The other night I raised my hands in “fists of rage” as Chris Christie spoke about the demise of the “American Century.” However, unlike his Republican audience I was enraged not by this perceived fin de siècle event; I was enraged by the idea that there is any feasible way to continue it into the present century. The truth is that as a historian, a citizen, and a secularist, I celebrate the demise of the so-called “American Century.”
It is impossible for me to imagine in my mind’s eye this era of national perfection. For, what Christie calls the “American Century” is remembered by most historians as the Cold War, a time in which the United States engaged in dozens of proxy wars against Soviet and Chinese Communism throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Proxy wars that eventually led to the folly of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the ill-fated Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
What historians remember of the last century is that it was a time when Americans finally addressed—though not decisively—the civil rights issues of women and minorities. That some today feel the need to use a term like “forcible rape,” and that women still have not achieved income parity for the same work, is a measure of how far we have yet to go. It is also instructive that for all the legislation passed to achieve racial equity in the United States that we can still have elections that turn on racial sentiment. Yes, Republicans, we all know what “We have to take back our country!” means.
Another thing that historians remember about the last century is the great leap forward that labor made because of union activity, and how wider access to higher education was made possible through federal funding. Ironically, Chris Christie demonizes the “nanny-state” one moment while in the next moment he praises his own father’s ability to get an education through a federally funded GI Bill. Also—lest we forget—had it not been for Sputnik many of the educational investments made by the federal government after 1960 would not have been conceivable. The “truth” is that the last century was “the century that war built.”
Because I am a historian I cannot help but trace all of this back to the beginning of the Republic. I know that the American Exceptionalism of which the Republicans speak is a mix of Christian prophetic tradition and the happenstance of what Jared Diamond called “guns, germs, and steel.” The problem is that there are still too many of us who want to hold on to a history that has always been mostly an illusion, or largely a cover for some of the greatest thievery and mass murder ever committed.
I am not one to believe that the sins of the father are visited upon their children, but we cannot continue to ignore the facts. The “truth” is that the American empire was built on the backs of the indentured and the enslaved. It was built on the wholesale confiscation of some of the best parts of North America. In the last century it continued to be built on cheap oil, advertising, mass production, and cheap labor—until unions began to correct that last inequity.
In the last quarter of the last century, even as unions began to start losing their power, we were addressing issues of poverty, racial and gender discrimination, and unaccountable power in the form of multinational corporations and shadow governments, made possible by the Cold War and the CIA. However, we also began to see the rise of commercial competitors in the form of Japan and Germany. We were shocked to learn that cheap oil could disappear in a moment when OPEC punished the United States for aiding Israel in a war with their Arab neighbors.
Is the last century one to which we want to return? Do we want “separate but equal” schools and hotels? Do we want women treated as second class citizens? Do we want workers with no power to negotiate wages, or to petition their government for economic and social grievance? Do we want endless “little wars” that drain our coffers and leave a whole generation broken in body and spirit? Do we need to continue believing that the nations of the world would be lost without our leadership?
Chris Christie’s call for a “new American century” is a not-so-subtle call for the complete destruction of Social Security, Medicare, and any other federal or state program meant to address the inherent inequity of a purely capitalist society. Be not deceived! This nation cannot continue to militarily dominate the world, ensuring the uninterrupted ebb and flow of global capital, without sacrificing its own domestic well-being. That military dominance, in a nutshell, is the Republican platform, and that is why it must be rejected root and branch.