Why I criticize the USA

I am occasionally asked why I am so critical of the United States government, particularly its foreign policy, when there are other governments in the world that are much worse. My response is that I think the US government is under-criticized (at least within the US), so my criticism is an effort to balance the scales between criticism and praise. But even if this were not the case, I can think of three very good reasons to scrutinize the US more than foreign countries:

1) It’s the country I live in. Why should you put your own country under an especially strong microscope? The most obvious reason is to correct the self-serving bias most people hold (including you!……and me [gulp]). Each person likes to think he is the truly altruistic person and everyone else is selfish. This bias extends to the groups we belong to. We are more likely to think of our group as good and the other group as bad for no other reason than that it is our group. Thanks to a century of psychology experiments, we now recognize this behavior as a bias and can thus consciously correct it, which is what I’m doing when I write about US atrocities.

2) The US is the most powerful country in the world. Powerful countries have a disproportionate impact on world utility, so naturally our mental energy should center on their actions. It would be silly of me to write post after post detailing all the misdeeds of Belize while ignoring the two American occupations.

3) Lastly, I focus on the US because I believe its policies are susceptible to change through reason (naïve, I know). I don’t mean that I have the power to end the wars by crafting a knock-down argument and then sending it to Obama. I mean that reasoned argument has some effect on public opinion, and that public opinion has some effect on policy.

Advertisements

4 Responses to “Why I criticize the USA”

  1. David Says:

    If people think you are biased, they will be less likely to pay attention to you. If you are ignoring abuse by other countries, you will look more biased. Also, if you are ignoring the failures of other countries, then you are missing out on the lessons that may be learned from those, missing out from the value in tracing the common patterns between the US and others. And the actions of the US cannot be understood apart from those of other countries since they are made in reaction and anticipation of those.

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    Thanks for the feedback, David.

    If people think you are biased, they will be less likely to pay attention to you. If you are ignoring abuse by other countries, you will look more biased.

    I think of my task in life as pointing out popular misconception. I think the people I interact with underestimate how senseless the atomic bombings were, but I also think people accurately perceive the Holocaust as senseless genocide. That’s why I’ve never written a post about how bad the Holocaust was. It’s not because I think the Holocaust is unimportant, it’s that I think the majority opinion is correct. I don’t think it’s worth the time writing a blog post for the handful of crackpots who disagree.

    If I said something like “the war in Iraq is the most despicable act of violence in the history of the world,” then I think you’d have a point, because I would be ignoring wars started by other countries that were much worse. But I don’t say those kinds of things.

    Also, if you are ignoring the failures of other countries, then you are missing out on the lessons that may be learned from those, missing out from the value in tracing the common patterns between the US and others.

    I completely agree with this, and I suspect that you may have misinterpreted the post. I’ve never said the US is uniquely evil or that it’s categorically different from other countries or previous empires. There are people who do say it is categorically different. In fact, I’d say that is the dominant position among conservatives and maybe even a majority opinion among liberals. American exceptionalism is the very idea I try so hard to refute.

    Are there people who say US malevolence is in a class all its own? Noam Chomsky, the most famous critic of American empire and someone I greatly admire, makes the point over and over that US behavior is comparable to the behavior of the British when they had their empire, and the French before them, and the Spanish before them, and so on. So even people like Chomsky, who are thought of as anti-American, are so called not because they think the US is uniquely bad but because they do not think it is uniquely good.

    Take this Chomsky essay as an example:

    Chomsky: It could be noted that fostering drug production is hardly a US innovation: the British empire relied crucially on the most extraordinary narcotrafficking enterprise in world history, with horrifying effects in China and in India, much of which was conquered in an effort to gain a monopoly on opium production.

    I don’t think the US is unique, and if you don’t think it is either, then it’s pretty clear the direction in which we have to push our compatriots, because they are all convinced it is.

    And the actions of the US cannot be understood apart from those of other countries since they are made in reaction and anticipation of those.

    You’ll get no argument from me here.

  3. Stephanie Says:

    Andy…I think you raise excellent points in this post. A good example of this…you criticize some aspect of US foreign policy and the response is, “Well in Iran women can’t….” The United States in both its policy and statement often holds itself in this light, as if we are the only altruistic nation (look at nuclear policy). And often criticism comes down to which political side you fall on…so we don’t have people intelligently dissecting what occurs but rather a battle of “this side” versus “that side.”

  4. Andy Hallman Says:

    Thank you, Stephanie.

    I learned a new word to describe this phenomenon you mention of deflecting criticism of one’s country by pointing to shortcomings in another country. The tactic is known as “whataboutery,” and the phrase to describe it originated in Northern Ireland.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: