‘I would rather see my little girls die now, still believing in God, than have them grow up under Communism and one day die no longer believing in God.’”
America needs the Orwellian language of immoral morality to justify the moral goodness of imperial actions that are clearly illegitimate. “A president cannot say, ‘We are killing for Exxon and to lower the price of oil.’ He must find a moral ideal lofty enough to justify war and sophisticated enough to compel belief.”
The search for “enemies” to instill fear in Americans and perpetuate the credibility of the rhetoric of immoral morality by US leaders is an essential, foundational task. And once a suitable enemy is identified, the leader of the US and the identified enemy become co-dependent on each other. “Terrorists become the new Communists…Bush despised bin Laden, but needed him as a symbol of evil to rally Americans and to build support for US intervention anywhere in the world…al-Qaeda gave America a moral justification for any war that served US economic and strategic interests, since US leaders could always allege, as in Iraq, that their motives were to attack evil terrorists. Likewise, bin Laden had contempt for Bush, but found him [and Obama] splendidly useful, a poster boy for jihad. American imperialism was the best possible recruitment tool for radical Islam, and Bush played the role perfectly…Bush repeatedly defined the War on Terrorism – his umbrella policy to expand US global power – as a pure moral struggle to destroy evil and assure the triumph of goodness…” And harkening back to the rationale used by the Roman and British Empires, we hear Bush proclaim that “’If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores.’”
It seems to make little difference which media source or political party is speaking to us. There appears to be a political consensus in America that overwhelming militarism and the fundamental goodness of America is a given. “The elites, whether liberal or conservative, are all global corporcrats today, who embrace America as a great and abiding democracy with a moral obligation to exercise global power and leadership. They all believe that the US must retain the world’s strongest military and be prepared to use it to protect freedom and markets. On this, there is little difference between Hillary Clinton and John McCain, between the New York Times and Fox News, or between the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the liberal Brookings Institute.” Again, it does not seem to matter whether the US president is a Democrat or Republican when it comes to immoral morality and the US as a morally admirable and needed hegemon.
Many liberals and others on the political Left often express confusion about why low-income American voters so often vote for Republicans, who liberals clearly see as being anti-low income and pro-rich. The authors offer, as at least part of the explanation, that “…Republican moralists of empire, fearful of any economic- or class-based community among the masses, offer the nation as an alternative spiritual community transcending and uniting the interests of all classes…[Lower-income Americans] voted Republican because they had been persuaded that voting their religious convictions on God, family, and country morally trumped their economic anxieties.”
Again, instilling and maintaining fear in the US population is essential for power to be sustained by the elites. When the necessary enemy fades away, a new one must immediately be identified. And once that enemy is found, many find it perfectly moral to engage in genocide anywhere in the world, and even a resort to nuclear weapons to protect us from such an existential threat. “All empires feed on fear, most directly fear of being attacked…fear of attack requires, first, an enemy: a nation or group that will attack you. Without an enemy, the most popular rationale for empire, even for the [lower] class, crumbles – a prospect that sent American leaders into a near panic after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A desperate effort to define new enemies ensued…global drug dealers, rogue states, failed states, nonstates, terrorists. Before 9/11, terrorists didn’t make the cut…After 9/11, Bush fished for the [lower] class with a terrorist enemy he called more evil and dangerous than Hitler and Communism…and the [lower] class, indeed most of the country, swallowed hook, line, and sinker…When [an author of the book] was [having his teeth cleaned after 9/11], the hygienist said she supported the president. She was ready to go to war anywhere and take out al-Qaeda and other terrorists. When [the author of the book] pointed out the obvious fact that Bush’s war in Iraq was the best recruitment device that Osama bin Laden ever had…she said she thought we should nuke the whole country or region, if that was what it took…
Tragically, the more the US engages in terroristic drone attacks (a part of what Jeremy Scahill calls “dirty wars) that inevitably end up killing innocent civilians in order to “protect American security,” the more we induce and recruit new sworn, lifelong enemies of the US – people who are so enraged by what our bombing has done that they will spend the remainder of their lives seeking to harm the US. Our efforts to engage in a hopeless war against guerrilla forces, as Taber shows in his The War of the Flea, is doomed to failure, as it is nearly impossible for even an empire with overwhelming military capability to prevail against even a weak opponent engaged in guerrilla warfare. The US ends up NOT reducing terrorist enemies in our “War on Terror.” Instead, our dirty war attacks against guerrillas significantly INCREASES the number of “terrorists” opposed to the US. It becomes a never-ending, self-perpetuating cycle in which our “war on terror” is always losing ground. We must always increase our military actions as our attacks keep increasing the number of our enemies.
Eventually, some of us, again, conclude that we must “nuke the whole country…”
Like the British and Roman empires believed, “If we don’t take the enemy out in Iraq or Iran, we will end up fighting him in Chicago or Kansas City or San Diego.”
Tragically for both the US and the world, the US military has been heavily influenced by the creed of the American Neoconservative, a creed that was shown above to be nearly identical to that of the Roman and British Empires. “The security elites [those holding influence over US military policy] have embraced the Neoconservative’s Code:
1. The US is the bastion of freedom and democracy and the ultimate source of good for the rest of the world, responsible for containing evil…
2. Not only is it the most powerful nation on earth, it is the most powerful.
3. Destroying evil requires the exercise of decisive force. Our enemies do not listen to reason.
4. For the sake of world peace and security, freedom and democracy, as well as its own economic, political and military interests, the US must never hesitate to act or police any region of the planet.
5. The US must maintain such overwhelming military and economic power that nobody dares challenge it.
6. Ideally, the US should act with the cooperation of the world community, but if that is not possible, it should be prepared and willing to act alone…
7. …Misguided liberals have encouraged self-doubt, producing disastrous results in Vietnam and Iraq. This must never be repeated.
8. No one living within American borders…can be allowed to interfere with the US seeking security or pursuing its interests and moral mission. If that requires an abridgement of civil liberties, it is better to sacrifice some freedoms than lose all.
The authors devote the final two chapters to “political correctness,” and note that it is little-recognized that it is most significantly and dangerously used by the political Right, despite what one would believe based on the common media attention paid to political correctness engaged in by the political Left. “The most effective political correctness [PC] is always invisible…Right [wing] political correctness, which defines how Americans ultimately think about patriotism and capitalism…is the most powerful PC in the land. It has become so widely accepted that ordinary Americans take it for granted, most liberals also accept it, and even some sectors of the Left buy into it.”
PC efforts degrade us and restrict the range of our political debates. It powerfully promotes self-censorship, policing and snitching on our neighbors, and obligates us to shamefully express views we do not hold. “When we lose our desire or ability to think differently than the prevailing wisdom or ruling authority, we have lost our humanity…[PC] is a strategy used by ruling elites and other influential groups to keep others in line…and it does so typically in the name of lofty values or God…In Orwell’s book 1984, Big Brother refashioned the language of Newspeak to make it impossible to think thoughts contrary to the moral code of the regime. To think contrary to Big Brother was successfully defined as the most immoral act possible, and surveillance and censorship were defined as the highest morality.”
PC was heavily used in the Southern Slave states in 19th Century America. PC even censored the victims. “No respectable Southerner could criticize slavery as evil or view it as anything but a sacred trust. Anyone, including slaves themselves, who saw slavery as immoral were viewed as sinning against God…For this reason, there was no public debate about slavery in the South. All white Southerners took slavery as a moral good for granted. There was no need for censorship since whites lacked a moral discourse for seeing slavery as anything but a part of God’s Plan for the superior race protecting an inferior race who needed their care.”
And PC campaigns are essential in maintaining the power of an empire. “[PC creates] a set of views that Noam Chomsky has called ‘necessary illusions,’ the set of values and beliefs that cannot be abandoned without leading to the crumbling of the regime.”
PC campaigns by the Right have enjoyed substantial success in its implementation. So much so that there is now a political consensus that flag-waving, overt, America-can-do-no-wrong patriotism is to be continuously expressed – much to the detriment of the potential for power by the Left.“Since left [wing] PC is challenged and debated [by a number of right wing commentators], it is always in jeopardy. Since right [wing] PC is invisible and rarely debated, it is uniquely powerful…The power of Right PC, especially about patriotism, is reflected in how strongly even the Left now feels required to prove they love America…Antiwar activists put decals on their cars saying they support the troops, something that almost nobody on the Left or Right argues against. After 9/11, prominent leftists began to fly the flag on their house or car, with progressive intellectuals such as Todd Gitlin…[arguing] why the whole Left should start displaying this form of patriotism. It has become unacceptable for any group in society, including those deeply opposed to US wars, not to make displays showing one’s patriotism… Republicans’ trump card since the war on communism has been to paint Democrats and the Left as weak and anti-American…in America, Democrats and the Left find themselves constantly on the defensive against charges of betrayal of their nation, finding it difficult to prove their patriotism as defined by Right PC and unable to question the very concept or morality of patriotism itself.”
The Left in America has thereby been humiliated and emasculated by patriotism PC. “One of the greatest triumphs of Right PC has been to (1) force liberals and the Left to kow-tow to ideas about patriotism that they don’t believe and (2) to undermine the very existence of a ‘respectable’ Left in America, making the Left synonymous with anti-Americanism.”
One of the most sacred cows in America, besides the basic goodness of Christianity, is the underlying goodness of America. By definition, then, any action by the US, no matter how corrupt or criminal, is morally correct. And no one who expects to avoid banishment from public discussion in America is allowed to challenge this conclusion. “In the US, it is acceptable to challenge nearly any specific domestic policy on war, and one can question whether a particular administration is basically good or bad. But it is not acceptable to question whether the US is a fundamentally good nation. It is simply assumed to be so, and anyone questioning this is seen as immoral and antipatriotic….Liberals and Democrats are terrified that they will be accused of not being patriots, leading to a timid and hugely constrained public debate…Since the US is assumed to be good, Right PC discredits anyone who might ask why the US should be allowed to have nuclear weapons while threatening other nations, such as North Korea and Iran, who might want them. Right PC makes the American arsenal of nuclear weapons unproblematic because American goodness assures that these ultimate weapons will not be used for evil.”
I have long believed that religion in America is a powerful engine for breeding conservative, Republican politics, not to mention right-wing PC and censorship movements. The authors agree. “The Left in the West was born in the 17th and 18th Century, as part of the reaction against Church authority that had dominated Europe since the Middle Ages. The Enlightenment – of which the Left was one offshoot – included a wide range of philosophers, scientists, and literary figures…All these thinkers helped create a revolution against the church. They championed reason, science, and natural rights as the foundation of a new way of thinking. In the eyes of Enlightenment thinkers, the church increasingly stood for dogma of faith and unquestioned obedience to the church. This translated into a broader conservative philosophy that religious and secular authority was sacred and should not be questioned, even when both church and state were increasingly corrupt.”
But the political Left is also susceptible to PCism. “Leftists often try to prove their worth by showing that they are more truly radical or pure than fellow radicals. This sets up the basis for ongoing PC struggles inside the Left about who has the truth.”
The authors are pessimistic that Americans can evade a downward spiral into increasingly levels of immoral morality that legitimizes heinous, murderous, aggressive, criminal actions by the US government. Immoral morality engaged in by the US government is self-perpetuating because “(1) the elites rely on [immoral morality] to keep power, (2) the elites also have great control over the media and other elements of the ‘Ideological Apparatus’ to spread [immoral morality] and distract the public from its own economic self-interests, and (3) the [immoral morality itself has] historical resonance in the Bible Belt and heartland America. [Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas] asks: ‘Why shouldn’t our culture just get worse, if making it worse will only cause the people who worsen it to grow wealthier and wealthier?’”
But the authors do believe that there is hope via a major economic downturn or other catastrophic events resulting in relatively visible decline in the fortunes of the US empire. That, for example, significant economic woes will make it easier for many to see that the immoral morality espoused by the American Empire is a lie. “…when empires collapse, the European experience [following WWII] suggests that hegemonic culture cannot be sustained…that the people in the imperial nation are ultimately losers, a view incompatible with the messianic and arrogant nature of hegemonic morality…Military defeats [suffered by the US point] to hegemonic decline…American power has reached its limits and has already begun its decline. This is the key factor that makes a moral transformation possible in the US…The fact that the US in the second half of the 20th Century accumulated far more wealth and global power than any other country in history made this [American is the winning team] mindset easy to sustain…[But] when your teams starts to slow down or lose, you can continue to support the view of [the nation] being ‘number one’ for only so long.”
Again, it does not appear to matter if the US president is a Democrat or Republican. “…neither the Democratic nor Republican parties are willing to acknowledge that the era of American hegemony is past. Democrats and Republicans simply have different ways of how to exercise that hegemonic power – diplomatically or militarily, unilaterally or multilaterally.” And it appears that the Democratic Obama administration is more than happy to join with Republican administrations to continue to exercise American imperial power militarily and unilaterally. Obama has certainly ramped up the use of drone strikes and assassinations abroad – far beyond what the Bush administration engaged in. In his first ten months in office, Scahill reports, Obama engaged in more drone strikes than Bush did in eight years as president.
And because of the self-perpetuating downward spiral of trying to prevail over a weaker opponent using guerrilla warfare tactics, the more violent military attacks the US engages in, the worse off we are in terms of our security and the number of enemy combatants we face.
Respect for America is in significant decline. “…there is anti-American rage, documented by polls on every continent that challenges the legitimacy of American hegemony…More than a few scholars, of every political stripe, agree that (1) US hegemony is widely hated in most sectors of the world, and (2) historical conditions are changing to drastically weaken and eventually end the American era.”
This book, like Bacevich’s Limits to Power, is one of the most powerful, important, essential books I have ever read. I strongly urge you to read it soon. It will illuminate a great deal about why America – its citizens and elected officials – acts and speaks the way it does. And why, as a result, America is likely to follow in the footsteps of the Roman and British Empires toward a significant, irreversible decline.
For the sake of sustainability and the prospects of nations America has and continues to abuse in the name of morality, the economic and military decline America probably needs to reverse its ruinous deployment of “immoral morality” needs to move into higher gear soon. As James Howard Kunstler has informed us, America needs a kick in the pants to become a global partner rather than a global menace. And to quickly begin the gargantuan task of creating a “Plan B” to survive the quickly-approaching sharp increases in energy and resource costs.