Saturday, November 19, 2005

America's other religion?

Over the last few months I have been reading a lot of different Americans. I have read blogs, I have read magazines, I have read online papers and journals. And everywhere I have been struck by one thing above all others – the tenor of discourse has grown so vitriolic as to disallow any communication beyond what is offered by chest pounding. Now, I have my own load of vitriol but I try to save it up for the Bush administration and, apart from them, attempt to understand what those who disagree with me in even the most profound way have to say. I guess the thing is that in Europe people are used to a different standard of public debate than one meets in America. There it seems like most people most of the time are writing off anyone with whom they disagree. I could well mention some of the clearest cases of this but I do not think that is the point.

When I was in Los Angeles a few years ago I spoke with a number of people there and many seemed to be saying much the same thing. It went much like this...

“We just love everybody!”

“Well, except the homosex people, of course.”

“And the dykes and other feminazis!”

“The druggies are a bunch of crims and we don’t like crims either.”

“Course, we know that they’re all blacks so we can’t love them either!”

“Oh, and the damned hispanics who come and take our jobs!”

“The effing chinks...”

Well, you get the picture. By the time the list of exceptions was finished it seemed sheer luck if all of the members of the speaker’s closest family remained on the list of “Everybody”. And all this was likely being said by someone living in a suburb that is enclosed by high walls and guarded by armed security, where the biggest danger was that some member of their family would accidentally shoot another with the handgun that is ‘hidden’ in the bedroom dresser.

The basic problem seemed to me then, and still does now, that Americans have forgotten the idea of society. In any society the basic glue isn’t the law or the economy. Neither of those are visceral enough to keep a society going. No, the most basic glue of any society is trust – the basic expectation we normally have that the other people around us will generally do the right thing by us. Without that expectation the fundaments for the functioning of legal regulation or economic exchange do not exist. Unfortunately, trust appears to be very much lacking in America.

I am not sure whether it is cause or effect but this loss of trust seems to be linked to what seems to me to be America’s other religion. The first religion is, of course, a gerrymandered, Americanised Christianity. The second religion might be characterised as anti-communism – an anachronism, of course, but one that still guides how Americans see the world. Being a dogmatic viewpoint it lacks enough subtlety to be properly justified, open to discussion or capable of making distinctions other than in black and white (or red and white as the case may be). Thus, communists, socialists and social democrats all are seen as one and the same. Individuals such as George Orwell or Bertrand Russell who were among the earliest critics of Soviet Russia, not in spite of their leftist views but because of them, become impossible to understand for Americans. This is evident in the way that Orwell is known as the anticommunist author of 1984 and Animal Farm and it is not appreciated that 1984 was actually about the rise of authoritarian tendencies in England while Animal Farm ends by showing that communists and capitalists are indistinguishably bad. A far more instructive read in a way would be A Homage to Catalonia in which Orwell shows clearly both his socialist views and his appreciation of the threat that Soviet Russia represented.

The dogmatic exorcising of any whiff of left-wing thought or policies has meant that America is unable to build any of the social structures which are necessary for the functioning of a modern society such as socialised medicine, worker protection and a proper public educational system. Without them and without the necessary faith in public institutions the States are falling apart. And any attempt to change this decay is deemed to be communism.

Just how inbuilt this reaction is has been made evident to me by the number of times that Americans have seen fit to lecture me on the perils of communism. People who have lived their whole lives in the most rapaciously capitalist society in the world deem themselves expert on the nature of communism and all left-wing views and hold forth on the matter for hours. This is the case even if they know that I grew up in the old Eastern Block and lived my life under the system they, in fact, never sighted. Just like the movies Americans made about what life was supposedly like behind the Curtain, the picture drawn by these people is shallow and grossly mistaken, the cut of the costumes too natty, the actors too bright-eyed and earnest. The reality was, in more ways than they can appreciate, worse than they think. Yes, my grandfather only survived being taken prisoner by the Russians during World War II by having managed to escape from the train that travelled to the killing grounds. Yes, a friend of our family who was in the opposition was killed with a poison-tipped umbrella in the main railway station. Yes, my mother and I, when I was only eleven, were on the run from the secret police. But these seemingly heroic moments, ready for being put on the big screen, were drowned out by the universal greyness of a daily existence where meaning was purposefully drained from life. What heroism was there existed, for the most part, in the Sisyphean persistence necessary not to lose oneself in the system. Life in the Eastern Block was not a Bond movie but a Kafka play.

It is because of this experience that I find it laughable when, in a pique of vitriolic rage, one right wing American calls another right-wing American a “Commissar” or some other term drawn from the pages of some B-grade spy novel. As if the whole society was suffering from Tourette’s, the words carry no meaning, their message being that what we are dealing with is an illness of the society’s heart. To blame individual Americans for this would at this point be just as wrong as it is to blame the person who suffers from Tourette’s.

What is perhaps most fascinating is how Christianity and anti-Communism manage to gel in American hearts, best seen in the self-righteous force of the Christian right. Two belief systems that might at first seem to be foreign to each other have been brought together by hypocrisy and a lack of self awareness – epitomised as all of these traits have been by the current administration. In truth, the anti-Communism seems to run deeper as it is its ethic of “Every man for himself” that is exemplified by the policies pursued both on the national as well as on the individual level. Of course, hypocrisy was already brought to the level of a Baroque art by the Popes but they lacked the other religion to give their actions a rationale.


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