Everyone wants to believe they’re the good guy. Do you remember the film “Falling Down” directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Michael Douglas? Douglas plays William Foster, a divorced father and unemployed defense engineer. It is easy to identify Foster as the victim; he is stuck in traffic on a hot day (something we can all relate to), he has lost his job, and he wants to get to his daughter’s birthday party, a place and event at which he is not wanted by his ex-wife. She even has a restraining order to keep him away from her and their daughter.
We can identify with Foster. We feel badly for him. That man’s life has gone into the crapper and there seems to be no way out. It’s a hot day, his car’s air-conditioner has failed, a fly is buzzing around and he suddenly just can’t take it anymore. He gets out of his car and to the protests of his fellow motorists, who will see their own days ruined by his thoughtless action, he sets off on foot, alone, across the city, to get to his daughter’s birthday party.
Mr. Foster has had a mental collapse. He thinks he is the good guy in the piece, the victim, beset on all sides. This is his mindset as he embarks on a violent rampage across the city. The true moment of enlightenment comes at the end, when confronted by the authorities Foster says, “I’m the bad guy? How’d that happen? I did everything they told me to.”
The LAPD sergeant who has been chasing him confronts him at the end, and he acknowledges Foster’s complaint that he has been treated poorly by society but he tells him that this is no excuse for his violent rampage.
I see here a microcosm for America. I mean, this is what happened to America too, isn’t it? We suffered a mental collapse, the same thing that happened to William Foster. The attack in 2001 was just too much; it was the fly in the overheated car. People felt sorry for America just as they had felt sorry for William Foster. But like Foster, America didn’t prove worthy of the sympathy. It was wasted. What Foster did was wrong; what America did was wrong.
We got out, walked across the world and went on a violent rampage. But at the end of it, there was no on to confront us with what we had done. Who would dare? We’re the world’s last remaining superpower. Rather than being forced to come to grips, as Foster did, with the reality of our deeds, and realize that we are the bad guy in the piece, we cling to the illusion that we are the good guy, that we are just standing up for our rights.
But we’re not the good guy in this piece. We surrendered our white hat at the door when we invaded a country that had done us no harm, using the same trumped up excuses that didn’t work for Hitler in ’39. Ten years later we’re still struggling with the weight of our deeds. We’ve never really admitted we were wrong. Bush is disappointed that there were no WMDs, he says, but that’s not an apology. Far from it. He still says he was right to invade Iraq. He was spreading Democracy he says. It’s good for them. Good for the whole region.
Well George W. Bush, William Foster had the same attitude towards the people he confronted on his personal rampage. He thought he was the good guy too, and until confronted at the end he retained this delusion. He was defending his rights as a consumer, he says at one point. He is always the victim, never the perpetrator. Always the guy betrayed, the strong man alone, standing up for his rights as he wades through a sea of betrayal on every side.
Everyone wants to be the good guy. Nobody thinks they are the bad guy. But sometimes you end up being wrong. Not everybody can be the good guy, after all. Sometimes it turns out you’re the bad guy. You may go to your grave thinking you were right, but the court of world opinion will usually have something to say about that, as will posterity and future historians.
Mea culpa – that’s Latin for “my bad” – we can’t even get a mea culpa out of Bush. Of course, even admitting America has made mistakes is conservative treason. They won’t stand for it. No room for sissies in new and improved American Exceptionalism 2010. Because President Obama is not continuing on Bush’s reckless rampage across the earth’s surface he is seen as apologizing for America’s actions and we can’t have that. Other countries apologize, but not us. We’re the good guys. We have nothing to apologize for.
We have this image of ourselves as the plucky little nation we haven’t been for over half a century, beset by powerful enemies, standing up for mom, apple pie and the flag. But even then that image wasn’t an accurate one. American imperialism has been with us nearly since our nation’s founding despite all the wishes to the contrary. In reality, we have been the bully of the piece, throwing our weight around, ignoring the rights of others.
Oh sure we’ve done some good. We intervened to stop the slaughter in 1917; we fought another imperialist power that meant us harm in ’41 and joined in a just war against Hitler four days later (not that we had a choice – he declared war on us) but there are plenty of sins to balance the good. We can’t claim the right to wear white hats, no more than anybody else can. The world is too nuanced for white and black hats, and so thinking in black and white terms is a little absurd, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we laugh at a country that tries to wear a white hat? Or should we cry?
Did we learn nothing from two world wars in the same century, from Korea, from Vietnam, and now from Iraq and Afghanistan? It’s all well and fine to want to be the good guy. As I said, everyone wants to be the good guy. But to be the good guy, don’t you have to actually BE the good guy? Just saying it, just believing it, isn’t going to make it so, and neither will re-writing the history books, which seems to be the Republican solution to America’s sins. Just write them away.
But like any alcoholic wanting to go sober, we have to confront our problem; we have to admit we have a problem, and come to grips with it. People caution about constitutional crises and domestic discord, but isn’t it better to keep it in the family than suffer an intervention on an international scale? Let’s think about the problem here for a bit, and stop making excuses for it.