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The Blue & Gray Press | May 28, 2018

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American Entitlement and its Consequences Abroad

American Entitlement and its Consequences Abroad

By MOLLY SULLIVAN

With recent news of a U.S. service member opening fire on Afghan civilians, we should realize one of two things: that a war’s brutality affects all human beings involved, or that the horrific effects of America’s war on terror are unfairly distributed among the nations involved. While Sept. 11 is a clear example of America’s victimization during this era of terror, all conflicts resulting from this issue have taken place on foreign soil. This is American privilege.

As Americans, we enjoy and take for granted seemingly infinite privileges as a result of our country of origin. While our streets are not paved with gold, and socioeconomic inequalities are ubiquitous on U.S. soil, certain aspects of American life are experienced exclusively in this world superpower. Compiling a list of these American privileges would be a daunting task, but focusing specifically on military, economic and linguistic privileges in America can reveal the extent to which America’s normalized sense of power and entitlement disadvantages fellow human beings abroad—all while simultaneously distancing the American people from the very force that hinders international equality in the name of domestic power.

Perhaps one of the most poignant examples of this disconnect experienced by the American people is that, in this day and age, our wars have been fought entirely abroad. Those who don’t have direct military involvement in the war on terror have little understanding of the decades of warfare carried out abroad. As a people living under the world’s strongest government, militarily speaking, the current war is entirely offensive.

The only way non-military Americans have any awareness of the war being waged is through media coverage. Most Americans take this for granted—war is much bloodier, much more devastating and much more tragic than early evening news coverage would suggest. Of course we are involved in this war by virtue of being tax-paying, patriotic Americans. But unless an American is enlisted in the military, we are conveniently shielded from the first-person horrors of war due to a privilege with which we were born. Fortunately for us, fighting wars abroad in relatively poor nations is an aspect of American life.

Another important privilege Americans must be aware of is the level of exploitation that fuels our economy. Underpaid, exploited workers produce an unsettling proportion of consumer products. According to online magazine Behind the Label, more than 2 million people worldwide work in sweatshops designed to mass produce American clothing. In addition, about 80 percent of these employees work in conditions that do not meet those set out in international labor laws. However, as Americans far removed from this hypothetical, nightmarish work environment, the sight of such exploitation never inconveniences us. Instead, we simply reap its benefits, keeping up with the latest fashion trends for reasonable prices.

The exploitation that occurs abroad is a serious problem by itself; however, an additional problem is the difficulty a mindful American faces as he or she tries to opt out of this exploitative system. Due to the prevalence of outsourced labor, it is difficult, not to mention expensive, to purchase American-made products exclusively. As Americans, the easiest and most affordable option to fill our closets and our homes is through supporting unethical production practices. But fortunately for us, armed with American privilege, we never truly have to face or understand the exploitation that provides us with comfortable, fashionable lives.

The last instance of American privilege to be discussed is one of a linguistic nature. Perhaps it is human nature to experience wanderlust from time to time; as Americans, this desire to travel is facilitated by the fact that we can visit virtually any major city in the world without having the burdensome responsibility of grasping the local language. It is no accident that the lingua franca of the world is that of our own nation. While America has no official language, it is quite clear that the widespread use of English is particularly advantageous to American travelers.

This relief of the responsibility to familiarize oneself with a nation’s language before traveling to that nation perpetuates the sense of privilege and entitlement that is inherent to contemporary American culture. While this example does not have the large-scale consequences the previously mentioned privileges have, it is symbolic of the general American experience in relation to the rest of the world. By virtue of our status as English-speaking Americans, endless doors are opened and our paths are cleared before us. It is no wonder why Americans have such lower rates of bilingualism in comparison to other nations.

All of these instances of invisible American privilege are inherent aspects of the American way of life, and it would be arrogant to claim that one can avoid these unfair privileges entirely, if at all. American culture is obviously more complicated and multidimensional than matters of military, economic and linguistic privilege. In addition, it would be erroneous to assume that American culture is inherently ignorant or negative. The discussion of privilege simply seeks to shed light on aspects of American life that are taken for granted and normalized. Before any positive change can come about in terms of America’s position with the rest of the world, one must first identify and reflect upon the many aspects of life that define American culture.

Comments

  1. UMW Alum

    Clearly you care a lot about this topic, clearly you’ve put some thought into this, clearly you’ve done some reading on this, but beyond my initial shock at the idea that you- someone who points out that all we know of the wars we are engaged in is via the limited and filtered information we glean from the news media’s coverage – would accept so readily at face value the story of a soldier opening fire on civilians, shows an immense bias.
    Yes, in America we are certainly blessed that we have not fought a war on our soil in more than a hundred years, but that is not in my opinion that this is something we ought to attempt to change.
    Yes, I agree that as citizens we should be more appreciative of this; be more engaged in attempting to understand the realities of war, the realities for the civilians, the military and for all countries involved, but we ought not to allow our gratitude to morph into some mistaken guilt for this blessing.
    We ought to take this and realize that with this blessing, comes responsibility, with this privilege comes the responsibility as we enter these countries to do so with the utmost care for the fact that we are entering someone’s home; with an understanding that if we choose to bring the war to those who would seek to destroy us, rather than allowing them to bring the war into our homes, that we have a duty to those in these places that are not our enemies. We have a duty to rise above the hate, the misunderstanding and the anger that fuels our enemy; we must understand that as soon we lose what separates us from them, we have lost.
    You say this current war is offensive, I wonder who is it offensive to? Is it offensive to those citizens who had lived under oppressive regimes and are now being given the chance to forge their own future, to have the same basic freedoms that we Americans do so often take for granted? I know that Iraqis who are now able to receive printed diplomas, (something that was not allowed during Saddam’s reign, in order to keep educated citizens from leaving) Iraqis who have access to running water, to sewage systems, to so many things that we Americans take for granted, are not offended by this war.
    Is it offensive to the terrorists in these countries, who seek to destroy us? You know perhaps it is offensive to these terrorists, but I for one don’t really mind offending anyone whose stated goals show contempt for human life.
    You make the point and rightly so that we wage these wars in economically disadvantage countries. But I would hope that you as an engaged member of society and a student at a prominent liberal arts institution, would ask yourself why this rather than simply accepting the idea that the United States is somehow the aggressor and bully that some would attempt to paint us as. I doubt I can expand my argument better than to refer you to a book, which anyone seeking to understand the nuances of the global economy ought to read, The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Simply put, these countries are willing to enter into or provoke conflict with us, because they do not have anything to lose. As a country develops and inevitably creates ties economic and otherwise with the rest of the world, the country creates disincentives to enter into conflict. Peace will not come from the absence of war, peace will not come from bowing to our enemies, peace will come when citizens in every corner of the world have the essential freedoms that we Americans do so take for granted, when these citizens and their countries have ties to the rest of the world, when their basic needs are met, when they have something to gain from maintaining peace.
    Your arguments regarding our economic and linguistic privileges are less nuanced and frankly much less original. Yes, we are by and large extraordinarily economically privileged here. Even those we would consider ‘poor’ here almost universally have access to food, running water, electricity, shelter and other amenities that are considered luxuries by majority populations in many other countries.
    And as to the language argument, yes it is an advantage that so much of the world has adopted our language, but let’s not forget why this is; this has happened because of our successes. English did not become the international language of business and diplomacy simply because we Americans refused to become proficient in a foreign language. So sure for a lot of reasons it benefits us as Americans, individuals and citizens of the world to learn another language, but if we don’t it does not somehow make us less as people.
    So I read your article and liked that you took the time to address the idea of American privilege, but I wish that you had done so with an evener hand and but more than this, I kept waiting for you to offer your solution.
    So many Americans use our greatest privilege, our freedom of speech to express their dissatisfaction, without offering a solution. Perhaps you are simply seeking to make a population, that of UMW aware of these privileges that they take for granted, but you ought to seek more than that, you ought to offer anyone who reads and is inspired or at least driven to thought by your piece some ideas for how to change themselves, America and the world.