Monday, February 13, 2012

The Cracked Bell

Tristam Riley-Smith, The Cracked Bell: America and the Afflictions of Liberty. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2010

Reviewed by T. Hatch

Riley-Smith’s Cracked Bell is a breezy tour de force that at times seems like a panegyric to the “American Dream” which offers little original, or profound, in the way of insight or analysis.

Enough praise.

In the first instance the argument that the gap between the “American Dream” and the “American Crisis,” that cultural dissonance between the ideal of freedom and its more prosaic reality, which Riley-Smith cleverly analogizes with the crack in the Liberty Bell, is less than compelling. What are we talking about?  The attempt to reconcile the divergence between nationalist ideology and everyday life is present in many societies.  Implicit in Riley-Smith’s argument is the idea of American exceptionalism.  What exactly is unique to the Americans then? Yes, the American consumer is primus inter pares among the consumers of the world but only by virtue of a convergence of accidental historical circumstances.  Is the American public irrationally enamored of their beloved military? Clearly, yes they are. But, given the opportunity everybody loves a parade.  It’s just that Americans have had the ability to spend more lavishly on theirs. It is hardly noteworthy then that Americans are overweight, under-educated, adore successful imperialism, and spend too much time and money at Walmart.

Noteworthy however are the various instances of an empirical misreading of history which betray a right-of-center political bias. Due to the confines of brevity I will restrict myself to  three.
Riley-Smith writes that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina “A vengeful mob had taken over the Big Easy within hours of the thin veneer of law and order being removed.” (p.70)  This “mob” in his view was made up of the angry and frustrated armed consumers of New Orleans’ underclass. They were also irrational insofar as “Few of the looters had homes in which to install the commodities and there was no electricity to power them. This was postmodern shopping, deconstructed to the point where it became a form of performance art – an end in itself” (p.70).

How about the “looters” who were taking bottled water and food from closed and abandoned stores merely for survival?  What kind of postmodernist spectacle was this?  And this talk of the “mob” is very much in keeping with the reporting  by the corporate media in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.  Ironically there is no mention of the “gangs” of armed whites making an exit from the city impossible or the police violence against unarmed Blacks.  I feel that these offensive remarks by Riley-Smith should be immediately treated with both Michael Eric Dyson’s Come Hell and High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster and Spike Lee’s documentary film When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.   The neglect and overt hostility with which the Black population of New Orleans was treated in the wake of Katrina was clearly much more about race than missed shopping opportunities; this seems to have alluded Riley-Smith.

On the subject of political correctness Riley-Smith argues that it came about as an attempt to counter the “excesses” of racism, sexism, and homophobia et cetera. He opines that “However, the phenomenon tends to reinforce these varieties of intolerance and introduces a new form of illiberal behavior that suppresses the public expression of views that are deemed beyond the pale” (p.229). Riley-Smith is certainly not alone in this type of irresponsible and risibly paranoid palaver which has continued more or less unabated for about twenty years now.

Is there a ministry of political correctness somewhere enforcing its dictates on those who are innocently engaged in a moderate and thoughtful discourse of racist, sexist, and anti-gay bigotry? Just like the mythical gerbils in hospital emergency rooms and soldiers returning home from Vietnam to be spat upon by anti-war protestors, nobody has ever met an actual victim of political correctness.  Yet there are legions of actual victims of racism, sexism, and anti-gay bigotry making Riley-Smith’s false equivalency that much more pernicious.

As if to demonstrate that there are multiple ways to read history, Riley-Smith holds out Larry Sommers and his asinine comments about the inability of women to perform mathematics and engineering at a high level, reflecting something more than gender discrimination, as an example of left-wing intolerance. Ah, Larry the lefty. When he is not out marching in a May Day parade or organizing a general strike he’s practicing that brand of left-wing intolerance which makes any revolutionary proud.

As ridiculous as all of this is, Riley-Smith’s take on the American Empire - or if there actually is an empire - stands out as the most absurd part of this deeply flawed book.  To examine the nature of U.S. imperialism what better place to start than the American Enterprise Institute.  The AEI, which is widely regarded as the headquarters for the neoconservatives, is a dispassionate enough spot in Riley-Smith’s judgment to get at the essence of U.S. militarism.  As evidence that there is not in fact an American Empire Riley-Smith sites neocon Robert Kagan.  He identifies him as merely from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and neglects to mention his Skull and Bones affiliation or his connections to numerous publications including the Weekly Standard and Commentary.  Nor does he let the reader know that as a co-founder of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) he was a signatory to the now infamous letter to President Bill Clinton in 1997 urging immediate military action against Saddam Hussein (because of the threat that the dictator’s possession of weapons of mass destruction represented to the United States).

Riley-Smith proudly avers that for an anthropologist, as far as the possible existence of the American Empire is concerned, what is primarily of interest is not whether the empire actually exists but what the Americans think about the empire. Further, he considers it a paradox that “The champion of liberty is compelled to develop an engine of war to safeguard cherished freedoms at home” (p.211).  What Riley-Smith calls a “paradox” one could label as hypocrisy;  insofar as one is interested in imperialism from the viewpoint of those who support it, why not a discussion of rape from the perspective of the rapist?

Riley-Smith, not surprisingly, concludes his analysis with a statement that Americans possess the power to overcome the American Crisis and put themselves back on the path to the American Dream.  This is a positively cheery way to describe an empire in decline.

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