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Various essays and extended pieces

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Think Piece 

This article was written by Rafael D. Frankel and published in Farang Magazine in December, 2004. He took many of the ideas and thoughts that I've had lately and put them into a discernible form, unlike the crap in my head. I don't agree with everything he says, but I do agree with his basic premise.

Please: read it with an open mind, get thru the entire thing, and take some time to think a bit before attacking and crucifying him and/or me. The tough part is, many of the thoughts and ideas he puts forth were not very clear to me before we started traveling. And it's taken a bit of time for me to drop the defensiveness and allowing myself a clearer view of what's going on and .

I am typing this up, copying from the magazine it was printed in. I was unable to find the article online which is why I am doing this. Any spelling/grammatical/general flubs are a product of my typing. If someone has legal issues with me over this, let me know. I'd gladly link this article instead of typing it up. But I think the message is important enough for me to take the time to do this.

Any italicized or bold sections are my emphasis.

Later, I'll expand more of my own ideas and recent thoughts. Don't worry. And these last few days in Uzbekistan are only serving to bolster and improve my thinking and embolden me in how I'm thinking lately. So be ready.


THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE

Even the Roman Empire fell, overrun by a band of "barbarian" Visigoths undaunted by the power they were tackling. But they were just the final instruments of Rome's demise. The real fall befan centuries earlier when a bloated empire became arrogant and hubristic. Sound familiar?

I honestly don't know what the future hold for the United States of America, but after a five-week visit back to my home country and the presidential election, it appears that my vision for the USA is far off track. I am not a self-hating American, nor do I want to be a mouthpiece for the intransigent Europeans who feel so culturally superior to their trans-Atlantic counterparts. I hoped I would not be writing this article and yet here I am forced to confront the fact that my country isn't just in a rut, it's diseased.

It's easy to point out where America has gone wrong over the last four years: the Iraq War, abandoning the Kyoto Protocol, failing to push for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, insulting ourallies, and making enemies out of people who once looked to us for hope and inspiration. But these are just the outward and most recognisable symptoms of the cancer running through American society-the actions the rest of the world sees without truly understanding the root causes of all of this. If these were isolated incidents, caused independently of one another and without a clear tie into the fabric of what American society has become, then I could optimistically opint out to the rest of the world that there were 55 million of us that voted for John Kerry. Unfortunately, those numbers belie a much greater and insidious affliction in the vast majority of my countrymen.

Jerry Springer not withstanding, American TV (the only form of entertainment many AAmericans can afford and/or have time for) continues to paint a rosy picture of life in "the greatest nation on earth". That message, delivered by the media, is only reinforced (not the other way around) by a goverment which continues to tell its people the "American dream" is alive and well. And though that message obviously conflicts with what the average American sees in his own life, when it is delivered forcefully, ad nauseum, throughout every medium of communication he knows, he eventually believes it's his own deficiencies which rightfully condemn him to working 80 hours a week at Wal-Mart (my parents recently met such a person) for wages which can barely sustain an individual, let alone a family.

GOOD AND EVIL

Much has been made of the resurgence of religion in America, where more people now believe in the virgin birth than evolution. Coming from a society that was originally built upon its desire to escape the binds the Christian church placed upon them in Europe, this is a shocking statistic. But when one considers the quality of life so many Americans now endure, rather than enjoy, is it any wonder so many are now turning to religion for personal salvation from their daily grind?

Religion is nearly as old as humanity itself, and when not shoved down people's throats or imposed at gunpoint is a meaningful part of many of our lives, myself included. It has the power to help people rise to causes greater than themselves and make us truly more than the sum of our parts. But religious fundamentalism, which is flourishing in the United States, is another story.

Across the world, religious fundamentalism wins the greatest number of converts among the poor, and those who have little to look forward to in this life and thus dream of the heaven that awaits them if they suffer patiently through this one. This is true for Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and Jews alike. So it is no wonder that religious fundamentalism, historically and presently the greatest threat humanity has known, is as rampant in Kansas as it is in Afghanistan.

Despotic leaders often draw their support from such people even though they act against their economic interests because they are seen to share the same "values" which supersede all other considerations. So when evangelical Christians see a born-again Christian in the White House, the fact that his tax and budget policies clearly do not favour them is nearly irrelevant, and many go so far as to instill the utmost trust in him by sending their sons and daughters off to fight a modern-day crusade he portrays in messianic terms as nothing less than a fight between good and evil. Thus the belief in a higher poower originally meant to inspire purpose and kindness in mankind is once again twisted into a tool of violence and oppression.

I am not a pacifist. When the last recourse is violence, then so be it. That was the conclusion that I, like nearly all Americans, came to in regards to Afghanistan after 9/11. But Iraq, like most of the wars America has fought, did not meet that standard of provocation. And I shudder when I think that it was also initiated as a religious war pitting the armies of Christ against those of Allah as American Army Lt. General William G. Boykin suggested when he said: "My God is bigger than his God [Allah]. I knew my God was a real God, and his was an idol."

UNREALITY TV

Those that do not choose religion as their coping mechanism largely escape via the American mass media. An entity of its own, the media has spun so far out of control it now exists as a post-modern beast which actually manipulates its own creators. Much has been made of reality TV and rightly so. Programs like The Swan in which the unusual and 'ugly' publicly debase themselves for the amusement of millions by undergoing plastic surgery in order to be more accepted has ventured. But though they make the racy soap operas look conservatively quaint in comparison, such programs are easy fodder and are more a symptom of the disease rather than the sickness itself.

Indeed, what is far more damaging than entertainment programming is the lack of serious discourse in American media today. It says a great deak about the state of journalism (and I say this as a journalist myself) when the best reporter of the entire 2004 campaign was the comedian John Stewert of Comedy Central's The Daily Show. For the duration of the campaign, Stewert drew more viewers than any of the network news channels, and not just because he is funny. Stewert's biting social commentary, not focused on the individual candidates alone but more broadly on the "system" as he puts it, resonated with many Americans who long ago realised the mainstream media had failed them.

It speaks volumes about the state of American journalism (and Stewart himself acknowledges this) that his brand of political satire does a better job of contextuializing American politics than the vast majority of serious news programs and periodicals. Though Americans may be ignorant as a nationality, we are not "dumb", as the Daily Mirror headline, funny though it was, proclaimed. Rather, the mass mainstream media has created a culture more in-line with Orwell's thought-controlled 1984 than the revolutionary, individualistic ethos my country was originally built upon.

"I trace the current outbreak of droid-like conformity to the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when groupthink became the official substitute for patriotism, and we began to run out of surfaces for affixing American flags," wrote best-selling American author Barbara Ehrenreich in The New York Times last July.

"Groupthink has become as American as apple pie and prisoner abuse....Our standardized test-driven schools reward the right answer, not the unsettling question. Our corporate culture prides itself on individualism, but it's the 'team player' with the fixed smile who gets to be employee of the month. In our political culture, the most crushing rebuke is to call someone 'out of step with the American people'. Zip your lips, is the universal message, and get with the program," she said.

AMERICA IMPLODING

The second story I found telling the state of America came from the New York Times and said that America alone, which accounts for roughly 4.3 percent of the world's population, consumes 52 percent of all illegal drugs. More than simply hypocritical (considering our draconian drug laws) it speaks to the quick-fix preferences of most Americans. Most of us do not like to confront complexities so when challenged with a personal problem, Americans increasingly resort to drugs. My mom, a social worker, confirms this saying she is often "shocked" by how many of her colleagues prescribe drugs to quickly and allow patients to take them without undergoing simultaneous counseling.

Transferring that mentality to a national and intetrnational level, it is understandable how so many Americans identify with George W. Bush's version of a black-and-white world where people (even those within America) and other countries are "either with us or against us". It is the simple solution to a comlpex problem that works for those who are moral absolutionists or those induced into short attention spans by the aforementioned media and rigours of life in 21-st century America.

So what is the prognosis?

Like our current attitude toward the environment, this life is not sustainable. The toxic build-up of stress, media, religious fundamentalism, economic greed, war, and even the very food we put in our bodies will eventually implode. As the athor John Burdett speculates in the highly nuanced detective story Bangkok 8: "There will be TV news pictures of people fleeing from supermarkets and pressing their hands to their heads, unable to take the banality anymore."

From my view, that implosion started November 2nd with the re-election of President Bush. The fact that the election was free, fair and undisputed only makes me more pessimistic about the future of my country. If Bush had cheated like he did last time, at least I could say most Americans were still against him.

That so many people (voter turnout was a record high even though it was still small in percentage terms compared to other democratic countries) willfully and by all accounts proudly cast their ballot for W. acts as an endorsement for the current direction the USA is taking both at home and abroad. That after all the events of the last three years since September 11, 2001; after knowing how Bush views the world; after seeing more than a million jobs evaporate at home; after seeing over 1,100 of our soldiers not come back from Iraq; after a minimum of 14,000 to a maximum of 100,000 Iraqis have died since the war began (although that statistic is conveniently absent from the American discourse); after all this, that close to 60 million Americans still voted for him confirms my worries that there is a cancer in American society that is spreading with impunity.

American chef, historian and philosopher Jon Beckman puts it more succinctly: "So Bush won. I wish the record to show that I have lost faith in my nation to date from Nov. 2, 2004. The US deserves him. The comfort we have demanded is now mandatory. Urine samples will be collected in the morning.

"The Democratic Party is no longer a contender in electoral politics. They had everything going for them-the righteous 'throw the bums out' posture; an imbecilic, draft-dodging, election-stealing incumbent engaged in a tragic, unjustified war during a tepid recession, causing a listless economy with massive layoffs; [an administration] without any real accomplishments during [its] tenure; a mobilized, angry constituency. And they not only didn't win the presidency, they lost the equally divided Senate and dropped further in the House. It's over. The Wal-Mart Evangelicals have already out-bred the small-thinking minority in this country for years and will continue to do so ad nauseum until they have their treaseured Hell on Earth that they have so desperately desired," he said.

Some Americans reading this article will tell me that I'm being too pessimistic; that I'm just shell-shocked at the election results and that I'll get over this gloom and doom; that things will get better with the 2008 election when we very well may elect our first female preisdent in Hillary Clinton. I'm sure I'll also be accused of being a self-hating American, European apologist, and probably a poopy-head (labels are so easy). But the problem ist that I started writing this article two weeks before the election, convinced there is a problem much deeper in American society than the colours of the federal government.

Some Democrat (not, I think Hillary) probably will win the 2008 election, and I myself may be working on that campaign. But unless we usher in a new era in America, with a radical overhaul of the way our society-government, media, the economy, the social structure all taken together-functions, it will only treat the symptoms of the cancer for a spell without curing the patient.

All empires fall. And the fall of ours-barring a radical course correction is only a matter of time. Though the descent America takes in terms of its military, economic, and social dominance over the world will no doubt require decades before it come to full fruition, I believe history may likely look back on this moment as the beginning of the end of that hegemony; when a combination of internal stresses, slow realisation by the rest of the world that they want no part of our influence, and the resurgence of China finally conspired to turn the tide of history against the United States of America.

Even though I voted for him, I share no part of John Kerry's dogma that caused him to say, in his concession speech, that "in an American election, there are no losers. Because whether or not our candidates are successful, the next morning, we all wake up as Americans. And that-that is the greatest privelege and the most remarkable good fortune that comes to us on earth."

Bullshit. For those of us who are not wealthy, white, religious fundamentalists gun-lovers, we lost big time in this election. And when John Kerry has the gall to say otherwise, he only prostrates himself before the beast that is gobbling up Americans by the millions.

So it is this "light at the other end of the tunnel is a freight train" situation that Americans like me now find ourselves mired in. And what to do about it all? Some strong critics of the US government are calling upon the opposition to buck up and try harder than ever now, while others feel resigned to defeat.

While I view the prospects for Americans like me as seriously dim, I am still an American, and almost as a rule we never give up. We love the underdog story; the hero who fought against all odds to become champion while captivating the nation during his rise to glory. How else to explain such an outpouring of emotion from the whole country over the Boston Red Sox?

After laying low for a while, I'll once again use this laptop to write and communicate ideas that subvert the dominant paradigm in the hopes that the great fall of America that I foresee can be avoided. If I'm going down, damnit it, I'm giong to go down swinging.


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