I had a note this week from one of Dennis Prager’s minions saying Dennis had read a piece of mine with interest. “As you know,” it said, “Dennis is not confrontational. His main goal is to clarify issues for his listeners.” Actually, it was news to me, but I guessed Dennis might be American since his staff assumed Canadians knew him and his m.o., something media personalities here would not take for granted.

So I went on Dennis’s show yesterday for an hour. It comes from L.A. and is opposite Dr. Laura’s brutal, abusive phone-in (toward her listeners, never the reverse), which outdraws Dennis, but then he offers mere clarity, not delicious punishment.

What piqued Dennis’s interest was an item on New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, whom I described as showing a sense of American moral superiority, assuming the right to judge the rest of the world and dictate what it must do, or face the consequences. Somewhere in my Canadian brain, I must have expected Dennis to say, Oh no, we’re not all that smug, you don’t understand. Instead, his answer was, more or less, Yes, we are morally superior so, of course, we judge and punish; give me some examples where we aren’t! (I’m paraphrasing; I hope Dennis won’t find it too distorted.) Well, it’s always refreshing to be surprised, but I bet you could see my mouth gape — on radio! So we had a chat on whether the U.S. is, not perfect, maybe, but the best country ever. And to tell the truth, there are many commentators here who would largely agree.

Then Dennis got me on the run. He asked if I didn’t consider Canada morally superior to Sudan, and I felt oddly reluctant to say yes. I certainly think ours is a freer, politically better place to live, but the formulation spooked me. As if our political system proves we are inherently superior moral beings. None of us is wholly responsible for our fortune; luck and other factors have a lot to do with it. You can respond to such a state with arrogance and disdain, or with gratitude and humility.

The other revealing moment came when I said the U.S. behaved as if it were the only great power in history that acted entirely from noble concerns rather than self-interest. Well, we are, said Dennis (more or less). Damn, bushwhacked again. This strain in U.S. foreign policy goes back a century at least. When Woodrow Wilson argued for entering the First World War, he said the U.S. flag “stands for the rights of mankind, no matter where they may be.” Not a big leap to George W. Bush saying America is at war with evil, full stop. It’s a view of U.S. foreign policy reinforced in their media, à la Friedman, though I’m always surprised to hear Canadian-born ABC anchor Peter Jennings push it enthusiastically. Does he believe it, or just believe they believe it?

The U.S. is not the first great power to claim the moral high ground while gleefully scooping territory or gobbling resources and markets (Britain’s white man’s burden, France’s mission civilisatrice). Yet in the U.S., it seems more — fervent, ingenuous, deluded? And there has always been a counterstrain, going back to Mark Twain and other savage critics of America’s imperial expansion during the Spanish-American War, well before Woodrow Wilson. In fact, you could say Wilson-type moralizing about U.S. foreign policy is as much a defence against criticism of imperial behaviour as it is pure idealism. And so it goes. Michael Moore today is in the Mark Twain tradition of challenging U.S. expansion and the self-congratulatory rhetoric that always goes with it.Dennis took the last word to prove his point about the purity of American motives abroad. He used the example of Israel, and I think it’s telling. He said there were no interests that could explain U.S. support for Israel beyond altruistic faith in a doughty little democracy.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.