My children have a Dreamworks animated film called AntZ. I suppose it’s better than the average American children’s film, but still, once you’ve watched 15 minutes you can predict both the conclusion and the moral message that will be rammed violently past your gullet for the next hour and a bit. As in very many Disney films for children or in the Hollywood versions for adults, the message is BE YOURSELF. BE AN INDIVIDUAL. STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD.
It seems contradictory that the country which feeds its children unto obesity with this message is also the country with the most conformist of populations. Americans are more likely than any other people to confuse their national identity with their state machinery, to identify themselves with their leaders and their flag, to believe that their country has a divinely-ordained manifest destiny. The ability of Americans to contemplate alternative perspectives on the world, or even to understand that people in different countries may not want to speak English or eat hamburgers, is severely limited. The declared ideology is individualism, but the reality is rigid conformism.
Parallel to this, the American political system is described as democratic. The assumption even exists that America is in a position to export its vaunted democracy to more benighted lands. In reality, however, the American political system has much more in common with Italian fascism than it does with Athenian democracy. Athenian democracy suggests the rigorous debate of issues by the people in a public space, followed by direct voting. In Mussolini’s model, and in the contemporary US, the people are kept too busy to be able to think, are offered entertainment in place of debate and fantasy instead of facts. Corporations, media and the political parties are all on the same side. In the United States more than in Mussolini’s Italy, much of the religious apparatus is also absorbed into the corporate body. There is no public space. It has all been bought, from the airwaves to the shopping mall which replaces the old town centre.
BE YOURSELF doesn’t mean convert to Islam, or become an anarcho-syndicalist, or opt out of consumerism and live in the forest. There’s a strong media machinery to deal with such possibilities: you don’t want to be a freak, a loser, an evil-doer. GET REAL, buddy! There are prescribed ways to be yourself. You can, for instance, express your individuality by downloading a mass-produced individualised ring tone, or by wearing Ralph Lauren shirts, or Nike shoes, by hanging out with people who read a certain newspaper or drive a certain type of car. You can even prove your anti-establishment credentials by smoking Che Guevara cigarettes.
It’s important to rebel against your parents and the previous generation because by doing so you DEFINE YOURSELF and STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD. Novelty is important. Whatever was done last year is passé. REINVENT YOURSELF constantly. There was even an American TV show about women winning the opportunity to have extensive plastic surgery as well as posture and elocution lessons.
Our economy too requires constant tumult, continual renewal, in order to keep itself out of crisis. Standing still is, for it, disaster. And this points to the truth of American ‘individualism’ – not in fact particularly American, but specifically late capitalist. Marx predicted it. He called it the commodification of the human soul. There are other ways of defining your individuality, which do not rely on brands and products. You could, for instance, examine your position in relation to your family, your nation, human history, to the divine. This is a contemplative exercise which is not helped by the screen screaming BE YOURSELF, or by the late capitalist dissolution of the notion of history itself.
These thoughts have been sparked by Seymour Hersh’s latest article, and by the consequent question, what, and who, is anti-American? Hersh is America’s finest investigative journalist. He broke the My Lai story from Vietnam, and the Abu Ghraib story from Iraq. Now he’s investigating the coming US or Israeli attack on Iran and the proxy wars that the US is already involved in throughout the Middle East.
America is currently fingering Iran for supplying the weaponry that kills US occupying troops in Iraq. This is absurd, and the Americans at the top know it. 95% of American deaths in Iraq have been caused by Baathist or Salafi radicals who despise Iran. These anti-American fighters make or loot their own weapons, or buy them on the open market. They are funded not by Iran but by Saudi Arabia, America’s greatest Arab ally. The American ruling class don’t seem to actually give a damn about the American troops being killed.
Hersh also points to US funding of extreme Salafi groups in Lebanon and elsewhere. There’s nothing new in this. America has backed Wahhabi extremists before, to isolate revolutionary Iran and to trouble the Soviet Union. What makes this time different is that we are in the middle of a series of wars supposedly triggered by an attack on New York on September 11th 2001 … by extreme Salafis. The American ruling class don’t seem to give a damn about the American citizens killed on that historic day.
Last week a bus carrying Revolutionary Guards was blown up in Iranian Baluchistan by a Baluchi separatist (and Sunni fundamentalist) group which is funded by the US. One ‘strategy’ which Hersh describes is the weakening of Iran by arming and encouraging separatist terrorist groups among Iran’s Kurdish, Arab, Baluchi and Azeri minorities. Anyone who still thinks that the US administration is horrified by the civil war and fragmentation of Iraq should think again. They planned for it, and they are planning for it again. The disaster in Iraq has immeasurably strengthened instability and terror worldwide, as well as the global hatred of Americans. The American ruling class don’t seem to give a damn about Americans.
I despise the BE YOURSELF crap that passes for individualism in the US, but I’m not anti-American. Once Americans think beyond the capitalist poison (which is spreading far beyond America’s shores) and media illusion, they can be as bright as anyone else. America has produced Spike Lee and Martin Scorcese, Public Enemy and Miles Davis, John Cheever and Saul Bellow, the Bill of Rights and Malcolm X. America has a lot to be proud of.
What it should be ashamed of, and suspicious of, is its corporate ruling class. The people who whip up the wildest displays of flag-waving patriotism, and who actively collaborate with the enemies of the American people. Who ARE the enemies of the American people.
The Hersh article is here: http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/070305fa_fact_hersh
On the corporate rape of America, I recommend Naomi Klein’s book “No Logo.”