“For all my flaws, I believe I have been chosen by God and commissioned by history to be the model to the world of justice and inclusion and diversity without division.”
If I dared utter such words in public, people rightly would laugh at the absurdity of the claim or angrily chastise me for my arrogance, or both. On the surface, the hubris of the statement suggests I am the person least likely to be chosen by God to do anything but embarrass myself.
Yet when George W. Bush -- trying to recover from his association with the painfully public bigotry of Bob Jones University -- boldly proclaimed last week that the United States had been so chosen and commissioned, it was dutifully reported in the press without a hint of irony or sarcasm.
Forget about the obvious problems with his statement as it applies to race and ethnicity -- that those “flaws,” which include a brutal history of genocide of indigenous people, African slavery and the legalized subordination of non-whites, and an ongoing social and economic apartheid, render the claim absurd. The deeper problem with Bush’s remarks is what we might call the pathology of the anointed.
The invocation of a direct connection to God and truth is a peculiar, and particularly dangerous, feature of American history. The story we tell ourselves goes something like this:
Other nations throughout history have acted out of greed and self-interest, seeking territory, wealth and power. They often did bad things in the world. Then came the United States, touched by God, a shining city on the hill, whose leaders created the first real democracy and went on to be the beacon of freedom for people around the world. Unlike the rest of the world, we act out of a cause nobler than greed; we are both the model and the vehicle for bringing peace, freedom and democracy to the world.
That is a story that can be believed only in the United States -- and there only by a certain privileged segment of the population -- by people sufficiently insulated from the reality of U.S. actions abroad to maintain such illusions. But try selling the idea to the people of Guatemala, still rebuilding their country from the legacy of four decades of terror at the hands of a military government installed and funded by the United States.
Try explaining the United States’ chosen status to the children of Iraq, who were dying at the rate of 5,000 a month because this country continued to back the harshest economic embargo in modern history. Try defending the thesis to the people of Vietnam, who for a decade stood up to U.S. bombs, bullets and chemical warfare because they wouldn’t accept “freedom” managed by a U.S. puppet government.
The United States, in short, acts like a nation-state, and nation-states are not benevolent institutions. For much of its history, the United States also has been a great power, and the record of great powers is even less savoury. Now, as what folks like to call “the lone superpower,” the future behaviour of U.S. policymakers is unlikely to suddenly become saintly.
We expect individuals who proclaim themselves chosen by God or commissioned by history either to be hucksters, cloaking themselves in a higher calling to cover crasser motives, or simply psychotic. There is no reason to think anything else when such claims are made at the level of the nation-state.
It is tempting to laugh at and dismiss these rhetorical flourishes of pandering politicians, but the commonness of the chosen-by-God assertions and the lack of outrage or amusement at them suggests that the claims are taken seriously both by significant segments of the public and the politicians. Just as it has been in the past, the consequences of this pathology of the anointed will be borne not by those chosen by God, but by those against whom God’s-chosen decide to take aim.
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