U.S. Exceptionalism vs. Human Solidarity

The attack of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has generated a range of responses among Friends on the Peace Testimony and on the commitment to nonviolence. Some Friends have concluded that this situation goes beyond the relevance of the Peace Testimony and have laid it to one side in order to support military action against terrorism. We have been given nuanced interpretations of the history of the Peace Testimony showing how the tradition, from the beginning, has allowed for military action—a kind of Quaker just war theory. Others, who have recoiled against war, have agonized over the sense that some effective response must be made, but have been unable to see how such a response can emerge from the Peace Testimony or any kind of pacifist stance. Still others have argued persuasively that even in this case there was plenty of scope for effective nonviolent response, including the use of international law. A few Friends have suggested that, at a minimum, we should recognize the role U.S. policy and its military expression in the Middle East has had in setting up this conflict. According to this understanding, reducing the incentive for terrorism would include a fundamental change in U.S. policy—a change from military and economic domination to support for equity and justice in the region.

As I have listened to, read, and thought about these various responses, and considered them against the policies and actions of the Bush administration, another level of concern has emerged that goes beyond the Peace Testimony. The crisis for Quakers that arises from 9/11 and its aftermath is not just a matter of the relevance of the Peace Testimony or whether a commitment to nonviolent action can be sustained in the face of terrorism. Behind this crisis is another crisis, a crisis brought on by the way the current U.S. government is setting itself up openly to oppose and deny human solidarity.

Gregory Baum, Dominican priest and cultural historian, asks the question: "What is the primary spiritual discovery of the 20th century?" His answer is "human solidarity." I think it is fair to say the whole history of Quakerism has helped advance this spiritual discovery within Christendom. This new spiritual grounding, this advance in moral understanding—now framed by the ecological realities of the human/Earth relationship—is a real cultural achievement. But it is an achievement that is now being challenged by "U.S. exceptionalism" and the will to domination that flows from this worldview. The overarching policies of the U.S. government are now being set in deliberate opposition to human solidarity.

The idea of U.S. exceptionalism that is guiding the Bush administration has been present in varying degrees within U.S. political culture and policy for a long time. The events of 9/11, however, became a new golden opportunity for U.S. exceptionalism and its "natural right" of domination to be brought into full force.

The policy framework now being put in place by the Bush administration is clearly based on this "natural right" of domination. In watching the progress of this policy formation, and in watching the behavior that flows from the policies, it is easy to see that a "master culture" syndrome is emerging. It is this master culture stance of the U.S. government that confronts Friends with a crisis that goes deeper than the Peace Testimony: It goes to the heart of the question of what it means to be in relationship to the social, economic, spiritual, moral, and ecological realities of the human world: It goes to the heart of human solidarity.

If we look at the behavior of the U.S. government and fully consider the range of economic interests reflected in its actions (and inactions), the following zones of policy come into view.

  1. The institutionalization of war. The War on Terrorism has become an opportunity to make war an institution of U.S. life in the way education and healthcare are institutions. Those who profit from war will be assured of continued contracts and increasing business. The business of war as a regular and acceptable feature of U.S. life makes it possible for the policies of domination to be quickly implemented at any point in which U.S. interests are threatened. Opposition to U.S. military domination is now considered to be supporting terrorism.
  2. Economic development as a triage process. Because the U.S. government and its associated interests have taken the view that there is no alternative to the political economy of the capital-driven market, a policy of writing off the impoverished, marginal, and excluded people of the world has become a clear and logical necessity. This is made evident by the use of the expression "nonviable economies." Regions that cannot participate in and contribute to the capital-driven market economy are not being assisted in becoming better subsistence economies. If they cannot get with the program of capital-driven economics they will be allowed to fail. The pitifully small aid programs of the G8 nations, even considering their recent face-saving pledges of increased assistance, is clear evidence of this triage policy.
  3. Enclave strategy. The Bush administration has finally admitted that global warming is an environmental problem. But its response to this, and to other examples of ecological deterioration, is to just plunge ahead and tough it out from a position of strength. The administration seems to think that maximum use of fossil fuel and nuclear technology for as long as possible will put the U.S. economy in as strong a position as possible for coping with the disruptive events that are bound to occur. There seems to be little place for risk reduction or preventive action in the governing policy framework. This same attitude is clearly evident in the administration’s response to the terrorist problem—reinforce the fortress, create defensive and offensive enclaves around the world. Equip them with the best technology. Plan for war in perpetuity. No sense of systemic problem solving. No sense of risk reduction. Add to this, the Bush administration’s refusal of the Kyoto protocol on global warming, its abrogation of the ABM treaty with Russia, and its opposition to the development of international legal institutions, and the rapidly expanding dimensions of the enclave strategy come into view.
  4. Human health and development advantage. With the rise of biotechnology, wealthy U.S. residents, and their peers around the world, now have a dramatically increasing health and human development advantage over poor and low-income people. Not only will the rich continue to enjoy superior medical attention, but, with biotech enhancement, they will increasingly realize a human development advantage with regard to learning, skill development, intelligence, emotional balance, quality-controlled reproduction, physical strength, stamina and longevity. Since the technologies that make these kinds of enhancements possible have been developed within the political economy of the capital-driven market, their availability will naturally be restricted to those who can afford to pay for them. As the benefits of biotech enhancement continue, and the functional potential of affluent populations is pushed to extraordinary heights, the human world will become increasingly divided between a class of wealthy, objectively superior people, and a class of impoverished people who, by comparison, can only be regarded as deficient and defective. Already the language of "enhancement" has begun to describe those left behind as "naturals." The advance of market-driven biotechnology (once it is accepted as inevitable) leads directly to a further polarization of the superior rich and the deficient poor. The logic of eugenics, around which Germany’s National Socialist government formed many of its policies, is implicit in this polarization. Biotechnology, along with its eugenic implications, fits perfectly within the program of U.S. exceptionalism. It is apparent that the current U.S. government is comfortable with this increasing polarization of rich and poor, and willing to accept the write-off implicit in this world picture.

The question must be asked, however; are Friends comfortable with U.S. government policies that advance the interests of the rich, deliberately write off the poor, and increasingly program a highly inequitable human world, both domestically and globally? How do Friends relate to a government and a political process that, as a matter of policy, are willing to write off "nonviable" economic situations and the people who inhabit them? How do Friends relate to a government and a political economy that range over the Earth seeking to command and sequester resources for the benefit and aggrandizement of those already among the favored rich, while large populations want for basic goods and whole regions remain impoverished The four zones of political, economic, and cultural life noted above all have a range of public policies that define and support them. These policies are rooted in the worldview of U.S. exceptionalism and expressed in the "natural right" of domination. Taken together, they describe a rejection of the moral evolution of Christian and other religious traditions. Taken together, they add up to a denial of human solidarity.

Is it not the case that a part of the agonizing conflict for Friends over 9/11 and its aftermath has been a sense of a wounded United States and a genuine feeling for its collective identity on the one hand, and, on the other, the realization that the collective identity of the United States is wrapped up in a doctrine of exceptionalism that rejects and denies human solidarity? This doctrine expresses itself in worldwide military and economic domination, itself a primary factor of the context in which terrorism has emerged.

I am reminded of the situation for people of faith in Germany just prior to the Second World War. Although the situation in the United States today is very different, the similarities are disturbing. Many good people had no idea that their elected government was about to plunge their homeland into Holocaust behavior and Europe into a catastrophic war. If we look now at the overarching policies of the U.S. government and the way they are shaping U.S. political culture and global behavior, we should ask: Where will these policies and these actions take the country and the world? In particular, what will happen if the U.S. uses "tactical" nuclear weapons in its War on Terrorism (a policy option now under serious consideration)? In 5, 10, or 20 years will a surviving remnant say, "Why didn’t they see the trajectory? Why did they plunge head-long to such a disaster? Why didn’t they take the 20th century’s lesson of human solidarity to heart? Why didn’t they make human solidarity and a reasonable equity the foundation of political, economic and intercultural life?"

Can Friends help intervene and preempt these haunting questions? Can we see what may be written if the trajectory of U.S. exceptionalism is played out? In the past it was possible to think that U.S. policy, although sometimes inept, was basically a positive force in world development. The evidence now unfolding makes it extremely difficult to maintain this view. A commitment to human solidarity is now increasingly at cross purposes with the mainline trajectory of U.S. government policy.

The challenge to Friends in the aftermath of 9/11 is not just about the efficacy of the Peace Testimony. It is about something even more central to the identity of Quakerism. It is about whether Friends still understand Quakerism to be rooted in a universal and transcendent experience of faith that makes human solidarity a first-order reality. It is about whether, under the imprint of the Divine, human solidarity is still the "unwobbling pivot" that centers and balances all our work for human betterment.

I think Friends in the U.S. are confronted with the uncomfortable choice of retaining support for the U.S. political economy or a full commitment to the ethics of human solidarity. Unfortunately, these two realities do not, at present, coincide. Although many good things still occur in the U.S., the trajectory of its public policies around economic behavior seems to diverge more and more from any sense of human solidarity. It seems likely that a full commitment to the ethics of human solidarity—a commitment to which Friends have traditionally aspired—will require the laying down of the last vestige of U.S. exceptionalism. This is not an anti-American thought. It is rather the hope that the U.S. might come to embody a different kind of political economy and culture, that it might become a focus of equity and justice, a beacon of human solidarity, and a citizen nation in the commonwealth of life.

Can Friends come to see what may be written if the present trajectory of U.S. exceptionalism is played out? Can Friends help build a movement that will create the future in a different way? Can Friends, as a people of faith, help keep human solidarity in central focus, and work unremittingly for public policies that advance equity, justice, cooperation, peace, and the integrity of Creation?

Keith Helmuth

Keith Helmuth is a sojourning member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting and a member of the coordinating group of Quaker Eco-Witness.