The more I read history, the more I'm convinced that the United States, far from being God's appointed beacon for all mankind, was always a big talking, poor performing country in which the massive and willful stupidity of the majority engendered a moral rot incapable of withstanding manipulation and seduction by self-serving business/political interests. Thus, columnist Richard Cohen was merely acknowledging the latest example of such rot among the majority, when he asserted the Iraq War "was no mere failure of intelligence. This was a failure of character."
"Character" implies steadfast adherence to a moral code. But, as Walter Lippmann so cogently expressed it: "No moral code, as such, will enable [a person] to know whether he is exercising his moral faculties on a real and an important event. For effective virtue, as Socrates pointed out long ago, is knowledge; and a code of right and wrong must wait upon a perception of the true and false." (Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Public, p. 20)
By disdaining knowledge unless it's practical (mainly in the service of business), technological (in the service of business) or biblically based -- most Americans have proven themselves incapable of distinguishing between the true and the false throughout our history. Such willful ignorance has produced a culture of conformism (lending itself to manipulation) that was observed as early as the mid-19th century by Alexis de Tocqueville: "I know of no country where there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America."
In 1984, two scholars revalidated Tocqueville's observations in their book, The American Ethos. They concluded: "Most public debate in America…takes place within a relatively restricted segment of the ideological spectrum." Yet, more than 150 years ago, both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau thought they knew why.
Long before business was centralized by dehumanizing corporate power, Emerson could assert in 1841: [T]he general system of our trade…is a system of selfishness; is not dictated by the high sentiments of human nature; is not measured by the exact law of reciprocity; much less by the sentiments of love and heroism, but is a system of distrust, of concealment, of superior keenness, not of giving but of taking advantage…."
And Thoreau, writing in Walden would complain: "Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them…Actually the laboring man has not the leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be any thing but a machine. How can he remember his ignorance - which his growth requires - who has so often to use his knowledge?"
Troubled by a culture based upon such "ignorance" and "taking advantage," civic and religious leaders, dating back to Puritan New England, "emphasized literacy, especially sufficient literacy to read the Bible, as a means to bring civilization to their country.
"But, as Lee Soltow and Edward Stevens conclude, this push for literacy 'was never more than a utilitarian value to serve greater spiritual and social ends.' [Soltow and Stevens, The Rise of Literacy and the Common School in the United States, p. 18] It was a 'particular' sort of literacy; certainly not designed to 'open vistas of imagination.'" [Ibid, p. 22, quoted in Walter C. Uhler, "Democracy or dominion," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 2004]
Because such "education" actually was designed to "instill proper beliefs and codes of conduct" [Soltow and Stevens, p. 22] rather than rigorous thinking in the minds of coarse, laboring Americans, one shouldn't be surprised that the mere ability to read the Bible didn't prevent the widespread propagation of the bogus "Curse of Ham" as the "most authoritative justification for 'Negro slavery.'" [David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, p. 66]
As actual readers of Genesis 9:18-27 should have known, Noah did not curse Ham, but Ham's son, Canaan. Moreover, Genesis 9:18-27 contains nothing to hint of race or color. That hardly mattered, however, because, as David Brion Davis has concluded, "it was not an originally racist biblical script that led to the enslavement of 'Ham's black descendents,' but rather the increasing enslavement of blacks that transformed biblical interpretation." [Ibid, pp. 66-67] Moral rot!
Professor Davis offers a devastating comparison of the immorality of late 19th century Southern Christians, still embracing the bogus "Curse of Ham," and the barbarian Tupinamba slaveholders in 16th century Brazil. According to Davis, the Tupinamba took great delight in humiliating their male slaves, before eventually murdering them and eating them - even saving specific bodily organs for honored guests. According to Davis, "[T]his freedom to degrade, dishonor, enslave, and even kill and eat gave the Tupinamba not only solidarity but a sense of superiority and transcendence." [Ibid, p. 29]
Although late 19th century American lynch mobs did not eat the blacks they murdered, a rotten superiority and solidarity were served as "Southern whites eagerly gathered as souvenirs the lynched victims' fingers, toes, bones, ears and teeth." They called them "n-word buttons." [Ibid]
Unfortunately, as Anatol Lieven has pointed out, "for a century and a half…the desire to preserve first slavery and then absolute Black separation and subordination had contributed enormously to the closing of the Southern mind, with consequences for America as a whole which has lasted down to our own day." [Lieven, America Right or Wrong p. 112]
For example, as Stephen R. Haynes has written, in Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery, the Rev. Benjamin Palmer delivered a 1901 New Year's Day, "Century Sermon" in New Orleans, in which he "utilized Noah's prophecy as an ex post facto rationale for his government's removal of Native Americans 'from the earth.'" And, as Haynes also notes, "when legal segregation came under concerted attack in the 1950s, the first impulse for many white Christians was to revive the curse to serve as a biblical defense of racial separation." [p. 103].
Keep in mind, (1) the Greater South extends beyond the borders of the former Confederacy, perhaps as far north as Route 40, which cuts across the middle of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois [Lieven, p. 107], (2) Southern evangelical Protestant religion has spread to other parts of the country [Ibid.] and (3) there are many Southerners and other Americans to whom these generalizations do not apply.
Nevertheless, says Lieven, "a process may have been at work in the United States which could be called the 'principle of the Claymore mine.'