Thanksgiving is a quintessentially American holiday, even though its origins can be traced back to Old World harvest festivals. It is based in part on a romanticized story of the Pilgrims, which took on new life after Abraham Lincoln's proclamation of a day of thanks intended to help reconcile North and South after the Civil War. It is also celebrated in Canada, however, so Americans don't have a monopoly on gratitude.
Still, if you're an American citizen or a green card holder, you've probably got a lot to be thankful for, especially compared to citizens of a lot of other countries. But of course, we Americans often forget to be properly thankful for many of our blessings; instead, we seem to think we deserve them because we are So Darn Exceptional. With that thought in mind, here's a slightly contrarian Top Ten List of Things Americans Should be Thankful For (But Often Aren't).
1. We have a state of our own. Americans could start by being thankful that the rebellious colonists won their war of independence, straightened out the Articles of Confederation, and built a strong state of our own. Having your own state means that you can protect yourself against enemies and there's a government to go to bat for you if you get in trouble. By contrast, stateless peoples like the Kurds, Chechens, Palestinians, Romany, Tamils, Jews before 1948, and many others live at the mercy of others. Given our own revolutionary past, you'd think we'd have a bit more sympathy for peoples trying to escape oppressive foreign rule, but never mind. In any case, in the dog-eat-dog world of global politics, having a state of our own is clearly something to be thankful for.
2. There are no great powers nearby. Given our propensity to exaggerate global dangers, Americans often forget that they are remarkably secure. We haven't had any powerful states near us since the 19th century, and we haven't had to worry seriously about defending our own territory against invasion. (This is what makes movies like Red Dawn so laughable). Or as the French Ambassador to the United States said back around 1910: "America is the most favored of the nations. To the north, a weak neighbor. To the south, a weak neighbor. To the east, fish. To the West, more fish. " This extraordinary level of territorial security explains why Americans are free to go gallivanting all around the world "searching for monsters to destroy" and trying to tell the world how to live. We've forgotten what it is like to face a real threat to our independence, and that sort of amnesia is a luxury for which we should be very thankful indeed.
3. We didn't adopt the same austerity programs that Britain, Europe, and Japan did. A lot of Americans are still hurting from the after-effects of the Great Recession, and those who are still unemployed may not feel especially appreciative tomorrow. And it's clear with hindsight that the governmental response to the financial crisis could have been more effective. But compared with the other industrial democracies, the United States has done much better to eschew austerity and focus more attention on stimulus. So let's give thanks for that.
4. We got lucky when they handed out the natural resources. Americans like to attribute their rise to wealth and power to their virtuous and hardworking nature, embrace of capitalism, novel Constitution, and commitment to liberty. But just as important was the fact that the country happened to be founded on a continent with fertile soils, navigable rivers, abundant wildlife, and a temperate climate. It had lots of iron ore and other minerals, plenty of oil, and it turns out we've got more natural gas than we know what to do with. (Good for us, if not necessarily so great for the atmosphere). This Thanksgiving, Americans ought to silently acknowledge that our privileged status today owes as much to good fortune as it does to any unique American virtues.
And while we're at it, let's not forget that realizing our "Manifest Destiny" involved the deaths of millions of native Americans and taking vast territories from other countries by force. Recalling the uglier side of America's rise to world power is a good way to keep overweening national pride in check.
5. In (many) Gods we trust. I don't know about you, but I for one am thankful that the Founding Fathers didn't try to establish a state religion and instead celebrated theological diversity, including the freedom not to believe. Over the past two centuries, the idea that free men and women could worship whatever gods they choose has protected this country from a powerful cause of civil strife in many other parts of the world. We can give thanks that anti-Semitism has been discredited and marginalized and Islamophobia confined mostly to far-right whack jobs and a few desperate politicians.
Just look at the last presidential election: a Christian with a Muslim name got 70 percent of the Jewish vote, while his opponent -- the first Mormon to be nominated -- didn't lose by that much (i.e., he had over 48 percent of the popular vote). That's America.
And maybe one of these days we'll have a serious presidential candidate who openly proclaims her or his faith in science and reason and rejects allegience to any unseen superhuman entity. Amen.
6. Another successful election. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, you should give thanks that this country has once again conducted an election where peace prevailed, citizens voted, and the losers conceded, mostly with good grace. Some GOP leaders may be baffled by the results, but they didn't take up arms or hire a lot of lawyers to try to reverse them. Who knows? They may even start pondering why they lost in a serious way, and beging move their party away from some of its antideluvian notions. That would be something to be grateful for too.
7. Tolerance of diversity. In addition to religious freedom, Americans can be grateful for the progress we have made in embracing those who at first seem different. This includes immigrants, who are often viewed with suspicion yet consistently become some of our most ambitious, energetic, hardworking, and accomplished citizens. Consistent with our liberal ideals of individual human liberty, our country is gradually ending discrimination against gays. We continue to work to reduce the long legacy of racial discrimination. Our reward is a country whose cultural life has been enriched by diverse currents and whose society has managed to take advantage of the best the world has to offer. We are far from perfect, but the American melting pot remains a phenomenon that richly deserves our thanks.
8. No war with Iran. Having wound down one losing war and positioned us to end another, at least President Obama has had the good sense not to start a third war with Iran. Keep your fingers crossed that he remains as wise in his second term, but be grateful that he didn't succumb to all the fear-mongering, even in an election year.
9. Health care for all Americans. I don't want to go all partisan on you, but unless you're one of the One Percent (and maybe even if you are), you ought to be grateful that we've finally taken steps to insure that all citizens get basic medical care. True, most of the industrialized world got there long before we did, but better late than never. It's not a perfect system and it's bound to need improvements over time, but we all ought to feel good about helping our fellow citizens feel good. And say a word of thanks, too.
10. What about the rest of you? Here's a suggestion: if you're not an American, this Thanksgiving you might give thanks if you haven't gotten a lot of attention from Uncle Sam lately. You might not want to be totally ignored (especially if the South China Sea laps your shores) but getting a lot of attention from the United States hasn't been such a good thing in recent years (see under: Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, etc.) So if you're citizen of one of the many countries that Americans like to visit but American troops and drones don't, you can be thankful, too.
Are you in favor of preventing atrocities? Of course you are. Me too. Nobody is going to openly oppose trying to prevent heinous crimes against humanity, which is why President Obama did a big roll-out for his new "Atrocity Prevention Board" (APB) yesterday at the Holocaust Museum in DC. As this White House press release makes clear, the new board will contain representatives from various government agencies and plan more robust ways to deal with mass killings, genocides, and other really bad things in the years ahead.
As noted, it is hard to imagine anybody objecting to something like this on principle, because who's in favor of turning a blind eye to atrocities? But a situation where nobody wants to question an initiative is also precisely when we ought to be wary, and I can think of three reasons why the new APB is a bad idea.
First, it is another manifestation of the American obsession with global police work. Despite all the problems that excessive interventionism have produced in recent years, as well as the dubious results of some recent humanitarian operations, the Obama administration is now taking a step that will further institutionalize the impulse to intervene. But America's problems today do not arise because we've been doing too little meddling overseas; they are in good part the result of getting bogged down trying to do the impossible in places we don't understand. Making it easier to get bogged down in the future is not the policy conclusion I would have drawn from recent experience.
Second, creating this new board does nothing to solve the core strategic problems that inevitably affect decisions to intervene, even in the case of gross human rights violations. There are often good strategic reasons why outside powers choose to stay out of wars or brutal internal conflicts -- even when atrocities are underway -- and having the new Atrocity Prevention Board won't make any of those impediments disappear. In theory, such a Board might help us determine when to do something and when we are likely to make things worse, but most bureaucratic entities tend to become self-justifying over time. After all, once you've got a coordinating body whose designated mission is preventing or halting genocides or other mass atrocities, how likely is it that it will recommend doing little or nothing the next time something bad happens? So look for us to get into trouble more often, but with the best of intentions.
Third, this new initiative suffers from the smug self-congratulation that is a hallmark of the modern American Empire. "Atrocities" are something that Very Bad People do, and of course we need to have a robust capability to stop them. But what about the bad things that the United States or its allies do? The United States orchestrated economic sanctions that may have killed as many as half a million Iraqis during the 1990s; when asked about it, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said "we think the price was worth it." Our invasion of Iraq led directly or indirectly to the deaths of several hundred thousand more, and U.S. forces clearly committed atrocities on several occasions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We've backed any number of odious dictatorships over the past century (and turned a blind eye to their abuses), offered Israel full diplomatic protection when it pummeled Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09, and supported terrorist organizations like the Nicaraguan contras or the Iranian MEK. The United States tortured prisoners during the Bush administration and has killed dozens of civilians in drone strikes in several countries. And yet we feel completely comfortable mounting our moral high horse and proclaiming that we are dead set against atrocities and we'll use our full power to prevent them.
As President Obama might say, let's be clear. As a realist, I understand that international politics is a rough business, that states and other groups play hardball, and that this situation sometimes requires moral compromises and leads to innocent suffering. Nor am I suggesting that the U.S. government is no different from Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, the Rwandan genocidaires, or Bashar al Assad. But I'll bet this new initiative still looks hypocritical to a lot of people whose familiarity with the sharp end of American power is extensive, intimate, and unpleasant. It would be easier to take this initiative seriously if we seemed as concerned by the atrocities that we commit as we are by the crimes of others.
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Will China hold together? I'd say yes. But as scholars and pundits debate China's future, a critical issue is whether the government will face powerful internal challenges of the sort that eventually helped bring down the USSR. One piece of that puzzle is whether minority groups such as China's restive Uighur population in Xinjiang province will pose a significant threat to internal stability.
I know very little about this issue, but I found this brief commentary by Arabinda Acharya and Wang Zhihao, two researchers at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, to be rather eye-opening. Factoid #1: Acharya and Wang point out that China is one of the few countries in the world that spends more on domestic security than it does on defense, a fact that reflects the CCP's long-term concern about internal order.
Equally interesting was their reminder about the dearth of reliable information on the true situation in Xinjiang. Money quotation:
"The Xinjiang situation is also characterized by a lack of facts. Accounts of events come mainly from two sources: state-sponsored media and overseas Uighur activists who claim to have sources within the region. Reporting by these two entities however cannot be independently verified, due to China's ban on the presence of outside media in the region. Therefore, it has become difficult to determine where facts end and embellishment begins.
State media attributes the incidents to rioters or terrorists belonging to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) also going by the name Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). Beijing also accuses overseas Uighur organizations especially the World Uighur Congress for inciting unrests in Xinjiang. Uighur activist groups however, claim that the protests are acts of the local Uighur lashing out at Beijing's "systematic oppression." These incidents nevertheless, are being exploited to garner international support for resisting what is being termed as "state oppression" in Xinjiang. As the facts continue to be obfuscated, it has become difficult to distinguish protests against specific grievances by local Uighur from organized acts of terrorism."
As we've seen in many other contexts, the dearth of reliable information is exacerbated by the contending parties' incentives to misrepresent what is really going on, making it extremely difficult for outsiders to judge either the threat of instability or the appropriateness of the government's counter-measures. And insofar as internal instability poses a significant threat to China's continued economic expansion, it means that outsiders will find it even more difficult to forecast its trajectory with confidence.
For their part, Acharya and Wang offer a fairly sanguine forecast, opining that "Fortunately for China, the situation in Xinjiang is not and does not portend to be a problem of massive proportions." Nonetheless, they warn that overly harsh measures could fuel greater Uighur resistance, and they conclude that "Beijing would do well to temper its actions with appropriate sensitivity to overall issues involved rather than attempt to crush all dissent with mere force."
Good advice, I suspect, but it will be interesting to see if China's leaders can follow this prescription for subtlety, especially internal discontent increases.
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I hadn't intended to say anything further about the shameful Martin Peretz affair, and lord knows there are plenty of good reasons for me not to poke my finger in the eye of Harvard's current leadership. But seriously: You'd think after nearly 400 years the leaders of the university would have figured out what the principles of academic freedom and free speech really mean -- and also what they don't mean. But judging from the official university response to the furor, the people I work for appear to be somewhat confused about these issues.
To recap: A couple of weeks ago, Peretz made some offensive and racist statements about Muslims on his blog. Specifically, he wrote that "Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, especially for Muslims," and then went on to say that he didn't think American Muslims deserved the protections of the First Amendment, because he suspected they would only abuse them.
These statements were not an isolated incident or just a lamentably poor choice of words. On the contrary, they were the latest in a long series of statements displaying hatred and contempt for Muslims, Arabs, and other minorities. Peretz retracted part of his latest remarks after they were exposed and challenged by Nicholas Kristof (Harvard '82) in his column in the New York Times, but in his "apology," Peretz nonetheless reaffirmed his belief that "Muslim life is cheap." Indeed, he declared that "this is a statement of fact, not value."
A number of people then began to question whether it was appropriate for Harvard to establish an undergraduate research fund in Peretz's name and to give him a prominent role in the festivities commemorating the 50th anniversary of its storied Social Studies program. A University spokesman defended the decision to accept the money for the research fund and to have Peretz speak at a luncheon by saying:
As an institution of research and teaching, we are dedicated to the proposition that all people, regardless of color or creed, deserve equal opportunities, equal respect, and equal protection under the law. The recent assertions by Dr. Peretz are therefore distressing to many members of our community, and understandably so. It is central to the mission of a university to protect and affirm free speech, including the rights of Dr. Peretz, as well as those who disagree with him, to express their views."
In a masterful display of understatement, the Atlantic's James Fallows (Harvard '70) termed this response "not one of the university's better efforts." As he (and others) pointed out, nobody was questioning Peretz's right to write or say whatever he wants. For that matter, nobody has even questioned whether Harvard ought to give him a platform to expound his views on this or any other subject. (For my own part, if the Kennedy School invited him to speak on any subject he chose, I wouldn't object.
As should be obvious, this issue isn't a question of free speech or academic freedom. Rather, the issue is whether it is appropriate or desirable for a great university to honor someone who has repeatedly uttered or written despicable words about a community of people numbering in the hundreds of millions. And isn't it obvious that if Peretz had said something similar about African-Americans, Catholics, Jews, Asians, or gays, the outcry would have been loud, fierce, and relentless and some of his current defenders would have distanced themselves from him with alacrity.
And let's also not lose sight of the double standards at work here. After a long and distinguished career, journalist Helen Thomas makes one regrettable and offensive statement and she loses her job, even though she offered a quick and genuine apology. By contrast, Peretz makes offensive remarks over many years, reaffirms some of them when challenged, and gets a luncheon in his honor and his name on a research fund at Harvard.
And why? Because Peretz has a lot of wealthy and well-connected friends. Bear in mind that in 2003 Harvard suspended and eventually returned a $2.5 million dollar gift from the president of the United Arab Emirates, after it learned that he was connected to a think tank that had sponsored talks featuring anti-Semitic and anti-American themes. As the Harvard Crimson said at the time, "no donation is worth indebting the university to practitioners of hate and bigotry." So the University clearly has some standards, it just doesn't apply them consistently.
For more on this unequivocally depressing business, you can read:
2. James Fallows' summary of recent developments.
3. A powerful statement by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, examining Peretz's achievements as an editor and questioning his liberal bona fides.
4. A comment by Alan Gilbert of the University of Denver, a former tutor in the same Social Studies program.
5. And while you're at it, you might read the Boston Globe's editorial whitewashing Peretz, and compare it with their reaction to the Helen Thomas affair.
And no, this isn't just a matter of Ivy League academic politics, unrelated to issues of foreign policy. As everyone knows, U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world are especially delicate these days. You can read this or this to understand why, but it certainly doesn't help when one of the nation's premier academic institutions decides to honor someone with such deplorable views, even after they have been widely exposed. This is obviously not the main reason why the America's image in the Arab and Muslim world is so negative, but it surely adds fuel to the fires of bigotry.
To take this matter a step further, Islamophobia is on the rise here in the United States. Efforts to combat this pernicious and dangerous trend would be furthered if institutions like Harvard took a principled stand on this issue, and declined to honor anyone who has made bigoted remarks about Muslims (or any other group). This has not happened with Peretz, and history will not treat Harvard well for its behavior in this case.
Update: As I write this, I've received a couple of emails suggesting that Peretz was not going to be speaking at the Social Studies event after all. I don't know if that's true or not, but to me the issue is less about his being one of the speakers, and more about having his name permanently attached to an undergraduate research fund.
Update 2: James Fallows reports on the reported resolution of the dispute (i.e., Peretz won't have a speaking role at the event), and suggests that Harvard could address the controversy by creating a scholarship fund for students of Muslim background.
Last week, the online journal Politico published a story by reporter Laura Rozen on certain divisions within the Obama administration on Middle East policy. What made the story especially explosive was a quotation from an unnamed administration source describing senior White House aide Dennis Ross as being "far more sensitive to Netanyahu's coalition politics than to U.S. interests."
As one might expect, this statement raised the old specter of "dual loyalty," and from several directions. Critics of Ross suggested that he was guilty of it, while defenders complained that he was being tarred with a familiar anti-Semitic slur. Indeed, Rozen subsequently updated her story with a statement by NSC chief of staff Denis McDonough defending Ross and underscoring "his commitment to this country and to our vital interests," an obvious attempt by the administration to head off the issue before it gained traction.
How should we think about the "dual loyalty" question, either in this context or in many others? To me this is a tricky issue that ought to be handled with some delicacy, and we ought to employ a different vocabulary to discuss it.
One might start by remembering that the phrase "dual loyalty" has a regrettable and sordid history, given its origins as a nasty anti-Semitic canard in old Europe. Accusing anyone -- and especially someone who is Jewish -- of "dual loyalty" is bound to trigger a heated reaction, and for good reason. Furthermore many people believe patriotism (i.e., love of one's country) is a profoundly important value, so any behavior that seems to be at odds with that principle carries powerful negative connotations. In a world where nationalism remains a potent doctrine, casting doubt on anyone's loyalty is a serious charge.
More recently, however, scholars have used the term "dual loyalty" in more analytical and neutral fashion, based on the obvious fact that all human beings have multiple loyalties or attachments. Most of us feel a strong attachment to our own country, for example, but we also feel a sense of loyalty to family, friends, religion, ethnic groups, sports teams, etc.). Patriotism is only one of these competing loyalties, and does not necessarily trump the others. The novelist E. M. Forster famously remarked that if forced to choose between betraying a friend or betraying his country, he hoped he would have the guts to betray the latter, and a 2006 Pew survey of Christians in thirteen countries found that 42 percent of U.S. respondents saw themselves "as Christians first and Americans second." All this is just to remind us that "loyalty" to a country is just one of the many attachments that we all feel.
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Howard W. French has written a fascinating and disturbing review essay in the latest New York Review of Books. It is an assessment of three recent books on the cataclysmic war that has been taking place in Central Africa, and here's the passage that reached out and grabbed me:
The protracted and inconclusive conflict that followed has become what Gérard Prunier, in the title of his sprawling book, calls "Africa's World War," a catastrophic decade of violence that has led to a staggering 5.4 million deaths, far more than any war anywhere since World War II. It also has resulted in one of the largest -- and least followed -- UN interventions in the world, involving nearly 20,000 UN soldiers from over forty countries.
I was aware of this conflict, of course, but as I read French's essay, I realized that I knew very little about its origins, evolution, or the prospects for ending it. I'm a full-time professional in the field of international relations and security studies, and I teach an undergraduate course on "the origins of modern wars" here at Harvard. I go to seminars on various international relations topics almost every week. And yet I knew next-to-nothing about the greatest international bloodletting of my lifetime. Readers of this blog know that I'm usually wary about outsiders meddling in situations they don't understand and that don't involve vital interests, but that's no excuse for being ignorant about a cataclysm of this magnitude.
I could offer up various reasons for this lapse -- I've never studied African politics, the conflict hasn't been high on the U.S. foreign policy agenda, Western media haven't given a lot of play, I've been working on other topics, etc. -- but frankly, none of those reasons are very convincing. Mea culpa.
I suspect I'm not alone in my ignorance either, and French's essay suggests that U.S. officials who were engaged in this conflict (including current U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice) didn't have a firm grasp of what was going on either. There's probably some "strategic ethnocentrism" going on here too: Western elites pay a lot more attention when people like them are being killed in large numbers, and look the other way when the victims are impoverished Africans.
As for me, I have some reading to do, starting with the three books discussed in French's essay (Gerard Prunier, Africa's World War; René Lemarchand, The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa, and Thomas Turner, The Congo Wars.)
And it's time to make some changes to my course syllabus, too.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.