Recent proceedings on other blogs (as well as my own flippant bon mot in the last post) led me to undertake a probing meditation upon the meme that has become the classic formulation of passive-aggressive post-9/11 American exceptionalism: "They hate us for our freedoms".
It strikes me that this cry of wounded narcissism is not as facile as it sounds. In fact, the proposition is largely true, but not in the way its proposers intend. The authentic meaning of the truism can be easily discerned if one shines it through the prism of America's refusal to pay the price of empire, or to even acknowledge that it is an empire.
Empires have always self-mythologised as being the embodiments of transcendent Good. An empire will always interpret an attack as an attack against the Goodness it claims to crystallise rather than against the violent means it employs to secure its power. The fundamental fallacy here is to assume that an empire's domestic good is consistent with everybody else's good--that an empire's "freedoms" are guarantors of the freedoms of its subject peoples. Emperors (as all citizens of democratic empires must be called) too often fail to understand that one can hate the nature of imperial "freedom" without hating freedom as such.
Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and the rest of the mercantile and slave-owning elite who fomented and led the American Revolution were hard pressed to answer the Tory critique that they simply hated British freedom. That ornery conservative Samuel Johnson famously painted them as enemies of British liberty, saying, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?".
Colonial intellectuals maintained that they were fighting on behalf of the same freedom the British claimed to represent, that much of the freedom and prosperity Britons enjoyed was extracted from violence and injustice perpetrated on a colonial people who insisted on enjoying a freedom that was fully their own, liberated from the arbitrary administrative decisions of an arrogant, remote, irresponsible power. Their argument was simple: they loved freedom; they hated British freedom.
I am sure that many anti-Americans in the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere hate freedom as such (as do many Americans, by the way), but hating specifically American freedom is far easier; in fact, it is a natural, perhaps inevitable, consequence of the way America has husbanded its security and prosperity over the last five decades.
What should we call someone who hates America's routine assassination of democrats and subsequent installation of despots? Does he hate freedom if he hates that particular American execution of freedom? What about someone who hates that America happily and proudly propped up thugs like Batista, Duvalier, and Somoza? What about someone who refuses to jubilate over American subsidization of such wretched, oppressive sinkholes as Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia? What do we say of someone who sees no reason to break out in dithyrambic joy over America's shabby pacts of convenience with Islamic jihadists and Mesopotamian sociopaths? Does he hate freedom, or does he hate America's bastardization of it?
America will have done itself immeasurable good if it should ever advance far enough past its defensive woundedness to understand that even freedom-loving people can hate America's freedoms, for reasons that have nothing to do with America per se and everything to do with an elementary truth (one which Americans once held close to their hearts): imperialism is never a victimless crime.