In Part One of this essay, I wrote that a country born of genocide, built by slavery, grown by exploitation and cruelty, with its society fueled by racism and intolerance, may not be capable of being saved. I begin Part Two here by saying that, if such a country cannot be saved and reformed, then it
should cease to exist. Such a country is a danger to everything that is life-affirming, and should be challenged, both from within by its citizens and from without by countries who are more committed to the well-being of their people.
Stefan Zweig, an émigré from the Nazi terrors in Europe, was deeply miserable in the United States, where he and his wife had landed after escaping first the continent, and then England. He watched in horror as fascism and violence consumed everything he once knew of his life. Europe, he wrote, was committing suicide. It was only from a distance that he was able to see that the intellectuals, the writers, the journalists, had failed to recognize the extent of the threat early enough, had failed to sound the trumpets of warning while it still could have raised a successful resistance. Many of those intellectuals, writers and journalists, ultimately, fell prey to relentless propaganda. What he called “the ‘doping’ of excitement” which was caused by what was by then a relentless incitement of anxiety and upset, created people who were psychologically and physically made sick and passive by despair. Zweig saw the American people as largely unmoved by the plight of the people of the world – both those who had remained in Europe and those who had fled.
I would add to that my own assumption, since I think I know the American sickness well enough: the only time that average Americans became engaged was when they identified with the “might” of the American military, heading over the ocean to enter the battles. The American desire to “win” whipped the majority of people into fervor – not, I would suggest, out of a true compassion for the suffering or the ruin being faced by millions of people, but for the adrenaline rush of victory for its own sake.
In other words, we are a lot more like the Nazis in temperament that we want to admit. And, if you extend that thought, we are committing suicide in a way very similar to the suicide of Nazi Germany.
Of course, not all Americans can be painted with that broad brush. There were those who were deeply engaged in the human rights concerns of the world wars. But, for many reasons that probably warrant a few other essays, our intellectuals, artists and journalists have been mislead, seduced, and silenced. In this piece, I’m talking about the “average” American who remains either willfully uninformed, or habitually misinformed, who benefits from obedience to the current status quo. Who are they, you ask? Look around you now, in 2018. See those people parroting the sound bytes? Repeating the talking points of pundits word-for-word? See those who hang flags all over their properties and from their cars and trucks, with bumper stickers like “America: Love It or Leave It!” or “My Country, Right or Wrong!” The nationalists, the supremacists, the militarists. These are the ones easiest to spot. These people are in the majority both here in the U.S., and I would venture to say, around the world. They are the followers. The worker bees. Nature produces more of them in every species than it produces the leaders. For now, let’s call them “the subjects”. Every age has a majority of people who are “subjects”, who are ruled by the power players of their day. Now, of course, within that population, there might be a few who are rebellious, who are resistors, who see the deep wrongs of their society. But the majority of the subjects are willing to be ruled. Desirous of being told what to think and how to behave. That feels safe. They enjoy knowing and following the dictates of the time, and enjoy even more condemning those who don’t toe the line. They take pride it this behavior. They consider themselves “good” citizens.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that it is that simple. You find the same sorts of sentiments in the corporate boardrooms, among the administrators of our corporatized colleges, on Wall Street, in the media monopolies. In fact, it can be argued that it is the more subtle obedience by those power elite that is far more dangerous – because those are the people profiting from the misery the most. Every age has these people, too. They are not the “subjects”. They are the nobles, the lords, the aristocracy of the day. Their obedience and determination to uphold the current power dictates has everything to do with how much they benefit from the role they play.
These are timeless archetypes, and to see them in America is to understand what part of the cycle of history we are currently experiencing. The “good” American mouths the lies about criminals at our borders, or about the ways in which these children are in facilities much more like “summer camps”, or that their parents “got what they deserved” for breaking the law. They attack anyone criticizing the inhumanity of our government’s behavior as unpatriotic, anti-American, or….heaven forbid “communist” (despite the fact that most of these “good” Americans couldn’t tell you one accurate thing about communist theory). These “good” Americans are dangerous, in that they are easily whipped into ecstatic hatred. The power elite, however, are more dangerous still. They create the narratives mouthed by the “subjects”. They bombard the airwaves, the print media, even the movies and TV shows with the messages that control the masses. They not only manufacture the lies, but they own the means of dissemination. And, worst of all, they profit mightily from their role in this process.
All of this is meant to reveal the most relevant truth: These “good” Americans don’t care about your families. They don’t care about your children. The everyday “good” American sees outsiders as a threat – to their economic security, to the safety of their neighborhoods. Brian Kilmeade, a newscaster on the Fox News channel this week assured his viewers that it was okay not to care about those migrant families and the separated and caged migrant children, since they were not our children. By that, he meant our white, privileged American children. Images arise of the German children whose lives were little impacted as they played only yards from the barbed wire fences that imprisoned the starving children on the other side.
(Both photos from http://www.vigrid.net/hcbilder/theresienstadt/)
Such German families, after the war, swore that they “didn’t know” what was happening. The truth was, those Good Germans didn’t care.
Remember this week’s fashion faux pas of our first lady, Melania Trump, boarding a plane to visit the children’s detention centers in Texas while wearing a military- green rain coat with the words “I Really Don’t Care. Do U?” scrawled across the back?
Her press secretary replied to the outcry that no “hidden message” was intended. It was just a coat. The Good Americans will believe it, repeat it, scoff at anyone who insists differently, mocking their “conspiracy theories”. They might even rush to the Zara website and buy that jacket themselves.
Was it a mistake? Consider this: Me Ne Frego was a motto of Italian fascism. Giovanni Tiso writes a wonderful piece offering us the fascist history of the phrase “I don’t care”. He writes:
“Four years ago, speaking at a First World War commemoration in the small town of Redipuglia, Pope Francis linked ‘me ne frego’ not only with the carnage of that conflict, but also with the horrors of Fascism, recognising its ideological and propaganda value for Mussolini’s project. This is the form in which the slogan has survived until the present day, as a linguistic signifier not of generic indifference, but of ideological nostalgia. And because the attempts in Italy and beyond to stem the spread of such signifiers have been comprehensively abandoned, we readily find those words appearing not just on seemingly ubiquitous Fascist-era memorabilia but also on posters, t-shirts…stickers…..The international neofascist movement is of course well aware of this lineage. By way of example, if you search for it online you’ll find a long-running English-language podcast called Me ne frego which recycles this imagery in support of arguments against immigration and multiculturalism, or to opine on the subject of ‘the Jewish question’. I don’t doubt that people close both to the Trump administration and this world are similarly cognisant of the uses to which those three words have been put. But even for those who aren’t, claims to indifference have a history which we mustn’t allow ourselves to forget.”
Coincidence? Not bloody likely. Our current First Lady, the former Melania Knauss of Slovenia, was born and raised in the only part of the former Yugoslavia that had been entirely annexed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during the war. Do you think there is even the slightest possibility that she did not recognize the Anglicized version of Me ne frego?
I say that this spirit of “not caring” is the construct of propaganda that creates a willful maintenance of a blank mind and conscience.
There is the fashion statement, and there is the fascist statement. And if there is a profit to be made by selling this message in everything from its most blatant to its most coded forms, well, then, all the better. That’s always where the American elite enter the story, isn’t it? Profit. The monstrosity of profit is never better illustrated than by exploring the behavior of Amazon. Check out their Me Ne Frego offerings here.
The American elite sees everything as ripe with profit potential.
For-profit prisons and detention centers are raking in billions in government contracts for the warehousing of asylum seekers. All the attendant services that are provided -- the food, the clothing, the equipment, the furnishing, the custodial services – mean more government contracts and more enormous profit. Then, there are the health providers – medical services provided at great cost to the government (read that: the taxpayer) – who, by most accounts provide little actual healthcare to these poor detainees, but who profit mightily from the pretense. Also, let’s not forget the pharmaceutical companies who are, apparently, providing massive amounts of drugs that are being used to dope the children against their will – psychotropic drugs, for instance, in huge amounts, forced on these helpless people….even children barely out of diapers.
And then, of course, there is the profit to be made by reporting all of this in the media – the TV news channels, the online new sources and social media sites, the organizations slamming the information, complete with horrifying photos, into emails appealing for donations to “fight” for the children.
In America, human beings are only valuable to the extent that they can be commodified. And if they can commodified in multiple ways, so much the better.
And, lest we think that this is only true regarding the way we treat “outsiders.” I’d suggest that you take a long hard look at the way our own children, with their American citizenships, are treated. Our children are commodified from the time they are zygotes. Companies are eager to sell expectant parents thousands of dollars worth of baby products. Once born, the children are being advertised to with alarming frequency. They are not valued as the young, innocent little humans they are, but for the marketing potential they represent. Once they reach school age, they are subjected to “education” that is, at best, suspect and , at worst, a disgrace. They are diagnosed, pathologized, medicated, manipulated – all while still being marketed to, shaped emotionally by relentless media influences. The cattle shunt into college begins in elementary school with standardized testing, tutors, music lessons, dance lessons, language lessons, sports activities, expensive summer camps, and finally to SAT and ACT training programs, college admission counselors, all of which drive the majority of students into obscenely expensive higher education and the ensuing student debt penury, then, finally, into a low-wage job market, where they become yet another generation of desperate, miserable, often still medicated adults.
And those are the lucky ones.
The children born into white families….even the poorest white families, still have a better life than those born into black or Latino families. The scourge of poverty, the disease of racism, the blight of poor neighborhoods, the constant struggle of living in an occupied police state….all lead to the greater likelihood of violent death (often at the hands of police), or incarceration.
The Good Americans don’t care about any of this. They believe what they are told about why such things are the way they are. College is expensive, and there is nothing we can do about it. Wages are low because that is what the market dictates. It’s all about staying competitive. Anyone who complains is just too lazy to work hard and earn a good living. We need a huge military because our national security is at great risk. All those dead black boys must have been doing something wrong. Police are only doing their job. If the number of black and brown bodies in our prison system is exploding, it is because we have finally gotten tough on crime. If people are homeless, it is because of bad choices and personality flaws. And probably drug abuse. Poverty is a personal choice. Everyone, after all, has an equal chance to make it in this country, right? The Good Americans sleep securely at night, in the knowledge that things are as they should be, because that is what they are told. The elite Americans keep growing wealthier by finding ways to profit on the status quo. So, even though they know the secret, they certainly aren’t going to breathe a word of it in public.
I believe that what Stefan Zweig saw in the 1930s and early 40s, he would see today right here on American soil. He would recognize the fascism faster, seeing immediately that we welcomed it into our protective borders in the form of Nazi scientists and theoreticians during and after WWII. (No hostility toward those immigrants!) He would speak out about the financiers of the U.S. who laundered money for the Nazi Party, who continued profiting by serving both sides of war, and whose banks and agencies have continued on, perhaps with some name changes along the way, until this very day. He would recognize the latest embodiment of fascist principles in this country’s social Darwinism and genocidal practices, its power hunger, its militarized hegemony, its disdain for the needs of human rights abroad, or for sustaining a healthy environment, healthy business practices, healthy citizens at home. He would recognize the leering face of cruelty and evil beneath the plastered smile of the pundit, the CEO, the politician.
But Stefan Zweig committed suicide in 1942, despairing of what had happened to Europe, and made hopeless by what he observed as the future of humanity. He had completed his memoir, The World of Yesterday, the day before his death. He and his wife took an overdose of barbiturates and died, holding hands. Maybe that was their message: that they were leaving this life while still believing in each other and believing in the possibility of love….if only in the next world.
So, yes, America is committing suicide – but the problem is that this suicide is more like that of the kamikaze, who willingly dies while in the act of creating widespread destruction around him.
Yes, it is natural to despair. The increased number of suicides in the U.S. in the past ten years is proof that large numbers of people see no hope for the future, and are tired of the enormous amount of pain they are suffering.
But we have to live for the children. We, those of us who don’t identify ourselves as Good Americans -- who are vilified each time we raise our voices in protest, whose heads are broken by police batons, whose Facebook and Twitter pages are surveilled by our intelligence agencies, who are sick nearly to death of what we see happening around us – we have to remain defiantly alive. We have to hold our gaze on the unspeakable, so that we can speak it. We have to fight even the most seeming unwinnable war. We have to rescue the children being served up for devouring.
We have to be proud and determined to be the Bad Americans who finally heed Zweig’s lamentations and work to reverse what he so feared for humanity.
Yet, there is the very real possibility that we will fail – and that will mean either that the world itself will be in cinders or that Europe, rebuilt and restored, but not forgetting the errors and evils of its own recent past, will rise up against the United States for the sake of protecting its own well-being. When Germans failed to end the horrors that began within their borders and then spread like disease through Europe, it was the other countries which rose up to fight. If we can’t reverse what is happening in the United States, if we can’t begin to reverse the ways our destructive behaviors have already put the world at risk, then we have to confront the very real possibility that others will take on the responsibility themselves. That could well mean that the United States, as it exists today, would cease to be.
Do you think anyone would care?