r e c o m m e n d e d r e a d i n g c h a r l e s j . b u s s e y
Born in Oxford, Mississippi, I have lived nearly sixty years in Kentucky where I teach American History at Western Kentucky University. Currently I am in Kristiansand, Norway, teaching a course called “The American South” as a Fulbright Scholar. This program was inaugurated in 1946 with legislation sponsored by Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright to create better understanding between the United States and foreign nations. In that sense, my wife Donna and I view ourselves as missionaries in a mission field in a 2004 world where the United States is viewed through many eyes as a rogue nation. It has been my purpose to demonstrate by word and deed that not all Americans, especially those of us from the American South, are arrogant and without international sensibility.
It is a fertile field, for I have discovered that among most Norwegians, including faculty and students at my university here, as well as ordinary citizens in the Kristiansand community, there is a strong anti-American feeling. By that I mean anti-American government – not anti toward American individuals. In fact, Donna and I have been extended many acts of kindness. We had been told by many people not to expect much of Norwegians beyond common courtesy and a friendly smile. Certainly, we were informed, you won’t be invited into homes and you won’t be taken into the confidence of those you meet. For the first week or two here in Kristiansand, that was true. Then we heard one of my colleagues, a poet named Annabelle Despard, speak to the international students at Agder University College. After going through a delightful introduction to Norsk culture and ways that Norwegians think and act, and in response to a question of how foreigners should act in Norway, Annabelle concluded by saying, “In the end, just do what your heart tells you.” Being very outgoing, I took that to heart – as did my less-outgoing wife.
We had heard a lot about the Setesdal Valley near Kristiansand toward the mountains where there is an isolated knitting museum near Telemark where a famous World War II raid against the Germans was conducted by Norwegian resistance fighters. I wanted to go, so I talked to one of my students, a fifty-four-year-old grandmother named Inger, and asked if she might help us figure out how to get up the valley to Ose and the museum. She thought about it briefly and said, “I will take you there in my car. I will arrange everything.”
Two weeks later we set out. It was a lovely day in September, and Inger had brought a picnic lunch of homemade bread smeared with blue cheese and a thermos of coffee. Three hours later we were in Ose and introduced to Annemor, a well-known expert who often lectured in the U.S. about Norwegian sweaters and knitting techniques. Five minutes later we were off with Inger and Annemor along the Otra River to pick Norwegian tyttebaer for jam. Later, we toured Annemor’s shop and the museum. Following that we enjoyed a delicious fresh whole trout dinner with potatoes, vegetables, and wine in the old and tiny Ose Hotel which had maybe four rooms upstairs and a dining room that seated fifteen at the most. That night we sat in the basement of Annemor’s shop drinking wine and chattering away like old friends about politics in America, especially about President George W. Bush, the Iraq War, and the direction America was taking under his leadership. Both Inger and Annemor were well informed. In addition, Annemor regaled us with stories about her most recent lecturing experiences in the Seattle area. Her hosts there for several weeks were leaders in the Green Party and in the American movement to simplify life styles. She thought it particularly amusing that one Seattle attorney’s idea of simplifying his life style meant going from twenty suits to ten. We all laughed as we sat in a very primitive building in Norway’s Setesdal Valley!
Inger and Annemor reminded me of American Southerners with their concern about the distinctiveness of place, of people, and of belonging. They talked of common acquaintances, where they lived, what they did, and naturally they concluded finally that they were distant kin. By 11 p.m., Donna and I were ready for bed, and Annemor said that she planned to row home across the fjord since she’d been drinking wine and didn’t want to drive. She showed us where we were to sleep – upstairs above her shop in a bedroom separated from Inger’s room by a common sitting area – and we settled in. The next morning, we discovered that Annemor and Inger had talked far into the night, but that Annemor had come back early and fixed us a huge breakfast with fresh baked bread from her basement oven which accommodates forty loaves at a time. She served us the usual assortment of meats, cheeses, and jams – but also fresh green beans from the garden, uncooked! It was the best of Southern hospitality, in “southern” Norway.
From Norway, looking back toward the United States, it is somewhat easier to put the current American government and its action in historical perspective. The American South, unlike the Norwegian South, was built on an arrogance and violence that revolved around first slavery and then segregation, and it is clear that America today, led by George W. Bush, has “moved” south. America now seems to have undergone a “Southernization” process and become the worst of the South, to have drifted far to the right politically and socially. “Are we all Kentucky now?” I thought to myself the other night watching BBC World news. By that I mean, Kentucky currently has two right-wing Senators and a right-wing governor, and Kentuckians express far too often the intolerant, provincial and repressive ideas of the radical religious right. People in my home state of nearly sixty years now seem to have no shame that the United States is violating the Constitution as well as international law in its use of power. I wonder if Norwegians are different from Americans or whether Norway just lacks the overwhelming power which America possesses. While I think that there is a basic human nature common to all people, there does seem to be a gentleness, a sense of international responsibility, and a respect for the rights of others among Norwegians that is lacking among many Americans. Perhaps that is merely a reflection of historical circumstance, a question of power, a matter of social construction. Still, it does give one pause.
I have taken the opportunity of being a Fulbright Scholar in Norway to reread several times Senator Fulbright’s 1966 book, The Arrogance of Power. Based on lectures he delivered at Johns Hopkins University in 1964, and published two years later in large measure as a response to America’s rush into madness in Vietnam, it is an amazing book to read almost four decades later. He wrote, for example, “America is now at that historical point at which a great nation is in danger of losing its perspective on what exactly is within the realm of its power and what is beyond it. Other great nations,” he said, “reaching this critical juncture, have aspired to too much and, by over extension of effort, have declined and then fallen. Gradually but unmistakably America is showing signs of that arrogance of power which has afflicted, weakened, and in some cases destroyed great nations in the past.”
Reading those words in Norway in 2004 jolted me. The U.S. today is clearly dominated by an arrogance of power, and “we are not living up to our capacity and promise as a civilized example for the world.” Fulbright reminds us that “the measure of our falling short is the measure of the patriot’s duty of dissent.” It is clear that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Presidents who engage in warring, in misleading the American people as they take us to war, in violating international agreements and the Constitution, know no party boundaries. Fulbright, himself a Democrat, was responding to a Democratic president (L.B.J.) and a Democratic Congress taking us to disaster in Vietnam while today it is a Republican president and a Republican Congress which has us on the verge of calamity. In thinking about this, it crossed my mind that the only American president in my living memory who might have avoided, who might have taken a different tack, was Jimmy Carter – a Southerner, who only recently was in Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. While Carter made mistakes, he understood the difference between hope/memory and optimism/nostalgia. Most important, however, he understood that greatness has more to do with relationships and service than it has to do with power and prominence.
Carter, a Southern Baptist, took his religion seriously and demonstrated that his was a living faith in the best of the Southern religious tradition, and that too reminds me of southern Norway. Kristiansand, I was told shortly after my arrival here, is “the Bible Belt of Norway.” It’s true. In addition to the regular Norwegian State Church (Lutheran), there are innumerable Protestant offshoots, free churches, and Pentecostal groups. It’s like being at home! Carter, unlike President Bush, learned from his religion that there are human limits, and he tried to teach the nation that lesson, though he seems to have failed.
President Bush sees no limits. Never has an American president invoked the name of God more often nor I believe in such fundamentally flawed ways as George W. Bush. His references are usually connected to statements identifying the United States as God’s chosen country and with America carrying out God’s mission. While this construct is not unique to Bush – we heard it all in the mid-1840s when the term Manifest Destiny, the God-given right of white America to take the whole continent of North America from Atlantic to Pacific no matter who already controlled the land – it is amazing to hear it revived. Does history teach us nothing? The most blatant or excessive comment the President made came three days after 9/11 when he spoke at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and said, with no qualification, it is America’s “responsibility to history” to “rid the world of evil.” It astounds me that an American president – after slavery, the Cold War, Vietnam – would be that thoughtless. Such pride – saying that America could do what God has not done – flies in the face of Bush’s claim to be Christian.
Living in Norway, where BBC World is our source of world news, Donna and I realize that Americans may be the only people in the world who believe the rhetoric of America’s president. Norwegians certainly don’t. Especially not Christians. For example, one day a student came up to me after class and identified herself this way: “I am a devout Christian. How could anyone read the New Testament, the words of Jesus, and act like your president?” She was not attacking me personally – she likes me – but she was just so puzzled. Norwegians, like most Scandinavians, think that Americans are simple, that they see politics and world events without nuances, and they especially believe this about President Bush and his advisors.
This brings me back to Senator Fulbright and how he might have advised our current president. “We are not,” Fulbright wrote, “God’s chosen savior of mankind but only one of mankind’s more successful and fortunate branches, endowed by our Creator with the same capacity for good and evil, no more or less, than the rest of humanity.” Since coming into office, and in the shadow of 9/11, President Bush has radically transformed himself and the direction of the United States. From talking about humility and international cooperation before 9/11, Bush has rapidly moved America toward becoming one of the most arrogant nations in history. I believe that is because we are so powerful, and “power tends to confuse itself,” as Fulbright pointed out in 1966, “with virtue, and a great nation is peculiarly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God’s favor.” Confederate soldiers thought that God was on their side in the American Civil War. I wish that President Bush would take a few moments to read Fulbright’s book and note the words, “Who are the self-appointed emissaries of God who have wrought so much violence in the world? They are men with doctrines, men of faith and idealism, men who confuse power with virtue... .”
The prayer that keeps playing in my head, “War Prayer,” comes from Mark Twain: “O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds... . Help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander ... the wastes of their desolated land... . We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the source of love.” While many people would agree that taking out Saddam was beneficial, President George Bush believes that Saddam’s removal represents God’s will.
We are clearly today involved in a misadventure, and it is always difficult to extract oneself from that once it’s started. History is littered with stories of nations and leaders who found it impossible to stop policies once in place even when advised by people close to them that such a path was destructive. America’s own LBJ found this out in Vietnam. Senator Fulbright knew that when he wrote in 1966, “We may be thinking about how disagreeable it would be to accept a solution short of victory; we may be thinking about how our pride would be injured if we settled for less than we set out to achieve; we may be thinking about our reputation as a great power, fearing that a compromise settlement would shame us before the world... .” When my students here ask, “Why can’t America just recognize her mistakes?,” I read them that passage.
The concept of American Exceptionalism mentioned earlier in this essay had its genesis in John Winthrop’s 1631 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” delivered aboard the ship Arabella before the English Puritans disembarked in Salem, Massachusetts. Winthrop talked about establishing a “city upon a hill,” a model of Christian community for the rest of the world to follow. Many American politicians have used this phrase, and some have embellished it. President Ronald Reagan, for example, inserted the word “shining” before city. What Reagan seems not to have known or remembered if he did know it is that the city on a hill was conditional, not divine. That city, according to Winthrop, was constantly under God’s judgment and would collapse if it proved false to its promise. Like Reagan before him, George Bush often uses America as an example to the world. On September 11, 2002, he said: “This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. . . . That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.” That quotation came, of course, from the New Testament, but the writer (John) was talking about God’s Word, about Christ, not America! Reagan maybe, but certainly Bush, confuses the American Civil Religion with Christianity and borders on blasphemy.
I don’t doubt that President Bush’s faith is sincerely held, but thinking Americans must be concerned as to how his faith impacts both foreign and domestic policies. While my focus in this brief essay has been on the Administration’s warring, let there be no mistake, military violence abroad is intimately connected to domestic policies and especially those related to poverty. A wise man once said, there is a “connection between war and poverty. . . . Poverty is militarism’s twin.” This administration is using the Iraq misadventure to cloak its war on social programs at home. Instead of L.B.J.’s “war on poverty,” we seem now to be engaged in a war on the poor.
Recently retired Kentucky physician and former state senator N. Z. Kafoglis wrote to me:
While the failure to deal with the health care crisis in America, where forty to fifty million Americans are without protection, is horrendous, the most callous example of this “war on the poor” comes with the Bush administration’s effort to destroy Head Start. Often criticized after its inception in 1965, this program gradually came to have widespread bipartisan support by the 1990s. It was (is) a program designed to give a hand up to those children in America who grow up in poverty. Who, for God’s sake, would want to gut Head Start? The answer is clear – those who seem to despise the poor and hate government and government programs (unless they are military). Unlike attacks on other social and environmental programs, however, there is still a political necessity to cloak attacks on children as “reform.” Bush uses such phrases as “leave no child behind” and “school readiness” to disguise the efforts of his administration to dismantle Head Start, which owes much of its success to people like Julius Richmond, the founding director, and Leslie Dunbar, who supported Head Start from the Field Foundation. Both men fought early on to protect and maintain Head Start in the face of efforts from the political right in America to destroy it. The Bush plan, with its narrow focus on literacy, would completely compromise the original intent of Head Start to approach disadvantaged children with a comprehensive program emphasizing both physical and mental health, prenatal care, dental health, nutrition, decent housing, parent training, and access to other social services that impact a child’s current and future ability to succeed in school and life.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Let us not be afraid to help each other – let us not forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.” Those words have no meaning for Bush and his ideological handlers who want to destroy the social services remaining from the New Deal and the Great Society. F.D.R.’s words bring me right back to Senator Fulbright who said, “In the abstract we celebrate freedom of opinion as part of our patriotic liturgy; it is only when some Americans exercise it that other Americans are shocked.” Remember the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld litany, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” Rubbish! They’re radicals, they’re un-American, they’re anti-democrats! As Fulbright said, “To criticize one’s country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment.” For “in a democracy dissent is an act of faith. . . .” Continuing, he wrote, “criticism ... is more than a right; it’s an act of patriotism, a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals of national adulation.” We in America are in the process of becoming what we despise – a rogue nation. The White House published in September 2002 a “National Security Strategy” which is so reminiscent of NSC-68, a 1950 document from the National Security Council which provided the strategy and framework for the Cold War. That earlier document led inescapably to the terrible cost of militarism at the expense of social programs and to Vietnam. The White House candidly admits that the Bush strategy represents a major shift in military strategy, maybe the biggest in fifty years, but who cares? America is the world’s cop, the only superpower, and might makes right.
Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, the primary architect of the new strategy, surely knows that it represents a radical reorientation of the political character of America. It indicates that the United States can act alone, anytime and anyplace, and can act in preemptive fashion against anyone the president determines to be terrorist. This would mean, Kentucky author Wendell Berry wrote, that “The law in the world, then, is to be upheld by a nation that has declared itself above the law.”
Scandinavia, committed firmly to international cooperation, generally is skeptical of the policies developed by George W. Bush and his key advisors. The Danish Crown Prince in a recent interview with a French magazine used the word “simple” in an unflattering way to characterize American foreign policy. That reinforces the Norwegian idea which Donna and I often encounter that America’s aim to “rule” the world presumes too much, is childish. Keep in mind that Norway, with fewer than five million inhabitants and independent only since 1905, clearly recognizes that she has little international clout. Norway has, however, found a niche as an international peace maker and has created the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo.
Donna and I spend considerable time with Helge and Trine-Lise, a retired M.D. (nephrologist) and secretary respectively. In their mid-sixties, both are taking my class “The American South,” but the four of us gather often to eat and to talk about art and literature – as well as American politics and policy. Born in Norway in 1936, Helge spent his youth between ages eight and eighteen in Westchester County, New York, and New Jersey. His father, a Norwegian resistance fighter, fled to the United States when the occupying German forces discovered his work, and found employment in the United States with Norwegian shipping interests. After his father died, Helge returned to Norway and became a doctor. This couple, with enormous affection for America and her ideals of justice, freedom and equality, is disenchanted with America’s current international policy.
The Norwegian way in short is clearly not the Bush way of “my country right or wrong,” or “America, love it or leave it,” and which is based on the premise that America is all “good” and those who oppose the U.S. are all “evil.”
Senator Fulbright’s book, which I have quoted several times, appeared in 1966. A year later, breaking with the Johnson administration’s Vietnam policy, Martin Luther King preached a powerful sermon on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City. King brilliantly distinguished nationalism – “if you’re not with us you’re against us” – from patriotism. “We are at the moment,” King said, “when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man [and woman] of humane conviction must decide on the protest that best suits his [or her] conviction, but we must all protest.” As King put it that day, “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow down before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.”
King’s eloquent plea reminds me of today, when my nation again seems “trapped” in the senseless occupation of a nation which poses no threat of imminent danger to the United States. America is a strong and wealthy nation, and my dream is that someday – soon I hope – we will have leadership which will focus our resources and energy on making peace rather than war.
Clearly, warring as a result of arrogance is not confined to Republican President George W. Bush. As indicated earlier, it doesn’t take a long memory to recall Democrat Lyndon Johnson and his party’s ill-fated efforts in Vietnam. We lost more fifty thousand people there, to say nothing of the untold numbers of Vietnamese killed, and we wasted significant sums of money. Maybe no American president is immune to an arrogance of power. I don’t know.
What I do know – as Fulbright taught us – is that it is the responsibility of American citizens to rise up and say NO MORE. Berry said, “If we are serious about peace, then we must work for it as ardently, seriously, continuously, carefully and bravely as our government now ... [wages] war.” That brings me back to the class I am teaching in Norway – “The American South.” My Norwegian students in the class love the Southern Civil Rights Movement. So do I. That movement taught us that love is more powerful than hate, that nonviolence can beat violence, and that the powerless in America can bring those in power to their knees. President Bush, who constantly uses Christian imagery, should pay attention to the historical Southern Civil Rights Movement and the words of Jesus who taught: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth... . Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. . . . Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” We need today in the United States nothing less than the resurrection of the Southern Civil Rights Movement in all its splendor.
For my part, I am proud to be a dissenting Fulbrighter, a Southerner, and an American.
© Charles Bussey, 2004.
Published with permission.