by Gilles d'Aymery
"Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardoner." ("To understand it all is to forgive it all.")
—Anne-Louise Germaine Necker, aka Madame de Staël (1766-1817) -- French author and political philosopher"What a bummer it is to be a human being."
(Swans - October 24, 2005) The questions on the agenda -- What have we come to? Who are we? And what do we stand for? -- come from two readers of first, TomDispatch, and second, the New York Times (see the archived front page). They were asked in the context of the Iraq Operation Occupation and recurring news of abuse and torture of Afghans and Iraqis at the hands of US military personnel. The following was written with this context in mind. Without further ado...
What have we come to?
A hyper-militarized and arch-violent nation where 100 million people -- one third of the US population -- are directly or indirectly related to the military and countless law enforcement agencies, spending on death and destruction more than the remaining of the entire world; a self-indulgent nation of buccaneers drowning in consumerism and waste without any regard for the consequences wreaked on the environment and the rest of humanity; a pitiful land gripped by fear and insecurity; a human construct based on a mixture of savage social Darwinism, an irrational, deeply conservative (in the reactionary sense), religiosity, and an absurd (and groundless) belief in an innate, god-given Goodness; and the slow but unrelenting "Third-Worldization" of the social and economic fabric of the country where even hope has been hijacked and raped. In brief, a deluded people in unreserved denial of the damages and destructions they inflict upon themselves and the world.
Rejoinder: We are the chosen people. Doing god's work is hard work.
Who are we?
Better ask, "who are they?" for this writer has felt a primal psychological need to distance himself from the ongoing onslaught on the human spirit. This distantiation began in 1991 with the first Iraq War, got reinforced by the Yugoslav tragedy and the 1999 Kosovo War, became existential in the aftermath of 9/11/2001, the Afghanistan revengeful war, the ideologically motivated, mercantilist second war on Iraq, and turned potentially terminal with Abu Ghraib and during an experience with the Santa Rosa, California, police department, prison, and court systems between May 2004 and April 2005. But, whether "we" or "they," this is an unanswerable question in this short space and time. It would require a book-length examination.
Which America did the New York Times reader have in mind? Three hundred million people (est. 2005) can't possibly be pigeonholed without resorting to sweeping generalities. Which America, indeed? That of Kurt Vonnegut and Louis "Studs" Terkel? That of Ralph Nader and Bill Moyers? That of Garrison Keillor of Lake Wobegon fame and the Car Talk brothers, Tom and Ray Magliozzi (the NPR crowd)? That of Etan Thomas and Michael Eric Dyson? Cindy Sheehan, Kathy Kelly? Or is it the America of Pat Robertson, Bill Bennett, and the Christian Right, the depraved and corrupted intellectual, political, and corporate elites? The prescription meds addicted iPod and video game generation -- the Cyborgs? The one-third of the country struggling to make ends meet with less than $27,000 yearly income per family?
It's all of the above, of course, and more. Americans are a very diverse class-based and racially segregated people whose extreme individualism and the brutal structure of the politico-economical system lead to unordinary resilience. Always forward looking, Americans are proud to fend for themselves. The higher situated on the social ladder, measured in monetary terms and material possessions, the prouder they are. To have is to be. Live and let live is their subliminal motto. There is no need for a government or for a social safety net. Taxes are exploitative. Anything that may somewhat limit the opportunity to be, which translated in American lingua franca means to have, to own, to possess, is to be opposed. Americans distrust their government. They consider, with reason, that the bureaucracies are stifling their can-do attitude. Government is not just inefficient, it cannot be relied upon to help the citizenry. All the same, when violence is lashed out on the periphery, places few can locate on a map, then government is to be trusted in the name of inherent Goodness.
Working hard is a given. The more one works, the better chance one has to make it. To make it means, again, to have -- this cannot be repeated enough: To have is to be, in the USA. Hence, those who have not, do not work enough. Poverty is blamed on the poor. The poor deserve their status -- they are responsible for their poverty. It's a psychology of self-reliance and pragmatic entrepreneurship. Upward mobility is a non sequitur. All Americans, it is believed, can make it right up to the top where wealth means power.
It is a god-given right, as per the Constitution (the "pursuit of happiness").
Americans believe that the USA is the best, most productive country in the world: best education, best health care, best democracy, best economic opportunities, you name it... And why not -- aren't the multitudes trying to come to the US shores a vivid example of American success? Immigration is solid proof of economic opportunity. It demonstrates that the rest of the world, while loathing the experiment, cannot compete with the construct. They envy our freedoms.
By and large, Americans are a decent and generous people on a personal level, imbued with optimism and detached friendliness ("Hi there, what can I do for you?" -- translation: "how much money can change hands my way?"). As a whole, however, they tend to have a split personality, a case of mild schizophrenia: People and countries are neatly divided into either friends and allies or enemies. How one ends up on either side of the ledger largely depends whether one agrees with the inherent goodness and rightfulness of their views and policies. To find oneself on the wrong side of the ledger, both internally and externally, does result in unpleasant consequences. Being strong partisans of corrective retribution, violence becomes the necessary means to enforce American order at home and abroad. Americans are literally enamored with their security apparatus, their military might...and their guns; all of which they use with abandon.
(The friends-enemies duo is so entrenched in the national psyche that it can be found, and mercilessly utilized, in the remnants of what was once upon a time known as the American Left. Utterly mind-boggling...and amusing! These remnants of the Left behave in the same fashion as the entire population in regard to telling other countries and governments what's wrong with them. In other words, sheer arrogance and condescension are a common denominator of American society, from the most radical fringes to the gatekeepers and captains of industry -- well, there is not much industry left in America aside from the manufacturing of death.)
Americans are also endearingly superstitious. They believe in all sorts of fairy tales. From rapture to dispensation, alien abductions, the demon, satan, evil, god, goddess, werewolves, bigfoot, vampires, hell and heaven, witches, ghosts, haunted houses, intelligent design, creationism, etc., etc., etc. Not surprisingly, most Americans are religious believers. As the saying goes, why think when one can believe!
Most striking in our age of instant communications, Americans are an utterly uninformed or misinformed insular people. Fending for themselves by working ever longer hours and driving long commutes, they have little time -- and often no interest or curiosity -- to look for information. They overwhelmingly get their "news" from the main media (mostly TV), which are controlled by five or six corporate conglomerates that distill, in between product placements and sports events, mostly disinformation and manipulation. Skeptical by nature, they quickly lose attention and get back to their reality -- Work, Family, Homeland (sounds familiar...Travail, Famille, Patrie?). This particular state of affairs should not be held against the population at large. The earthy skepticism is a testimony to their pragmatism.
But it cuts both ways. Endeavor to inform that, for instance, the US health care system stands at the bottom of practically all other industrialized nations while spending two or three times more that these nations; that Cuba has more doctors and nurses, or hospital beds, per capita than the U.S.; that America, with less than 5 percent of the world population consumes in excess of 25 percent of the world's energy, releases 42% of global fossil fuel CO2 and 34% of greenhouse gas emissions; that each American spits out some 20 metric tons of CO2 every year compared to 8 tons for each European or 2 tons for Chinese; that it takes over 12,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per person to support Americans -- less than half in Europe and about 1,000 in China; that US productivity is actually lower than that of France or Germany; that a poor child has more chance to grow out of poverty in Canada or Europe than in the USA (cf. the myth of upward mobility); that the democratic system in the U.S. is a figment of the imagination due to gerrymandering, polling frauds, rigged elections, and a seemingly two-party system that advocates and implements the same policies for the benefit of the very, very, happy few; that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, had no WMDs or nuclear program, was no threat to us...that...that...that... A glazed look avoids the eyes of the informer. It can't be, says the look on the avoiding face. Rugged skepticism reinforced by joyous self-serving beliefs in the immaculate conception of the American way of life refuses the obvious, for it would shatter the belief system. Again, why think when one can believe!
Reason has been banned from public discourse, ethics sacrificed in the name of a debased morality, minds lobotomized for the betterment of quarterly corporate profits, science superseded by religiosity, education privatized, knowledge exiled, common sense stripped of all senses, scatological porn substituted for sex, gambling institutionalized... We are a faith-based nation now -- perception has become reality. From the top of these modern-day Philistines' Temple a subjugated and mortified Jesus is left crying Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani.
Rejoinder: The indispensable nation led by an exceptional people fully deserving of world domination in the name of freedom and democracy.
What do we stand for?
Greed, materialism under the cloak of faux spirituality, global domination through violent coercion, militarism at home and abroad, abject inequality, the sacredness of private property, neo-liberal zealotry, religious bigotry, obscene consumerism, instant gratification, environmental mayhem, dismal racism, and the sempiternal money, money, money, money, money, money, money. In a nutshell, this is what America stands for at this stage of human history -- the myriad concerned citizens and do-gooders notwithstanding.
In conclusion, and in defense of the masses of decent and humane people, the roots of American harshness can be traced back to the old world -- it is Europeans who settled in the new world and began the great "American Experiment" through possibly the biggest genocide the world has ever known... The American way of life and its excesses ensue by and large from the extreme severity of a ruthless economic system, controlled by and for the benefits of the very few, that has brutalized and traumatized the entire citizenry for over two centuries. It's not the people; there is no particular American gene that somehow leads to such harshness. It is the system itself that has created this predicament. Predictably, Americans from kindergarten to their graves are the most medicated people in the world. It does not have to be. Change the system, get rid of the managerial and political class, reset priorities, put people before profits, have workers take control, bring the troops home and keep them there once and for all, dismantle the military-industrial complex, break free from the materialist shackles, embrace the other, the mirror of one's alienated shadows, bring reason back to the fore... Then, at last, at long last, Americans will no longer be feared, despised, and reviled, but regarded with affection, respect, and the commonality that all humans share -- or ought to share -- and deserve.
Afterthought: In spite of twenty-three years in the country, je ne les comprends toujours pas...