Monday, November 01, 2010

Tea Party, the "dream vacuum" and the souring of America

Real disaster: the Potato Famine Memorial in Dublin, Ireland

Disaster as masochistic fantasy: my favorite doomster, Dimitri Orlov
From 1836 to 1914, over 30 million Europeans migrated to the United States. - Wikipedia

When I got to America on a college scholarship, I realized that the real American Dream was somewhat different from Dallas. I visited college friends in their hometowns and was struck by the spacious suburban houses and the gleaming appliances — even when their parents had simple, modest jobs. The modern American Dream, for me, was this general prosperity and well-being for the average person. European civilization had produced the great cathedrals of the world. America had the two-car garage. And this middle-class contentment created a country of optimists. Compared with the fatalism and socialist lethargy that was pervasive in India those days, Americans had a sunny attitude toward life that was utterly refreshing. Fareed Zakaria - Time
David Seaton's News Links
If the box office and the mainstream media are any guide, America's contemporary psyche is oozing vampires and zombies, werewolves and predatory bankers, doomsday scenarios,  nightmares of gay and dusky Muslim freeloaders spawning goldbugs and militiamen hoarding guns and gold against the End of Days or simply hyperinflation.

Why are Americans so obsessed with disaster if most Americans owe their being in America to one disaster or another?

It would probably startle a lot of Americans to think that most of them have much of their origins in a massive European "ethnic cleansing".

In the 19th century 50,000,000 Europeans migrated from Europe for diverse reasons, principally overpopulation, leading to lack of food and jobs in their native lands. Europe expelled them and as we see in the Wikipedia quote, thirty of those 50 million went to the USA.

Today there is nowhere left for their descendants to run to.

All of these Europeans were uprooted from their ancestral lands and their previous family and social relationships; they came from very diverse ethnic stock and religious traditions. The one thing they had in common was that America allowed them to "be fruitful and multiply". And except for a very epidermal, Hollywoody sort of pop culture, which America has diluted and homogenized and then marketed to the rest of the world, that myth of growth, the realistic possibility that anyone who works hard can live well, is still the real glue that holds Americans together as a people.

Calvin Coolidge defined us perfectly when he said, "the chief business of the American people is business". The market place is what brings us together. We live doing business with each other and through most of our history, business has been good.

That elementary social fabric is what globalization is putting at risk.

A traditional nation state is where people all speak the same language, and have done so for centuries, have been intermarrying for so long that they all bear a family resemblance to each other, have a common history and usually a common religious heritage. A "people based" state like this is able to go through tremendous shocks like a carbonized Germany did at the end of World War Two or a dysfunctional Russia did when the USSR went down, total destruction of a "way of life", without any serious "identity crisis".

The American personality has not been created from such bone and gristle, it is based on something as illusive as a "dream".

I first became aware of this problem when I was very young. During the Korean War, many American prisoners were successfully "brainwashed" by the enemy and led to collaborate and make "treasonous" statements. There were dozens of articles about this, it was briefly a national obsession, but one article I read as a kid stuck in my mind. It was about the Turkish army, which fought alongside the USA in Korea. Although many American prisoners were "turned", by the Chinese and North Koreans not one Turkish prisoner was turned, not one.

The disparity between Turkish and American prisoners finally came down to this: the American prisoners, felt isolated, lost and alone in the face of the enemy and were trying to make friends with the Chinese, to cut a deal, to split the difference.  The Turkish soldiers, on the other hand were Anatolian peasants, pious Muslims, for the most part: for them, the Chinese might as well have been Martians, or goats for that matter; having anything to do with them, much less betraying their group, was unthinkable for the Turks in their ethnocentric "turkishness".

Of course, a significant part of America's wonderful flexibility is owed to our lack of such a strong identity, our ability to include and assimilate new members to our nebulous "us-ness". In a sense our lack of a pure, deeply rooted, ethnic identity is our identity. Nothing is as essentially un-American as the idea of ethnic purity.

But this strength can become a painful weakness if America's foundational myth, the promise of a good life and upward social mobility for oneself and one's children, is shattered. That would mean a potential identity crisis, similar to what would happen in Poland or Ireland, if they stopped being Catholic, or if Israel stopped being Jewish, or if the French forgot how to cook.

Of course, Americans do have a recognizable national character or at least a series of stereotypes that the world agrees are accurate. In the world's eyes Americans are innocent, friendly, generous, open, inventive and willing to take risks. I would maintain that those characteristics are the product of the open and generous economy and I have observed that many people who arrived in America as adults, men and women who speak heavily accented English and who only know Abraham Lincoln as the face on the five dollar bill, have quickly acquired those same characteristics... in fact they came to America hoping to acquire them.

If Americans lose those traits then all that will be left is another stereotype that the whole world recognizes as "genuinely American": a bottomless hunger for money and a willingness, to work, to borrow beyond any possibility of ever paying back, or to even steal spectacularly in order to get their hands on it.

And make no mistake a growthless America would finally strangle and extinguish precisely those very qualities that the world loves in Americans: generosity, openness, friendliness and the willingness to take risks and empower all those American defects that the world loathes: greed, violence and racism.

All of the American virtues have had their origins in the seemingly infinite generosity, openness and friendliness of America's economy and our willingness to take risks was born in witnessing over and over again how taking risks paid off. All of America's defects  - greed, violence and racism - come from the fierce Darwinist battle to achieve the promised wealth and social mobility. Those are the poles of America's personality.

There is no need to fantasize on the disaster eroticism of the Orlov or Kunstler or 2012 variety. When someone as well informed as Fareed Zakaria can write the following we know that the disaster is already here:
Steven Rattner, who helped restructure the automobile industry, tells the story of getting a new General Motors plant online in Michigan by bringing management and unions together. "The unions agreed to allow 40% of the new plant to operate at $14-an-hour wages," he says, "which is half of GM's normal wages. The management agreed to invest in this new plant. But here's the problem: workers at GM's Mexican operations make $7 an hour, and today they are as productive as American workers. And think of this: $14 an hour translates into about $35,000 a year. That's below the median family income. The whole experience left me frightened about the fate of the American worker." (...) Capital and technology are mobile; labor isn't. American workers are located in America. (...) Technology and globalization are working together at warp speed, creating a powerful new reality. Many more goods and services can now be produced anywhere on the globe. China and India have added literally hundreds of millions of new workers to the global labor pool, producing the same goods and services as Western workers at a fraction of the price. Far from being basket-case economies and banana republics, many developing economies are now stable and well managed, and companies can do business in them with ease. At some point, all these differences add up to mean that global competition is having quite a new impact on life in the U.S. 
That paragraph is as clear a death sentence of generosity, openness, friendliness and the willingness to take risks that I can imagine. Upward social mobility, the very heart of the "American Dream" will be frozen if America's middle class is gelded.  When that  finally happens, the bright side of the  American "soul" will have been decontented.

America is a very complex and contradictory society and all of its infinite contradictions, tensions and endemic racism and violence have heretofore been contained by upward social mobility, high growth and finally in desperation, by low interest, house flipping credit. That all seems to have run out of road

When people's world crumbles and tumbles round their ears, they lose most of their capacity to trust others and fall back on "does this person look like me, talk like me, think like me and pray like me?" in order to deal with chaos and discouragement. Don't take my word for it, consult any Serb, Croat, Kosovar, Ibo, Hausa, Hutu, Tutsi, Turk or Kurd, Israeli or Palestinian, Belfast Protestant or Belfast Catholic that you may have handy. They will fill you in on the details of how this all plays out. Any one of them can teach you how to say, "I want my country back" in the local lingo.

We are already seeing this taking place. The "dream vacuum" is what the people who fund the Tea Party are exploiting to their benefit. The souring of the American character is a growth industry and the Kochs and the Murdochs, the Limbaughs and the Becks are getting in at the ground floor.

Of course the crowning irony of it all is that American capitalism, which initially created America's phenomenal middle class prosperity, has now created the very globalization that is on a path to destroy America's society itself. Keeping this system's "freedom" to operate without interference, taxation, or regulation is the ultimate goal of those who finance the Tea Party and much of the rest of the political system.

"Divide and rule" is the oldest method in existence for a minority to control a majority. Using this tactic Britain was able to control 300 million Indians using little more than 20,000 soldiers. The ratio of "controllers" to "controlled" in the present American scenario is infinitely more productive than British India's, as befits our MBA era of optimization.

So finally we can see that the very same anger caused by globalization's destruction of America's social fabric is being used by those who benefit most from globalization to keep that social fabric from reacting and bringing globalization under its control. DS

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

1) Do you have any proof that the Turkish and American prisoners were treated equally?

I ask because turning an American prisoner was a Cold War propaganda coup par excellence; turning a Turkish prisoner, however, would have been very counterproductive as it made many enemies in a country neighboring the Soviet Union known for its fierce national pride.

Every man has his price, and, given enough time and ruthlessness, every man can be broken.