Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Americanism

By Gaither Stewart
Rome 11 February, 2008


It is a paradox that the Americanism of which Americans are so proud is the source of the pandemic anti-Americanism throughout the world. Precisely the same Americanism of which Americans boast generates a worldwide antipathy toward them. And today, not just toward the US government, but in many places—to begin with in Iraq, as testified by blog writers from there—that antipathy, that hate, is directed against Americans in general.

“We hate Americans!”

One wonders if there is some great misunderstanding at play. Is this a cultural matter? A lack of true information about Americanism and what it stands for? Are Americans simply misunderstood in the world?

However that may be, the nature of Americanism as it is understood by the majority of Americans and that perceived and experienced by non-Americans are so diametrically opposed that sometimes the two concepts seem to concern different historical times and different geographical places; Americans and the others seem to inhabit different worlds.

So what is it, this Americanism? From my vantage point I experience forms of Americanism chiefly in the context of the hegemonic tendencies, bullying globalization, arrogance, militarism and imperialism of the United States of America. One glaring, arrogant example is the construction of yet another US military base in the ancient city of Vicenza in north Italy, where (anachronistically) American soldiers in military dress jog over the cobbled streets of the city center, as if it were wartime, as if it were theirs, past cathedrals and Palladium architecture, weaving and dodging among startled women and children. This military display is a form of the Americanism become anti-Americanism in Europe. In this particular case the insistence on making of small and vassal Italy an aircraft carrier at the service of imperialistic America has alienated much of north Italy.

But speaking of Americanism I don’t have in mind only American militarism and its preemptive wars! Not by a long shot. I have in mind the homeland. For there is something in the exaggerated patriotism in the homeland itself that the others out there experience first hand. Those others who know America well detest the super patriotic, Amerika über alles America—the foreign specialists and US-based foreign journalists and academics and scientists, even those foreigners in the arts attracted by one of the admirable aspects of “America”—these days increasingly hard to find—i.e. the velocity and high ceiling afforded new ideas.

Even bedazzled non-American tourists of the kind who visit Disneyland and Las Vegas, who know little about American life, instinctively see the super patriotic flag-waving, Star Spangled Banner singing America as vulgar expressions of Americanism.

Finally, such worldviews coincide with the Americanism pinpointed, analyzed and criticized by a small but growing group of awakened Americans.

The implications of the term Americanism had long lingered in my mind before recently I heard the word used in an Italian talk show in reference to America’s foreign wars. My spontaneous thought was, OK, but that’s much too reductive. The thing is, once you use the word in that one context, it’s like opening Pandora’s box; you have to be prepared to take the next step and delve into what Americanism really is.

Je vous demande pardon! if I immediately begin to skirt too much around the edges. My excuse is that the subject is too menacingly broad to undertake in a single article. Still, digressions sometimes inevitably lead back toward the bull’s eye. Or, to use the old Italian seaman’s term, avanzare di ritorno—advance by return. And for that matter the first paragraph above already pinpoints the target.

WHERE TROUBLES MELT LIKE LEMON DROPS

“Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high
There’s a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby.”

The overly sweet, overly optimistic image returns like a leitmotiv. It both repels and attracts, the land that I heard of, the land that exists only in the imagery of dreamers. What I have in mind is a pet theme, the famous go-to-war-for “American way of life,” which for me again underlines America’s persistent claims of a monopoly on morality.

What is it, this American morality? This righteousness? Is it our religious roots in the fable of the Puritan settlers, those super religious people who in their hardships were bigots, perhaps also practitioners of incest and racists soon morphing into dogmatic chauvinists who early-on labeled their dissidents and different-thinkers witches and demons.

Pre-Americanism! The same Americanism initiated then which today fosters the rights of the rich to become richer, the strong to trample the weak and the contempt for and the crushing of anything smacking of the social in our land, real trade unions and, heaven forbid, universal health care.

Meanwhile, out in the empire, as long as it is distant, the Puritan legacy instills blindness to the use of cluster bombs from the stratosphere and hidden torture in places with foreign names like Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib … and while our neighbors in Haiti eat dirt, literally?

When I asked a friend and writer colleague in heartland America what he understands by Americanism, he stunned me and overwhelmed me with the following:

“From birth I have been immersed, enculterated, inculcated, and surrounded by the myriad toxic components of the ‘American Dream’ or ‘Americanism.’ There are some admirable aspects to ‘America’ but by and large we live in a spiritual/psychological sewer.” He then listed two dozen aspects of Americanism, which I repeat here: narcissism, greed, hyper-individualism, consumerism, capitalism, corporatism, faux democracy, media whoredom, asphyxiation of the Left, Christian fundamentalism, Mammon worship, moral retardation, militarism, imperialism, celebrity worship, wars on drugs and terrorism, prison industrial complex, mean-spiritedness, self-absorption, American exceptionalism, bullying, anti-intellectualism and the abandonment of many uninsured and homeless in the wealthiest nation on earth.

Whew! That is article, essay, denouncement and indictment.

The indictment raises many questions: Is that the American way of life? Do you recognize the indictment—for an indictment it is—as representative of “our way of life”? As Americanism? But most important do you accept and hold to that “way of life?”

Meanwhile more and more people of the world are answering, non merci, nein danke, no, grazie, no, muchas gracias, we can live without the American way of life.

ISMS AND MORE ISMS

The Greek “ism” suffix is a devilish affair indeed. Those three letters continue to create problems when applied to religious, philosophic, political or artistic movements or to tendencies or qualities of certain persons or groups: misunderstandings and disputes, hate and love, blind faith and war on whomever doesn’t fall in line. “Ism” wanders from Classicism to Futurism in the arts, from Romanticism to Realism in literature and from Nazism to Communism in European 20th century politics.

Today the West—the Occident!—uses the word Islamism in a negative sense—much as the word Communism or terrorism still emerges from a magician’s sleeve by a slick sleight-of-hand for our enemies in general—to slander Islam and the Islamic religion, its peoples and nations as something negative or to condemn political adversaries.

At The Same Time

others too are adopting the term Americanism. The way it is viewed is crucial. The Americanism seen by the others is America’s excessive admiration for non-admirable displays of American culture. For its unjustified optimism … where troubles melt like lemons drops. For its insistence on calling things by their opposites, such as peace for war. For the political correctness and false questions of “taste” and “sensitivity,” as Joan Didion once recalled, in the demand for more information about what really happened on 9/11; it was not the “appropriate time.”

In this sense the difference between Americanism and anti-Americanism is like the two sides of the same coin. The two concepts are the black and the white. Americanism becomes the backside of the moon. In Italian it is common to use the word Americanata to define an ostentatious, negative and unreliable action; an Americanata reveals the negative nuance of Americanism. A bad American film is always an Americanata.

The bitter truth is that the Americanism of many Americans, who, sheathed in their false consciousness, believe they are exceptional and the envy of the world, is an illusion. An illusion! A mirage in the desert. For the others out there, there is something childlike about their blind faith in their supposed superior life style and phony democracy that sometimes even sparks a feeling of commiseration and pity in other peoples who tend to consider them at the very best spoiled but dangerous brats.

And they continue to sing where troubles melt like lemon drops….

There was a time after World War II when other peoples imitated the way Americans speak, dress, walk and think. No longer! Once Americans were welcomed everywhere. No more! The aura of the “American dream” once made of Americanism a cult. Now the others do not understand why they feel unwelcome in America; they do not understand the reigning terrorism mania; they cannot understand the wars.

Although Americans have been spoiled, foreigners are becoming aware that the former personal freedoms that were once the key to Americanism have diminished. (Pardon these generalizations but sometimes in such matters surveys and polls and data are useless.) Though without comparing charts and scales on salaries and rents and economic aspects of life, Europeans realize their living standards are higher. Admittedly on the other hand, they do not yet appreciate the difficulties or the extent of the unfairness many many Americans face—unemployment and precarious employment, lack of basic health care, homelessness.

For arriving foreigners ten fingerprints and body searches at US entrance points serve to accentuate the sensation of “America-fortress-against-the-world and aggravate America’s globalization-imperialism urge. Europeans’ former positive, envious feelings toward America have vanished in the swirl and whorl of US militarism. The reality is that except in personal cases, few Europeans aspire to live in the USA today. As a rule only the very poor of the world seek to immigrate to the USA.

Before 9/11, I had occasion to live in New York City for a couple years in an apartment building on the Upper West Side in which the 16-man staff of service personnel were all Latin Americans, living frugally on low pay. Each of them confessed his dream of returning “home” to Mexico or to the Dominican Republic or to Peru as soon as he accumulated enough savings for a house or to open a business there.

In that immigrant microcosm the “American dream” was dead and gone.

Since the majority of people of the world seem to be infected with the disease, anti-Americanism is a good starting point to understand Americanism. But first, one wonders why has anti-Americanism contaminated the world? Once, the US government blamed it on the nefarious European Left and Radical Chic and Communists and also on Europe’s green envy of the American way of life.

That the real European Left from Sartre on has always been wary of America is true, but never as today.

Instead the real reasons as seen from Europe and Latin America stem first of all from stupid, arrogant and self-defeating US foreign policy. At the same time, French or Dutch can hardly believe the ignorance and naiveté of Americans about the world. While many Americans boast of their anti-intellectualism and their President has trouble finding strange places like Kenya or even Afghanistan on the map, the “green” media inform French and Italians that the waste and consumerism in the USA is destroying planet earth and Germans and Scandinavians are realizing that American democracy is a sham and has defiled the very word.

People are more and more aware that the Patriots Act and legislation subsequent to 9/11 have eroded America’s civil liberties. That the divide between rich and poor has never been more profound, the word “social” is taboo, and American capitalism has become more and more savage and vicious. For many others, American culture seems to be limited to mall shopping and TV sports, while America’s absurd theories of exportation of democracy and globalization as a solution to world poverty are widely scoffed at: exportation of democracy means war and globalizations means loss of jobs in Italy or France.

Europeans are right to wonder why Americans, even well intentioned people of the Left, cannot see the obvious. The answer is that their continuing faith in a mythical Americanism blinds them. And their false consciousness created and maintained by disgraceful mainline media that distorts the concept of freedom of the press.

American conservatives twist things around and point out that foreigners don’t know the USA. Nothing more false! Europeans are well-informed about the USA. In these months day after day arrive into peoples’ homes news and talk shows about the USA and its incomprehensible money-based electoral system. People are familiar with South Carolina and New England and Colorado. Italian TV and press have their correspondents following the primaries today because it matters to Europe, to the world, who is elected, they believe (naively). In this, Europeans show their good faith. They still believe there is a difference between America’s two political parties, when they could be suggesting and advising and pleading for third and fourth parties in the USA—in their own interest—something Americans seem loath to do.

Each new school shooting somewhere in the USA, each new massacre in Iraq and Afghanistan, the death tolls of US and European casualties, and analyses and media coverage of US events, the decline of the US economy, the falling stock market in New York and the threat of recession are all part of Europe’s daily fare.

I was perplexed this morning when my wife, an Italian, asked me in all sincerity as to why what happens in the USA so important to the rest of the world. My point is that though the world studies the USA, the others out there in the world are terrified of what the next fool-hardy, dangerous and unpredictable act this big oaf of a child will pull off in the name of its Americanism.

European American specialists often return to those Puritan individualists I mentioned earlier “who so passionately believed that they could individually establish a direct relationship with God,” who emigrated to North America and invented “an explosively new and radical ideology” that justified “an individualist rather than a social view of property.”

The decline of that idea we are all witnessing shows that in an individualistic world that is wholly private we lose our bearings; deprived of any public anchor, all we have are our individual subjective values to guide us. According to even a minimum social philosophy (which for Washington and US capitalism is straight out of Marx’s Communist Manifesto and Mao’s Little Red Book) one simple but pressing need would be publicly owned TV with the (impossible) mandate to provide a universal public service to guarantee ordinary citizens core news and comment free of hype and spin. While the U.S. spends little money on public TV, European governments finance and aggressively regulate broadcasting content so that state TV has remained more complete and in some countries surprisingly free.

American private broadcasters instead plead the First Amendment’s commitment to absolute free speech, making public interest regulation almost impossible.

THE IMPULSE FOR U.S HEGEMONY IN THE WORLD

I often return to the passage from Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes’ masterpiece, The Death of Artemio Cruz, the gist of which is that one cannot commit what North Americans have committed against Mexico and expect to be loved. The historical imperialistic, hypocritical, vicious, greedy and vulgar attitudes of the United States toward its southern neighbor are the model for America’s drive for world hegemony and its urge to control other peoples. From the beginnings of the nineteenth century until the present era, the United States has attempted to export its “American dream” to Mexico. Hypocritically that manifest destiny vision tried to superimpose Protestant values, a capitalist free market and a consumer society onto a culture foreign to such Protestant values.

The results: Shouts of “Long Live Mexico” and “Death to the Yankees” today echo similar protests ringing out from Afghanistan to the Middle East.

It is fact that more and more peoples of the world consider America evil, distant and cut off from the rest of humanity. I believe American people too, no less than Europeans, could bear up under the reality that the message of Americanism is not true. You know, people do not need to be lied to. Most can take the truth. Or they might prefer the truth after they get used to it; our minds after all have the task of distinguishing between true and false.

Still, it continues to be bizarre that we live our little lives inside our shell and have no idea of what is taking place on the outside. Only a thin wall separates our shell of comfort and ease from the exterior world where torture continues. In my mind, the kind of Americanism spoken of here, a life style based on comfort and ease, reflect anti-reality, anti-man, anti-life.

If anything, we have to learn to live without illusions.

No matter how clever, how perceptive and well grounded its positions, official America—and many Americans—seem to see Iraq and Iran, Kosovo and Algeria, from a virtual point of view. Europeans see those peoples instead as real places in a real world. A fundamental difference in attitude toward war is that Europeans know what war is on home soil. They know that war is not peace. War means suffering and destruction and death. War does not bring democracy.

A glaring assumption of Americanism is that the US military is a force for good (as reactionaries like to put it). That the US is the guiding light for the world, and is in sole possession of moral authority.

Cold War Revisionism

Because I once felt lonely in my nascent revisionist ideas on Soviet Communism and Stalinism and doubted the validity of my own thinking, I have postponed the question of Soviet Communism, which is not as distant from the power of Americanism as it might seem. Though as a rule I dislike the constant revisionism (that ism suffix again!), it goes without saying that the last word about Lenin’s heirs has not yet been spoken.

So careful here, for we’re speaking of seventy plus years of the 20th century that changed our world. Nor can one dispute that the Bolshevik Revolution changed the face of America, too. The revolutionary myth and four great events remain fixed in the memory of some of us: the American, French, Mexican and Russian revolutions. However, in America the revolutionary legacy morphed into one of the worst aspects of Americanism.

Fear and terror of Revolution transformed Americanism into a “way of life”, crusaded for in uninterrupted anti-progress wars ever since, accompanied by the Nazification of America’s institutions.

Like the many questions today open to re-interpretation, Communism is not a closed issue. Likewise, Soviet Communism is not a closed issue. With the broadening of the European Union toward the East the question of Communism is recurrent today because the EU is formed by peoples with opposite perceptions of it. For many East Europeans Communism was a nightmare. Nor was the exit from totalitarian regimes in East Europe a happy one in that it led some of those countries to blind faith in a savage market economy and abandonment of the spirit of social solidarity.

However, for many people in the world the word Communism is not a dirty word. Former East Germans in Berlin have described to me the nostalgia for the sense of social solidarity in former East Germany. Though the totalitarian regimes in East Europe vanished and Communist parties are marginalized, for the 450,000,000 people of the now twenty-seven nations of the European Union the sensation of something missing is real. Even though controversial, the memory of Communism is alive. Though Communism in practice is no longer considered a credible alternative in free market democracy, and though it no longer aims at revolution and though it still suffers from the image of Soviet totalitarian past, its memory is alive. The question of Communism has not been settled.

George Washington, the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy have each been re-evaluated. I believe the time will come when also Joseph Stalin will be regarded with different eyes. In the end, the six to ten million or more dead will not all be charged to evil Uncle Joe. Most certainly he will not be charged with the Cold War, which engaged America’s chief energies for four decades and has now reawakened over the wars for oil and gas.

In the list of aspects of Americanism, anti-Communism is a cornerstone. Revisionism of Stalin (the word means steel man!) rings seditious. The suggestion that Josef (Koba) Vissarionovich Djugashvili was not the anti-Christ incarnated overturns the history of Americanism. Yet that historical revisionism circulates here and there among a small circle of academics who believe that history will judge Stalin a great leader, as suggested by the historians Grover Burr and Yury Zhukov in his Inoy Stalin, A Different Stalin. Maybe not in our lifetime, but Stalin will one day be recorded as no worse and maybe better for Russia than many Russian Tsars.

But the gulags? one objects. Gulags? Well, read Dostoevsky among other Russian writers to experience the gulag existence since the early phases of Tsardom and the formation of Russia.

Then what about his “Socialism in one country,” the abandonment of world revolution and adoption of Russian nationalism? Lenin and Trotsky’s program of world revolution was the romantic view: without a world Socialist revolution, the Russian Revolution was doomed. Trotsky charged Stalin with betrayal of the Russian Revolution because he aimed at limiting original and necessary revolutionary goals. Now, in comparison, Stalin’s “Socialism is one country” turns out to be Russian nationalism and paradoxically differs chiefly in degree and methods from modern European leaders struggling for independence within the European Union.

Thus the Cold War remains a sore spot. For Soviet Russia there was NATO and US aggressiveness to contend with. There were the US-NATO military bases encircling the USSR, symbols of many aspects of continuing Americanism. Many Americans and Germans of those times agreed that the United States had fought the wrong war. The generals were ready to march on Moscow, again. Post-war German writer Wolfgang Borchert’s Verrostet träumen Waffen von Kriegen described the nearly rusted arms (in the generals’ fantasies) dreaming of wars to be fought. They should combat the real enemy: the Russkies. Moscow had good reason to believe that the US goal was the overthrow of the Soviet regime.

In post-war West Germany the former Nazi General Reinhard Gehlen (1902-1979) and chief of Hitler’s Soviet intelligence service headed the nucleus of surviving German intelligence … under American direction. Gehlen’s Org, a nest of former SS and Gestapo killers, war criminals responsible for the deaths of millions in the Soviet Union and East Europe, became a decisive component of the CIA’s growing worldwide apparatus. Its thousands of experienced operatives, older and more cosmopolitan than incoming CIA recruits, had a major effect on the future culture of the CIA and thus on America.

So dependent was American intelligence on their Nazi brothers that it has been said that the new CIA was built around the Gehlen Org, the history of which is still misty today. The creation of the Gehlen Org thus constituted the most extreme provocation, contributing to the general climate of hostility, which came to be known as the Cold War.

The Cold War deformed our immature minds; not only two generations of Americans were brainwashed and hoodwinked; a whole world was brainwashed and hoodwinked. But, in the long run, I like many others concluded that despite the brainwash and the Cold War, Russia was Russia, complex, grand, enigmatic; but it was Russia.

CONCLUSIONS

For anyone with eyes to see it is clear that the reasons for the clash of the United States with the world today—while its presidential candidates traipse around the electoral circuit speaking of the new wars to come—are to be found in that complex of historical, social and political factors and the false values, which constitute today’s Americanism. That is, “our way of life,” in the name of which our increasingly illegitimate political leaders pontificate and send our troops, “our boys”, around the world, which, far from defending social justice or the downtrodden, serves to separate the people of America from the rest of the world.

A growing number of Americans realize that the time has arrived for a radical shift in American thinking. All those little placards of the electoral campaign bearing the word change reflect the necessity. Yet, with the Americanism mindset described above, revolution is still hardly conceivable in the minds of the masses.

A close analysis and dissection of the American values that constitute Americanism will be necessary in order to create a new set of values. A new mindset that will include a basic conception of social justice to counteract and replace the pervasive and visible sense of gloom and hopelessness in the obesity of consumerist America.

And that, I hope, I believe, is where people like us count.


Addendum: I have excerpted a few lines from my short story of New York: “Brooklyn Bridge-Arch Number Six” about a Hispanic muralist and Americanism.

“I’m painting the history, past, present—and future—of the city,” he (the Hispanic immigrant, painting his mural on arch number six.) whispered.

From clouds and nocturnal mists of memory emerged outlines of arriving ships—they were the Anglo-Saxons and the Dutch. Ghostly silhouettes of Indians with their indistinct faces painted white looked toward the sea. Out of ocean mists then came waves of blacks, with round faces and frightened eyes. New houses crept up the island of Manahattan like waves of the sea. Blue and gray uniforms and cannons and flags and luxurious mansions rose from the ground. Layer after layer—boatloads of dark foreigners with cardboard suitcases and packed ships departing with soldiers, railroads like spokes of a wheel and subway tracks in tunnels, parks with mansions on one side, slums on the other, dandies and rag pickers. The colors were speaking, crying and screaming, brilliant under powerful searchlights from above, the colors of the skins, white, yellow, red, brown, black. Palaces, cinemas and vaudeville halls, beer parlors, art galleries, train stations and stadiums, ships on white rivers turning black, smoke and steam, pale women and silent girls seated in long lines of old urban factories. In the night his story was exploding onto the walls of Arch No. 6. The banks, the Stock Exchange façade shrouded in ticker tape and bands of strikers whose ranks are gradually transformed into homeless sleeping in doorways, in parks, in subway stations. And in the lower right corner ranks of policemen in blue face to face with legions of the city’s homeless.)


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