I received a letter from a reader recently asking me what it is about America that I hated so much. Since its tone was polite, I replied at length. I don’t hate anything – “hate” is an awfully strong word – but there are things I find disturbing about America, and, as it happens, these are things many others also find disturbing.
There’s certainly no need for my services in the 24-hour-a-day orgy of noisy, self-praise that pours from television, radio, magazines, movies, sporting events, and even sermons in the home of the brave. This non-stop, drum-beating, national revival meeting has become the background noise of everyday American life, so much so that many are not aware that there is anything unusual about it.
There is a wonderful scene in “The Gulag Archipelago.” After a speech by Stalin, the audience applauds and applauds and cannot stop applauding. Everyone waits for his or her neighbors to stop before stopping, only the neighbors also do not stop. The applause threatens to continue forever. Why? Because NKVD men prowl the aisles, looking for anyone who stops applauding.
Without making any outlandish, inappropriate comparisons between Bush’s America and Stalin’s Russia, there is still a very uncomfortable parallel between that frightening historical scene and recent events in the U.S., especially the State of the Union address.
Even though the President said nothing demonstrating statesmanship or imagination or even compassion, everyone applauded and applauded and kept applauding. Some media commentators actually compared his feeble recitation of platitudes with the thrilling cadence and brilliant words of Franklin Roosevelt at a time of true darkness. Several well-known television news personalities felt called upon to make odd, jingoistic personal statements as though they felt the need to prove their patriotic bona fides.
What a big fat disappointment America is today. An affluent, noisy, moral netherworld. A place where fundamentalist pitchmen in blow-dried coifs and Pan-Cake makeup plead to fill the moral void, but only add to the noise.
A place where jingoism and mediocrity are lavishly praised. A people bristling with demands about their rights and redress of grievances, but with no thought about their responsibilities. A people who brag of being freer than any other people without knowing anything about other people.
An insatiably-consuming engine of a country whose national dream has been reduced to consuming more of everything without a care for anyone else on the planet. A people without grace who always blame others for what goes wrong.
Americans, roughly 4% of the planet by numbers, gulp down more than half the world’s illegal drugs, but in all the strident speeches and in all the poorly-conceived foreign policy measures, it is always the fault of Mexico or Colombia or Vietnam or Panama or the French Connection or someone else out there. Anyone, that is, but the people who keep gulping and snorting the stuff down, and all the shady American officials who are so clearly necessary to keep the merchandise widely available.
One of history’s great moments of insufferable posturing came with the creation of annual “report cards” on how well various nations were doing at controlling drugs, as though these other countries were unreliable children being assessed by their wise Auntie America, the same wise Auntie zonked out on a million pounds of chemicals at any given moment.
America has a long history of vote tampering and rigged elections in many local jurisdictions. It is widely understood that vote tampering, especially in Chicago, gave John Kennedy a victory he did not win in the 1960 election. Biographer Robert Caro has revealed how Lyndon Johnson’s political career in Texas had the way smoothed by vote fraud. And now, two and a quarter centuries after the great republic’s founding, she still cannot run a clean election for president.
On top of fraud and unwillingness to spend enough to assure proper ballots, America clings to the most corrupt method possible to finance election campaigns, defining private money as free speech. The more of it, the better. One would almost think that the billions in bribes paid out by the CIA over the decades to corrupt other governments had influenced thinking about how things should be done at home.
Yet with a record like this, the State Department never stops passing public judgement on the inadequacies of democracy in other places. The State Department’s views on democracy, about as deserving of serious consideration as the last Congress’s idea of why you impeach an elected president, reduce to the same tacky business as the drug report cards: it’s always someone else who’s wrong. Even worse, the sermons on democracy and rights frequently are used as wedges for trade concessions. It just doesn’t get more hypocritical than that.
Having mentioned the CIA’s bribery over the decades, its interference in the internal affairs of so many countries, I recall the reaction of American legislators a few years ago when it was thought possible, though never proved, that Chinese money had been funneled into an American election. Heavens, how dare they do an underhanded thing like that! Sully an American election! The same legislators never considered that they themselves, in tolerating a corrupt system of election finance, were responsible for such activity’s even being possible.
Consider Mr. Bush’s lurid fantasy about an “axis of evil.” One almost wants to ask whether the choice of words reflects long-term deleterious effects of the cocaine he reportedly used when he was sowing oats instead of bombs. The fact is that much of the world’s terror is a direct response to American foreign policy that reflects daydreams and wishes in Georgia and Iowa rather than actual conditions abroad.
The CIA’s three billion-dollar fraternity prank with other people’s lives during the 1980s in Afghanistan was great fun while it lasted, and there was no concern about Osama and the boys until they decided that the U.S. was just as unwelcome as the .
But it must be someone else’s fault, so we’ll topple the entire national structure of Afghanistan, destroy much of its infrastructure, kill thousands of innocent people, hold thousands more as illegal prisoners, and maybe go on to attack other places that never heard of Osama bin Laden just in case they’re thinking about anything underhanded.
A former American diplomat has revealed how hundreds of visas were rubber-stamped for Afghan fighters. How else was it possible for 19 suspicious people to enter the U.S., some working away for months, with no attention paid by those immense, highly intrusive agencies, the CIA, FBI, and NSA, whose snooping costs tens of billions of dollars every year? Every phone call, fax, and e-mail in America, and a lot of other places, is vetted daily by these agencies’ batteries of super-computers.
After the attack on the World Trade Center, there were many American news stories about two of these nineteen people who possibly entered the U.S. by way of Canada – stories that proved utterly false as it turned out. But huge pressures were, and still are, being put on the Canadian government over this concern. America simply blames someone else rather than cleaning up its own house.
A few years ago, the world’s richest country suddenly decided to stop paying U.N. dues, ignoring its long-standing treaty obligations. With an arrogant wave of the hand, it dismissed its responsibilities and blamed the U.N. for waste and bureaucracy. The “waste and bureaucracy” stuff came from American legislators who spent years investigating an insignificant, sour real estate deal and put on a colossal, lunatic, government-stopping, impeachment-as-passion play spectacle. The same folks now prepare to squander tens of billions on useless new defense schemes and on measures to curtail American freedoms. But the U.N. has to lobby and wheedle in hopes of receiving its meager portion.
American technical experts analyzing data from a Chinese thermonuclear test some years ago were stunned to realize that the blast had a radiation “signature” similar to that of America’s most advanced warhead. Espionage was immediately suspected, and the long, painful ordeal of Wen Ho Lee, an American scientist born in Taiwan, began. While investigation was reasonable, it was not reasonable to target Wen Ho Lee. His career was ruined even though not a shred of clear evidence was ever produced. The more rational conclusion that the Chinese, a clever and resourceful people, had managed the feat themselves stood little chance when someone from “there” was there to blame.
The case of the Cuban boy Elian provided what may be the most remarkable example of this kind of obtuse and arrogant behavior. An ill-considered policy of granting automatic refugee status to all Cubans who made it in flimsy boats to American shores, part of an incessant campaign of hatred against Castro, lured the boy’s mother to her death, as it had lured many others. The boy still had a loving father, other family, and friends, but they just happened to live in the wrong country. So an already-injured child was put through months of hell in Miami, a hostage to ideology as surely as American diplomats in Iran, his father, family, and home repeatedly ridiculed and insulted, and it was all someone else’s fault; Castro’s in this case.
I closed by telling my reader that I never object to letters that disagree with me, only to those that are rude or insistent or obscene. And, I have to say, America does generate an awful lot of those.