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|Steve Tesich, Oscar winning
History must take a perverse delight in its sense of time and place. The world's first successful proletarian revolution occurred in a country, Russia, where it was the least likely to occur; where, in fact, there was no proletariat to speak of at the time. The world's first successful proletarian revolution was therefore not even proletarian. It was to be a Revolution which created over the next 70 years a population which became almost totally proletarian, and history, in its perverse delight, picked just that time for the proletarian state to crumble and turn to capitalism and bourgeois democracies as sources of inspiration.
The joke, however, continues.
The collapse of the Soviet Union left a power vacuum which the United States of America was quick to occupy, but in our haste to do that we have appropriated some of the attributes of our former enemies.
There are numerous traits which define a totalitarian state. The three primary ones are a disregard for truth, an almost total disregard for the welfare of its people and a monolithic imposition of the party line as the only morality.
There is a fourth as well but this trait is the result of the other three, and we'll begin with that one. The Cult of Personality.
Unlike its earlier manifestation in Italy and Germany and the Soviet Union, where the cult was inspired and identified with a single man, its current practice in the United States is not associated with any one person in particular, but rather, in a perverted spirit of our democracy and in a parody of our pluralistic society, it has become a cult of the collective personality.
What is troublinq about this cult of personality is that it represents something that goes against the very myth and ethos of our nation and can therefore be best described as the Cult of the Un-American.
It is the cult of the wimp.
The wimp is an unfortunate word but these, unfortunately, are unfortunate times, and the word does have an evocative history in the political life of our president, George Bush, which makes it useful for the purposes of this discussion.
A wimp, the way I understand it, is somebody without any moral standards which he is willing to apply impartially, not just to the actions of his carefully chosen adversaries, but to his own actions as well. A wimp likes his convictions a la carte. A wimp, contrary to common misconception, can be vicious and violent. He often is, because he lacks moral authority with which to exercise his influence over others. Gang leaders and gang members who terrorize the neighborhoods of our inner cities are wimps. Stalin was basically a wimp. Mussolini, we all now acknowledge, was a wimp. The members of the L.A. Police Department we saw in the now famous video were all wimps. Everyone and anyone who seeks to confirm his own superiority at the expense of a helpless opponent is a wimp. Everyone and anyone who sexually, emotionally or physically abuses children is a wimp.
When a large and a powerful nation suffers a defeat in war there tend to be consequences which are more wrenching and catastrophic than the defeat itself. Japan's defeat of Russia paved the way for the Russian Revolution and Joseph Stalin. Germany's defeat in World War I paved the way for Hitler and World War II. Our defeat in Vietnam shattered the myth of our invincibility and paved the way for the wimping of America.
A syndrome, as in Vietnam Syndrome, is by definition a number of symptoms occurring together and characterizing a specific disease or condition. When you try to fight the symptoms of a disease and not its causes, when you undertake to fight a syndrome with another syndrome you run the grave risk of aggravating the malady and threatening the very life of the patient or, in this case, the very heart and soul of our nation.
The War in the Gulf, we all now realize, could have been avoided by making sure that Saddam Hussein never crossed into Kuwait. The war was not a failure of diplomacy, it was a result of it. It was the kickoff of George Bush's re-election campaign and in that sense, and only in that sense, can it be called successful. It diverted attention from the sorry state of affairs at home with the even sorrier spectacle of our actions abroad. It revealed a hunger and a desperation in our nation for a victory that is frightening in its pathology.
The apologists for the war claim, since there are no other benefits even they can think of, that it brought us together as a nation and gave us back our sense of self-esteem.
Those very same motives were used to wage another war in another time. The terrain was similar. The air supremacy enjoyed by the victor was identical to our own. The horrible casualties of that war just like the even more horrible casualties of this one were not considered horrible because they were suffered almost exclusively by the men, women and children of the other side. And the magnificent parades which followed Italy's glorious victory over Ethiopia also celebrated the fact that Italy was brought together and its sense of self-esteem revived. Although at that time we were able to see through Mussolini's motives and mock, if not detest, his strutting puffed-up figure, we took the same parade route as he did and managed actually to top him in the banal pageantry of our desperate victory celebration.
We have won other wars in our history, we've had victory parades before and we've had victorious generals before but I can't imagine General Washington, nor General Grant, nor General Pershing, nor Dwight D. Eisenhower, nor George Marshall allowing themselves to be misused in such a miserable way as General Norman Schwarzkopf has. Not one of those men would have been capable of abandoning his dignity and decorum, if not his humanity, to be seen in his military uniform holding hands with Mickey Mouse and mouthing patriotic songs while the civilians of a country he had bombed back to a pre-industrial age were dying of hunger and disease. To merchandise himself at such a time and with such relish was an act of a man who, for all his decorations, domestic and foreign, is a wimp; a new kind of wimp for this once proud nation, a warrior wimp.
If we were brought together by our victory in the Gulf the question must be asked: Around what were we brought together? What was on parade except that having perfected our lack of compassion for the suffering of our own people during the Reagan years, we were now ready to ignore the even greater suffering of our victims abroad?
The truth of what we were doing and what we were celebrating was lost on us because our attitude toward truth has been steadily deteriorating. It has undergone a kind of decline which up to now could only be found in undemocratic, un-American forms of government.
We're all too familiar with the term "Vietnam Syndrome" but little has been said recently about another, far more disturbing and insidious syndrome which goes on, spawning ever more virulent strains of social decay, the Watergate Syndrome.
The revelations that President Nixon and members of his cabinet were a bunch of cheap crooks rightly sickened and disgusted the nation. But truth prevailed and a once again proud nation proudly patted itself on the back that despite the crimes committed in the highest office in our land, our system of government worked. Democracy triumphed.
But in the wake of that triumph something totally unforeseen occurred.
Either because the Watergate revelations were so wrenching and followed on the heels of the war in Vietnam replete with crimes and revelations of its own, or because Richard Nixon was so quickly pardoned and so quickly rehabilitated, we as a people, began to shy away from the truth. We came to equate truth with bad news and we didn't want bad news anymore no matter how true nor vital to our health as a nation.
We looked to our government to protect us from the truth.
The high crimes and impeachable offenses committed by Ronald Reagan and his administration, which included our current President, in the Iran-Contra scandal were far more serious and un-American than the crimes for which Richard Nixon was kicked out of office. These crimes attacked the very heart and soul of our republic. A private little government was created to pursue a private foreign policy agenda and thereby circumvent the law of the land, the Congress, the Constitution itself. This hidden layer of government which diminishes democratic institutions to a series of front organizations is a well known feature of all totalitarian regimes. In all of them there is the so called "front" government line which means nothing and then there is the "party line" which goes on behind the scenes. The line in this case was the Republican Party line but it was no different in its implementations and in its implications from the Communist Party line of the pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union.
And yet, nothing happened. Nothing really happened. The Iran-Contra scandal became the Iran-Contra farce. President Reagan perceived and perceived correctly that the public really didn't want to know the truth. So he lied to us, but he didn't really have to work hard at it. He sensed that we would gladly accept his loss of memory as an alibi. It had slipped his mind what form of government we had in our country and we didn't really want to prod him and find out.
In the short period of time since Watergate, the wimping of America picked up steam.
The problems confronting us now are no longer seen as problems. Truth is perceived as the problem, as the real enemy, and more and more we look to our government to protect us from it.
When the War in the Gulf began we therefore not only accepted, we embraced with patriotic fervor, press censorship of the war. We would only see what our government wanted us to see and we saw nothing wrong with that. We liked it that way. Our government was looking after us. It wasn't that long ago, however, that we felt nothing but pity for the poor Soviet people whose undemocratic government controlled the media and censored all the news from the war in Afghanistan.
The wimping of truth took another step recently when the diplomatic cables of our Ambassador to Iraq were declassified by the State Department.
The justification for the entire war rested on the premise that war was unavoidable and that our Ambassador in the firmest of tones had warned Saddam Hussein not to violate the territorial integrity of Kuwait. Our State Department assured us that this was true. Our Ambassador, testifying in front of the Senate, reaffirmed the truth of this position.
It now turns out, just as we expected, that it was all a lie. But the fact that our government now feels safe in declassifying these tapes bespeaks another truth.
They are no longer afraid of truth because they know that the truth will have little impact on us. Their message to us is this: we've given you a glorious victory and we've given you back your self-esteem...now here's the truth. Which do you prefer?
The implications are terrifying. We are being told that we can't have both anymore, truth and self-esteem. We have to choose. One excludes the other.
The implications are even more terrifying than this. Our government now perceives that we are entering a new phase where we, in return for self-esteem, are willing to lie to ourselves.
We are rapidly becoming prototypes of a people that totalitarian monsters could only drool about in their dreams. All the dictators up to now have had to work and work hard at suppressing the truth. We, by our actions, are saying that this is no longer necessary, that we have acquired a spiritual mechanism which can denude the truth of any significance. In a very fundamental way we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.
There is a popular phrase which is used as high praise for popular entertainment. "It's so bad it's good." This seemingly harmless contradiction is not harmless at all. It's Orwellian in its aesthetic doublespeak. Had Orwell had a movie or a drama critic in his novel 1984 he could have used that philosophy. We all use it now. In the post-truth world we are left without standards by which to value things so we choose to perceive virtue in banality. It's so bad it's good. We now apply this philosophy to almost all aspects of our lives.
The War in the Gulf is over but the war at home goes on. The gulf between rich and destitute widens. Between those of us who live in a modern post-industrial nation and those of us who live in the third world countries of our inner cities. The gulf between the people and its government. Between substance and semblance.
The present administration's response to this internal crisis has shifted from benign to malignant neglect. The current levels of misery and decomposition of our cities and the economic Gulags of our ghettos are acceptable. There is, since there is only so much hope to go around, a freeze on hope. The have-nots have been reclassified as never-will-haves.
The present administration's response to the ever accelerating wave of crime is to seek and receive from Congress the designation of some fifty more crimes punishable by death. The causes that lead to crime are not to be addressed. The disease is not to be treated. Only the symptoms.
The response of the Supreme Court to the same wave of crime is to sanction attacks on civil liberties and in classic doublespeak proclaim that illegally obtained evidence is now legal. That a policeman has a right to board public transportation and demand to search us without a warrant. We, if we dare, as others look on, have a right to refuse. It's up to us now to prove that we're innocent. The same court has decreed that if the federal government helps pay the rent, with our tax dollars, for a public health clinic, Americans are no longer free to say anything they want to each other there. When you have the power to tell people what they can't say you have cracked the door open to the possibility of mandating what they have to say.
The emasculation and the wimping of our republic goes on, and if the spiritual and intellectual vigor of our children is, as it always is, the true indication of our future, then our future is even more troubling than our present.
Our criminals are getting younger and younger and there are more and more of them. Crimes unheard of in the country are becoming routine. Eleven year-olds are raping nine year-olds. Little kids are killing each other. The suicide rate among the young has tripled in the last three decades.
We, unfortunately, would be willing to accept this level of decimation of our youth as a cost of doing business if only these kids who survived were to show signs of becoming productive members of our work force.
But the state of the survivors is in decline. Either unwillinq or no longer able to discern the true causes of this decline, we have reached the faulty national consensus that there is a crisis in our education system.
We keep asking ourselves why the level of our children's intelligence and competence, as measured by all our tests, keeps dropping. The reason is very simple. The reason our children are becoming less and less educated is that we don't want them to be well educated. The last thing we want now is for an intellectually and spiritually vigorous generation to confront us with the question of what we have done to our country.
We have forgotten the central premise that you educate by example. The practice and tolerance of racism is education. The system of justice where the crimes of the wealthy and the powerful and the crimes of the poor are not the same in the eyes of the law is education. The daily affirmation that synonomous with profit is education. The Reagan-Bush decade of corruption and greed has been a decade of education. That our "education" President had a chance to preside over the first generation in this century to mature without a war and that he chose to teach them a lesson that war is good, is education. That we no longer foster and welcome the idealism of our children is education. That we no longer see them as a precious asset and a source of our own ideals is education. That they're not even regarded as youth anymore but as a youth market is education. They're not even seen as young anymore. Nobody is young anymore. Something called "youthful," available to all of us, has replaced it.
It's not that our education system has failed. It's that it has succeeded beyond our wildest expectations.
And having taught our kids to tuck in their wings, to narrow their range of vision and concerns, to jettison moral encumbrances and seek self-fulfillment in some narrow sphere of self-interest -- to become, in short, wimps -- we then want them to be inspired members of our work force and make that better and smaller computer chip. They won't.
They rebel in the only rebellion left in them. They die. We can train them to do the job but we lack moral stature to inspire them to do it with brilliance. We have tampered with and crippled the genius of our youth. When the only reason we advocate for education is as a source of inoculation against unemployment, they just will not flower. Not the threat of unemployment nor even the promise of personal gain can replace that loss of human spirit for which there is no longer any function in our society. Being innocent and impressionable, the young are the first to react to the environment around them. Unless we are willing to change that environment then we must accept the verdict that our children have become the victims of choice of most Americans.
The most violent crimes, the true crimes against humanity, are those that deny the meaning of life and truth because almost all other crimes follow as a response. In a totalitarian state where the government has a monopoly on violence the response is state terror. In a free society all sectors get to participate. Some directly as perpetrators and victims. Others indirectly as manufacturers and promoters and glorifiers of violence. Others still as members of the burgeoning private security industry which is needed to protect us from each other. It can't be expressed as an economic equation but there seems to be a correlation in both types of societies between the devaluation of humans and the hyper-inflation of crime and violence.
Two competing giants, the Soviet Union and the United States of America, with two completely different and antagonistic political and economic systems, have produced some startlingly similar results in the quality of life and the character of their people. The work forces of both, as long as they had faith and hope in the future, as long as they believed that what they were doing was shaping a better life and a better world for their children, were marvels of productivity, unmatched in the world. The faith of the Soviet worker was shortlived. The faith of the American worker lasted almost two hundred years. Both nations perverted the heritage of their great cultures. The glories of Russian literature became something called social realism, a sterile depiction of man as an ant in an ant colony. Our own magnificent heritage has now been reduced to something called Capitalist Realism which in the popular entertainments we watch depicts man as either a trivial joke concerned with trivial pursuits or as an increasingly violent sociopath who seeks self-expression in the annihilation of others. The youth of both, cherished only insofar as they were willing to preserve the status quo have become either apathetic or lawless. Both countries reached their technological peaks in their space programs and since then both have been on a steady technological decline.
The Utopian God of Communism failed because it dehumanized the individual for the sake of something called the common good. The polar opposite of this, the extreme form of capitalism which dehumanized the individual by turning him into a moral cipher concerned only with his personal welfare, and without any regard for the common good, has also failed.
The irony, of course, is that in its political and economic collapse, the Soviet Union, having no heritage of political freedom of its own turned to our heritage for salvation whereas we, in our rush to assume the heavyweight championship of the world by default, have appropriated some of the very attributes of its undemocratic past. It is still too early to say which nation really won the cold war.
On a day that should not necessarily live in infamy, but which should be remembered, President Bush made the following statement. The date was May 27, 1991.
"The moral dimensions of American policy requires us to...chart a course through a world of lesser evils. That's the real world, neither black nor white. Very few moral absolutes."
Considering the source, this statement is not surprising. Mr. Bush was always perceived by us as a moral wimp, but there was a time when this had a perjorative connotation and when he had felt compelled to try and counter this assessment we had of him. He no longer feels compelled to hide. He can now boldly proclaim it as policy. In a way he has been very consistent. It's we who have changed. In an alarmingly short time we had transformed what we had perceived as a defect in him into a national cult. Hence his popularity. He speaks for us.
A world of few moral absolutes has a comfy universal appeal. It not only justifies mediocrity, it sanctions it. All of us who like to think of ourselves as ethical members of our society no matter what we do can be comforted by such a philosophy. It offers easy self-esteem for every one of us. The members of the drug cartels, our elected public officials who consider it political suicide to have strict moral standards and who, therefore, commit moral suicide to stay in office, and the rest of us who need a flexible standard by which to measure our integrity: all of us can happily co-exist in a world of few moral absolutes.
It is only in such a world that we can go to war with Saddam Hussein, whom our President called "the Hitler of our time" and at the same support with money and arms the genocidal monster of Cambodia, Pol Pot, who has himself spoken of Hitler as his mentor.
We fought the bloodiest war in our history over the moral absolute that human beings, no matter what their color, are not chattel.
The self-evident truths mentioned in our Constitution have been regarded by many of us as moral absolutes. The true genius of the framers of that Constitution was that although they found "these truths to be self evident..." they worried about others. Had they been certain that they were self-evident to one and all, there would have been no need to spell them out. It was as if they were afraid a time might come when they would no longer be self evident at all to future generations of Americans.
This new world order with few moral absolutes makes Joseph Stalin seem prophetic. By embracing such a philosophy, Mr. Bush, at best, appears to be a man who stands for nothing except re-election.
The myth of a nation, any nation, is a source of great strength. The myth of America lived on and inspired countless generations at home and abroad because a faith existed that we were moving forward as a people, and while benefiting from the patrimony we inherited, we were at the same time contributing by our actions toward a better future for all. For two hundred years that was the promise, the living faith, the moral absolute and the true north of our voyage.
There is a sense at the present not so much that we have radically changed course as that we are lost. We have lost both faith and contact with our national myth. We are guided by expediency alone. All our democratic institutions are still intact but they don't seem ours anymore. There is an uneasy feeling that we're now a collaborationist country but we don't know for sure nor do we want to know with what nor with whom we're collaborating.
When lost the most dangerous thing one can do is to blunder blindly ahead. The comparison may be too extreme but when Europe was lost in the Dark Ages it went back to its heritage for enlightenment and proceeded ahead into the Renaissance. We have that option as well and with it the hope and promise of our own renewal.
Our choice is between our myth as a people and its yet to be realized potential, or the mirage of our grandeur and our new found self-esteem. The mirage is very tempting. It stands there in front of us like some hallucinatory hologram shimmering with lights and delights. We can see in it whatever we want to see but there is a tunnel waiting at the end of these lights. A wimp with a human face is waiting to welcome us there and to inform us with whom it is we have been collaborating.
Copyright Nadja Tesich 1995
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Last revised: March 25, 1997