[Paleopsych] CHE: Waking Up From the American Dream

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Waking Up From the American Dream
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4.7.23


    Last year I visited London and stumbled upon an essay in a Sunday
    paper written by Margaret Drabble, one of Britain's pre-eminent ladies
    of letters. "My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable,"
    she wrote. "It has possessed me, like a disease. It rises up in my
    throat like acid reflux, that fashionable American sickness. I now
    loathe the United States and what it has done to Iraq and the rest of
    the helpless world."
    The essay continued in the same rather bilious vein for about a
    thousand words, and as I read it, two things struck me: The first was
    how appalled I was by Drabble's crassly oversimplistic analysis of
    what America was all about, of who its people were, and of what its
    culture valued; the second was a sense somewhat akin to fear as I
    thought through the implications of the venom attached to the words of
    this gentle scribe of the English bourgeoisie. After all, if someone
    whose country and class have so clearly benefited economically from
    the protections provided by American military and political ties
    reacts so passionately to the omnipresence of the United States, what
    must an angry, impoverished young man in a failing third world state
    I grew up in London in the 1970s and 1980s, in a country that was
    struggling to craft a postcolonial identity for itself, a country that
    was, in many ways, still reeling from the collapse of power it
    suffered in the post-World War II years. Not surprisingly, there was a
    strong anti-American flavor to much of the politics, the humor, the
    cultural chitchat of the period; after all, America had dramatically
    usurped Britannia on the world stage, and who among us doesn't harbor
    some resentments at being shunted onto the sidelines by a new
    Today, however, when I talk with friends and relatives in London, when
    I visit Europe, the anti-Americanism is more than just sardonic
    asides, rueful Monty Python-style jibes, and haughty intimations of
    superiority. Today something much more visceral is in the air. I go to
    my old home and I get the distinct impression that, as Drabble put it,
    people really loathe America somewhere deep, deep in their gut.
    A Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project survey recently found
    that even in Britain, America's staunchest ally, more than 6 out of 10
    people polled believed the United States paid little or no attention
    to that country's interests. About 80 percent of French and German
    respondents stated that, because of the war in Iraq, they had less
    confidence in the trustworthiness of America. In the Muslim countries
    surveyed, large majorities believed the war on terror to be about
    establishing U.S. world domination.
    Indeed, in many countries -- in the Arab world and in regions, such as
    Western Europe, closely tied into American economic and military
    structures -- popular opinion about both America the country and
    Americans as individuals has taken a serious hit. Just weeks ago, 27
    of America's top retired diplomats and military commanders warned in a
    public statement, "Never in the 21/4 centuries of our history has the
    United States been so isolated among the nations, so broadly feared
    and distrusted."
    If true, that suggests that, while to all appearances America's allies
    continue to craft policies in line with the wishes of Washington,
    underneath the surface a new dynamic may well be emerging, one not too
    dissimilar to the Soviet Union's relations with its reluctant
    satellite states in Eastern Europe during the cold war. America's
    friends may be quiescent in public, deeply reluctant to toe the line
    in private. Drabble mentioned the Iraq war as her primary casus belli
    with the United States. The statement from the bipartisan group
    calling itself Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change focused on
    the Bush administration's recent foreign policy. But to me it seems
    that something else is also going on.
    In many ways, the Iraq war is merely a pretext for a deeper discontent
    with how America has seemed to fashion a new global society, a new
    economic, military, and political order in the decade and a half since
    the end of the cold war. America may only be riding the crest of a
    wave of modernization that, in all likelihood, would have emerged
    without its guiding hand. But add to the mix a discontent with the
    vast wealth and power that America has amassed in the past century and
    a deep sense of unease with the ways in which a secular, market-driven
    world divvies up wealth and influence among people and nations, and
    you have all the ingredients for a nasty backlash against America.
    I'm not talking merely about the anti-globalism of dispossessed Third
    World peasants, the fears of the loss of cultural sovereignty
    experienced by societies older and more traditional than the United
    States, the anger at a perceived American arrogance that we've
    recently been reading so much about. I'm talking about something that
    is rooted deeper in the psyches of other nations. I guess I mean a
    feeling of being marginalized by history; of being peripheral to the
    human saga; of being footnotes for tomorrow's historians rather than
    main characters. In short, a growing anxiety brought on by having
    another country and culture dictating one's place in the society of
    In the years since I stood on my rooftop in Brooklyn watching the
    World Trade Center towers burn so apocalyptically, I have spent at
    least a part of every day wrestling with a host of existential
    questions. I can't help it -- almost obsessively I churn thoughts over
    and over in my head, trying to understand the psychological contours
    of this cruel new world. The questions largely boil down to the
    following: Where has the world's faith in America gone? Where is the
    American Dream headed?
    What is happening to that intangible force that helped shape our
    modern world, that invisible symbiotic relationship between the good
    will of foreigners and the successful functioning of the American "way
    of life," that willingness by strangers to let us serve as the
    repository for their dreams, their hopes, their visions of a better
    future? In the same way that the scale of our national debt is made
    possible only because other countries are willing to buy treasury
    bonds and, in effect, lend us their savings, so it seems to me the
    American Dream has been largely facilitated by the willingness of
    other peoples to lend us their expectations for the future. Without
    that willingness, the Dream is a bubble primed to burst. It hasn't
    burst yet -- witness the huge numbers who still migrate to America in
    search of the good life -- but I worry that it is leaking seriously.
    Few countries and cultures have risen to global prominence as quickly
    as America did in the years after the Civil War. Perhaps the last time
    there was such an extraordinary accumulation of geopolitical,
    military, and economic influence in so few decades was 800 years ago,
    with the rise of the Mongol khanates. Fewer still have so definitively
    laid claim to an era, while that era was still unfolding, as we did
    -- and as the world acknowledged -- during the 20th century, "the
    American Century."
    While the old powers of Europe tore themselves apart during World War
    I, the United States entered the war late and fought the fight on
    other people's home terrain. While whole societies were destroyed
    during World War II, America's political and economic system
    flourished, its cities thrived, and its entertainment industries
    soared. In other words, as America rose to global pre-eminence during
    the bloody first half of the 20th century, it projected outward an
    aura of invulnerability, a vision of "normalcy" redolent with consumer
    temptations and glamorous cultural spectacles. In an exhibit at the
    museum on Ellis Island a few years back, I remember seeing a copy of a
    letter written by a young Polish migrant in New York to his family
    back home. Urging them to join him, he wrote that the ordinary person
    on the streets of America lived a life far more comfortable than
    aristocrats in Poland could possibly dream of.
    In a way America, during the American Century, thus served as a safety
    valve, allowing the world's poor to dream of a better place somewhere
    else; to visualize a place neither bound by the constraints of old nor
    held hostage to the messianic visions of revolutionary Marxist or
    Fascist movements so powerful in so many other parts of the globe.
    Throughout the cold war, even as America spent unprecedented amounts
    on military hardware, enough was left over to nurture the
    mass-consumption culture, to build up an infrastructure of vast
    proportions. And despite the war in Vietnam, despite the dirty wars
    that ravaged Latin America in the 1980s, despite America's nefarious
    role in promoting coups and dictatorships in a slew of
    countries-cum-cold-war-pawns around the globe, somehow much of the
    world preserved a rosy-hued vision of America that could have been
    culled straight from the marketing rooms of Madison Avenue.
    Now something is changing. Having dealt with history largely on its
    own terms, largely with the ability to deflect the worst of the chaos
    to arenas outside our borders (as imperial Britain did in the century
    following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, through to the disastrous
    events leading up to World War I in 1914), America has attracted a
    concentrated fury and vengeful ire of disastrous proportions. The
    willingness to forgive, embodied in so much of the world's embrace of
    the American Dream, is being replaced by a rather vicious craving to
    see America -- which, under the Bush administration, has increasingly
    defined its greatness by way of military triumphs -- humbled.
    Moreover, no great power has served as a magnet for such a maelstrom
    of hate in an era as saturated with media images, as susceptible to
    instantaneous opinion-shaping coverage of events occurring anywhere in
    the world.
    I guess the question that gnaws at my consciousness could be rephrased
    as: How does one give an encore to a bravura performance? It's either
    an anticlimax or, worse, a dismal failure -- with the audience heading
    out the doors halfway through, talking not of the brilliance of the
    earlier music, but of the tawdriness of the last few bars. If the 20th
    century was the American Century, its best hopes largely embodied by
    something akin to the American Dream, what kind of follow-up can the
    21st century bring?
    In the immediate aftermath of September 11, an outpouring of genuine,
    if temporary, solidarity from countries and peoples across the globe
    swathed America in an aura of magnificent victimhood. We, the most
    powerful country on earth, had been blindsided by a ruthless,
    ingenious, and barbaric enemy, two of our greatest cities violated. We
    demanded the world's tears, and, overwhelmingly, we received them.
    They were, we felt, no less than our due, no more than our merit. In
    the days after the trade center collapsed, even the Parisian daily Le
    Monde, not known for its pro-Yankee sentimentality, informed its
    readers, in an echo of John F. Kennedy's famous "Ich bin ein Berliner"
    speech, that "we are all Americans now."
    Perhaps inevitably, however, that sympathy has now largely dissipated.
    Powerful countries under attack fight back -- ruthlessly, brutally,
    with all the economic, political, diplomatic, and military resources
    at their disposal. They always have; like as not, they always will. In
    so doing, perhaps they cannot but step on the sensibilities of
    smaller, less powerfuldare I say it, less imperialnations and peoples.
    And as Britain, the country in which I grew up, discovered so
    painfully during the early years of World War II, sometimes the mighty
    end up standing largely alone, bulwarks against history's periodic
    tidal waves. In that fight, even if they emerge successful, they
    ultimately emerge also tarnished and somewhat humbled, their power and
    drive and confidence at least partly evaporated on the battlefield.
    In the post-September 11 world, even leaving aside Iraq and all the
    distortions, half-truths, and lies used to justify the invasion, even
    leaving aside the cataclysmic impact of the Abu Ghraib prison
    photographs, I believe America would have attracted significant wrath
    simply in doing what had to be done in routing out the Taliban in
    Afghanistan, in reorienting its foreign policy to try and tackle
    international terror networks and breeding grounds. That is why I come
    back time and again in my mind to the tactical brilliance of Al
    Qaeda's September 11 attacks: If America hadn't responded, a green
    light would have been turned on, one that signaled that the country
    was too decadent to defend its vital interests. Yet in responding, the
    response itself was almost guaranteed to spotlight an empire bullying
    allies and enemies alike into cooperation and subordination and, thus,
    to focus an inchoate rage against the world's lone standing
    superpower. Damned if we did, damned if we didn't.
    Which brings me back to the American Dream. In the past even as our
    power grew, much of the world saw us, rightly or wrongly, as a moral
    beacon, as a country somehow largely outside the bloody, gory,
    oft-tyrannical history that carved its swath across so much of the
    world during the American Century. Indeed, in many ways, even as
    cultural elites in once-glorious Old World nations sneered at upstart,
    crass, consumerist America, the masses in those nations idealized
    America as some sort of Promised Land, as a place of freedoms and
    economic possibilities simply unheard of in many parts of the globe.
    In many ways, the American Dream of the last 100-some years has been
    more something dreamed by foreigners from afar, especially those who
    experienced fascism or Stalinism, than lived as a universal reality on
    the ground in the United States.
    Things look simpler from a distance than they do on the ground. In the
    past foreigners might have idealized America as a place whose streets
    were paved if not with gold, at least with alloys seeded with rare and
    precious metals, even while those who lived here knew it was a
    gigantic, complicated, multifaceted, continental country with a vast
    patchwork of cultures and creeds coexisting side by messy side. Today,
    I fear, foreigners slumber with dreamy American smiles on their
    sleeping faces no more; that intangible faith in the pastel-colored
    hue and soft contours of the Dream risks being shattered, replaced
    instead by an equally simplistic dislike of all things and peoples
    Paradoxically these days it is the political elites -- the leaders and
    policy analysts and defense experts -- who try to hold in place
    alliances built up in the post-World War II years as the pax Americana
    spread its wings, while the populaces shy away from an America
    perceived to be dominated by corporations, military musclemen, and
    empire-builders-in-the-name-of-democracy; increasingly they sympathize
    with the unnuanced critiques of the Margaret Drabbles of the world.
    The Pew survey, for example, found that sizable majorities in
    countries such as Jordan, Morocco, Turkey, Germany, and France
    believed the war on terror to be largely about the United States
    wanting to control Middle Eastern oil supplies.
    In other words, the perception -- never universally held, but held by
    enough people to help shape our global image -- is changing. Once our
    image abroad was of an exceptional country accruing all the power of
    empire without the psychology of empire; now it is being replaced by
    something more historically normal -- that of a great power determined
    to preserve and expand its might, for its own selfish interests and
    not much else. An exhibit in New York's Whitney Museum last year,
    titled "The American Effect," presented the works of 50 artists from
    around the world who portrayed an America intent on world dominance
    through military adventurism and gross consumption habits. In the
    run-up to the war in Iraq, Mikhail Gorbachev lambasted an America he
    now viewed as operating in a manner "far from real world leadership."
    Nelson Mandela talked of the United States as a country that "has
    committed unspeakable atrocities in the world."
    Maybe the American Dream always was little more than marketing hype
    (the author Jeffrey Decker writes in Made in America that the term
    itself was conjured up in 1931 by a populist historian named James
    Truslow Adams, perhaps as an antidote to the harsh realities of
    Depression-era America). But as the savagery of the images coming out
    of Iraq demonstrate all too well, we live in a world where image is if
    not everything, at least crucial. Perhaps I'm wrong and the American
    Dream will continue to sweeten the sleep of those living overseas for
    another century. I certainly hope, very much, that I'm wrong -- for a
    world denuded of the Dream, however far from complex reality that
    Dream might have been, would be impoverished indeed. But I worry that
    that encore I mentioned earlier won't be nearly as breathtaking or as
    splendid as the original performance that shaped the first American

    Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist and author of Hard Time
    Blues: How Politics Built a Prison Nation (St. Martin's Press, 2002).

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