America at Its Best is Strange

31 May

America at Its Best


America even at its best is a strange place, alive with contradictions, a Teflon political culture that has an unshakable faith in its innocent and virtuous national character and its overall impact on the world, impervious to the ghosts of slavery and of ethnic cleansing of native Americans that should be tormenting our sleep and darkening our dreams, comfortable with its robust gun culture, and with its promiscuous reliance on rogue drones engineered to kill on command and on the brutal happenings that take place in black sites immorally situated in countries whose leaders agree to avert their gaze from the dirty work taking place. Looked at from a short distance this is not a pretty picture.


Yet there are still those rare moments when this unsavory national profile seems not to be telling the whole story. For instance, I felt heartened by a recent news item reporting that the conservative Nebraska Legislature voted to abolish capital punishment, and in doing so went so far as to override the governor’s veto. That’s right, Nebraska!


Unfortunately, the welcome Nebraska move may not survive the backlash in the making. The Republican state governor, Pete Ricketts, vows to overturn the new law: “My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical law to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families.” He is supported in this lethal passion by a pro-capital punishment legislator who proposes arranging a ballot initiative that supposedly will allow Nebraskans to reinstate the death penalty. It is not yet certain whether this is a legally permissible tactic.


While the abolitionist move stands there is a strong temptation to commend Nebraska for such an unexpected show of humanistic sensitivity, but that would be misleading, overlooking what actually swayed the majority to vote the way they did. Speaking for this majority, Peter Collins put it this way, “We went into it wanting to remain objective. This is purely about costs.” And sure enough, it seems that it was primarily conservatives, not liberals, that pushed hardest for abolition on the amoral grounds of fiscal conservatism and a commitment to “philosophical consistency” when it comes to entrusting the government with authority over life and death. As a Republican legislator, Laure Elke, insisted the bill was “a matter of conscience,” because if you are not able to trust the government on health care, how can it be trusted on such irrevocable life/death decisions. A few other conservatives were apparently troubled by the seeming contradiction between supporting the right to life for the unborn as a sacred matter while permitting a state government to impose death on a life in being.


The main crusader for the bill was a Democrat, Senator Ernie Chambers who had tried 37 times during his forty years in the Nebraska Legislature to get rid of the death penalty before achieving this notable victory. Even Chambers was forced to acknowledge that it was ‘conservative pragmatism’ not liberal idealism that made the difference, taking note of a growing Republican trend to oppose capital punishment because it is viewed as costly, inefficient, and for some, un-Christian. On one level, who cares why capital punishment was abolished. It is the outcome that counts. Yet on a second level, it is worth caring, because if the decision reflects cost/benefit assessments rather than a principled ethical stand, it could be quickly reversed when calculations changed.


It is indeed a strange country: rapid public strides in the direction of freedom to shape one’s own gender identity giving rise to a series of vindictive pushbacks by those that want to impose their particular life style on those that seek to live differently in ways that do no harm. The opportunistic rants of right wing politicians on such issues as same sex marriage, trans gender identity, and abortion may not be meant to hurt and demean but they do. They hurt and demean those who want to live openly their authentic identities or deeply felt needs, which is what freedom should mean for all of us, not just for ourselves but our neighbors, that is, for every sentient being on the planet. and are so often elsewhere in our world forced to live in locked closets or face harsh criminal punishments. Is not this the deeper meta-religious significance of globalization. For all that is wrong with what the United States is doing to others throughout the world, these explorations on the frontiers of personal freedom might be the start of a better page of national history if this forward momentum can be sustained and exported in relation to personal self-determination.


Perhaps, and only perhaps, what we insist upon for ourselves might finally spill over with respect to what we to do to others. I don’t expect the drones to disappear anytime soon or even for capital punishment to become a bad memory, but at least more folks will begin to draw the sort of connection that to align themselves with a conservative repositioning similar to what turned a big majority of legislators against the death penalty in Nebraska. Given the political climate in the country, ‘conservative pragmatism’ may be the best we can currently hope for at this time for America. Sadly, the 99% have once again left the playing field of political life enabling the 1% to indulge their inexhaustible appetites.


Of course, for me the abolition of capital punishment has never been a matter of cost/benefit analysis whether measured in dollars or bureaucratic efficiency. It is a matter purely situated in the domain of values. I believe that no government should ever be given the authority to kill its own citizens, or that anyone anywhere should be vested with authority to kill without proper submission to the rule of law, whether acting domestically or internationally, and I believe it would benefit prospects for species survival if many of us as possible strive for and advocate a comprehensive ethos of nonviolence or what Glenn Paige has dubbed ‘a non-killing politics.’ For now, this is a utopian wish, but this goal has long struck me as being a time sensitive ethical and biopolitical imperative. In the domain of social practice, I feel the same way about same-sex marriage, gender self-determination, and the reproductive rights of women. Capital punishment is about wrongful death, same-sex marriage is an emotional component of the right to life, and reproductive rights recognize the sacred endowments and personal responsibility of women in relation to their own bodies.


America is not alone in being strange. All countries are strange reflecting the particularities of tradition and experience. Strangeness is bound up with originality and contradiction, and is not necessarily negative. We can be inspired by what is strange and wonderful, and appalled by what is strange and abusive. It is this negative strangeness that we must struggle to mitigate, whether it be capital punishment, human trafficking, or the subjugation that accompanies deep poverty and all forms of forcible dispossession.

28 Responses to “America at Its Best is Strange”

  1. wingsprd May 31, 2015 at 7:34 pm #

    I recognise that societies are complex animals. But does America know or care about it’s image
    in the rest of the world? Like our previous
    prime minister Malcolm Fraser, I abhor the way
    both major parties in Australia hang on the coattails of the immoral, greed filled
    pronouncements of America

  2. Ben May 31, 2015 at 7:52 pm #

    I came across this strange breed of advancement and regression that America embodies in a Bangladeshi colleague recently. When talking about pedagogical matters he advocated nothing but the latest advancements. But when the conversation switched to the Irish same-sex marriage referendum (which showed how a very religiously conservative society can change in a relatively short span of time) my Bangladeshi friend thought this spelled the end of civilisation. A belief in God and tradition is all well and good but when those at the forefront of the world’s most technologically advanced country cling to outdated modes of thought, it can truly only be described as strange. Here’s hoping that one day soon those who begrudge change in one direction but value it in others can come to see that change in all directions is what moves the species forward: there’s even a word for it, evolution. And if that means adapting belief systems to match the reality around us, then let’s hope the American conservatives can do as the Irish church is doing and start to analyse why they are so out of touch, rather than what the Vatican has done and condemned the Irish population as wicked.

  3. Dr. Laura Westra June 1, 2015 at 4:35 am #

    I wait eagerly for your post . But this time I must point out the contradiction within it. I know that gay/transgender etc. rights are normally coupled for some strange reason with abortion rights. I do not comment on the former, but I must point out that the latter is a stance incompatible with respect for human rights and human dignity.

    Abortion denies the right to life for reasons far less acceptable even than those sustaining capital punishment. I agree 100% that the latter should be abolished. But, in the light of recent science,emphasizing the continuity between conceived human being and born child (Grandjean,Philip, 2013 Only One Chance (To Develop A Brain),Oxford; Landrigan,Philippe and Etzel,Ruth, 2013, TExtbook – Children Environmental Health, Oxford) as well as the 2012 WHO Report on Endocrine Disruptors) choice and preference appear to be extremely weak categories upon which to base the death sentence of a human, no matter how immature.

    The 2006 UNICEF Repport calls children “invisible” in law, and that is my argument as well in Child Law, 2014,Springer.I know this is not a politically correct stance, but it faces reality,in the light of recent (and not so recent ) science: recall thalidomide’s effects in the 50s. Look at the effects of spent uranium in Fallujah and Gaza, on children, exposed through their mother before birth, something I know you deplore.

    • Richard Falk June 1, 2015 at 10:59 am #

      Dear Dr. Westra:

      I agree with very much of what you have to say in this comment, including that I should
      have been more nuanced in my endorsement of reproductive rights. Unlike capital punishment
      that should be unconditionally abolished, reproductive rights involve a delicate balance
      of competing values and interests involving both the rights of women and the concern of
      society with the protection of life. How and who should draw that line is a question all
      sensitive persons should be concerned about. With respect,

      Richard Falk

  4. Gene Schulman June 1, 2015 at 5:16 am #

    @ Dr. Westra

    Your argument is a non sequitur. Abortion rights has to do with who’s rights are more important; the unborn child or the existing mother. Re your ultimate paragraph, tell that to those who are committing these murders, not to a prospective mother whose life may be endangered by an underdeveloped fetus.

  5. wingsprd June 2, 2015 at 2:17 am #

    It is understandable Richard that you did not bring abortion into your comment, same sex marriage has nothing to do with that, but rather a recognition that discrimination has for years, blighted the lives of those in a samesex committed relationship. I for one am glad that the issue is at last being brought into the is about respecting one another’s humanity.

  6. rehmat1 June 2, 2015 at 6:26 am #

    Dr. Bernard Nathanson once a founder and top strategist of the abortion industry, became a committed campaigner against abortion. In 1987, Nathanson produced a film ‘Eclipse of Reason’.

    In 2011, nearly 334,000 abortions were performed in United States (popl. 303 million). In Israel (popl. 6.5 million), over 50,000 abortions are performed each year – putting it on the top of world’s abortion industry. In January 2013, Israel admitted Ethiopian women were given birth control shots.

    Abortion industry has good way to make tons of money while controlling world’s unwanted population.

  7. Laurie Knightly June 2, 2015 at 12:49 pm #

    Important when discussing capital punishment is the issue of wrongful convictions. This alone should make execution a moot point, Even when the evidence is incontrovertible, there may have been extenuating circumstances that could alter the verdict. One can now alter DNA so that will become less trustworthy. Check the Innocence Project. Also, about one third of states do not compensate the victim and most that do so are very inadequate – if one can ever redress such an act. Then there is Guantanamo where inmates have been proved innocent and are still there. Another dilemma, however, is confining someone in a cage in perpetuity. Some of us might prefer a physical death to this solution which a psychic death for most. Also, agreed that the issue of cost benefit analysis is offensive regarding executions. Equally, when people rant against war mongering because they want to do something else with the money.

    As to abortion, fertilized eggs are not yet creatures whether it’s persons or chickens. It should be done early in pregnancy when possible with vacuum aspiration – with few exceptions. Children should be born to persons in a position to love and care for them.

    Marriage is a contract and its history was a pragmatic arrangement made by families. Love was not required then – nor now. It was for the protection of children and property. The institution has a very high failure rate and needs an updating for modern times. The divorce rate is reported to have lowered but this is because the marriage rate has also declined. Those regal mating pageants are still a lucrative industry, but are looking a bit silly.

  8. truthaholics June 2, 2015 at 4:16 pm #

    Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    America is not alone in being strange. All countries are strange reflecting the particularities of tradition and experience. Strangeness is bound up with originality and contradiction, and is not necessarily negative. We can be inspired by what is strange and wonderful, and appalled by what is strange and abusive. It is this negative strangeness that we must struggle to mitigate, whether it be capital punishment, human trafficking, or the subjugation that accompanies deep poverty and all forms of forcible dispossession.

  9. rehmat1 June 2, 2015 at 6:51 pm #

    American lawyer and writer, Jim Karger, says that when it comes to politics and world knowledge, most Americans are fools.

  10. wingsprd June 2, 2015 at 10:04 pm #

    Laura K. Gene and Richard are all admirable in their comments and humanity

    • Gene Schulman June 3, 2015 at 1:56 am #

      Thank you wingsprd. I agree with you about Laurie K. and Richard. You seem to fit the paradigm, yourself.


      Richard, I haven’t been receiving comments directly into my in-box on this post. Thinking it might be just me, I asked Laurie, and she has the same complaint. I wonder if others are suffering the same? Would you know of any technical causes for this phenomenon?

      Looking forward to seeing you on Tuesday next.


      • Gene Schulman June 3, 2015 at 1:59 am #

        I’m adding another email address, just in case.

      • Laurie Knightly June 3, 2015 at 9:53 am #

        I’m still getting the latest comments concerning Parodies but not America at Best.


      • Richard Falk June 3, 2015 at 10:08 am #

        I have no idea about how to overcome this kind of problem, but I
        will see if I can find out. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

      • Gene Schulman June 3, 2015 at 10:33 am #

        I have solved my end by switching over to another email address, and am now receiving comments.

  11. wingsprd June 3, 2015 at 5:23 am #

    Tonight on Australia Radio National Religion & Ethics report your Nebraska senator spoke
    courageously about his objection to capital punishment. When young he went to an execution. On one side people counting down like New Year, on other people with prayers and candles. He could not reconcile state sanctioned murder with his beliefs. And by the way he had studied in Australia years ago.the old Oz not the present one!!😢

    • Laurie Knightly June 3, 2015 at 12:15 pm #

      This is a poignant and disturbing reminder concerning the subject of retributive justice – sought relentlessly both here and in the hereafter.

      In the aggregate, we currently have groups referred to as right or left. The right states that whatever becomes of you, it was entirely your fault. On the left, you are held entirely blameless for any/all of your failings. Determinism versus free will. Neither of these extreme positions is a worthy model for improving the conditions of society. There are other points on the political/social continuum that are more demanding but would also be more rewarding. Some better solutions might exist in various ideologies that exist between the countdown and the candles.

      • Gene Schulman June 3, 2015 at 12:33 pm #

        The jury is still out on whether we have free will or no. That is not a useful measure of what is usually called moral conduct. Ethics flex with the culture more than with the genes.

  12. Beau Oolayforos June 3, 2015 at 3:37 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,
    Are there grounds to fear that the ‘conservative pragmatism’ behind the death penalty abolition has to do with the PI Complex?, i.e., why kill prisoners when they can be productive slave laborers? Maybe a bit cynical, but akin to marijuana legalization, where it seems often to be not so much about elementary civil liberty in a supposedly free society, but more about new, guaranteed, abundant tax revenues.

    • Laurie Knightly June 4, 2015 at 10:13 am #

      Couple of thoughts on this. It’s reported that over half the PI Complex revenue is coming from detained undocumented immigrants. Also, in 2013, there were 39 executions and 3,088 prisoners on death row. The time on death row averages about 20 years and a significant number are obviously not executed. If this data is correct, it would seem that the death sentence would have little, if any, effect on the lucrative privatized prison business. It’s more likely that laws regarding immigration and drug use have been the enticing incentives in the incarceration industry.

      • Gene Schulman June 4, 2015 at 10:51 am #

        I agree. I can’t imagine that one or two more deaths here or there would have any financial effect on the prison system. The death sentence is just plane sadistic and immoral. Everywhere!

    • Richard Falk June 4, 2015 at 5:55 pm #

      Yes, such concerns are fully justified. The winds of fiscal fortune can shift in ugly directions as well as occasionally supporting
      more benevolent moves. Slave societies were all based, in part, on conservative pragmatism as the necessary base of exploited labor
      required for a ‘civilized’ society to flourish. RF

      • katasayang July 15, 2015 at 9:47 am #

        > I believe that no government should ever be .. , or that anyone anywhere should be vested with authority to kill without proper submission to the rule of law..

        When it comes to abortion, should any law grant anyone authority to kill, i.e. a mother the right to kill an unborn? When it comes to ‘anywhere’, from a global perspective, is it so wrong for a government to prohibit ‘sex-selective’ killing of girls? Liberal idealism too, though worth pursuing, is often flawed since ‘ideal’ is ‘ideal’, which at times go beyond the limit of human reasoning.


  1. TRANSCEND MEDIA SERVICE » America at Its Best Is Strange - June 1, 2015

    […] Go to Original – […]

  2. Richard Falk: America at Its Best Is Strange - Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics - June 2, 2015

    […] By Richard Falk By arrangement with Richard Falk […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: