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On honor, humiliation, and dignity

Published on 21 February 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

The following “video” has come to me from the still waters of the University of Oklahoma, Stillwater.

YouTube player

When it was sent into circulation the site had already received “6 million hits” – so it was suggested that “the pendulum has started to swing”. I don’t know whether 6 million hits reflects six million consents. I’ll leave it up to each one to decide what to make of this video. I have three comments to make.

The first is that the US Constitution is the only one which, following a Civil War that killed 620’000 soldiers and an undetermined number of civilians, had to be amended in order to abolish slavery. It is also somewhat difficult for me to praise the Declaration of Independence, which states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” when these lines were written by a man who lived off slavery all his life – including his personal one.

The second comment relates to the video’s all-round condemnation of “statism”. The state is portrayed as the enemy of freedom and personal responsibility. Presumably, the authors would consider Robinson Crusoe’s life on the forsaken island the closest one can get to Paradise.

Yet “statism” – the victorious armies of the Union – were instrumental in bringing freedom to slaves. And “judicial statism” – the liquidation of the Jim Crow laws by the US Supreme Court – brought about the second “revolution” in the country – one that drove the integration of African-American citizens into the mainstream of society. “Nullification” – a legal theory that a U.S. State has the right to nullify, or invalidate, any federal law that a state has deemed unconstitutional – arose around the issue of slavery, and its philosophy lay behind the Secessionist drive.

to rebel

There has been a recent social experiment in revolt against “statism”, so we can learn as to what might happen when grass-root forces are unleashed. “To rebel is justified” – in 1966 Chairman Mao encouraged attacks on virtually all of the existing party apparatus, and this rebellion extended to all forms of authority: parents, teachers, doctors, scientists, musicians, artists and intellectuals of every kind. The Red Guards did a thorough job – though with some collateral damage, a few million dead, and countless physical and psychological violence.

The third comment, and the reason I bring up the “video” in a diplomacy setting, deals with the final and summing up statement: “American exceptionalism shall prevail”. This assertion is preceded by ample footage of US soldiers gaining honor by defending the “American way of life” around the globe.

I’ll grant that the authors of the video may only dimly understand what “American exceptionalism” stands for. Located at the other end of the foreign policy spectrum from cosmopolitanism and internationalism, exceptionalism recalls imperialism without “white man’s burden”. It is a stance that divides the world into the antagonistic duality of “them” and “us”. The former lose it, the latter have it – and those who “defend” gain honor (I’ll leave open whether defense is displaced aggression).

Military honor is inextricably combined with violent humiliation of the “other”. While we may never be able ever to design a “just” society – whether at the national or the world level – we may aspire to a “decent” one. A decent society is one that – in the words of Avishai MARGALIT[1] – does not humiliate. To have the Marines and the Navy Seals pop up anywhere in the world as soon as “they” sense danger for American exceptionalism, would be humiliating. No “world society” can go on for long with this kind of imbalance. If power corrupts, powerlessness does too[2], and the strong feels free to break rules, the weak will do so with the deadly desperation of one who has nothing to lose.

I’ve put “they” in inverted commas, for the current evolution in US policy appears to be moving increasingly toward covert activities – be they in the military or the electronic sphere. With it goes lack of accountability – worldwide, at home, or even within the executive branch. The Unified Executive Theory may, in the case of the US, lead to a two- or even multi-tier government without accountability – when coupled with explicit or implicit delegation of power (which facilitates deniability). With it also goes the debasement of official or public diplomatic discourse, which is downgraded to “discretionary” or interlocutory (i.e. until the Seals silently strike).

Cold War brought open posturing along a well-defined “Iron or Bamboo Curtain”. It was frightful, but it brought stability. The “war on terror” might be mutating into a “war for exceptionalism” – by means more foul than fair, but foremost: covert, and without frontlines. When governments feel authorized to launch “covert activities” anywhere in the world – as long as they can deny involvement – instability will mount. And with instability comes the risk of miscalculation.

Meanwhile, war has become a spectator sport. The citizenry (whose sons were once drafted into war, and died, or returned to tell a tale of horror) is now regaled with “arcade-style war games”. They cheer on. This is war at second remove – seemingly bloodless, for it is the blood of the humiliated that it is spilled.

[1] Avishai MARGALIT (1996): The decent society. Harvard University Press, Cambrisdge, Mass.

[2] David KEEN (2008): Complex emergencies. Polity, London.

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