"The shining city upon a hill" was how John Winthrop, one of the early Pilgrims, described America, his new homeland. Winthrop was making reference to the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus had addressed a large crowd:
"You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:14-16)
This vision of the United States as a God-ordained shining example has attained truly mythic proportions. John F. Kennedy sampled the same biblical metaphor in a speech just days before his inauguration in 1963. Ronald Reagan made it a focus of his farewell speech in 1989. ("Farewell address to the nation," January 11, 1989; )
The "city on a hill" was also repeatedly invoked by Justin Webb, senior BBC Washington correspondent, during his recent three-part BBC Radio 4 series, Death to America. (Broadcast on April 16, 23 and 30, 2007)
The series was billed as an examination of "anti-Americanism" — an interesting phrase to which we will return — in which Webb would question "the common perception of the United States as an international bully and a modern imperial power".
Webb began emotively, describing how his own recently departed mother had been a protester, an "energetic duffle-coated figure who wanted to ban the bomb, stop wars of all kinds and suffering anywhere". (Death to America, BBC Radio 4, April 16, 2007; see also Webb's article, "Anti-Americanism examined," BBC news online, April 12, 2007)
But as a youth, Webb began to notice a curious bias:
"The protests against nuclear weapons, for instance, concentrated on American weapons. The anti-war rallies were against American-led wars. The anti death penalty campaign focused on Texas.
"A pattern was emerging and has never seriously been altered. A pattern of willingness to condemn America for the tiniest indiscretion — or to magnify those indiscretions — while leaving the murderers, dictators, and thieves who run other nations oddly untouched."
In his quest to understand "anti-Americanism", Webb journeyed variously to France — "where", we were informed, "it all began" — and to Venezuela and Egypt. Webb noted of Venezuela that "the nation's leader Hugo Chavez compares George W Bush to Hitler". Unmentioned was the fact that Chavez had been responding in kind to then US secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, who had himself likened +Chavez+ to Hitler. ("Julia Buxton responds to Times article")
In setting the scene, Webb described a strain of French thought that regards the upstart American nation with disdain:
"The kind of anti-Americanism fostered by French intellectuals down the centuries revolves around intense dislike of what America +is+ - not what it +does+." (Original emphasis)
Webb was then ready to base his task on the following assumption:
"It is time that we understood that this attitude, this contempt for what democracy can do, is at the heart of at least some of the anti-Americanism we see in the world today."
A Smokescreen Of Ignorance
Turning to the United States' neighbours to the South, Webb observed:
"Latin American dislike of the United States and its leaders is a grittier substance than the smooth and heady French cocktail… This is not metaphysical hoity-toityness. Latin America's brew contains real sweat, real tears. Tears from a past where the southerners were the servants; the northerners, the masters. This is, after all, Washington's backyard."
Note the familiar cliché of Latin America as "Washington's backyard". This homely description nestles comfortably into the establishment presumption that the region is rightfully part of the US sphere of influence: an ideology that extends back to the imperialist Monroe Doctrine of 1823. And while Webb was careful to mention "real sweat, real tears", no mention was made of the real +blood+ spilled under US-sponsored wars, tyranny and oppression. (For details see our Media Alert, 'Vision of the Damned,' June 10 and 15, 2004)
"You've got to wonder if there is any end to the capacity of the rest of the world to blame the United States for its problems. Nowhere is that more the case than in Latin America, where out of roughly 500 million people, 200 million live on less than $2 a day.
"Is it all the fault of the imperialists from the north? Or is just a little of it the result of local attitudes to poverty, local attitudes to honesty in government, and local attitudes to the rule of law?
"In other words, in Latin America as elsewhere in the world, is anti-Americanism a smoke screen, a very convenient smoke screen, whose noxious fumes hide the reality of local failure?" (Webb, "Anti-Americanism in Venezuela," BBC news online, April 20, 2007)
In an email to one of our readers, Webb emphasised the same point: namely that the "failure of Latin economies cannot just be the result of US intervention". (Email from Justin Webb to Neil Laurenson, April 25, 2007)
There has certainly been a "failure of Latin economies" for the bulk of the population, but not for the US-based corporations that have long exploited the region for private profit — an issue we will examine in detail in Part Two of this alert.
Webb bulldozed through decades of horror and misery in stating glibly: "The US has behaved badly" in the past, but it is still "a shining city on the hill" and "in their heart of hearts, everyone here knows that."
In contrast to this remarkable comment, consider the testimony of John Pilger who has also recently visited Venezuela:
"Chavez and the rise of popular social movements, from Colombia down to Argentina, represent bloodless, radical change across the continent, inspired by the great independence struggles that began with Simon Bolivar, born in 1783 in Venezuela." (Pilger, "America's new enemy," New Statesman, November 14, 2005)
Bolivar understood the nature and intentions of the new colonial master to the north who had kicked out the Spanish: "The USA," Bolivar said in 1819, "appears destined by fate to plague America with misery in the name of liberty." (Ibid.)
The plague rampaged for the next two centuries with popular, reforming governments stamped out and replaced with US client states — torture regimes — in Chile, Argentina and elsewhere in the region. By the end of Ronald Reagan's two terms of office there were 300,000 corpses in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala as a result of US-sponsored wars and oppression. In a recent interview about the making of his new film, The War on Democracy, set in Latin America, Pilger said:
"Our filming was concentrated in the barrios where the continent's 'invisible people' live in hillside shanties that defy gravity. It tells, above all, a very positive story: that of the rise of popular social movements that have brought to power governments promising to stand up to those who control national wealth and to the imperial master. Venezuela has taken the lead… This is not to suggest that complete independence has been won. Venezuela's economy, for example, is still very much a 'neo-liberal' economy that continues to reward those with capital. The changes made under Chavez are extraordinary — in grassroots democracy, health care, education and the sheer uplifting of people's lives — but true equity and social justice and freedom from corruption remain distant goals." ("The U.S.' War on Democracy," interview with John Pilger, Pablo Navarette, May 1, 2007)
The BBC correspondent next travelled to the Middle East. This is a region that has long been coveted by US power. In 1945, State Department officials described Saudi Arabian energy resources as "a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history", with the Gulf Region considered "probably the richest economic pri
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