File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_2001/bhaskar.0112, message 16

Date: Tue, 11 Dec 2001 23:03:50 +0100
Subject: BHA: <fwd>Wallerstein's Dec. 5 Lecture

"America and the World: The Twin Towers as Metaphor"(1)

                       by Immanuel Wallerstein

I. America the Beautiful

O beautiful for patriot dream That sees beyond the years Thine alabaster
cities gleam Undimmed by human tears! America! America! God shed his grace
on thee And crown thy good with brotherhood From sea to shining sea!

                                                     "America the Beautiful"

On Oct. 24, 1990, I was invited to give the opening lecture of the
Distinguished Speakers Series in celebration of the bicentennial of the
University of Vermont. I entitled that lecture: "America and the World:
Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow."(2) In that talk, I discussed God's
blessings to America: in the present, prosperity; in the past, liberty; in
the future, equality. Somehow God had not distributed these blessings to
everyone everywhere. I noted that Americans were very conscious of this
unequal distribution of God's grace. I said that the United States had
always defined itself, had always measured its blessings, by the yardstick
of the world. We are better; we were better; we shall be better. Perhaps
blessings that are universal are not considered true blessings. Perhaps we
impose upon God the requirement that She save only a minority.

Today, we live in the shadow of an event that has shaken most of us, the
destruction of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001 by a group of individuals
so dedicated to their ideology and their moral fury at the United States
that they conspired for years to find ways to deal a deadly geopolitical
blow to America and those they deemed its supporters around the world,
and they did this in a way that required sacrificing their own lives. Most
Americans have reacted to the events with deep anger, with patriotic
resolve, and yet with considerable and persistent puzzlement. Puzzlement
about two things: why did this happen? and how could it happen? And the
puzzlement has been laced with a good deal of uncertainty: what must be
done, what can be done in order that such an event will not, could not
happen again?

As I look back on what I said eleven years ago, I do not wish to change
anything I said then. But I do feel a bit of unease about the stance from
I spoke. I wrote as though I were an ethnographer from elsewhere, from
Mars perhaps, trying to understand this curious species, humanus americanus.
Today, I think that is not good enough. I am to be sure a human being, and
concerned with the fate of humanity. But I am also an American citizen. I
was born here. I have lived here most of my life. And I share full
responsibility, along with everyone else in my position, for what has
happened here and what will happen here. I have a moral obligation to view
America from inside.

So, I wish to look at America and the world a second time. But this time I
do not want to see how Americans see themselves through the prism of the
world, but rather how Americans have seen the world, and how Americans
might wish to see the world from hereon in. And I am very aware that here
I tread on contentious ground.

It is a rare president of the United States, in the twentieth century at
least, who has not at some point made the statement that the United States
is the greatest country in the world. I'm not sure our omnipresent public
opinion polling agencies have ever put the question directly to the American
public, but I suspect that the percentage of the U.S. population that would
agree with such a statement is very large indeed. I ask you to reflect on
how such a statement sounds, not merely to persons from poor countries with
cultures that are very different from ours but to our close friends and
allies - to Canadians, to the English, and of course to the French. Does
Tony Blair think the United States is the greatest country in the world,
greater than Great Britain? Would he dare think that? Does Pope John Paul II
think it? Who, besides Americans and those who wish to migrate to the United
States, believe this?

Nationalism is of course not a phenomenon limited to people in the United
States. The citizens of almost every country are patriotic and often
chauvinistic. Americans are aware of that, no doubt. But they nonetheless
tend to note the fact that many people across the world wish to emigrate to
the United States, and that no other locus of immigration seems to be quite
as popular, and they take this as confirmation of their belief in American
superior virtue as a nation.

But in what do we consider that our superior virtue consists? I think that
Americans tend to believe that others have less of many things than we have,
and the fact that we have more is a sign of grace. I shall thus try to
elaborate the many arenas in which this concept of "less-ness" may be
thought to exist. I shall start with the one arena about which most
Americans seem to be quite sure. Other countries are less modern, meaning by
modernity the level of technological development. The United States has the
most advanced technology in the world. This technology is located in the
gadgets found in our homes across the country, in the networks of
communications and transport, in the infrastructure of the country, in the
instruments of space exploration, and of course in the military hardware
that is available to our armed forces. As a result of this accumulation of
technology, Americans consider that life in the U.S. is more comfortable,
that our production competes more successfully in the world market, and that
therefore we are certain to win the wars into which others may drag us.

Americans also consider their society to be more efficient. Things run more
smoothly - at the work place, in the public arena, in social relations, in
our dealings with bureaucracies. However great our complaints about any of
these practices, we seem to find, when we wander elsewhere, that others
manage things less well. Others do not seem to have American get-up-and-go.
They are less inventive about finding solutions to problems, major and
minor. They are too mired in traditional and/or formal ways. And this holds
the others back, while America forges ahead. We are very ready therefore to
offer friendly advice to all and sundry - to Nigerians, to Japanese, to
Italians - about how they could do things better. The emulation of American
ways by others is considered a big plus when Americans assess what is going
on in other countries. Daniel Boone plus the Peace Corps comprise the bases
of an evaluation of comparative political economy.

But of course most Americans would deny that the less-ness of others is
merely material. It is spiritual as well. Or if the term spiritual seems to
exclude the secular humanists, it is cultural as well. Our presidents tell
us, and our patriotic songs remind us, that we are the land of liberty.
Others are less free than we are. The Statue of Liberty stretches out its
hand to all those "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Our density of freedom is visualized in so many ways. Which other country
has the Bill of Rights? Where else is freedom of the press, of religion, of
speech so honored? Where else are immigrants so integrated into the
political system? Can one name another country in which someone arriving
here as a teenager, and still speaking English to this day with a thick
German accent, could become the Secretary of State, the chief representative
of Americans to the rest of the world? Is there any other country where
social mobility, for those with merit, is so rapid? And which country can
match us in the degree to which we are democratic? Democratic not merely in
the continuing openness of our political structures, the centrality of a
two-party system, but also in our quotidian mores? Is the United States not
the country which excels in maintaining the principle of "first come, first
served" in the practices of daily life, this as opposed to a system in which
those who have privilege get preference? And these democratic mores, in the
public arena and in social life, date back at least 200, if not almost 400

>From melting pot to multiculturality, we have prided ourselves on the
incredible ethnic mix of real American life - in our restaurants, in our
universities, in our political leadership. Yes, we have had our faults, but
we have done more than any other country to try to overcome them. Have we
not taken the lead in the last decades in tearing down barriers of gender
and race, in the constantly renewed search for the perfect meritocracy? Even
our movements of protest give us cause for pride. Where else are they so
persistent, so diverse, so legitimate?

And in the one arena where, up to 1945, we tended to admit that we were not
the avant-garde of the world, the arena of high culture, has that not now
all changed? Is New York not today the world center of art, of theater, of
music performance, of dance, of opera? Our cinema is so superior that the
French government must resort to protectionist measures to keep French
audiences from seeing still more of it.

We can put this all together in a phrase that Americans have not used much,
at least until Sept. 11, but which we largely think in our hearts: We are
more civilized than the rest of the world, the Old World as we used to say
with a token of disdain. We represent the highest aspirations of everyone,
not merely Americans. We are the leader of the free world, because we are
the freest country in the world, and others look to us for leadership, for
holding high the banner of freedom, of civilization.

I have meant none of this ironically. I am deeply persuaded that this image
of the less-ness of the rest of the world is profoundly ingrained in the
American psyche, however many there may be who will be embarrassed by my
presentation, and insist that they are not part of such a consensus, that
they are (shall we say?) more cosmopolitan in their views. And it is in this
sense, first of all, that the Twin Towers are a perfect metaphor. They
signalled unlimited aspirations; they signalled technological achievement;
they signalled a beacon to the world.

II. Attack on America

What the United States tastes today is a very small thing compared to what
we have tasted for tens of years. Our nation has been tasting this
humiliation and contempt for more than 80 years.... But if the sword falls
on the United States, after 80 years, hypocrisy raises its ugly head
lamenting the deaths of these killers who tampered with the blood, honor and
holy places of the Muslims. The least that one can describe these people is
that they are morally depraved.

                                                             Osama bin Laden
                                                                Oct. 7, 2001

Osama bin Laden does not think that America is beautiful. He thinks
Americans are morally depraved. Now, of course, there are some Americans who
also think that most Americans are morally de raved. We hear this theme from
what might be called the cultural right in the United States. But while the
critiques of the U.S. cultural right and those of Osama bin Laden overlap up
to a point insofar as they deal with everyday mores, bin Laden's fundamental
denunciation concerns what he calls U.S. hypocrisy in the world arena. And
when it comes to America in the world arena, there are very few Americans
who would agree with that characterization, and even those who might say
something similar would want to nuance this view in ways that bin Laden
would find ir elevant and unacceptable.

This was one of the two great shocks of September 11 for Americans. There
were persons in the world who denied any good faith at all to American
actions and motives in the world arena. How was it possible that persons who
had less of everything worth having doubt that those who had more of
everything had earned it by their merit? The moral effrontery of bin Laden
amazed Americans and they found it galling.

To be sure, bin Laden is scarcely the first person to make this kind of
verbal attack, but he was the first person who has been able to translate
that verbal attack into a physical attack on U.S. soil, one that caught
America by surprise and, momentarily at least, helpless. Until that
happened, Americans could afford to ignore the verbal attacks so rampant in
the world as the babblings of fools. But fools had now become villains.
Furthermore, the villains had been initially successful, and this was the
second great shock. We were supposed to be in a position to be able to
ignore such criticisms because we were essentially invulnerable, and we have
now discovered that we are not.

It has been frequently said that the world will never be the same again
after September 11. I think this is silly hyperbole. But it is true that the
American psyche may never be the same again. For once the unthinkable
happens, it becomes thinkable. And a direct assault on mainland America by a
scattered band of individuals had always been unthinkable. Now we have had
to establish an Office of Homeland Security. Now we have the Pentagon
discussing whether they should establish what they call an area command, a
military structure hitherto limited to the areas outside the U.S. covering
all the rest of the world, that would cover the United States itself.

Above all we now have "terrorists" in our vocabulary. In the 1950s, the term
"Communists" received expansive employ. It covered not only persons who were
members of Communist parties, not only those who thought of themselves or
were thought of by others as "fellow travelers," but even those who lacked
sufficient "enthusiasm" for the development of a hydrogen bomb. This was
after all the specific charge that led the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in
1953 to suspend the security clearance of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the very
person who was known as, and had hitherto been honored as, the "father of
the atomic bomb."

The term "terrorism" has now obtained the same expansive meaning. In
November, 2001, I watched a television program, "Law and Order." The plot
for this particular episode revolved around the burning down of a building
in the process of construction. The background to this was that the
contractor had received the land from the city, land which had previously
been a neighborhood garden, tended to by the community. There was opposition
to this construction in the community. A group of young persons identified
as "environmental activists" decided to burn down the building in protest.
The complication was that, by accident, someone was in the building
unbeknownst to them, and died in the fire. In the end, the arsonists are
caught and convicted. The interesting point of this banal story is that,
throughout the program, the arsonists are repeatedly referred to as
"terrorists." By any definition of terrorist, it is a stretch to use the
term in this case. But no matter! It was so used, and it will continue to be
so used.

We are the land of liberty, but today we hear voices - in the government, in
the press, in the population at large - that we have accorded too much
liberty, especially to non-citizens, and that "terrorists" have taken
advantage of our liberty. Therefore it is said the privileges of liberty
must give way to procedures that meet our requirements for security. For
example, we apparently worry that if we catch "terrorists" and put them on
trial, they may then have a public forum, they may not be convicted, or if
convicted they may not receive the death penalty. So, in order to ensure
that none of these things happen, we are creating military courts to be
convened by the President, with rules to be established by him alone, with
no right of appeal to anyone, courts that will operate in total secrecy, and
are able to proceed rapidly to a conclusion - presumably to a death penalty,
probably also carried out in secret. At the close of such trials, all we may
be allowed to know is the name of the person so condemned. Or perhaps not
even that. And in our land of liberty, this is being widely applauded, and
at most halfheartedly opposed by a brave minority.

We consider, we have stated publicly, that the attack on America is an
attack on our values and on civilization itself. We find such an attack
unconscionable. We are determined to win the worldwide war against terrorism
- against terrorists and all those who give them shelter and support. We are
determined to show that, despite this attack, we are and remain the greatest
country in the world. In order to prove this, we are not being adjured by
our President to make individual sacrifices, not even the small sacrifice of
paying more taxes, but rather to carry on our lives as normal. We are
however expected to applaud without reservation whatever our government and
our armed forces will do, even if this is not normal.

The extent of this requirement of "no reservations" may be seen in the
widespread denunciation of those who try to "explain" why the events of
September 11 occurred. Explanation is considered justification and virtual
endorsement of terror. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA),
an organization whose founders are Lynne Cheney and Sen. Joseph Lieberman,
issued a pamphlet in November 2001, entitled "Defending Civilization: How
Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It."(3) It
is a short pamphlet, which makes its points with remarkable pithiness. It
says that "college and university faculty are the weak link in America's
response to the attack." It continues with this analysis:

     Rarely did professors publicly mention heroism, rarely did they
     discuss the differences between good and evil, the nature of
     Western political order or the virtue of a free society. Their
     public messages were short on patriotism and long on
     self-flagellation. Indeed, the message of much of academe was:

The pamphlet devotes most of its space to an appendix of 117 quotations
which the authors feel illustrate their point. These quotations include
statements not merely of such persons as Noam Chomsky and Jesse Jackson but
of less usual targets of such denunciations - the Dean of the Woodrow Wilson
School at Princeton, a former Deputy Secretary of State. In short, the
authors of the pamphlet were aiming wide.

It is clear at this point that, even if the events of September 11 will not
alter the basic geopolitical realities of the contemporary world, they may
have a lasting impact on American political structures. How much of an
impact remains to be seen. It does seem however that the puzzlement of
Americans of which I spoke - why did this happen? and how could it happen? -
is a puzzle to which we are not being encouraged to respond, at least not

The Twin Towers are also a metaphor for the attack on America. They were
built with great engineering skill. They were supposed to be impervious to
every conceivable kind of accidental or deliberate destruction. Yet,
apparently, no one had ever considered that two planes filled with jet fuel
might deliberately crash into the towers, and hit the buildings at precisely
the point, 20% down from the top, that would maximize destruction. Nor had
anyone anticipated that the buildings could collapse slowly, overwhelmingly,
and in everyone's view, bringing down other buildings in their wake. No one
ever expected that the fires such a collapse ignited would continue to burn
for months afterwards. The U.S. may be able to avenge the attack, but it
cannot undo it. Technology turns out to be less than perfect as a protective

III. America and World Power

Anti-Catholicism, as it evolved [in Great Britain in the 18th century],
usually served a dialectical function, drawing attention to the supposed
despotism, superstition, military oppressiveness and material poverty of
Catholic regimes so as to throw into greater relief supposed Anglo- ritish
freedoms, naval supremacy, and agrarian and commercial prosperity, and
consequently superior mode of empire.

                                                             Linda Colley(4)

I start with this quote from Linda Colley to remind us that the United
States is not the first hegemonic power in the history of the modern
world-system, but rather the third, and that hegemony has its cultural rules
as well as its vulnerabilities. One of the cultural rules is that the
denigration of others is indispensable to sustaining the internal
self-assurance that makes possible the effective exercise of world power.

There is nothing so blinding as success. And the United States has had its
fair share of success in the past 200 years. Success has the vicious
consequence that it seems to breed almost inevitably the conviction that it
will necessarily continue. Success is a poor guide to wise policy. Failure
at least often leads to reflection; success seldom does.

Fifty years ago, U.S. hegemony in the world-system was based on a
combination of productive efficiency (outstripping by far any rivals), a
world political agenda that was warmly endorsed by its allies in Europe and
Asia, and military superiority. Today, the productive efficiency of U.S.
enterprises faces very extensive competition, competition first of all
coming from the enterprises of its closest allies. As a result, the world
political agenda of the United States is no longer so warmly endorsed and is
often clearly contested even by its allies, especially given the
disappearance of the Soviet Union. What remains for the moment is military

It is worth thinking about the objectives of U.S. foreign policy, as pursued
for the last 50 years by successive U.S. governments. Obviously, the U.S.
has been concerned with threats posed by governments it considered hostile
or at least inimical to U.S. interests. There is nothing wrong or
exceptional about this. This is true of the foreign policy of any state in
the modern world-system, especially any powerful state. The question is how
the U.S. thought it could deal with such threats.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. seemed to be so strong that it could
arrange, without too much difficulty and with a minimal use of force, that
governments it did not like either could be neutralized (we called that
containment) or, in the case of weaker governments, could be overthrown by
internal forces supported covertly by the U.S. government, assisted
occasionally by a little old-fashioned gunship diplomacy.

Neutralization was the tactic employed vis-a-vis the Communist world. The
U.S. did not seek to overthrow the Soviet Union or any of its satellite
regimes in east and central Europe. Basically, it did not seek this because
it was not in a military position to carry this out against the expected
resistance by the government of the U.S.S.R. Instead, the U.S. government
entered into a tacit accord with the U.S.S.R. that it would not even try to
do this, in return for a pledge by the Soviet Union that it would not try to
expand its zone. We refer to this in code as the Yalta agreement. If one
doubts the reality of this agreement, just review U.S. foreign policy
vis-a-vis the German Democratic Republic in 1953, Hungary in 1956,
Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1981.

The accord was not however intended to apply to East Asia, where Soviet
troops were absent, thanks primarily to the insistence of the Communist
regimes in China and North Korea. So the U.S. did in fact try to overthrow
these regimes as well as that in Vietnam. It did not however succeed. And
these failed attempts left a serious scar on American public opinion.

The United States, however, was able to enforce its will in the rest of the
world, and did so without compunction. Think of Iran in 1953, Guatemala in
1954, Lebanon in 1956, the Dominican Republic in 1965, and Chile in 1973.
The coup in Chile by Gen. Pinochet against the freely-elected government of
Salvador Allende, with the active support of the U.S. government, occurred
on Sept. 11. I do not know whether or not Osama bin Laden or his followers
were aware of this coincidence of dates, but it is nonetheless a symbolic
coincidence that many, especially in Latin America, will notice. It also
points to a further metaphor of the Twin Towers. The Twin Towers were a
marvelous technological achievement. But technological achievements can and
will be copied. The Malaysians have already copied the Twin Towers
architecturally, and a bigger skyscraper is being built right now in
Shanghai. Symbols too can be copied. Now we have two September 11
anniversaries, on which victims mourn.

In the 1970s, U.S. foreign policy methods changed, had to change. Chile was
the last major instance in which the U.S. was able so cavalierly to arrange
other governments to its preferences. (I do not count the cases of either
Grenada or Panama, which were very small countries with no serious mode of
military defense.) What had caused this change was the end of U.S. economic
dominance of the world-economy, combined with the military defeat of the
United States in Vietnam. Geopolitical reality had changed. The U.S.
government could no longer concentrate on maintaining, even less on
expanding, its power; instead its prime goal became preventing a too rapid
erosion of its power - both in the world-economy and in the military arena.

In the world-economy, the U.S. faced not only the hot breath of its
competitors in western Europe and Japan but the seeming success of
"developmentalist" policies in large parts of the rest of the world,
policies that had been designed expressly to constrain the ability of
countries in the core zone to accumulate capital at what was seen to be the
expense of countries in the periphery. We should remember that the 1970s was
declared by the United Nations the "decade of development." In the 1970s,
there was much talk of creating a "new international economic order," and in
UNESCO of creating a "new international information order." The 1970s was
the time of the two famous OPEC oil price rises, which sent waves of panic
into the American public.

The U.S. position on all these thrusts was either ambiguous discomfort or
outright opposition. Globally, a counterthrust was launched. It involved the
aggressive assertion of neo-liberalism and the so-called Washington
Consensus, the transformation of GATT into the World Trade Organization, the
Davos meetings, and the spreading of the concept of globalization with its
corollary, TINA (there is no alternative). Essentially, all these efforts
combined amounted to a dismantlement of the "developmentalist" policies
throughout the world, and of course particularly in the peripheral zones of
the world-economy. In the short run, that is in the 1980s and 1990s, this
counteroffensive led by the U.S. government seemed to succeed.

These policies on the front of the world-economy were matched by a
persistent world military policy which might be summarized as the
"anti-proliferation" policy. When the United States successfully made the
first atomic bombs in 1945, it was determined to maintain a monopoly on such
very powerful weapons. It was willing to share this monopoly with its
faithful junior partner, Great Britain, but that was it. Of course, as we
know, the other "great powers" simply ignored this claim. First the Soviet
Union, then France, then China achieved nuclear capacity. So then did India
and later Pakistan. So did South Africa, whose apartheid government however
admitted this only as it was leaving power and was careful to dismantle this
capacity before it turned over power to the successor, more democratic,
government of the Black African majority. And so did Israel, although it has
always denied this publicly.

Then there are the almost nuclear powers, if indeed they are still in the
almost category - North Korea, Iran, Iraq (whose facilities Israel bombed in
the 1980s in order to keep it in the "almost" category), Libya, and maybe
Argentina. And there are in addition the former Soviet countries which
inherited this capacity - Ukraine, Belorussia, and Kazakhstan. To this must
be added the other lethal technologies - biological and chemical warfare.
These are so much easier to create, store, and employ, that we are not sure
how many countries have some capacity, even a considerable capacity in these

The United States has had a simple straightforward policy. By hook or by
crook, by force or by bribery, it wishes to deny everybody access to these
weapons. It has obviously not been successful, but its efforts over the past
years have at least slowed down the process of proliferation. There is a
further catch in U.S. policy. Insofar as it tries to employ international
agreements to limit proliferation, it simultaneously tries not itself to be
bound by such constraints, or to be minimally bound. The U.S. government has
made it clear that it will renounce any such restraints whenever it deems it
necessary to do so, while loudly condemning any other government that seeks
to do the same.

As a policy, non-proliferation seems doomed to failure, not only in the long
run but even in the middle run. The best that the U.S. will be able to do in
the next 25 years is to slow the process down somewhat. But there is also a
moral/political question here. The United States trusts itself, but trusts
no one else. The U.S. government wishes to inspect North Korean locations to
see if it is violating these norms. It has not offered the U.N. or anyone
else the right to inspect U.S. locations. The U.S. trusts itself to use such
weapons wisely, and in the defense of liberty (a concept seemingly identical
with U.S. national interests). It assumes that anyone else might intend to
use such weapons against liberty (a concept seemingly identical here too
with U.S. national interests).

Personally, I do not trust any government to use such weapons wisely. I
would be happy to see them all banned, but do not believe this is truly
enforceable in the contemporary interstate system. So personally I abstain
from moralizing on this issue. Moralizing opens one to the charge of
hypocrisy. And while a cynical neo-realist (a category that probably
includes me) would say that all governments are hypocritical, moralizing
jars badly if one wishes to attract support in other countries on the basis
of one's comparative virtue.

IV. America: Ideals versus Privilege

To suggest that the universal civilization is in place already is to be
willfully blind to the present reality and, even worse, to trivialize the
goal and hinder the materialization of a genuine universality in the future.

                                                            Chinua Achebe(5)

[T]he opposition between globalization and local traditions is false:
globalization directly resuscitates local traditions, it literally thrives on
them, which is why the opposite of globalization is not local traditions, but
                                                             Slavoj Zizek(6)

The story of U.S. and world power can be resumed quite simply at this
moment. I do not believe that America and Americans are the cause of
all the world's miseries and injustices. I do believe they are their prime
beneficiaries. And this is the fundamental problem of the U.S. as a nation
located in a world of nations.

Americans, especially American politicians and publicists, like to speak
about our ideals. An advertisement for the "bestselling" book of Chris
Matthews, Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think, offers this excerpt:
"When you think about it, we Americans are different. That word 'freedom'
isn't just in our documents; it's in our cowboy souls."(7) "Cowboy souls" -
I could not have said it better. Our ideals are perhaps special. But the
same people who remind us of that do not like to talk about our privileges,
which are also perhaps special. Indeed, they denounce those who do talk of
them. But the ideals and the privileges go together. They may seem to be in
conflict, but they presuppose each other.

I am not someone who denigrates American ideals. I find them quite
wonderful, even refreshing. I cherish them, I invoke them, I further them.
Take for example the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - something
correctly remembered at all the appropriate ceremonies as incarnating
American ideals. Let us, however, recall two things about the First
Amendment. It wasn't in the original Constitution, which means it wasn't
considered a founding principle. And public opinion polls have often shown
that a majority of the American public would change, diminish, or even
eliminate these guarantees, in whole or in part, even in so-called ordinary
times. When we are in a "war" such as the "war on terrorism," then neither
the U.S. government nor the U.S. public can be counted on to defend these
ideals, and not even the Supreme Court can be relied upon to hold fast to
them in an "emergency." Such defense is left largely to an often timid
organization with at best minority support in public opinion, the American
Civil Liberties Union, membership in which is often cited as a reason not to
vote for someone in a general election. So, I am in favor of freedom of
speech and freedom of religion and all the other freedoms, but sometimes I
must wonder if America is.

The reason of course is not that there is absent a Voltairean streak in the
American public, but that sometimes we fear that our privileges are in
danger of erosion or disappearance. And, in such cases, most people place
privilege ahead of ideals. Once again, Americans are not unusual in this
regard. They simply are more powerful and have more privileges. Americans
are freer to have the ideals because they are freer to ignore them. They
have the power to override their cowboy souls.

The question before Americans is really the following. If American hegemony
is in slow decline, and I believe it unquestionably is, will we lose the
ideals because we will have less power to override them? Will our cowboy
souls erect barbed wire around our national ranch in order to guard our
privileges in danger of decline, as though they could not escape through the
barbed wire? Let me suggest here another metaphor that comes from the Twin
Towers. Towers that are destroyed can be rebuilt. But will we rebuild them
in the same way - with the same assurance that we are reaching for the stars
and doing it right, with the same certainty that they will be seen as a
beacon to the world? Or will we rebuild in other ways, after careful
reflection about what we really need and what is really possible for us, and
really desirable for us?

And who is the us? If one follows the statements of Attorney-General
Ashcroft, seconded by many others in the U.S. government, in the press, and
among the public in general, the "us" is no longer everyone in the U.S., not
even everyone legally resident in the U.S., but only U.S. citizens. And we
may wonder if the "us" may not be further narrowed in the near future. As
Zizek points out, globalization is not the opposite of localism, it thrives
on localism, especially the localism of the powerful. The "us" is by no
stretch of the imagination homo sapiens sapiens. Is homo then so sapiens?

V. America: From Certainty to Uncertainty

"Darwin's revolution should be epitomized as the substitution of variation
for essence as the central category of natural reality....What can be more
discombobulating than a full inversion, or 'grand flip,' in our concept of
reality: in Plato's world, variation is accidental, while essences record a
higher reality; in Darwin's reversal, we value variation as a defining (and
concrete earthly) reality, while averages (our closest operational approach
to 'essences') become mental abstractions."

                                                         Stephen J. Gould(8)

Nature is indeed related to the creation of unpredictable novelty, where the
possible is richer than the real.
                                                           Ilya Prigogine(9)

President Bush has been offering the American people certainty about their
future. This is the one thing totally beyond his power to offer. The future
of the United States, the future of the world, in the short run, but even
more in the medium run, is absolutely uncertain. Certainty may seem
desirable if one reflects on one's privileges. It seems less desirable if one
thinks that the privileges are doomed to decline, even disappear. And if
it were certain that the Osama bin Ladens of this world, in all camps, were
to prevail, who would cherish that certainty?

I return to the question I raised before as one of the puzzles that
Americans are feeling right now: what must be done, what can be done, that
an event like that of September 11 will not, could not happen again? We are
being offered the answer that the exercise of overwhelming force by the U.S.
government, military force primarily, will guarantee this. Our leaders are
prudent enough to remind us that this will take some time, but they do not
hesitate to make medium-run assurances. For the moment, it seems that the
American people are willing to test this hypothesis. If the U.S. government
is receiving criticism at this moment, it is coming mostly from those who
believe its expression of military power is far too timid. There are
important groups who are pressing the U.S. government to go much further -
to operate militarily against Iraq, and some would add Iran, Syria, Sudan,
Palestine, North Korea. Why not Cuba next? There are some who are even
saying that reluctant generals should be retired to make way for younger,
more vigorous warriors. There are those who believe that it is their role to
precipitate Armageddon.

There are two ways one can argue against this. One is that the United States
could not win such a worldwide military conflagration. A second is that the
United States would not wish to bear the moral consequences, first of all
for itself, of trying to do so. Fortunately, one does not have to choose
between realism and idealism. It is not belittling of our moral values that
they are seconded by elementary common sense.

After the Civil War, the United States spent some 80 years pursuing its
manifest destiny. It was not sure, all that time, whether it wished to be an
isolationist or an imperial power. And when, in 1945, it had finally
achieved hegemony in the world-system, when it had (in Shakespeare's choice)
not only achieved greatness but had greatness thrust upon it, the American
people were not fully prepared for the role they now had to play. We spent
thirty years learning how to "assume our responsibilities" in the world. And
just when we had learned this reasonably well, our hegemony passed its peak.

We have spent the last thirty years insisting very loudly that we are still
hegemonic and that everyone needs to continue to acknowledge it. If one is
truly hegemonic, one does not need to make such a request. We have wasted
the past thirty years. What the United States needs now to do is to learn
how to live with the new reality - that it no longer has the power to decide
unilaterally what is good for everyone. It may not even be in a position to
decide unilaterally what is good for itself. It has to come to terms with
the world. It is not Osama bin Laden with whom we must conduct a dialogue.
We must start with our near friends and allies - with Canada and Mexico,
with Europe, with Japan. And once we have trained ourselves to hear them and
to believe that they too have ideals and interests, that they too have ideas
and hopes and aspirations, then and only then perhaps shall we be ready to
dialogue with the rest of the world, that is, with the majority of the

This dialogue, once we begin to enter into it, will not be easy, and may not
even be pleasant. For they shall ask us to renounce some privileges. They
will ask us to fulfill our ideals. They will ask us to learn. Fifty years
ago, the great African poet/politician, Léopold-Sédar Senghor, called on the
world to come to the "rendez-vous du donner et du recevoir." Americans know
what they have to give in such a rendez-vous. But are they aware of
something they wish to receive?

We are being called upon these days to return to spiritual values, as though
we had ever observed these values. But what are these values? Let me remind
you. In the Christian tradition (Matthew 19:24), it is said: "It is easier
for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter
the kingdom of God." And in the Jewish tradition, Hillel tells us: "Do unto
others as you would have them do unto you." And in the Muslim tradition, the
Koran (52.36) tells us: "Or did they create the heavens and the earth? Nay!
They have no certainty." Are these our values?

There is of course no single American tradition or single American set of
values. There are, and always have been, many Americas. We each of us
remember and appeal to the Americas we prefer. The America of slavery and
racism is a deep American tradition, and still very much with us. The
America of frontier individualism and gunslinging desperados is an American
tradition, and still very much with us. The America of robber barons and
their philanthropic children is an American tradition, and still very much
with us. And the America of the Wobblies and the Haymarket riots, an event
celebrated throughout the world except in America, is an American tradition,
and still very much with us.

Sojourner Truth, telling the National Women's Congress in 1851, "Ain't I a
woman?" is an American tradition. But so were those late nineteenth-century
suffragists who argued for votes on the grounds that it would balance the
votes of Blacks and immigrants. The America that welcomes immigrants and the
America that rejects them are both American traditions. The America that
unites in patriotic resolve and the America that resists militarist
engagements are both American traditions. The America of equality and of
inequality are both American traditions. There is no essence there. There is
no there there. As Gould reminds us, it is variation, not essence, that is
the core of reality. And the question is whether the variation amongst us
will diminish, increase, or remain the same. It seems to me exceptionally
high at the moment.

Osama bin Laden will soon be forgotten, but the kind of political violence
we call terrorism will remain very much with us in the 30-50 years to come.
Terrorism is to be sure a very ineffective way to change the world. It is
counterproductive and leads to counterforce, which can often wipe out the
immediate set of actors. But it will nonetheless continue to occur. An
America that continues to relate to the world by a unilateral assertion that
it represents civilization, whether it does so in the form of isolationist
withdrawal or in that of active interventionism, cannot live in peace with
the world, and therefore will not live in peace with itself. What we do to
the world, we do to ourselves. Can the land of liberty and privilege, even
amidst its decline, learn to be a land that treats everyone everywhere as
equals? And can we deal as equal to equal in the world-system if we do not
deal as equal to equal within our own frontiers?

What shall we choose to do now? I can have my preferences but I cannot, you
cannot, predict what we shall do. Indeed, it is our good fortune that we
cannot be certain of any of these projected futures. That reserves for us
moral choice. That reserves for us the possible that is richer than the
real. That reserves for us unpredictable novelty. We have entered a terrible
era, an era of conflicts and evils we find it difficult to imagine but,
sadly, one to which we can rapidly become accustomed. It is easy to allow
our sensitivities to be hardened in the struggle to survive. It is far
harder to save our cowboy souls. But at the end of the process lies the
possibility, which is far from the certainty, of a more substantively
rational world, of a more egalitarian world, of a more democratic world - of
a universality that results from giving and receiving, a universality that
is the opposite of globalization.

The last metaphor that is attached to the Twin Towers is that these
structures were, are, and will be a choice. We chose to build them. We are
deciding whether or not to rebuild them. The factors that enter into these
choices were and are and will be very. very many. We are rebuilding America.
The world is rebuilding the world. The factors that enter into these choices
are and will be very, very many. Can we maintain our moral bearing amidst
the uncertainty that the world we have made heretofore is only one of
thousands of alternative worlds we might have created, and the world that we
shall be making in the 30-50 years to come may or may not be better, may or
may not reduce the contradiction between our ideals and our privileges?

In-sha 'a-llah.

1. Charles R. Lawrence II Memorial Lecture, Brooklyn College, Dec. 5, 2001.

2. Published in Theory and Society, XXI, 1, Feb., 1992, 1-28.

3. The authors are Jerry L. Martin and Anne Neal.

4. "Multiple Kingdoms," London Review of Books, 19 July 2001, p. 23.

5. Chinua Achebe, Home and Exile, New York: Anchor Books, 2000, p. 91.

6. Slavoj Zizek, On Belief, New York: Routledge, 2001, p. 152.

7. New York Times, Nov. 28, 2001, p. E8.

8. Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, New York:
Three Rivers Press, 1996, 41.

9. Ilya Prigogine, The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of
Nature, New York: Free Press, 1997, p. 72.

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© Immanuel WALLERSTEIN (

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