Tuesday, March 02, 2010



"Barack Obama is a puzzle."

Yes, indeed, and I think you've described it well.

"His ambitions are genuinely progressive; his temperament is genuinely open-minded. It is a rare and confusing combination, and it explains a great deal."

Yes, again, but I think there's more to the mystery than that.

Pragmatism is of course a philosophy claimed by many Americans, even before it was explicated by William James.

But ideology has also always been a feature of American society, often extreme ideology and often colored with religious or quasi-religious beliefs.

That too shouldn't sit well with pragmatism, but apparently it does.

I put it down to two things in the end.

One is what the fine American historian Page Smith called - misusing a word by standards of our modern understanding - America's "schizophrenia."

There are countless examples of this dating back to the Founding Fathers blubbering about freedom while trading in slaves, what the great Dr Johnson called “drivers of negroes” talking about freedom.

Jefferson, that greatest of blubberers on freedom, supported the tyrant Napoleon trying to recapture Haiti, as well acting in a great many other anti-freedom loving ways.

Lincoln started a great bloody war rather than tolerate the South’s right to self-determination. Lincoln may be viewed actually as the founder of the military-industrial complex with his mighty armies and ironclads. Yet Americans think of him as Father Abraham, an epithet having almost nothing to do with Lincoln’s actual character and behavior.

Look at the America of the last half century. It has started numerous bloody wars, killing millions for almost nothing, and coups, yet it insists on using the language of peace and liberty and principles. It just does not compute.

The one national drive that dominates American history is the drive to empire, to expand and to run the lives of others. Naturally, this drive is not contained in the anthems and speeches, but it is always there, subordinating everything else.

So a kind of “schizophrenic” thinking just comes second-nature. Being part of the fabric of the society, it influences thinking in all matters, domestic as well as foreign.

You cannot spend the best part of a trillion dollars a year on the Pentagon and at least fourteen intelligence agencies and pretend there is some unique freedom in America. That is absurd, yet most Americans desperately believe the absurdity.