← Return to search results
Back to Prindle Institute

Is It Better to Intervene in Niger or Not?

Map of Niger and adjacent countries

On July 26th, President Mohamed Bazoum of Niger was deposed in a coup d’état by the Presidential Guard who are now calling themselves the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland. The move came as a blow to Niger given the long history of coups in the country and because Bazoum was the first democratic leader to oversee a peaceful transfer of power from a previously elected leader. The stability of the entire region is at risk now that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has given an ultimatum to coup leaders that they must restore the democratically elected government or face military intervention. Western nations like the United States and France have also called for an end of the coup and have frozen aid funding. Nevertheless, the crisis threatens to pull in everyone from anti-colonialists, jihadists, Russian actors, and several African nations into a mire of war. Are there any good options moving forward?

Bazoum was elected just two years ago in taking over from President Issoufou and prompting the first democratic transfer of power in Niger’s history. Niger has been ruled by the Nigerien military previously in 2010 in addition to several periods of military rule in the 1980s and 90s. What triggered this particular coup remains unclear. Some have pointed at perceptions of government incompetence and corruption coupled with the rising cost of living. There have also been security concerns regarding Islamist insurgencies and ECOWAS’s response, as well as anti-French resentment over the deployment of French military forces in the country. It’s also believed that President Bazoum was about to replace military leader General Abdourahmane Tchiani. Some Nigerian nationalists have supported the coup by flying Russian flags. (There are reports that the Wagner Group mercenaries are in the area.)

ECOWAS has given Niger an ultimatum to return power to their democratically elected leaders. In the midst of a rash of similar coups in other nations, they have made it clear that they will not allow another. But the ultimatum given to Niger has now passed, and ECOWAS forces have been put on standby as they consider military intervention. The coup has been condemned by the World Bank, the African Union, the European Union, and the United States who have cut off aid and funding and have frozen assets. Alternatively, the military leadership of the Nigerien Army has declared their support for the coup leaders, as well as Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea. The army has declared that they will defend their country and have warned of the consequences of a foreign military intervention. The United States, Europe, and ECOWAS have all attempted diplomatic efforts to end the crisis, but these efforts have failed. All of this prompts the question of whether an intervention is justified – what is likelihood of success and what are the moral consequences of failure?

On the one hand, there are clear reasons for a military intervention to restore democracy in Niger. The nation was seen as turning the page on its unstable past with peaceful democratic transfers of power. Economic growth in the area had reached as high as 7% earlier this year, helping to alleviate significant poverty. Now that sort of growth and stability is in question. Niger was also a significant base of operations for the United States and for France as part of their efforts to fight terrorist and jihadi forces in Africa. The United States, for example, has an airbase in Niger from which they launch drone strikes against groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIL, and Boko Haram. French forces had been training Nigerien forces in fighting terrorism. Allowing the coup could destabilize the entire region, particularly since the junta is not friendly to Western forces, particularly to French forces, being stationed in the country and because they may lack the resources to patrol their borders on their own.

There are also concerns about potential human rights abuses, particularly given that the Nigerien military has been known to engage in human rights violations and women and girls continue to suffer from discrimination. This issue is magnified by the fact that the junta has now requested the assistance of the Wagner group which also has its own sordid history of human rights violations. There are also concerns about the safety of President Bazoum and other members of the democratically elected government.

On the other hand, there are serious concerns about whether a military intervention to restore the democratic government would be successful. Mali and Burkina Faso have said that military intervention in Niger would be a “declaration of war” against them. It’s possible it could draw elements of the Nigerien military into conflict with itself, creating a civil war. The ECOWAS forces may lack the needed resources and logistics for an intervention. This is because while Nigerian President Bola Tinubu supports an intervention, the Nigerian Senate has not granted its consent. Nigeria shares a large border with Niger and has a fairly large military force, making their cooperation of paramount importance. There are also concerns that unlike previous ECOWAS military interventions, this would not be supported by native Nigeriens.

The Nigerien military is also fairly large and well-equipped and trained thanks to their just recently being trained by French and American forces in counter-terrorism operations. This means that a military conflict would likely be protracted and could spark a humanitarian crisis with no guarantee that ECOWAS forces could militarily win outright. Refugees fleeing across borders can create fertile grounds for terrorist groups to infiltrate and operate. Nigerian forces have also pledged that if there is a military intervention against them, they will kill President Bazoum.

In addition, military escalation is likely to prolong a resolution that could eventually re-establish foreign aid. A human rights organization in Niger has already expressed concern about the consequences of economic sanctions, including the impact on food and electricity. Nigeria has reportedly cut electricity supplied to Niger, leaving the country with blackouts. A protracted conflict has the potential to cause a human rights crisis as well.

Western intervention in the conflict could also be a problem not only because of the potential for the conflict to potentially pull in other nations like Russia who has warned ECOWAS not to take military action against Niger unless they wish to lead to a “protracted confrontation,” but also because of the perceptions it might create regarding colonialism. Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani has argued against Western intervention as it would be “perceived as a new colonization.” The Wagner Group is already spreading this message in Niger. After all, Nigeriens are not unaccustomed to military coups with the 2010 coup being seen as necessary to protect democracy, so it is possible that they are less likely to be skeptical of the coup and more likely to be skeptical of the West.

On the other hand, not intervening may do nothing. While sanctions and freezing aid could potentially help, it’s a strategy that has not worked in Mali, Burkina Faso, or even Russia. It’s possible that the overall security threat to the West becomes so bad that they are forced to intervene in order to prevent the spread of terrorism. In this case, both acting and failing to act could have similar consequences that threaten the lives and rights of people living all over the Sahel region.

Insurrection at the Capitol: Socratic Lessons on Rhetoric and Truth

photograph of Capitol building looking up from below

In his 1877 essay The Ethics of Belief, philosopher W.K. Clifford told the story of a religiously divided community. Some members of the dominant religious group formed vicious beliefs about their rivals and started to spread those beliefs far and wide. The rumor was that the rival religious group stole children away from their parents in the dead of night for the purposes of indoctrinating them to accept all sorts of problematic religious doctrines. These rumors worked the local community into a fervor. The livelihoods and professional reputations of members of the rival group were irreparably harmed as a result of the accusations. When a committee was formed to look into the allegations, it became clear that, not only were the accusations false, the evidence that they were not true was quite easy to come by had those spreading the rumors bothered to look. The consequences for the agitating group were harsh. They were viewed by their society “not only as persons whose judgment was to be distrusted, but also as no longer to be counted honourable men.” For Clifford, the explanation for why these men were rightly viewed as dishonorable did not have to do with what their belief was, but how they had obtained it. He points out that, “[t]heir sincere convictions, instead of being honestly earned by patient inquiring, were stolen by listening to the voice of prejudice and passion.”

The January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol Building was motivated, at least in part, by a wide range of false beliefs. Some participants were believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory which maintains that the Democratic party, led by Joe Biden, is a shell for a massive ring of pedophiles and Satanists who consume the flesh of babies. Many of these people believe that the attack on the capitol was a precursor to “The Storm” — a day of reckoning on which all of Trump’s political foes will be executed and Trump, sent by God to perform this task, will follow through on his promise to “Make America Great Again” by ridding the world of liberals. A conspiracy-based belief that all rioters seemed to share in common was that the presidential election was massively fraudulent, that democrats rigged the election in favor of Biden, and that the election had been “stolen” from the rightful winner, Donald Trump. They believed and continue to believe this despite the fact that the election has been adjudicated in the courts over 60 times, and no judge concluded that there was any evidence of voter fraud whatsoever. The basis of this commonly held belief is a series of lies Trump and his acolytes have been telling the public since November, when the results of the election became clear.

On one level, the events of January 6th are attributable to a lack of epistemic virtue on the part of the participants. The insurrection featured confirmation bias on center stage. There is no credible evidence for any of the claims that this group of people believe. Nevertheless, they are inclined to believe the things that they believe because these conspiracy theories are consistent with the beliefs and values that they had before any of this happened. When we play Monday morning quarterback (if, indeed, there ever is a Monday morning), we might conclude that the only productive path forward is to educate a citizenry that has higher epistemic standards; that is, we should do what we can to produce a citizenry that, collectively, has a more finely tuned nonsense-detector and is capable of distinguishing good evidence from bad. We should cultivate communities that have high levels of technological literacy, in which people know that the fact that an idea pops up on a YouTube video or a Twitter feed doesn’t make it true.

That said, placing the blame for false beliefs too firmly on the shoulders of those who hold them may be misguided. Such an approach assumes doxastic volunteerism — the idea that we have control over what it is that we believe. If a person, even the smartest person, is living in an epistemic environment in which they are perpetually exposed to brainwashing and propaganda, it might actually be pretty surprising if they didn’t come to believe what they are being actively coerced into believing.

This is not a new problem — in fact, it’s as old as philosophy itself. In many of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates — Plato’s teacher and the main character in his work — is quite critical of those who teach, study, and practice rhetoric. It was a common practice at that time for fathers to send their sons to study rhetoric from a Sophist, a person who was skilled in the ability to “make the weaker argument the stronger.” Students who undertake this course of study learn the art of persuasion. Having these skills makes a person more likely to get what they want in business, in the courts, and in social life. Strong rhetorical skills reliably lead to power.

It may appear as if, when Athenian fathers sent their children to study rhetoric, they were sending them to learn to construct strong arguments. This was not the case. Arguments raised by rhetoricians need not be strong in the logical sense — they need not have premises that support conclusions — they need only to be persuasive. As the Sophist Gorgias puts it in Plato’s dialogue of the same name, “For the rhetorician can speak against all men and upon any subject. In short, he can persuade the multitude better than any other man of anything which he pleases.” A strong rhetorician, faced with an audience already primed to believe conspiracy theories and propaganda, can manipulate those inclinations with great flourish and toward great danger.

So, on another level, perhaps we should place the blame for the insurrection firmly on the feet of the politicians who knowingly used the rhetoric of conspiracy theories to gain power and popularity with their vulnerable constituents. These politicians knew they were playing with fire. Terrorist attacks perpetrated by right-wing extremists like Timothy McVey are part of our country’s collective consciousness. Yet they poked the bear anyway, over and over, benefiting from doing so in the form of both money and power. These politicians fuel the fire of ignorance about more topics than voter fraud or Satanic pedophile rings; they also use rhetoric to manipulate people on topics like anthropogenic climate change and the seriousness of COVID-19. As Socrates says, “The rhetorician need not know the truth about things, he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know.” It may do no harm and may actually do some real good to cultivate a citizenry that has strong critical thinking skills, but we’ll never fix the problem until we get rid of politicians who use rhetorical tools to manipulate. We have to start holding them accountable.

Near the end of the Gorgias, Socrates debates with Callicles, who argues that a good life is a life in which a person pursues their own pleasure, holding nothing back. In a Nietzschean fashion, he argues that restrictions on power are just social conventions used by the weak masses to keep the strong in check. He insists that the strong should rightly rule over the weak. Using rhetoric to manipulate others is just one way of pursuing pleasure through the use of one’s strengths. The strong should not be prevented from pursuing their best life.

Socrates has a different view of what constitutes the good life. If a person goes searching for this kind of life, they should search after truth and justice. They shouldn’t study manipulation; they should study philosophy. Our goal should never be to make the weaker argument the stronger; we should commit to seeking out the stronger argument to begin with.

If history is any indication, this suggestion is nothing but doe-eyed optimism. Callicles would call it childish. He thought that studying philosophy was noble in youth, but that adult human beings should be more realistic about human nature. As a practical matter, perhaps he was right — after all the Athenians grew tired of Socrates’ influence on the youth of Athens and sentenced him to die by drinking hemlock. As a matter of principle, Socrates is the martyr for the life lived in pursuit of truth and justice and we should all strive to do the same ourselves and to do what we can to hold our politicians to the same standard. After all, there was a reason that politicians in Athens were afraid of Socrates.

How Should One Call It like It Is?

photograph of threatening protestor group with gas masks

This week in response to the Capitol attack many have urged that we “call the event what it is.” Given the events which took place in Washington this week, perhaps the most prominent moral question facing everyone is how should one describe something? Initially this was even the case before the 6th when the details of Trump’s call to the Georgia Secretary of State became public and it became known that he wanted to “find” votes. Is that an attempt to intimidate a public official to overturn an election or is it merely the innocent efforts of a person to rectify a perceived slight? Following the 6th, this type of question gained new importance. How should we describe such an event? Was it an attempted coup? Was it a protest? An insurrection? Domestic terrorism? How do we describe the day? Did the president have a rally with heated rhetoric that got a crowd out of control or did he unleash a mob on Congress with the intention of preventing them from following the Constitution? Answering a question like “how should we describe such events?” reveals just how complicated of a moral problem language can be.

In his account of inquiry, philosopher John Dewey argued that the nature of any judgment is to be able to link some selected content (a subject) to some selected quality of characterization (a predicate). His central point is that determining how to characterize the predicate and how to characterize the subject is the work of inquiry; neither is simply given to us in advance and our own inquiries require us to appraise how we should characterize a subject and predicate in relationship to each other. Moral inquiry is no different, and thus whether we characterize the people who invaded the Capitol as protestors or insurrectionists depends on what appraisals we make about what information is relevant in the course of moral inquiry. Of course, one of the means that society has at its disposal to do this work is the legal system.

The question about what legally took place is complicated. For example, does the storming of the Capitol constitute domestic terrorism? Despite some, including President-elect Biden, calling the act sedition, in reality many of those who participated may only be legally guilty of trespassing (though there may be a stronger case against some particular individuals who may be charged with seditious conspiracy and assaulting police). Even for the president, and many in Congress who spread lies about the election and stoked the crowd before the riot, it isn’t abundantly clear they can be held legally responsible. Legally speaking, was the president and his supporters in Congress only practicing their First Amendment right to free speech or were they participating in an attempted coup? Again, legally it is complicated with many precedents setting a high bar to prove such charges in court.

But a legal determination is only one way of evaluating the situation. For example, in addressing whether the attack constitutes domestic terrorism, a recent Vox article points out, “It’s useful to think about terrorism as three different things: a tactic, a legal term, and a political label.” In each case the application of the term requires paying attention to different contexts and points of interest. Morally speaking, we will each have to determine how we believe the events of this week should be characterized. But, as a moral declaration how do we make such determinations? Outside of mere political rhetoric, when does it become appropriate to label someone a “fascist”? At what point does a protest become a “coup attempt”? Should we call the people who stormed the Capitol “terrorists,” “insurrectionists,” “protestors,” or as others have called them, “patriots”? Were Trump and his supporters merely expressing grievances over an election that many of them genuinely believe was fraudulent?

One way of trying to come to a justified determination is to compare the situation to similar examples from the past. Case-based reasoning, or casuistry, may be helpful in such situations because it allows us to compare this case to other cases to discover commonality. But what cases should one choose to compare it with? For example, is what happened on the 6th similar to Napoleon storming the French legislature? Napoleon arranged a special session and used bribery, propaganda, and intimidation to get the legislature to put him in charge and then cleared them out by force when they refused to step aside. Or is this case more similar to the crisis in Bolivia? International scholars have been divided over whether that was a coup or a popular uprising following assertions of a rigged election.

Unfortunately, such reasoning is problematic because it all depends on which elements we choose to emphasize and which similarities and differences we think most relevant. Do we focus on the fact that many of these people were armed? Do we focus on the political rhetoric compared to other coups? Does it matter whether the crowd had a coherent plan? It’s worth pointing out that Republican supporters and Trump supporters won’t necessarily make the same connections. 68% of Republicans do not believe the storming of the Capitol was a threat to democracy. 45% of Republicans even approve storming the Capitol. As YouGov points out, “the partisan difference in support could be down to differing perceptions of the nature of the protests.” Thus, comparing this case to others is problematic because cases like this do not come with a label, thus making it easy to make comparisons that are politically motivated and logically circular rather than being morally justified. As G.E. Moore noted “casuistry is the goal of ethical investigation. It cannot be safely attempted at the beginning of our studies, but only at the end.”

What alternative is there to comparing cases? One could assert a principle stating necessary and sufficient conditions. For example, if X acts in a way that encourages or causes the government from being unable to fulfill its functions, X is engaging in a coup. The problem with these principles, just like casuistry, is the temptation to engage in circular reasoning. One must describe the situation in just such a way for the principle to apply. Perhaps the answer is not to focus on what happened, but on the threat that still may exist and take an inductive risk strategy. Even if the benefit of historical hindsight may one day lead us to say otherwise, we may be justified in asserting that the attack was an attempted coup because of the extremely high risks of getting it wrong. This requires us to be forward-looking to future dangers rather than focusing on past cases.

In other words, given the possible grave threat it may be morally justified to potentially overreact to a possibly false belief in order to prevent something bad from happening. By the same token, a Trump supporter who believes that the election was rigged (but is ultimately committed to democracy despite their mistaken beliefs) would be in a worse position for underreacting to an attempted coup if they are wrong about the election and about Trump’s intentions. Such judgments require a careful appraisal of available evidence compared to future possible risks of action or inaction. However, given that the population overall does not see this situation in the same light, the need for having clear reasons, standards, and justifications which can be understood and appreciated by all sides becomes all the more important.

Accountability, Negligence, and Bad Faith

photograph looking up at US Capitol Building

The wheels of justice are turning. As I write this, there are a number of movements afoot — from D.C. police continuing to arrest agitators and insurrectionists on possible sedition charges to Representative Ilhan Omar drawing up articles of impeachment — designed to separate the guilty from the guiltier and assign blame in appropriate proportions. And there is a great deal of blame to go around. Starting with the president’s inciting words just blocks away to the mob he steered to breach the Capitol intending to effect their political will, these are culpable parties. But we might consider others. Those members of Congress, like Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, willing to lend the considerable credibility of their office to unsupported (deunked and repeatedly dismissed) accusations of a stolen election, surely share some portion of the blame. To hold these parties to account, Representative Cori Bush is introducing legislation to investigate and potentially remove those members of Congress responsible for “inciting this domestic terror attack.” In the meantime, the calls for Senators Cruz and Hawley to resign are only growing louder.

But what are these lawmakers really guilty of? On what grounds could these public, elected officials possibly be threatened with removal from office? To hear them tell it, they were merely responding to the concerns of their constituents who remain convinced that the election was stolen, robbing them of their God-given right to be self-governing. They are then not enemies of democracy, but its last true defenders.

Nevermind that people’s belief in election malfeasance is not evidence of election malfeasance (especially when that belief is the product of misinformation disseminated by the very same “defenders”), this explanation fails to appreciate the design of representative democracy. Ours is not a direct democracy; citizens are not called upon to deliver their own preferences on each individual question of policy. Instead, we elect public servants that might better represent our collective interests than any one individual might herself. The hope is that this one representative might be better positioned than the average citizen to engage in the business of governing. Rather than pursuing any and all of their constituents’ interests come what may, these lawmakers are tasked with balancing these competing interests against fealty to the republic, the Constitution, and the rule of law. In the end, these officials are people who can, and should, know better. As Senator Mitt Romney argued Wednesday, “The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth.” That there is no evidence that the results of the presidential election are in error, and that Joe Biden won the election. “That is the burden, and the duty, of leadership.”

Perhaps, then, these legislators were merely negligent, inadequately discharging their duties of office and ultimately unable to anticipate the outcome of things beyond their control. (Who could have predicted that paying lip service to various conspiracy theories would be enough to give them the weight of reality?) And so when words finally became deeds, the violence displayed at the Capitol was enough to make several Congressmembers reconsider their position. It was fine to continue to throw sand in the gears as a political statement, but now faced with such obvious and violent consequences (as well as the attending political blowback) even Senator Lindsey Graham was willing to say “enough is enough.

But negligence is a slippery thing to pin down; it rests on a contradiction: that one can simultaneously be instrumental yet removed, responsible but unaware. Many might agree that these lawmakers’ actions betray a failure to exercise due care. These senators and representatives underestimated risk, ignored unwanted or unintended consequences, and failed to appreciate the cultural, societal, and political moment. But establishing that these members of Congress acted negligently would require demonstrating that any other reasonable person placed in their shoes would have recognized the possible danger. (And “reasonableness” has proven notoriously difficult to define.)

For these reasons, demonstrating negligence would seem a tall order, but this charge also doesn’t quite fit the deed. The true criticism of these lawmakers’ actions has to do with intention, not merely the consequence. Many of these public officials not only failed to take due care in discharging their duties of office and serving the public’s interests, but were also acting in bad faith when doing so. Theirs was not merely a dereliction of duty, but a failure borne of dishonest dealings and duplicitous intent. The move to object to the Electoral College certification, for example, was never intended to succeed. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was willing to condemn the cowardice and self-serving aggrandizement involved in making a “harmless protest gesture while relying on others to do the right thing.” Similarly, the vote led Senator Mitt Romney to question whether these politicians might “weigh [their] own political fortunes more heavily than [they] weigh the strength of our republic, the strength of our democracy, and the cause of freedom.”

In the end, the use made of folks’ willingness to believe — to believe in a deep-state plot and broad-daylight power grab — all for private political gain, pushes us past a simple charge of negligence. The game these politicians were playing undermines any claim to be caught unawares. The fault lies with choice, not ignorance. A calculated gamble was made — to try to gain political points, retain voter support, and fill the re-election coffers by continuing to cast doubt on the election results and build on some constituents’ wildest hopes. The problem isn’t merely with the outcome, it’s with the willingness to trust that private gain outweighs public cost. But as Senator Romney asks, “What’s the weight of personal acclaim compared to the weight of conscience?”

As it stands, there are far too many guilty parties, and not enough blame to go around.

The Capitol Coup and the Rhetoric of Essentialist Exceptionalism

photograph of a burning tire with the feet of a crowd of protestors in the background

On January 6, 2021, a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, disrupting Congress’s certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral college win for a few hours. Law enforcmenet deployed tear gas in the Capitol Rotunda, and at least four people died; one woman was shot and killed. It was a deeply depressing spectacle that underscored two facts: that millions of Americans live in an alternative reality in which President Trump, the nemesis of shadowy, rootless “globalists” and other vaguely Semitic “swamp-dwellers,” won a second term in a landslide; and that Trump himself, pathologically fixated on his electoral loss, will gladly incite violence against his own government in order to cling to power.

Even as it was happening, media commentators registered their bewilderment that something like this was happening here, and not some other place — Iraq, maybe, or perhaps (as CNN’s Jake Tapper imagined) Bogotá. The by now well-worn cliché that it was something that might happen in a “banana republic” was trotted out. Echoing these sentiments, in his remarks on that day, President-elect Biden said that “the scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect the true America.”

There is, I think, a deep connection between the commentators’ surprise and Biden’s rhetoric. Many people in this country seem to subscribe to a metaphysics of America, or of American political culture, that is essentialist in that it says that there is something that the culture essentially or truly is — that there are qualities which define America and without which America as we know it would not exist. Usually, the outlines of this conception of America’s essence are drawn by exclusion: by saying what America is not. Thus, Biden tells us that the “true” America is not whatever-it-is that the Capitol insurrection represents — probably that it is not violent or lawless. Other invocations of America’s essence have claimed that America is essentially liberal or conservative, or essentially tolerant. In general, we can say that American essentialism defines what America is in terms of what the one doing the defining thinks it ought to be. Frequently combined with this claim about America’s essence is the idea that this essence is exceptional; that America has a unique essence that distinguishes it from other countries. Thus, those who hold to American essentialism often define America not only by what it is not, but they suggest that what it is not is what other countries are. 

Put these two beliefs together — that America has an essence, and that this essence is unique — and you can readily explain why it should seem shocking or unbelievable that something like the Capitol coup occurred. If America is essentially not what, say, Iraq is — violent, lawless, prone to coup attempts — then what happened at the Capitol is almost unthinkable.

But American essentialist exceptionalism is doubly untrue. First, even if America’s political culture had an essence, it would be implausible to claim that this essence is peaceful or law-abiding. Since its founding, America has been the site of extreme political violence. Periods of relative peace have, if anything, been the exception, not the rule. Second, it is simply implausible to think that political cultures have essences. What makes this particular political culture American is simply that it is comprised of the political beliefs and practices of citizens of the United States, a particular political entity. Those beliefs and practices can (and have) changed dramatically over time and yet remain American. 

Defenders of the rhetoric of essentialist exceptionalism might call on Plato or Government-House utilitarians for support, arguing that even if untrue it is a “noble lie” that helps bind the political community together. On this view, saying that America is essentially good motivates its citizens to love it, thus making it more likely that they will help preserve it across time.

However, we must balance this benefit against the costs, which in my view are considerable. First, the exceptionalist aspect of American essentialist exceptionalism encourages Americans to view the political cultures and systems of other countries with unthinking disdain. That disdain was on full display in commentators’ casual invocation of Iraq, Ukraine, and other countries as examples of places where a Capitol coup would somehow be more appropriate. In fact, Americans likely have much to learn from the struggles of other democracies.

Second, the essentialist aspect of American essentialist exceptionalism may encourage complacency about America’s prospects: if America is essentially democratic, non-violent, tolerant, law-abiding, and so on, then the acts of individual political actors seem to matter less in the scheme of things — it just can’t happen here. Put another way: if in some sense we already are what we ought to be, then what’s the point in struggling to achieve our ideals? It is perhaps just this sort of complacency that was at play in the acts of the Republican congressmen and -women who chose to contest Biden’s electoral win, or the failure of the Capitol police to anticipate the possibility that Trump supporters might assault the building. Now the costs of that complacency are available for all to witness.

Third, the idea that there is a true America can easily be hijacked to serve nefarious political ends. Instead of arguing that American political culture is essentially tolerant, liberal, and democratic, some on the far right believe that it is essentially white, Christian, and patriarchal. Thus, the belief in American essentialism can motivate the exclusion of many members of actual American society as fundamentally “alien” to the culture.

The best course, then, is to jettison both our essentialism and our exceptionalism. There simply is no “true” America, and there are no qualities, good or bad, which define our political culture for all time. There are only the beliefs and practices of Americans in their roles as citizens, jurors, office-holders, and the like; and whether these beliefs and practices are, on the whole, good or bad depends upon the choices of each and all of us.

The Other 9/11: Remembering and Forgetting

Fourteen years have passed since September 11th, 2001 and now 9/11 has become a phrase that signifies the terrorist attack of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. The post-9/11 memorial events, memorial buildings, related films and literature have indoctrinated us to believe that 9/11 marks the day of terrorism attacks by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda. The occupation of 9/11 in of our collective consciousness signifies how some histories are remembered over the expense of others.

Continue reading “The Other 9/11: Remembering and Forgetting”