So World War III has begun, and I'm in the bad country. Our President is totally bonkers, he and his dominionist
backers are trying to fulfill an ancient religious prophecy about an all-destroying battle between good and evil, and the most powerful propaganda industry in history is strangely backing him up, pretending he's sane and reasonable, leading Americans on a global-scale cult murder-suicide that may leave our country in ruins. How did we come to this?
Bush is already being set up as the scapegoat, like Hitler before him, so Americans can pretend we're all good people who just got a bad ruler by some fluke and we were "only doing our jobs" or "we didn't know." But nobody is born with an urge to conquer and exterminate, with an active resistance to empathy, with an inability to psychologically adapt. People like this are made, and in a healthy society they're seldom made and never given influence. In America we crank them out by the millions and tend to make them our commanders. Wishful-thinking lefties say the American people are against this war, but I don't see it. I see every part of the government and every large business going along with the war, and I see a majority of people who either actively support it, or refuse to give any attention to politics, or secretly feel good about "their" side ruling the world and are happy that they don't have to admit it, happy the system is set up so they can benefit from brutality just by continuing to behave normally.
I'm about to generalize and simplify and exaggerate, and before I start I want to remind everyone that "America" has many meanings, and that you can go to any town in geographical America and find people who are aware, intelligent, ethical, compassionate, and courageous. But on the whole, the reason the USA is now waging aggressive murderous war that threatens to keep escalating until we burn out and implode, is that we are a nation of cowards.
You can see it everywhere if you look -- in the American military attacking only impoverished countries that can't defend themselves, in the way American rulers see all physical opposition not as people fairly fighting back but as scary mythologized "terrorism," in the way Americans overreact to this magical beast, by buying up duct tape to seal windows against imagined chemical attacks, or shutting down whole airports because of some small danger or uncertainty. You can see it in the "zero tolerance" fad where school kids are expelled or arrested for harmless toy weapons, in our dominant media's obsession with one-in-a-million unpredictable murders of higher class people, and in the disjunction between the growing fashion of militaristic nationalism, and enlistment in the military, which is not growing.
You can see it in Americans' hunger for calling each other "courageous" and "heroic," their bumper stickers with an American flag and the wishful slogan "These colors don't run," and their righteous fury at anyone who contradicts this orthodoxy, like comedian Bill Maher who was forced to apologize for noticing that it takes courage to crash an airplane into a building and no courage to launch a cruise missile. You can see it in their bizarre habit of crediting "courage" to people merely for having some scary disease, or the way they made the 9/11 firefighters and police "heroes" just for doing their normal jobs in that mythologized context. Think it through: If it's heroic for someone to become a firefighter, and do what a firefighter does and run into burning buildings and save people, that means the other-than-heroic way of being, the benchmark against which Americans measure heroism, the condition Americans consider normal
, would be for America to not have any firefighters because everyone is too afraid.
And where they call cowardice normal, and normal behavior heroic, Americans often condemn real courage as cowardice or stupidity or irresponsibility, reacting with scorn to protesters who get attacked by police, to people who get arrested for not cooperating with useless and degrading searches and questionings, to journalists and politicians and entertainers who lose their jobs for speaking forbidden opinions and truths.
I may get death threats for writing this essay, anonymous death threats of course, from Americans who would rather see me killed than face my criticism. Someone may offer to fight me to prove his courage, but only someone good at fighting who is sure he's not going to lose. An American would say "Well of course." That's the way we think over here. People here mouth motivational platitudes like "Failure is not an option" or "There is no try" (which they've misunderstood), because they're so cautious that they won't do anything unless it's so easy and predictable that they can will the outcome. They say "You create your own reality" because they've been given so many advantages that they haven't noticed that they share reality with billions of other perspectives who want different things, with whom they have to compromise. Our higher classes are full of spoiled petty emperors who always get their way and gradually veer off into solipsistic madness.
It would not be precise to call Americans "lazy." They work longer hours at their crappy jobs than anyone in the industrialized world and they're perversely proud of it. They work more because they're afraid to say no to their bosses, or because they think frantic labor is the morally righteous requirement to rise above being an unsuccessful nobody, which horrifies them to their bones. They get repetitive strain injury and chronic fatigue syndrome because they think slowing down or taking a break makes them weak. Americans will do any amount of physical work to avoid doing the emotional work of accepting "failure," of looking inferior, of losing status.
A few years ago in a restaurant, an American man began choking. Without giving any sign of distress, he got up, went into the bathroom, and quietly died. If Americans were consistent they'd put up a statue of this man, who succeeded where so many others have failed, in following to the letter the American rule that you do not under any circumstances show weakness.
The core American fear is the fear of looking bad -- to others or even to themselves. A normal American will not run to catch a bus, especially not if there's a chance of still missing it. Many Americans don't like to turn their car headlights on when another car is looking. Americans hate to admit changing their minds -- if they do change, they'll pretend it was always that way. Americans always
lock their houses and apartments, but their fear of being robbed is not a fear of having to repurchase a few material possessions, but a fear of feeling "violated," a fear of losing absolute control of their owned space, a feeling that the intruder has got the better of them.
All of this has a profound effect on American politics. Some have tried to excuse ordinary Americans from guilt by saying our news media lie and distort and conceal, which is true to an extent that Americans cannot see and non-Americans cannot imagine, but it's no excuse. Forbidden information and excluded perspectives are all over the internet, and in countless books by dissident authors like Noam Chomsky, but 95% of Americans will not go to these sources, because they're afraid.
To begin with, they're afraid of uncertainty, of information whose truth is not backed up by a strong authority, of accepting a fact that might turn out to be false and make them look stupid. After that they're afraid of having their comfortable reality pulled out from under them, afraid of changing their minds, afraid of finding out they've been fooled, afraid of the responsibility that comes with understanding. And most of all, Americans are afraid to care.
Everyone knows how few Americans vote. This can be partly explained by observing that both Democrats and Republicans support global corporate rule, obscene military spending, and squeezing every drop of blood from poor people and the earth, that the public political spectacle is like a dull satanic game show about trivial psychodrama issues, and that nobody will vote for the fringe parties because it's the American way to never get off your ass and do anything unless you're sure you're going to win. But it goes deeper.
In one of P.J. O'Rourke's books, he visits an American housing project and describes the overwhelming apathy (which he blames on the alleged welfare state), the way the occupants trash their own living space and leave it in filthy disrepair. He contrasts this with his visit to Beirut during the Israeli invasion, where people in seemingly much worse conditions still added little touches of love and care to their bombed-out hovels.
In a book by Wendy Kaminer (another emotional conservative, this time attacking the recovery movement), she attends two women's support groups. One group is immigrants from southeast Asia who have been brutally raped and tortured, and the other group is upper middle class American women whose suffering has been seemingly much milder. Yet the Asian women are strong and confident and talk openly about their ordeals, while the American women are helpless and neurotic and ashamed. Anyone with a shred of compassion or insight will see this as direct evidence that the Americans have been abused more severely
than the tortured immigrants, but in ways that must go deeper than mere physical abuse, ways that are subtle and hidden, and most troubling, that saturate American society.
A few years ago when I was gathering petition signatures outside supermarkets (for a very popular anti-stadium initiative), I noticed that a proportion of people not only didn't care about the petition, but clearly didn't care about anything, that they were just going through the motions waiting to die. I believe this is the same phenomenon that is seen in people (humans and nonhumans) rescued from the worst abuses ever devised. In America, underneath all the food and toys, obscuring the openings to escape or resist, is a giant torture camp, producing a range of psychic maiming from people so alone and broken that they refuse to ever try or care again, to people so painfully enslaved that they will look only through the eyes of the master, to people so alienated from life that they jealously destroy it everywhere.
I have explored this world and escaped barely alive into the hidden democracy of Underground America, and this is my report. They call the torture system by many names, "opportunity" or "success" or "the American dream." Key components are called "individualism" and "competition." It's implemented through social isolation, brilliantly executed commercial advertising, and games and classrooms and workplaces that punish honesty and reward calculating selfishness. Yes, there are many messages about love and cooperation, about feelings being more important than money, but here, conveniently, the propaganda is badly done, stilted and preachy, and Americans cynically rebel.
All this together means that the ideal American lacks any healthy social relation, that our only relations with other living beings are domination or submission or zero-sum competition, that our only way to sense any meaning in our lives is to grasp greedily for scarce fabrications: money, toys, tokens of status, shallow pleasures, coolness, respectability, fame, victory -- or to associate ourselves with some symbol that has these attributes. That's why Americans cheer their local sports teams, and worship their omnipotent sky father deity, and display their national logo. That's why they will convince themselves of the nobility and goodness of their bombing of Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea, France, California… That's why they lack class consciousness, why the poorer classes sympathize with the rich and not with their own interests. That's why they are devastated by defeat or failure. Because Americans lack any emotional grounding in anything real, they must be "winners" or associate with a winner or they will be empty, annihilated. And their definition of "winner" requires a loser.
Nothing I've described here is unique to America. Readers elsewhere can ask themselves how many warning signs their country has of the same psychic disease. In fact the whole world has it, and America is only so deeply sick because it's so dominating -- and so dominating because it's so sick. It goes back thousands of years, and in America it goes back to a group of colonists called the Puritans, the Taliban of the 1600's, who came here to practice religious repression because the English church was not restrictive enough. This embryo fed for centuries on the natural abundance of a continent, on the blood of its natives, on the forced labor of generations of voluntary and involuntary immigrants, and now it is grown bloated and ravenous, addicted to ever-increasing portions of the fruits of its domination: insulation and control, making it ever more ignorant and inflexible, ever more willing to bully and less able to bully with skill or awareness.
represent mainstream America. He does not represent the deviant liberating America of Bart Simpson and John Waters and fart jokes and train hopping and transgender punks, nor does he represent the principled bookish America of the Constitution and independent newspapers and citizen activism. But these are not yet and no longer mainstream America -- they are marginal America. Bush is the ultimate representative of the United States of SUV's and clearcuts and billboards and viagra and oil wells and skyscrapers and dioxin and twinkies and televangelists and the Superbowl and atomic bombs. And I mean "ultimate" in the correct sense, implying "last." George W. Bush is the pride and the fall, his doomed people's champion in a ritual as old as history.
History is shorter than time, and I'd like to see us humans outgrow our mental illness of the binge and purge of great empires, before it kills us. Maybe this time we'll come close enough to dying to get a good scare. What if Hitler in his bunker, or Napoleon retreating from Moscow, had controlled 10,000 nuclear weapons? Remember, world, that America is more afraid of you than you are of it; and somehow all of us, the other countries and the other Americas, need to persuade Bush's America to put the gun down. If we fail to solve this peacefully, if World War III escalates until other countries bomb America and occupy it and prosecute its leaders in trials to establish their own exclusive right to judge, then those countries are walking the same path.
(revised november 2004)