"This is a society of true believers. The belief in democracy, market economics and the importance of religion is far more pervasive here than Marxism ever was in Russia."
- Michael Ignatieff, in The Daily Telegraph
It is the Fourth of July. Should we hang out the red, white, and blue bunting from our office balcony...or the black crepe? Should we whine about the America we have lost, or give a whoop for what we have left of it?
That star-spangled banner still waves, but does it still fly over the land of the free, we ask? Or over a country with a spy camera on every street corner...a nation so deeply in debt that freedom has become a luxury it can no longer afford?
Whatever direction we take, we trip over a contradiction. Things always seem to be black and white at the same time.
That is why we took up tango, dear reader. People who dance the tango or write poems don't let contradictions bother them. They glide across the floor and enjoy themselves. As far as we know, no serious tango dancer has ever committed suicide. It's the mathematicians and engineers who blow their brains out.
An ideologue or a mathematician cannot tolerate contradiction. His little world has to fit together neatly, like a crossword puzzle. It is 'cat' in one direction and 'day' in the other. Each intersection has to work perfectly.
But that is not the way real life or real people work. A healthy woman loves her husband, but often hates him too. She has two eyes, and sees a slightly different view of him with each of them. What is wrong with that? Likewise, even a man with only a single eye cannot help but notice that the world is menaced by inflation and deflation at the same time...and that America is both free and un-free at exactly the same moment.
What we have come to dislike about the neo-conservatives is not that their view of the world is right or wrong - for how could we know? - but that it is so small. They are true believers in a very tiny world...one with no room in their world for mystery, contradiction, ignorance or humility. It has to be small, otherwise they could not understand it.
Neo-cons think they can see what no mortal has ever seen: the future. That is the twisted genius of the 'Preemptive Attack'; they stop the criminal before he has committed his crime!
They think they can know what no mortal has ever known: not only what is good for himself and his country...but what is good for the entire world. And they intend to give it to them, whether they want it or not. In today's email box, for example, George W. Bush himself sends us the following message:
"...liberty is God's gift to humanity, the birthright of every individual. The American creed remains powerful today because it represents the universal hope of all mankind."
Here we will take a wild guess: there are probably more than a few bipeds hobbling around the planet for whom the 'American creed' is not so much a hope as a dread.
But the president continues:
"We are winning the war against enemies of freedom, yet more work remains. We will prevail in this noble mission. Liberty has the power to turn hatred into hope."
"America is a force for good in the world," continues the leader of the world's only super-duper power, "and the compassionate spirit of America remains a living faith. Drawing on the courage of our Founding Fathers
and the resolve of our citizens, we willingly embrace the challenges before us."
America's citizens, meanwhile, are deeply in debt. They see little choice but to back the system, such as it is. Free or un-free, they could care less. Just keep the money flowing. They have come to rely on government. They need Fannie Mae...and unemployment insurance...and social security...and jobs...and the Fed...and fiscal stimulus. Or, at least, they think they do.
After 50 years of the Dollar Standard boom, the average American finds himself less free than ever. He is a slave to the highest government spending and biggest public debt burden in history...and to the heaviest mortgage and other private debt load ever. He has mortgaged up his house...he has taken the bait of credit-card lenders. Now he has no freedom left; he must keep a job...he must pay attention to the Fed's rates...he must have an interest in George Bush's government (for now he depends on it)!
"July 4 should be about celebrating freedom and independence," wrote Richard Benson, published in this week's Barron's, "yet the bankers are the only people jumping for joy. Never have Americans owed so much in terms of their total debt, the ratio of total debt to income and the amount of cash flow the debt needs to serve it. Americans used to believe that if they were debt-free, they were free. Today, Americans just want the freedom to borrow more, even if it means they are on the way to becoming enslaved by their debt."
The average citizen is only a few paychecks from getting put out of his house. He no longer has the freedom to step back...to reflect...to think...to wonder about things...or enjoy the contradictions. Instead, he must listen to the words of economists as if they meant something...and bow before the politicians who control his livelihood...and place himself at the beck and call of every government agency with a dollar to spend.
The message from George W. Bush concludes with an endearing personal note, in which "Laura joins me in sending our best wishes for a safe and joyous Independence Day..."
Laura who, we wondered? Oh yes...the First Lady.
How we got to be on a first-name basis with the woman, we don't know. We have never even met her. Why she should wish us a happy day, we don't understand. But these are the peculiar, baroque eccentricities of America that make it such an endearing place to its citizens and such a rich treasure for contemporary ethnologists and stand-up comics.
They, too, will wonder about the contradictions. Why do Americans celebrate 'freedom' ever more loudly, while becoming ever less free...? How can they crow about the "home of the brave" when they attack pitiful, third-world nations that can't defend themselves? How can they ballyhoo their own independence when their armies occupy two foreign nations?
Most people will ignore the contradictions altogether. Many will see them as hypocrisy. Some will be outraged. And a few will hear the off-tempo tango beat, and enjoy the holiday anyway.
P.S. What a surprise! Upon announcing we had assembled a collection of essays exploring the "Idea of America," we wrote: "Of course, we have no illusions"...suspecting that people glued to their TV sets watching FOXNews would have no interest in a collection of "deep thinking on the meaning of our nation."
But, we are happy to announce...within a month, the entire first print run has completely sold out! Perhaps the ideas expressed in the collection resonate well with readers concerned about military adventurism abroad...and skyrocketing budget deficits...and perishing personal freedoms at home.
Naahh...we suspect most people would still rather not ask questions...so we still have no illusions.
But if you are curious, dear reader, you can learn more here: "The Idea of America"