The year 2018 witnessed the passing of William Blum, the author and fierce critic of U.S. imperialism. He died on December 9, at a hospice center in Arlington, VA., at age 85. The news was not entirely unexpected as he had suffered an injury from a fall at his home two months earlier.
Blum had ceaselessly researched and exposed in meticulous detail the U.S. military and CIA interventions since the Second World War. His work is an antidote to the official narrative about the benevolence of U.S. foreign policy. In his book Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, he wrote:
From 1945 to the end of the century, the United States attempted to overthrow more than 40 foreign governments, and to crush more than 30 populist-nationalist movements struggling against intolerable regimes. In the process, the U.S. caused the end of life for several million people, and condemned many millions more to a life of agony and despair.
Predictably, however, the US mainstream media ignored his work until in 2006 when a recording emerged on which the then al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (OBL) recommended that all US-Americans read Rogue State. OBL’s endorsement caused the book to leapfrog to No. 26 (from No. 205,763) on Amazon’s sales ranking.
But Blum’s media “fame” was short lived. After all, the proper function of a media in a well-established system of power is precisely to marginalize dissent and protect the public from exposure to the truth of how the world works. Power always prefers to dwell and rule in darkness; it fears light that exposes its duplicity and cruelties. It is not surprising then that most US-Americans are clueless about the immense destruction the US policies have caused in the rest of the world. Indeed, US exceptionalism depends on a programmed ignorance and goes hand-in-hand with the denial of US atrocities. As Blum wrote in his book Killing Hope, “Our leaders understand how this works. They make it a point to keep our American eyes away from our foreign victims as much as possible.”
It is difficult to assess whether Blum was an optimist or a pessimist when it came to changing US policies from below. He died thinking that US-Americans needed a fundamental shift in consciousness if US exceptionalism is to loosen its hold on their minds. However, it is possible to view his life as a fierce anti-imperialist who was motivated by the hope that exposure to truth can move the public to demand a just US foreign policy. As he wrote in Killing Hope:
At the close of the Second World War, when the victorious allies discovered the German concentration camps, in some cases German citizens from nearby towns were brought to the camp to come face-to-face with the institution, the piles of corpses, and the still-living skeletal people; some of the respectable burghers were even forced to bury the dead. What might be the effect upon the American psyche if the true-believers and deniers were compelled to witness the consequences of the past half-century of US foreign policy close up? What if all the nice, clean-cut, wholesome American boys who dropped an infinite tonnage of bombs, on a dozen different countries, on people they knew nothing about – characters in a video game – had to come down to earth and look upon and smell the burning flesh?
Alas, we are not well-placed to know with any certainty whether such a rational hope is warranted as the media continue to protect power from exposure.
The mainstream media’s coverage of Blum’s passing itself is a case in point. The New York Times chose the following headline: “William Blum, U.S. Policy Critic Cited by bin Laden, Dies at 85” (NYT:12-11-2018). The Washington Post was no better: “William Blum, policy critic of U.S. praised by Osama bin Laden, dies at 85” (WP:12-13-2018). Really? Clearly, pairing Blum and bin Laden together cannot do the former any good in the minds of US-Americans.
“William Blum,” wrote The Times, “who raged against United States foreign policy in relative obscurity for decades until one of his published anti-imperialist broadsides received a surge in sales thanks to a surprise public tribute from Osama bin Laden, died on Sunday in Arlington, Va. He was 85.” Note the use of the verb “raged” and the noun “broadsides,” which coming after raged invokes not so much criticisms but rants, diatribes, and harangues. Also, it is hypocritical of The Times to mention Blum’s “relative obscurity for decades” without pointing out that The Times itself was a major reason for this fact.
The Post was no better here either. “For years,” it stated, “William Blum toiled largely without notice on writings in which he railed against the imperialism of U.S. foreign policy.” Again, Blum “railed” and fulminated or raged and kicked up a stink about the US imperialism instead of engaging in a detailed expose and critique. And he “toiled largely without notice” and, apparently, without The Post letting its readers know of its complicity in this silence about Blum (and other critics too).
As both media outlets paired Blum and bin Laden in their headlines, it helps to see what bin Laden actually said about Blum:
“If Bush decides to carry on with his lies and oppression, then it would be useful for you to read the book Rogue State, which states in its introduction:ÒIf I were president, I would stop the attacks on the United States:First, I would give an apology to all the widows and orphans and those who were tortured. Then I would announce that American interference in the nations of the world has ended once and for all.”
Bin Laden mistakenly cites Rogue State as the source of this quote which comes from another book by Blum. But, more importantly, the quote is entirely reasonable linking US interventionism abroad to anti-Americanism abroad. The fact that the prestige media cannot see the reasonableness of this claim indicates their subservient nature to the US imperial state.
To commemorate William Blum’s passing, we have included below the text of his comments in his last public appearance at a panel discussion organized by Left Forum and CovertAction in NYC on June 2, 2018.
“We can all agree I think that US foreign policy must be changed and that to achieve that the mind – not to mention the heart and soul – of the American public must be changed. But what do you think is the main barrier to achieving such a change in the American mind?
Each of you I’m sure has met many people who support American foreign policy, with whom you’ve argued and argued. You point out one horror after another, from Vietnam to Iraq to Libya; from bombings and invasions to torture. And nothing helps. Nothing moves these people.
Now why is that? Do these people have no social conscience? Are they just stupid? I think a better answer is that they have certain preconceptions. Consciously or unconsciously, they have certain basic beliefs about the United States and its foreign policy, and if you don’t deal with these basic beliefs you may as well be talking to a stone wall.
The most basic of these basic beliefs, I think, is a deeply-held conviction that no matter what the US does abroad, no matter how bad it may look, no matter what horror may result, the government of the United States means well. American leaders may make mistakes, they may blunder, they may lie, they may even on many occasions cause more harm than good, but they do mean well. Their intentions are always honorable, even noble. Of that the great majority of Americans are certain.
Frances Fitzgerald, in her famous study of American school textbooks, summarized the message of these books: ‘The United States has been a kind of Salvation Army to the rest of the world:throughout history it had done little but dispense benefits to poor, ignorant, and diseased countries. The U.S. always acted in a disinterested fashion, always from the highest of motives; it gave, never took.’
And Americans genuinely wonder why the rest of the world can’t see how benevolent and self-sacrificing America has been. Even many people who take part in the anti-war movement have a hard time shaking off some of this mindset; they march to spur America – the America they love and worship and trust – they march to spur this noble America back onto its path of goodness.
Many of the citizens fall for US government propaganda justifying its military actions as often and as naively as Charlie Brown falling for Lucy’s football. The American people are very much like the children of a Mafia boss who do not know what their father does for a living, and don’t want to know, but then they wonder why someone just threw a firebomb through the living room window. This basic belief in America’s good intentions is often linked to “American exceptionalism.'”
Faramarz Farbod, a native of Iran, teaches politics at Moravian College. He is a founder of Beyond Capitalism Working Group. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org.