Our Public Face, Our Private Parts

Arianna Huffington asks the core questions of our time today.

Last week’s Blackwater hearings provided yet another instance of how the Bush presidency has forced us to examine what kind of nation we are. Already on the table are questions like: Are we a nation that tortures people? Are we a nation of laws? Are we a nation where the judgment of the chief executive is beyond the reach of the law? And now another: are we okay with a bunch of lawless mercenaries being the public face of the U.S.?

And the key term here may be “public face.”

I lately have been reading Naomi Klein’s disturbing and riveting book The Shock Doctrine. She reminds us that at least since the beginnings of the Cold War, the United States has very much been “a nation that tortures people,” and more, at least through our Third World proxies. Thus we cannot account for Hugo Chavez’ unease with the United States unless we understand Arbenz and Allende. We cannot understand Iran unless we come to terms with Mossadeq.

Through all the years of the Cold War, when Americans were caught in excesses, such as Mai Lai, these were the exception. We covered them up as best we could because they were not essentially US. We covered up because, like the story of Adam and Eve, we were ashamed of our nakedness.

It could be argued that the United States, anxious to protest its virtues as a superior system to communism, honed its skills at hypocrisy during the Cold War. Lest that be read as too strong an indictment, La Rochefoucauld’s famous maxim comes to mind: “Hypocrisie est un hommage que la vice rend à la vertu.” “Hypocrisy is a homage vice pays to virtue.”

The past several years of the United States’ streaking through world opinion, as it were, is disturbing in the sense that we have become careless of virtue. The denials and equivocations from the White House have had a weak, dog-ate-my-homework quality, as if saying “we don’t expect you to believe us, but don’t expect us to own up.”

This is most tragic — this “so what?” quality. A little hypocrisy might do us a little good… at least in comparison.

It was on Dwight Eisenhower’s watch, for example, that Mossadeq and Arbenz were overthrown, for the benefit of corporate oil and corporate fruit, respectively. This same Dwight Eisenhower famously parted office with these words:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Hypocritical? No doubt. But do they give us guidance for what ought to be and what ought not to be? I think so.

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