Only through the exercise of candor

Salon published an interesting piece today from Boston University professor of history and international relations Andrew Bacevich called Farewell to the American Century. Bacevich goes further than the WaPo’s Richard Coen — who declared the American Century ended — and suggests it could scarcely end…it was all an illusion in the first place.

In its classic formulation, the central theme of the American Century has been one of righteousness overcoming evil. The United States (above all the U.S. military) made that triumph possible. When, having been given a final nudge on Dec. 7, 1941, Americans finally accepted their duty to lead, they saved the world from successive diabolical totalitarianisms. In doing so, the U.S. not only preserved the possibility of human freedom but modeled what freedom ought to look like.

So goes the preferred narrative of the American Century, as recounted by its celebrants.

The problems with this account are twofold. First, it claims for the United States excessive credit. Second, it excludes, ignores or trivializes matters at odds with the triumphal story line.

The net effect is to perpetuate an array of illusions that, whatever their value in prior decades, have long since outlived their usefulness. In short, the persistence of this self-congratulatory account deprives Americans of self-awareness, hindering our efforts to navigate the treacherous waters in which the country finds itself at present. Bluntly, we are perpetuating a mythic version of the past that never even approximated reality and today has become downright malignant. Although Richard Cohen may be right in declaring the American Century over, the American people — and especially the American political class — still remain in its thrall.

While I agree with Bacevich that the myths of 20th-century America were well and truly exaggerated, I’m not sure his list of American shortcomings would remove from them the title of 20th century powerhouse. Even acknowledging the overblown role in WWII and the failures of Cuba, Iran and Afghanistan, I’m not sure another country could stake a claim to being the preeminent nation of those hundred years. Was it as glorious as Americans seemed to believe? No. But it may have been glorious enough.

Still, Bacevich’s contemplative advice is good medicine for any country who starts to fawningly buy their own patriotic press:

What are we to make of these blunders? The temptation may be to avert our gaze, thereby preserving the reassuring tale of the American Century. We should avoid that temptation and take the opposite course, acknowledging openly, freely and unabashedly where we have gone wrong. We should carve such acknowledgments into the face of a new monument smack in the middle of the Mall in Washington: We blew it. We screwed the pooch. We caught a case of the stupids. We got it ass-backwards.

Only through the exercise of candor might we avoid replicating such mistakes.

Strike my last; this is good advice for us all, countries or no.

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