‘Being an American is a complex fate.’ Henry James, I think. Someone quoted it to me. I became an American citizen ten years ago and have been here for over twenty. Being here was an accident really and had nothing to do with ‘looking for a better life’ or ‘seeking the American Dream.’ I wasn’t on the run from a despot, or a war, or hunger, or unemployment, as was often the case with young people leaving Ireland. I just happen to have landed here, having lived in many other places.
But now I am very much an American and it’s time for me to start giving voice to my thoughts, to use the wonderful technologies at our disposal to enter some public debates. I’ll be riffing and ranting on lots of things (mainly fiction) but first I want to put a couple of political thoughts out there. Contrary to almost universal belief, the United States of America is not a democracy. This is worth saying because most of us seem not to question the propaganda in sheep’s clothing that filters through our media, our advertising, our education system etc., which all amount to a resounding hurray that, yes, we are the greatest democracy in the world, verily in the history of the world. We are THE democracy that will defy history and last forever. The available information would beg to differ.
The US would more accurately be described as a plutocracy, ruled by the wealthy. Because of the power of money in the US, elections can be controlled (swayed, reconfigured, thrown into doubt) through lobbyists and advertising (disinformation). The illusion of democracy is maintained by the moneyed folks who have a stake. It is not possible to be a politician in the US without wealth. It is possible, however, for a wealthy individual or group to gain power, locally or federally, without the support of the people. Recent experience has borne this out.
To take an example from the opposing ideology of the twentieth century: the reason the Soviet propaganda machine did not work was because it was stupid. The workers are heroes because they are workers. They have big muscles and brave hearts. That was bullshit, and that’s why the Berlin wall came down!! US propaganda however is clever. It filters through every aspect of our lives, through the media, through sport, through entertainments etc. It gives us an image of ourselves as smiling consumers, functioning without difficulty, hard at work, a homogeneous group. It is actually difficult to have a political discussion in the US because the propaganda has set up the terms of the debate, and the terms we need to use require a thorough reexamination in order that we might be confident of their meaning. It is not possible, for example, to talk about the poor, without listeners thinking that you are at best a liberal, at worst a communist — or at least an enemy of the free market. Or hungry children. Even to be thinking that there might be hungry children in the wealthiest country in the world means that you are, at the very least, unpatriotic, at worst, a socialist or terrorist. It is not possible to question the death penalty as inhumane because part of the needs of US propaganda is that it requires the over-emotional response of ignorance. Serial killer rapist cannibals need to die, therefore we need the death penalty. But how many serial killer rapist cannibals are there? And how many innocent or mentally ill people have been executed? It is also difficult to talk about peace without being seen as unpatriotic or a wuss or just plain stupid. That the most insightful manual of war (Sun Tzu’s text, The Art of War) talked about peace as the objective of war, makes no difference.
It’s also worth thinking about how more often than not, less than half of those eligible to vote in the US actually do so. Approximately seventeen percent of the population voted Reagan into power in 1980. Literacy rates and inaccessible, expensive education help to insure ignorance and easy manipulation by provocative or charming or charismatic political or religious figures and/or demagogues. Glenn Beck. Karl Rove. Newt Gingrich. Creflo Dollar. The American people, when they do vote, often vote against their own best interests. Why would a person who earns $40,000 a year, who can just about make ends meet, vote for a politician who is advocating tax cuts for the wealthy? Why would anyone with the slightest knowledge of Christianity (‘blessed are the meek,’ ‘suffer the little children,’ ‘easier for a wealthy man to enter the kingdom of heaven…than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle…’) believe that God wants us to get rich?
Another thought to grasp in order to get a handle on politics in the US is just how enormous the place is. My first year in the States was spent in New Mexico. From what I could understand — I speak Spanish after two years studying and living in Spain — a form of medieval Spanish is still spoken in the villages of the Sangre de Christo mountains. Native Americans — Pueblo Indians such as Zunis — are very much a part of the landscape in New Mexico. I celebrated my first Thanksgiving with white Americans who really didn’t know what the celebration was about. They weren’t uneducated people, they were just not concerned about things like Pilgrims and Mayflowers and thought about the history of Massachusetts as though it were a foreign country. There were public protests from different groups of Indians on Thanksgiving and then again on Columbus Day. Later, I learned just how north eastern a concept Thanksgiving is, though put out there as a unifying national holiday by those (the plutocrats, presumably) who need to think of the country as a homogeneous unit. The difference between people of whatever color or race who live in New Mexico and those who live in Massachusetts could not be more extreme. To give three hundred and twelve million plus people of wildly and widely different views and backgrounds a choice of two presidential candidates, whose political positions are often almost indistinguishable, would not, I suppose, be so ludicrous, were it not for the fact that we continue to call ourselves a democracy. That’s another thing worth thinking about: with all the talk we have of choice in our culture, we have practically no choice when it comes to electing our federal leaders.
Another thing that needs to be thought about is our adversarial legal system. Over and over again we see in our courts the rule of the wealthy, whatever about guilt or justice. The person who can hire the most aggressive, most astute, most expensive team of lawyers is the one who most often will be treated gently by the legal system. (The only wealthy people who are put away are those who hurt the wealthy [Madoff]; but the Wall Street criminals behind the 2008 economic meltdown are actually paid for their crimes.) There is no equality before the law. If you are a poor black man, there’s a good chance you will spend time in prison. And our prisons — if Pelican Bay SHU is anything to go by — are torture chambers, where inmates are driven insane by isolation if not already suffering from psychiatric disorders when they were imprisoned. To put a schizophrenic in a prison is itself criminal, not to mention the shame or the horror. I read recently a government report about various prisons where mentally handicapped children are serially raped.
We have a lot of work to do to reclaim our democracy. We’ll be lucky if we can do it. The one thing that gives me hope is the loophole that enables large numbers of people to gather enough support and sympathy to actually put the politicians to shame.