The white hats, part I

William F. Buckley, Jr. died last week at the age of 82. A central figure in the birth and rise to power of the postwar American conservative movement, Buckley was well known not just in political circles but in ordinary households across the country, where his syndicated column ran in the local paper and Firing Line, which he hosted on PBS, appeared on the television. Wikipedia tells me he was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson.

I was a voracious reader of op-ed columns as a kid and I looked forward to Buckley’s wit and big vocabulary. My dad had several copies of Buckley’s Up from Liberalism! on the bookshelf in the basement, left over from an entrepreneurial venture in his college economics club, and I read the book and was convinced: Liberalism made people soft and immoral and dependent, corrupting the very soul (not to mention the Republic). I didn’t watch Firing Line much, although I remember staying up late once watching Buckley debate Michael Kinsley, I believe, on drug legalization, which Buckley opposed at the time, though he would come to change his mind. I found the pro-legalization side more convincing, but by then I was in high school and beginning to approach the politics I’d been weaned on somewhat critically. Later, of course, I became the radical-liberal-anarcho-pragmatic-syndicalist-nonaligned-leftist I am today, and Buckley became much less appealing.

I was home sick last week and all caught up on the Wire (still haven’t seen this week’s, so don’t spoil anything!), so when I heard about Buckley’s death I took to YouTube, where I found his famous debate with Noam Chomsky. (Part 1, part 2.) As we say on the Internet, Chomsky pwned Buckley. Badly. Worth watching.

The first major question that comes up in the first clip is an interesting and far-reaching one. Chomsky had just finished American Power and the New Mandarins, his critique of American imperialism as a context for the then-ongoing Vietnam War, and Buckley was obviously trying to deny Chomsky’s central point, which is that the intervention in Vietnam was of a piece with a much longer and equally illegitimate history of American imperialistic intervention.

By 1969, public opinion in America was largely against the Vietnam war, although it’s safe to say that the majority never accepted the radical critique of the war. Still, you see Buckley doing a lot of work trying to show that American military interventions in general, and the Vietnam intervention in particular, are disinterested (not uninterested, but disinterested, neutral or without a stake in the outcome). Chomsky, hilariously, answers that in principle one can distinguish between soi-disant disinterested and self-interested colonial interventions, but the only cases he can think of that are one but not the other are cases like Belgium’s colonization of the Congo, which was self-interested without even pretending to be disinterested. Buckley, also hilariously, pretends not to notice that this example cuts against his point, crowing, “So you do admit there are exceptions, then!”

Chomsky’s point cuts deep: throughout the history of colonialism, colonial powers have used the language of virtue and the language of disinterest to justify their acts abroad: saving the natives’ souls, civilizing primitive or “ungovernable” peoples, keeping the peace, opening and maintaining trade routes, etc. These narratives become a way of covering up the real motivation of colonialism: profit through the exploitation of the weak.

As a country that likes to think of itself as a democracy (and does in fact allow its citizens some degree of influence over some decisions of the state), the United States needs this kind of whitewashing narrative more than most empires have throughout history. We have a stronger need to be convinced, collectively, of our own goodness. Many Americans tell themselves that America can simply do no wrong, that anyone who points out its less noble moments is lying or distorting the true and moral history of this great nation. Many Americans tell themselves that the United States has a special mission to bring freedom and democracy to the world, and that its superior form of government and superior citizenry are allowed to take actions “with a pure heart” that would be wrong for other, less moral countries to attempt — like, say, invading a sovereign state to change its government to be more to our liking. This particular version of the “white man’s burden” narrative is known as American Exceptionalism, and it’s a strong barrier between the American public and the realities of American power.

American Exceptionalism is one of the things that drives us leftists batty, since it’s so obviously mendacious an ideology once you understand it, yet it’s so pervasive and powerful that respectable figures in the public sphere almost never challenge it. (It’s a credit to Buckley and to the intellectual climate of the late ’60s that he even had Chomsky on his show.) When Michelle Obama barely hinted recently that she had been less than proud of the United States in the past, the Republicans pounced and the Obama campaign quickly backtracked, saying she had meant merely to express how proud she was of her husband. (I suppose we’re meant to ignore our suspicions of what a politically engaged black woman might find less than honorable in America’s history.)

Or consider U.S. military spending. For FY 2009, the Bush administration has requested $541 billion for the Department of Defense and nuclear-weapons-related activities of the Department of Energy, plus at least $170 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for a total of $711 billion dollars of military spending. That seems like a lot of money, but maybe it’s really not — some things are measured in trillions of dollars, after all.

Luckily, the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has put those numbers in context for us. It turns out that U.S. military spending in 2009 will total 48 percent of all money spent on the military by every country in the whole world. Let me repeat: we spend nearly as much on our military as every other country combined. The next most spendthrift military, China, will come in around $121.9 billion, or 17 percent of the U.S. expenditures. Besides Russia, the other countries in the top ten military spenders list are all U.S. allies, as are most in the next set of ten, putting the U.S.-friendly share of global military spending well over 70 percent. Here’s an illuminating chart:

us vs world

If we’re not in the imperialism business, what possible reason could we have for spending that much more than anyone else on our military? And why, if we’re a democracy, do we continue these outrageous expenditures when most Americans believe we are a peace-loving people, disinterested if not outright altruistic on the world stage? John McCain, of course, wants to increase military spending. Has either Obama or Clinton called for decreasing it? What are the priorities here, and who’s setting them?

19 responses to “The white hats, part I”

  1. lane says:


    I had to stop right here and applaud this.

    I’ll go back to reading now . . .

  2. Rogan says:

    Since you bring up The Wire in this thread (this week’s episode was REALLY good), it is worth pointing out one of the many social engines that makes America’s militaristic imperialism possible — our failure to address urban decay in our inner-cities. My neighborhood is full of churches, motels, liquor stores, gas stations, fast food joints, and military recruitment centers. It is a pump that feeds both the military and prison industrial complexes.

  3. Rogan says:

    Dave, you had me at “radical-liberal-anarcho-pragmatic-syndicalist-nonaligned-leftist.” Now shut up and kiss me.

  4. ks says:

    As always, I looked to see who had commented before I began reading this excellent reflection on transformative political positions and saw Lane’s name among the three commenters. (Lane is the only whatsiter I’ve actually met in person, though I’ve not seen him in a couple of decades.) As I was reading I stopped on “radical-liberal-anarcho-pragmatic-syndicalist-nonaligned-leftist” and said to myself, “I bet Lane comments on what a cool descriptor that is.”

  5. bw says:

    Let me repeat: we spend nearly as much on our military as every other country combined.

    That line and the accompanying graph were chilling.

    And as for #4 — what a fascinating revelation, ks. I had imagined you stumbled here accidentally — perhaps drawn to discussions of teaching or history; I think you revealed once which midwest state you lived in, and it seemed so remote from the population centers most of us come from or came from. So hmmm … must ask Lane for more details.

  6. Dave says:

    Rogan: excellent point about poverty at home feeding the imperialist engines. If colonialism is the brutal exploitation of the weak abroad, it’s not hard to see a domestic counterpart in the way we treat our inner cities.

    And that whole “radical-liberal-whatever” thing — that’s just how I describe my politics on Tuesdays.

  7. Scotty says:

    I agree with Chomsky on most of his observations, and all of his that are documented in the Buckley debate.

    My one problem with your post is that you seem to assume that other states would act differently than the US given its global interests and current situation. This is one of the reasons that I credit Chomsky as much as I do; he understands that the problem lies in the nation-state system, and that all states (and some non-state actors) are culpable in ‘terror’ against civilians. In this regard, he has much in common with neo-realists like Kenneth Waltz who introduced the idea of the ‘anarchic world system,’ suggesting that states need to do all they can to protect themselves in the ‘self help’ situation they are all in. And Hans Morgenthau who gave us the concept that state intentions should only be viewed as ‘interest defined in terms of power.’ Yes, the realist view is narrow, and can’t answer to things like the formation of the EU or the peaceful dissolving of the Soviet Union, but it still gives a somewhat reliable lens of IR.

    On your second point: the US spends the way it does on the military for a few reasons. First, military technology is one of the few industries that directly benefits American workers. (For this reason alone, both parties will continue to vote for increased military spending.) Second, because as American ‘soft’ power is waning and support from oil producing nations may be in question, the US needs to bolster its position with good ole military might. Finally, the American public hears ‘increased military spending’ and translates this as ‘safer America,’ which you know as well as I is completely false.

    I loved your post and watching the classic Buckley/Chomsky debate. Buckley’s incessant winking made me really glad that he’s dead – what a smug motherfucker. For another good time, I recommend the Foucault/Chomsky debate, which is one of the links in the Youtube sidebar.

  8. Dave says:

    Scott, I didn’t mean to assume that other countries would act differently if they were in our position. I think they’d behave pretty much the same way. What I’m interested in is how Americans in particular hide the truth of their country’s brutality from themselves.

    You make some good points about military spending, all of which should be part of a complete analysis of American imperialism.

  9. Scotty says:

    Yes Dave, I apologize for the grad school and caffeine fueled diatribe — too much IR theory on the brain.

    As for Americans hiding our nation’s brutality from ourselves, I do think that there’s a pretty huge machine that chugs along with the directive of maintaining the status quo in this regard. This isn’t to take all of the blame away from regular people, but it’s somewhat easy to see why many Americans still believe that Saddam was responsible for 9/11.

  10. ks says:

    #5: FYI: I was friends with Lane in the land of Zion–little RR hub town of our mutual birth–in the mid-80s, before transferring to the one private high school in our little town to finish up high school in a Mormon-free zone (sorry, I was never “of the flock”). A couple or three years ago something made me wonder what ever happened to him and when I googled him I found this site. It has been part of my (almost) daily regimen ever since. I still feel like an interloper though, not that ya’ll haven’t been incredibly kind to strangers.

    Hi Lane, if you happen to read this.

  11. lane says:

    And that whole “radical-liberal-whatever” thing — that’s just how I describe my politics on Tuesdays.

    I’ll go back to reading now . . .

  12. lane says:

    #5: FYI: I was friends with Lane in the land of Zion–little RR hub town of our mutual birth (I’m from SLC . . . come on now Ogden’s a hick town, and I’m kind of a hick, but I wasn’t BORN there)
    –in the mid-80s, before transferring to the one private high school in our little town to finish up high school in a Mormon-free zone (sorry, I was never “of the flock”) (Easy ks, the “Non-Mormon from Utah” thing! I sweart to GOD I will kick your ass! I went to the “U” my hostility toward that, as these people have heard, over and over . . .).
    A couple or three years ago something made me wonder what ever happened to him and when I googled him I found this site. It has been part of my (almost) daily regimen ever since ( There you go, not all the nice mormon kids were assholes).
    I still feel like an interloper though, not that ya’ll haven’t been incredibly kind to strangers.
    Hi Lane, if you happen to read this.

    Hey, Welcome aboard ks!

    In ALL seriousness, hanging with you, at the garage, those times were among the coolest of my life. (yeah ok I’m an idiot sentimentalist)

    I’ll send you my #,


  13. lane says:

    “not that ya’ll ”

    One more thing.

    God that cracks me up.

    You and Teddy B.

    Posers! – you KNOW I’m right.

    Well you do live in St. Louis now.

    Is he still in VA.?


  14. Dave says:

    Lane, I edited your comment to remove ks’s name, which he/she can reveal if he/she wishes.

  15. lane says:

    bry told me,


  16. lane says:

    and now that I’ve read the post,

    wow, great writing dave

    good night

  17. ks says:

    Yes, Dave, as Lane wrote, great and always pointed writing. You keep my political compass pointing the right (not “Right”) direction when I fall behind in my reading of politcal goings on in the here and now. (I’m a historian so my preference is for explaining why the past was fucked up. Much easier than trying to figure out the present.)

    Anyhoo, so sorry to comandeer the comments by catching up with old friends and making new ones. Oh, and anonymity is not a high priority for me here. But thanks for thinking about that!

    Lane, we DID have some good times! (Burned a few brain cells, too, so I don’t think you were all that “good” a Mormon back then, but you were definitely nice, and very amusing, not to mention having both a car and a drivers’ license when I was still only 15.)

    Funnily enough, I just in the past few weeks reconnected with Ted B. after more than a decade and half. He’s been up to some cool shit, traveling the world, publishing books, and has just gotten engaged and relocated to a place in S’ern Utah that I think would surprise you. (Google him: you’ll find his writings if you do a search for his name in the journal Best Friends.) I can pass along contact info if you email me. kim.(last name)atgmaildotcom. Or, find me on the departmental website at Wash U in StLoo. BTW: Adriana also should have my email address because I have emailed her a few times about food-related issues on her very awesome blog.

    Poser, indeed! I’ve lived in MO almost as long as I lived in Ogden, my friend. (Not that I’m bragging that I escaped hickville.)

  18. well . . .

    hickville to . . . Hickville . . . : )

    No I’m kidding, I know some people from St. Louis, I’ve actually heard very good things about it. Lots of young people, good urban renewal. Go over and say hi to Paul Ha at your new(ish) Contemporary Art Center. That place seems to be happening.

    Very cool, look us all up when you pass through “these parts” I told Bry last night you’re our kind of people.

  19. ks says:

    Ha, capital “H” Hickville! Love it. So true for the state, generally, but I live in a very progressive part of the city so I can convince (delude) myself, occasionally, that the buckle of the bible belt isn’t a mere thirty miles SW of here.

    Speaking of art, I want to come and see yours one of these days. How much of my annual salary would it cost to own a piece? While I love what you do with the cut paper medium, I am oddly drawn to the one titled “Newgate” that is on your personal website, plus the ones that specifically grapple with issues of violence and Mormonism. You can take the girl out of Utah, but…

    Thanks for the endorsement and inclusion in a very cool group.