An Explanation of America to Americans

It's 'up to' them
Cartoon by Joseph Keppler titled "It's 'Up To' Them," published November 20, 1901, in Puck magazine. Illustration shows Uncle Sam offering on one hand a soldier and on the other a school teacher to a group of reluctant Filipinos, telling them that the choice is theirs. Photo credit: Puck / Library of Congress

Victor Wallis is a professor of Liberal Arts at the Berklee College of Music, where he teaches contemporary history and modern political thought. For 20 years he was the managing editor of Socialism and Democracy. Several months ago he joined us to talk about the radical intervention he saw as necessary to deal with the threat from climate change. He outlined this in his book Red-Green Revolution.

Now Victor Wallis returns to WhoWhatWhy to talk about his broad alternative framework of America, which he lays out in his new work, Democracy Denied.

This project began as a series of lectures he was to give in China, to an audience that didn’t understand America. As he worked on it, he realized that many of the ideas he was presenting were also not known by most Americans.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, he talks first about what he sees as the flawed notion of “American exceptionalism:” the supposed moral authority by which we proselytize for freedom while having the highest incarceration rate in the world and increasing levels of inequality.

He explains how our moralizing leads to and perpetuates the kind of police state necessary to take on a war on drugs, encourage law and order, and plan for potential rebellion.

Wallis talks about US imperialism— 800 bases around the world, the projection of American power directly on to the regimes of other countries, and our constant need to pass judgment on those regimes. This is one of the hallmarks of imperialism, as he sees it.

He combines all of this with a sharp critique of the long history of racism in America and shows how it has, from our very beginnings, defined how we see, judge, and sometimes look down upon, people around the world who are not just like us.

Wallis provides us with his alternative view of the world in a kind of economic and geopolitical tour de force.

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Jeff Schechtman: Thanks for joining us on radio WhoWhatWhy. I am Jeff Schechtman.

If you follow our social and political events closely, it’s certainly more than a little bit disorienting on most days. The cacophony of political noise drowns out any meaningful signals. Sometimes the result is cynicism, sometimes disengagement, and on a good day, the struggle to find some historical context from which to view America in the 21st century is worth the effort. If you had to actually try and explain America to those outside the country today, it might focus the mind in new and meaningful ways.

  That’s what my guest Victor Wallis did, and the result is his latest book, Democracy Denied: Five Lectures on U.S. Politics. Victor Wallis is a professor in the liberal arts department at the Berklee College of Music. He was for 24 years the managing editor of Socialism and Democracy. He’s the author of Red-Green Revolution, which he’s joined me to talk about in the past, and it is my pleasure to welcome Victor Wallis back to talk about Democracy Denied. Victor, thanks so much for joining us on radio WhoWhatWhy.
Victor Wallis: Thanks, Jeff, for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: Well, it’s great to have you here. I want to talk first about how this book originated, this series of lectures that you were asked to do.
Victor Wallis: That’s right. I was invited to give these lectures in China, and I thought that the most useful thing I could do was to speak of things, which to my mind in a way are common knowledge in the United States, but would not necessarily be in China. Of course, I realized afterwards that the whole analysis is not common knowledge. It’s controversial, but it was an opportunity for me to put together thoughts I’ve accumulated over the years, drawing on a lot of work by people who know much more about each particular thing than I do. But this was a great opportunity really to talk to people, to take a kind of overview of the situation and especially to really show the urgency, the extreme nature of the situation that we’re in now.
  I mean, it has the backdrop of the environmental crisis that I talked about in my previous book, but now super imposed on that, we have this unusual, to put it mildly, presidency which has, in a way, culminated or brought to a climax a lot of tendencies which have been present throughout U.S. history and which now have reached an extremely dramatic form, precisely the moment when great changes are needed in a positive direction. And whatever changes have been made recently are just being turned back instead, so we’re at this terrible critical moment in our history. I just wanted to convey that, and I want to convey that to an American audience as much as I did to anyone else.
Jeff Schechtman: At some point, you certainly must have begun to think about the idea that not only were these things not common knowledge in China, where you were doing these lectures, but they weren’t really common knowledge right here in the U.S.
Victor Wallis: Right. You might say the bits and pieces of it are well known to different sectors of the population in this country. In that sense, each particular element of the story is… You can find it elsewhere, and I’ve tried to put in basic documentation to show people where they can find the information, but putting it together, that’s really the work of synthesis that I’ve tried to do.
Jeff Schechtman: How did you define these five areas that you wanted to focus on?
Victor Wallis: Well, I just began with the most obvious point, which seemed to me, especially for an audience in another country, which is the idea of American exceptionalism, which is the basic title of the first chapter. There have been, as I cited in that chapter, other people who’ve talked about this in a critical way, because American exceptionalism is usually touted as we’re the greatest – to put it in the Trump type terms – but there was already a book back in 1992 called We’re Number One. That presented a lot of statistics that were not at all flattering.
Victor Wallis: It’s somewhat in that tradition that there are many aspects of the way the system is organized in this country that represent, I would say, a kind of extreme form of capitalism, extreme and unrestrained. Perhaps the best known is the fact that we have the most expensive healthcare system, and yet among the industrialized countries, it stands almost at the bottom in terms of outcomes. There’s a lot of other factors of that nature that people need to be aware of. I think one that I especially wanted to bring out in this book is the way the elections work and how there had been a succession of different ways of finding excuses to make it as hard as possible for poor people, typically people of color, to be able to vote.
  If one way doesn’t work, they’ll do another way. This goes way back in U.S. history.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the disconnect between some of these statistics, whether it’s the amount of people that are incarcerated, the outcomes and the healthcare system, the voter suppression, all of these things, these internal aspects of America as they are disconnected from the way in which we have traditionally projected American exceptionalism.
Victor Wallis: Right. I mean, well, the projection, I mean, involves the idea that the United States has some kind of moral authority to judge the human rights situation of countries around the world. That has been let’s say the rhetorical basis on which the U.S. justifies its foreign interventions. Even now, we can see it going on right under our eyes in relation to Venezuela. The U.S. sets itself up as a kind of arbiter while at the same time its own practices are problematic, to say the least. I mean, especially if you consider the whole idea of the free world and calling the U.S. the leader of the free world, and yet it’s the country with by far the highest rate of incarceration, and the incarceration based on a system in which some 95% or so of the convictions are not based on a trial but on a plea bargain and with all kinds of pressures that come to bear, and the whole social setting in which this mass incarceration has risen.
  I talked about that in the book about this is a phenomenon that came in especially in its extreme forms starting in the 1970s, partly as a result of the reaction against the radical mobilizations in the 1960s but also as a result of the economic deterioration that faced a lot of people as a result of the outsourcing of work in the U.S., relative decline compared to other great powers in the world economy after the early ’70s. There was a new fear of rebellion you might say, and the response was to, in a sense, establish a kind of pretext for police presence on a massive scale in the communities that were felt to be most likely seething with discontent to keep them at bay.
  As Nixon said, he was quoted saying, I mentioned this in the book, “We know that the problem is that of the blacks, but we must act not to make it seem as though that’s the basis for it,” so you had the whole war on drugs and everything. The thing is you carry on policies with a kind of moralistic cover, and yet the underlying reason for it is to keep control, keep a lid onto instead of satisfying the needs of the population to keep them from rebelling.
Jeff Schechtman: How do you square this history of American exceptionalism, this history of trying to take this moral high ground with this America First attitude that we see today?
Victor Wallis: Well, I think the moral high ground is part of the claims of being America First. I mean, of course, it’s true that America First just put in those terms is a very transparently selfish kind of thing, but at the same time, it’s associated with the idea of American greatness and therefore America is having a moral high ground so that the things all fit together. If you hear the self-righteous tone like Mike Pence uses when he talks about Venezuela, although he’s laying down the law from this position as if he were a pope kind of thing. In the face of all the obvious even open recognition from John Bolton, national security advisor, that what the U.S. wants is the oil of Venezuela, and yet they’re laying down this moral thing about the pose of humanitarianism in a context in which the U.S. has frozen some $30 billion of Venezuela’s wealth, and made them unable to buy stuff.
  Then they send $20 million worth of aid and try to make it seem as though that’s based on humanitarian concern when they’ve been squeezing the country dry. But it’s all justified with this moral lecturing disposition.
Jeff Schechtman: All of this feeds into really the second thing in the five things that you focus on in this book, and that is U.S. imperialism.
Victor Wallis: Right, that’s one of those words that is still excluded as an analytic term for mainstream discourse, but how else are we to interpret a practice which is regarded as legitimate to interfere on any pretext all over the world that has 800 odd military bases around the world and passes judgment on the regimes of other countries and finds that if the regime is not to its satisfaction, it creates a pretext for going in there and overthrowing it? That is pretty much in a direct line from the traditional imperialistic practices of the past.
  The only difference is that they don’t completely take over the country and colonize it and establish a formal administration over it, but considering the scope, the worldwide scope of it, it’s certainly on an equal plane and certainly from a point of view of power relations, that is of a power from another country, from the United States, imposing on other countries of the world regimes that the U.S decides or at least attempting to do so, not necessarily always successfully. That’s in the tradition quite directly of imperialism.
Jeff Schechtman: What impact do you think that globalization has had on how imperialism is looked at today?
Victor Wallis: I think that from the standpoint of people in the poorer countries, global south, what used to be called Third World, it hasn’t made any change. I mean, this is just neocolonialism as it’s sometimes called. It just means that a greater portion of the economic activity of the major powers is international, but there’s always been a component of that right from the beginnings of capitalism. But certainly, the ratio of its importance within the U.S. economy and the fact that the U.S. can ship so much of its manufacturing activities overseas and depends so much, be so much tied in with overseas sources of goods and markets and labor.
  What keeps the imperialistic aspect is the unequal power relations, the fact that definitely there’s globalization, but it’s definitely one component, what we call now the global north, that dominates the global south. The U.S. is, of course, the most powerful player within the global north.
Jeff Schechtman: How much of that is due to economics? How much of it is about power politics on a more militaristic level?
Victor Wallis: I think the two are interrelated, the economics and politics because the economic interest in having maximum access to different sources of supply and so on around the world, most notably the petroleum, certainly is a factor if not the factor in dictating the geopolitical interests in having control, having maximum control over those areas, whether it’s in the Islamic world or whether now it’s in South America. There’s very much an interrelation between the two, and which particular element is uppermost in the mind of an immediate policymaker is in a way less important than recognizing that the two are definitely connected.
  For example, there’s been in recent years, really, especially under Obama, a huge increase in the U.S. military presence in Africa. Well, that’s, in a way, part of the anticipation of any possible, what might seem from the U.S. government’s point of view to be a problem in that area, which would include threats to U.S. hegemony, threats to the freedom of operation of U.S. businesses in those areas and so on. Of course, all this is becoming more acute now with the environmental crisis because we’re facing the prospect of shortages of land, shortages of agricultural land, shortages of water and so on.
  All this is a global phenomenon. There’s always this approach of maximizing one’s access, maximizing one’s control and in the interest of being prepared for every possible eventuality, because the mentality of the dominant force in the United States is that “Well, we do have an environmental crisis, but that means that we have to make sure that we come out okay,” and so everything has become more urgent. The oil is going to be threatened, so we have to control all the oil we can and all the other factors as well. The geopolitical and the economics are definitely tied together.
Jeff Schechtman: You gave these lectures in China. How much do the rise of China and its global influence even in places like Africa for example, how much does that change the equation as you see it?
Victor Wallis: Well, I think, it does provide a bit of a counter. From the standpoint of countries within the global south, it provides a little bit of a basis for security against complete U.S. domination. Now, it’s true that each of these other countries, including China, has its own interest in those areas, but it’s operating on a different basis and is more oriented towards providing services and setting up manufacturing operations in collaboration with local people, and is not dependent on the military operation.
  It’s true that there is a global view on their part as well, but it’s not based on any notion of militarily controlling distant areas. I mean, they’ll apply military stuff in their immediate surrounding areas but not on the other end of the globe. But they do have functions, say for example, within the United Nations as a kind of offset or obstacle to some extent to the U.S.’s capacity to work its will entirely.
Jeff Schechtman: Certainly, the built-in road is an effort to expand China’s influence in many parts of the world.
Victor Wallis: Yeah, there’s no question that China is expanding its influence. I think that what’s ultimately desirable is… I like to think just as between people within a society, within countries on the global scale. I like to think of a relationship of equality ultimately. My hope would be that the countries of the global south, which now at this point no longer in a sense includes China, would come up to a level where they can hold their own entirely, but I think that type of relationship that China establishes with them is less completely domineering than the one that the U.S. does.
  This is just whether that’s because of limitations to their opportunity or whatever, and I think the question of what are the driving forces in China. It’s still a somewhat open question because they obviously have some accumulationist drives similar to that of capital, but at the same time, they do have at the government level the possibility of thinking in more long-term ways, hence their encouragement of solar energy, their reforestation programs and so on. To some extent, this kind of thinking can go into what they do in the countries of the global south. Yes, they definitely have their interests.
  I think that from the standpoint of countries in the global south, there’s a need to take advantage of whatever rivalries exist between the powers of the global north, and try to draw as much benefit as they can from it, but above all to develop their own capacities.
Jeff Schechtman: Do you think that that kind of push back, what we see from China, that balance that you’re talking about or attempted balance, is fundamentally or in appreciable ways different than what we saw during the Cold War with the former Soviet Union?
Victor Wallis: That’s an interesting question. I think it does seem to be comparable in terms of its impact. There’s not so much, let’s say, in the way of direct encouragement of revolutionary movements in the global south, but there is a kind of support. Yes, I do think it’s comparable. Anyway, so that was another whole dimension of the book, but especially, I wanted to get back a little bit more to some of the domestic issues because I think one of the things that I also tried to bring out is how the social relations within the United States find a parallel.
  I drew the connection, which is well understood, been understood for centuries between racism and imperialism in terms of both the types of interests involved and the psychological attitudes that are encouraged. This aspect of domination is especially strong in the United States, and since racism was so much at the core of the way the United States’ society was initially established, with the introduction of slavery right from the start, which is what I bring out at the beginning, it becomes a running theme through the book.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about that thread, that nexus between racism and imperialism because you weave them together in the book and you weave them together as part of this story of the U.S.
Victor Wallis: I think that where it became especially apparent … Well first of all, the expansion across the continental United States involving wiping out whole Indian communities, and then almost when that period came pretty much to a close at the end of the 19th century, right at that point, the U.S. started its overseas expansion, and the way it expanded into the Philippines, that rhetoric that was used to justify the atrocities that were carried out, and the massacres on a scale of hundreds of thousands.
  This was a direct link because the Filipinos were regarded as just as subhuman, just the way the Indian population in the United States had been, and just the way really the African population was brought over and treated as subhuman. There’s a seamless web in those things. That’s where you see the connection quite directly. Then, of course, the atomic bombing of Japan and the massacres that were carried out during the Korean War in the early ’50s, and then again in Vietnam, I mean, millions of people killed in both of those countries. I mean, just one of the things we often don’t think of, we’re not reminded of in the current confrontation with North Korea, is to what extent the United States obliterated that country during the Korean War.
  I think the ease with which that could be done does reflect some of the attitudes of racial superiority. I mean, it won’t be articulated in phrase in that manner, but that it was easy to develop the corresponding attitudes on the part of those who were charged with carrying it out, and then now, certainly more recently in the war in Iraq, and the contemptuous terms that we use to describe Arabs and so on. It’s an absolutely continuous thing. It’s, in a way, part of the training of the military to go into foreign countries and to view the people that they’re going to be confronting there in a certain way.
Victor Wallis: The racial tropes are… they’re convenient. I mean, they enable desensitizing of the troops that are carrying it out, which is a very anti-human thing for the troops themselves. Many of them suffer terrible mental consequences as a result of this. As you know, there’ve been so many suicides of returning veterans. They’re forced into situations that are really quite inhuman, but it’s an extreme application of a racist mentality that these are not even people, but when you’re actually killing them, you realize that they are in fact people and that they are not that different from yourself. That’s one of the big challenges to racism, that racism requires you to instrumentalize other people, whether they’re within your own country or in some foreign country.
Jeff Schechtman: The other part of it is the need to perpetuate those stereotypes in order to justify the history.
Victor Wallis: That’s true. Certainly, and you can say that this is one of the components of the current policy of setting up this kind of fear of people coming into this country from, in this case, Central America via Mexico, and it has a political role there. Of course, the thing is we have a terrific confidence. Obviously, not everybody thinks this way, but the point is that those who do think in those racist terms, they’re the ones who in a way they have an upper hand in terms of policy because given the economic agenda of the donor groups that we talked about, the link between the economic and the geopolitical interests, it’s convenient for those who want to implement that to have a racist mentality, which they can draw on.
  In the case of the immigration issue, it’s very convenient because then you can have a whole set of people coming into the United States that are basically stripped of any kind of civil rights or power. They’re totally powerless. Then on top of that, the sheer cruelty of the separation of children from their parents, which you have to say on the scale of the latest report I heard was some at least 3,000 and possibly more as a kind of systematic thing. I mean, it’s hard to fathom that, how that fits into any kind of a rational policy. The only way I can even begin to explain it is by saying that it’s a kind of effort to mobilize a certain chauvinistic sentiment in the country in support of an agenda, which is not really to the benefit of the majority of people in this country at all, but they have to have some kind of target for their resentment. That’s, in a way, what’s being done.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s also a reflection of the way in which all of this that we’ve talked about, the American exceptionalism, the imperialism, the racism has really defined itself in the context of modern-day politics.
Victor Wallis: What’s interesting, one of the things that’s interesting about it is it’s however also producing a reaction against it. It’s on a small scale so far, but you have a new cohort of progressive politicians getting elected to Congress who were really challenging this head on. This is an encouraging development. The mere fact, for example, that since the last election, by most of the surveys I’ve heard of, Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in the United States. Whatever one can say about the details of his political perspective, what he’s associated with is a critique of this vast inequality.
  The fact that this is striking a resonant chord among a lot of people is quite encouraging, but it’s a real fight. The thing is that everything is being done not only by the Trump people but by the Corporate Democrats to reign in this response because you have this whole situation, which is what I talk about in the last part of my book, was the symbiosis or mutual interests of the two dominant parties in keeping out certain kinds of challenge, and they do it in different ways. In some ways for some purposes, the approach taken by the top Democrats is a little bit less offensive than that of the top Republicans, and so it’ll appeal to more people, but they both have in common maintaining the global position of the United States.
  So the dissent is only very slight when you come to issues even like that of Venezuela, which is the one that’s in the forefront at the moment.
Jeff Schechtman: Given how deep the history of all of this is then, is it realistic to think of any kind of change even voiced by a small number of people at this point of any kind of change in a dramatic way versus an incremental way?
Victor Wallis: Well, that’s an interesting question. It reminds me of the question we had the last time talking about the environment, because I said in response to that, “Well, it may not be realistic, but it’s the only course possible, that it’s so urgent to address the environmental change, that we have to take a strong position.” I think it’s something similar in this sense of the level of, let’s say, suffering that will be produced if there’s not a change very soon on a wide scale is going to increase dramatically.
  Actually, the two sets of issues converged, whether you’re talking about imperialism or environmental crisis, because all the acts of foreign intervention and extension of the global economy and so on are precisely practices that result in not addressing the environmental crisis. We have to use a phrase that was coined by the French protestors in 1968. We have to be realistic and demand the impossible. What that means is that if you continue with business as usual, you’re never going to get the change you need. It’s a change that has to happen on a wide scale.
  I think especially that it’s a change that depends not just on electing this to that other politician, but on the active awareness and on the part of masses of people who constitute an independent political force, that doesn’t have to depend on just having to choose between a Democrat and Republican, because the terrible kind of obstacle to constructive change that we’ve seen is the fact that by the mere shifting back and forth between these two parties, which at the basis have the same interest, this is going to keep us forever in this same situation.
  How to break out of it? That’s in a way the big question my book poses. It’s a very difficult one. At least the first thing we have to do in order to respond to it is to be aware of how completely it embraces all the aspects of our political life and to recognize what it is that we’re up against if we want to create really what for ourselves and for the world as a whole would be a more democratic society.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there an effort then? Talk a little bit about the way in which you see it might perhaps work in that the environmental crisis, which has the level of urgency that it has, becomes the fulcrum for these other kinds of systemic changes that transcend the environmental issue, but as you say, there are common threads.
Victor Wallis: It’s a potential unifying issue. It’s like when you’re in the midst of a hurricane, you don’t care who the next person is. Whoever it is, it’s a fellow human being, and you’re trying to help each other. This is the situation we’re in, so as long as the environmental crisis does create the possibility of that kind of reaction, and of course, those who want to continue business, as usual, are doing everything possible to prevent that kind of solidarity and to erect walls, literally, between people and to stoke hostility.
  It’s a matter of each group that has its complaints needs to be able to express them but needs to be able to recognize them as part of a larger configuration in which there’s a kind of common interest of really humanities as a whole transcending borders against this continuous grasping aggressiveness and so on that is really now threatening our continued collective existence.
Jeff Schechtman: Victor Wallis, his new book is Democracy Denied: Five Lectures on U.S. Politics. Victor, it is always a pleasure. I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Victor Wallis: Thank you so much, Jeff. It’s been fascinating. The time passed very quickly.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you, and thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

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