Remarks at Fellowship Hall at Berkeley, Calif., October 13, 2018.
Slogans and headlines and haikus and other short combinations of words are tricky things. I wrote a book looking at many of the themes in how people commonly talk about war, and I found them all without exception -- and the marketing campaigns before, during, and after every past war without exception -- to be dishonest. So I called the book War Is A Lie. And then people who misunderstood my meaning started insisting to me that I was wrong, that war really does exist.
We have t-shirts at World BEYOND War that read "I'm already against the next war." But some protest that we shouldn't assume there must be a next war. And I myself protest that in fact we're eliding the little known reality that there are numerous wars underway already when we focus on "the next war," especially in a society that rather grotesquely imagines itself at peace while bombing numerous parts of the globe.
One solution to this is to restrain ourselves in the placing of grand significance on slogans. If the proper slogan would save us, the contents of my email inbox, flooded with world-saving slogan ideas, would have established paradise long ago. If those who argue for peace and justice are really outmatched on television principally because they are not pithy and witty enough, as opposed to their general failure to own the television networks, we should immediately shut down everything except bumper sticker designing sessions.
On the other hand, if I write an article and post a link to it on social media, typically a discussion of the headline ensues among participants who have clearly not clicked and read the article and who in some cases, when asked, are quite put out by the idea that they should do so. I myself have lately begun clicking only on articles with boring headlines, because the ones with exciting headlines so often fail to live up to their billing. All of which is to say that headlines matter. But so do lengthy speeches. So I'm going to tell you the headline I came up with for this talk, even though it got scratched as being offensive, because I'm hoping you'll allow me some additional sentences beyond just the headline. Here's the headline: "Make the World Great for the First Time."
Here are some things I don't mean by that, and which I'll come back to shortly:
--I myself or those of us in this room have super powers that will allow us to fix the whole world which will thank us for this godlike favor.
--No societies of the past or now existing, including non-Western and indigenous societies, have ever been great in any way, and the way to become great is a new creation that has no need for any ancient wisdom.
--Trumpism should engulf the whole globe.
Here's a bit on what I do mean:
You may have heard somewhere the slogan "Make America Great Again" and the snappy comeback "America Already Is Great." The latter has even evolved into "America Was Great Before You, Mr. Trump" which ends up almost equating to the original "Make America Great Again." I object to the nationalism. This little planet is in crisis, and talk of making great the place where 4% of humanity lives, particularly without questioning a culture that exploits and destroys its own and others, seems misguided in the extreme. I also object to the vagueness of the slogan, which was not published with an article or a book, but rather a hat. While some may have in mind a past American greatness that I would support, whether factual or fictional, others clearly have in mind making the United States more evil again by undoing actual improvements. I object to the use of "America" to mean exclusively the United States, even if it does allow such rebuttals as "Make America Hate Again" and "Make America Mexico Again." But it's the "great again" part of the slogan that lends itself to fascistic thinking and politics.
In a way, worrying about the vagueness of a fascist slogan can lead us away from another way of opposing it, namely with facts. Taking "America" to mean the United States of recent decades, the simple truth is that it's not now and has not been great, no matter how one defines greatness. While the U.S. public ranks at the top in believing that its nation is great, and in fact the greatest, and in fact so superior as to merit special privileges, this view has no basis in fact. U.S. exceptionalism, the idea that the United States of America is superior to other nations, is no more fact-based and no less harmful than racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry -- although much of U.S. culture treats this particular type of bigotry as more acceptable.
In my latest book, Curing Exceptionalism, I look at how the United States compares with other countries, how it thinks about that, what harm this thinking does, and how to think differently. In the first of those four sections, I try to find some measure by which the United States actually is the greatest, and I fail.