Usually, it’s impossible to argue with people who make comparisons between the incumbent US administration and various past totalitarian systems, particularly when the argument turns to a comparison between George W Bush and the Austrian guy with the Charlie Chaplin moustache. Whatever you think of George W Bush and his administration – still a mystery to many people in the US as well as abroad – he’s no Hitler, and the US are still a largely liberal democracy – albeit a deeply divided and angst-ridden one with a progressively eroding system of common values.
A regular guy from Texas.Though I hope to the contrary, I believe the weeks following the US Presidential election will become a much bigger electoral and legal debacle than most commentators are willing to admit now. In the end, this election might well become a testament of the principal current American weakness – deep social and partisan divisions, if not outright hatred between the camps. American politics now appears to consist predominantly of conceptually empty labels – very soon even rituals of Patriotism may be exposed as nothing more than a band aid for a mentally and spiritually ailing nation.
Apparently, according to Slate, two days ago, a crowd of about 2000 people near West Palm Beach in Florida raised their right arms, repeated the words of Florida state Sen. Ken Pruitt, and pledged their allegiance to President George W. Bush.
“I care about freedom and liberty. I care about my family. I care about my country. Because I care, I promise to work hard to re-elect, re-elect George W. Bush as president of the United States.”
Contrary to many of those in the blogosphere who rightfully freaked out about this incident, I doubt it sounded better in German. But that may be because I have grown up there – in a country with a totalitarian past harboring the mental image of the USA as liberator and the beacon of liberty that it is no longer.
Last Wednesday, I was most appalled to learn about the price of free speech in Upper Arlington, Ohio, a wealthy suburb of Columbus, where – if the residents’ statements recorded by German ZDF television are even roughly accurate – Presidential politics are driving even former friends apart, where Kerry supporters aren’t willing to put a sticker on their new cars for fear of attracting Republican scratchers. The example may be about Republicans, but I’m sure the same is true for Democrats.
Suddenly, it can no longer surprise why the “clash of civilizations” is an inherently American concept. Apparently, all Samuel Huntington had to do to come up with it was get up and buy some milk in the morning.
I don’t know if John Judis and Ruy Teixeira are actually right with their predictions about the emerging Democratic majority. Even if, the political consequences of demographic shifts are even more uncertain – the ethnic cleavage which dominated so much of American politics in the 20thcentury is finally losing a little salience while increasing knowledge of the dismal science, Coase’s victory about Communism, is reducing the clout of the prevailing economic orthodoxy of the day. But Republican or Democratic majority – America will probably remain a progressively divided nation.
And where extreme partisanship rules, control of institutions is particularly important. That is why the Bush-pledgers mentioned above should not just be treated under an “oddly enough” header. They’re a symptom.
Philip Roth just published an “it could have happened here” novel – “The Plot Against America” – about the US under a fictional fascist American President, Charles Lindbergh. Clearly, Philip Roth is a far more astute observer of America than I ever will be. So the release of his novel in these times should be concern enough.
However, it did happen before – in the US. In 1968, Ron Jones, a history teacher at Cubberley high-school in Palo Alto created the “Third Wave”, a Hitleresque youth organization, to teach his pupils about life in a totalitarian system. He ended the experiment after five days, before it could become an uncontrollable dark force of its own. “The Wave” has since become, as he wrote in an article in 1972, “a secret that I and two hundred students would sadly share for the rest of our lives.” Later, his experience has been turned into a book (The Wave by Morton Rhue/Todd Strasser) and a tv film.
Personally, I don’t think America could seriously develop a modern version of the Wilhelminic disease and suffer its consequences. In part thanks to its democratic tradition and the very social divisions creating such danger. As Josh Marshall explains – after quoting the email of a volunteer in the trenches in Florida whose faith in Democracy had been restored by an eighty-year old black man’s determination to make his vote count this time – there’s hope.
But throwing out election observers is not a hopeful sign. And when old people in a wealthy neighborhood like Upper Arlington, Ohio begin to joke – even semi-seriously – about leaving the county in case of a Bush reelection, it certainly is a very, very depressing sign.
Since I have no right to vote for Kerry in Ohio or Florida, I have decided to contribute additional two cents by spending this afternoon arranging a demo of a song I once wrote – about a regular guy from Texas, who is suffering from a rare reading disability (1.5 Mbyte, 64kb Windows Media Audio 9) – it’s called “GW Blues”. And you will be able to download it here until election day or until the traffic becomes unbearable. Hope you enjoy it.