On television, we watch attractive lovers drinking red wine in a lush New Zealand vineyard. Cut. Syrian soldiers drag a body down the street. Incongruous images like these aren’t just the stuff of late-night television viewing; equally discordant scenes, "links," flash up on computer screens where many of us surf. In fact, just about everywhere you look, advertisements for the "good life" coincide, with almost naturalized self-evidence, with registrations of another country’s cruelty. It’s as if the desires for pleasure and calls for moral outrage have something in common, which they do: the capacity to make us feel good. All the more visible in these media saturated times, claims to American virtue and experiences of feel-swell righteousness are nevertheless not new; they have been a common feature of U.S. politics, enabling domestic support for imperial projects from Wilson onwards.
American efforts to establish the moral high ground often lead to a lowly politics where might makes right. Too selective and inconsistent, American policy is hypocritical, offering up double standards that force well-meaning people around the world to make limited or bad choices (for tyranny and against empire, for tyranny and western shenanigans, or against tyranny but for western intervention)—as if Americans held the patent on human flourishing and sound judgment.
The deaths of approximately 3500 Syrians, and the incarceration of up to 50,000 more, are not just statistics to the people whose lives have been damaged irreparably by the disappearance of relatives, friends, and colleagues. Dreadful too are the effects of U.S. drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan, which have killed thousands and are less subject to international censure, however. As the curtain comes down on a near decade of destruction in Iraq—a conflict launched under false pretenses with a legacy that is far from certain—the death toll runs anywhere from a few hundred thousand to more than a million, depending on who is counting the bodies. There’s also American support for the seemingly endless Israeli occupation; the Bahraini government’s attempts to squelch protest and U.S. relative silence about that; American ally Saudi Arabia’s ongoing and deleterious intervention in Yemeni affairs; Saudi threats to pummel its own domestic resistance with an “iron fist”; and the U.S. support for Libyan rebels whose aspirations for regime change were accompanied by the wholesale massacre of entire street blocks of Libyan civilians. In the name of freedom, the U.S. has been shoring up autocracies and promoting violence for decades, as everyone knows, and it continues to do so with impunity. It is difficult even to recite these facts without sounding shrill, while rehearsing the atrocities of regimes deemed “rogue” gets coded as reasonable. That very judgment of reasonableness is part of the double standard—permitting Americans to live comfortably with contradictions and evidence of outright hypocrisy.
As the list above makes clear, the failure of honest self-appraisal is by no means specific to dictatorships. U.S. declarations of moral outrage at events taking place abroad also allow citizens to be too complacent about American coercion at home. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. It is the only liberal democracy that routinely executes its citizens, and it does so with more regularity than many autocracies. The failure to enact campaign finance reforms means that our electoral system is controlled by those who have the funding, putting policies in the hands of wealthy donors rather than ordinary citizens. And the possibilities for expressing alternative visions have been limited by unspoken gag rules of respectability and corporate sponsorship that discount arguments to the left of liberal.
To reject the double standard is to cease to live within a lie, to borrow Vaclav Havel’s felicitous phrase. It makes it easier to be imaginative across nation-state and regime type divides, to refuse to sign up for either western empire or repressive politics as usual. At the very least, we should demand that U.S. politicians (and journalists, for that matter) either exercise the same moral outrage across the board or acknowledge the duplicity. American double standards offer dictatorships cover by allowing some citizens to displace what might be a condemnation of their own regime’s actions onto disgust with U.S. policy and anxiety about western intervention. Throwing tomatoes at American embassies becomes an easy, satisfying alternative to offering a critique of injustice that condemns both American and domestic abuses of power—or sees the potential relationships between them.
The salvific might of the U.S. is intertwined with attachments to what Lauren Berlant calls “unachievable fantasies of the good life.” Dreams of upward mobility, political and social equality, and job security have been repeatedly dashed as the welfare state retreats. The protestors of Occupy Wall Street voice the anger of those who have come to recognize that the good life is moving beyond the reach of the vast majority. The juxtaposition of vineyard romance (or a host of other advertisements) and autocratic brutality is an attempt to re-secure that fantasy, anchoring it in a despotic otherness that forecloses criticizing our own double standards both at home and abroad. One remedy, then, might be to avoid rushing to remedy, to think critically about the exaggerated self-esteem underwriting U.S. foreign policy. A commitment to ongoing and discomfiting critique can help us relinquish the convenient platitudes and slippery standards that substitute for discussion of substantive political issues.