While teaching English in Cairo, I noticed something that happened in my classes each time a discussion arose about the problems in Egypt. The student who brought up an issue was quickly shushed by others around them with the words “Ahsan min musr mafish.” I knew enough Arabic to understand what this meant: “There is nothing better than Egypt.”
Egypt at that time was ruled by President Mubarek, and social unrest was becoming more apparent even a few years before the Arab Spring. I wonder whether my former students would say the same about Egypt now, after two military coups. They probably would.
What is it about countries — they can’t just like themselves, they have to be the BEST of everything? Yes, even despite all evidence to the contrary.
My Egyptian students made a distinction between the growing problems in the country and the concept of Egypt itself. It’s a strange and rather vague notion: that there exists a sort of Platonion idea of a country.
For what is a country if not everything that happens within it?
As July 4 rolled around, my social media feed started to resemble my classes in Egypt. Some liberal Americans confess to feeling troubled about celebrating Independence Day while Trump is in office — but have no objections to a holiday which offers unrestrained fanfare for US militarism.
A few days ago, I watched Stephen Colbert, a progressive Democrat, tout American values as proof that “our great country is the last best hope for all mankind.”
I spat out my Fosters. Sorry, what?
(Just kidding, American friends. We don’t actually drink Fosters).
He went on to say that “what makes us great is what we believe in: all men are created equal, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
These lofty ideals are pulled from the Declaration of Independence. Colbert’s argument that America must continue to live up to these principles, was a means of criticising Trumpian policies such as the separation of immigrant families. It is a way of distinguishing between who America is and what America does. It is a denial of accountability.
What the late-night comedian failed to mention is that the US has NEVER lived up to these ideas. The Declaration of Independence did not extend to native Americans who were being systematically murdered and forced off their land. When the document was created in 1776, African-Americans were still enslaved, and would continue to be for almost another century. On Independence Day in 1852, Frederick Douglass, leader of the Abolitionist movement, said:
“This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…”
Despite the endless chestbeating on both sides of US politics, America fails its own citizens on unaffordable healthcare, mass shootings, police brutality, (“life”), mass incarceration, poverty (“liberty”), racism, low minimum wages, class inequality (“the pursuit of happiness”) and so on and so on. The suggestion that America is the greatest country in the world is becoming increasingly ludicrous to the rest of us.
Not to mention, of course, its shocking treatment of migrants. Every time another news story emerges, liberal Americans cry, “This is not who we are!” But for anyone who has studied history: America, it is who you are. Ask the Chinese, the Italians, the Irish. When you do something repeatedly, how can you refuse to accept that it’s who you are?” Perhaps a more useful starting point would be: “This is who we’ve always been, but we want to change.”
On the world stage, America’s unwavering belief in its own greatness has led to its involvement in horrendous conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya in the last 20 years alone — under both Democratic and Republican Presidents. In the 50 years before that, add Sudan, Yugoslavia, Haiti, Panama, Cambodia, Korea, Vietnam, and so on and so on.
When army veteran and presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard stated her position that US intervention is harmful, Colbert (yes, him again) shouted over the top of her that “the United States is a force for good in the world.”
I wonder how both Republicans and Democrats alike who promote strident US militarism actually measure this “goodness”: is it in the number of bombs falling in foreign countries or the carnage of civilian bodies piling up?
America is not alone in trumpeting its virtuousness in a world of evil. Nationalist rhetoric forms the basis of propaganda in all dictatorships (like Egypt) — and is rapidly being adopted around the world, including here in Australia.
After Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s surprise election victory in May, he immediately hailed Australia as the greatest country in the world. His catchcry “How good’s Australia?” is the weapon he wields as he blithely hacks into many of the aspects of Australian life that have long made us “the lucky country”: a fair taxation system, basic welfare, a strong workers’ movement, the highest minimum wages in the world, and universal access to healthcare and education.
If you dare to question whether everything Australia does is necessarily great, such as our own unconscionably inhumane treatment of refugees, you may very well find yourself hounded out of the country.
In Australia, we have our own version of “This is not who we are!” It is the one that loudly proclaims there are only a handful of racists in this country, willfully ignoring the fact that white colonisation was founded on, perpetuated and continues to benefit from systemic racism and genocide.
The belief that one’s country is the greatest in the world is the new opium of the masses, lulling us into a blind acceptance of the atrocities occurring all around us.
As Samuel Johnson said,
“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”