Recently there has been a thunderous outburst of accusations about “hating America” with lightning strokes crackling towards France and Germany. Some of this storm front rattled into Canada when a member of Parliament, upset over Mr. Bush’s relentless demand for war, made the mistake of muttering an aside about hating Americans, a statement which any thoughtful person understood immediately as frustration rather than hatred.
But how is it even possible to hate so vast and complex a thing as America?
America is sweaty, droning backwaters, and it is great institutions of research and culture. America is shameful ghettos and shantytowns, and it is Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and Frederick Law Olmstead. It is the hateful shouting of right-wing radio personalities, and it is Studs Terkel reminiscing on great past events. It is Know Nothings, and it is Lincoln; lynchings and Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. It is “freedom-loving” Patriots who bought, sold, and beat slaves, ran Loyalists out of the country and stole their property when they didn’t just burn them out, and it is Benjamin Franklin. It is local sheriffs enjoying petty tyrannies, gangs running neighborhoods, crooked politicians fixing elections, and it is the Bill of Rights. It is a churning sea of selfishness and unprincipled grasping, a hideous noise of marketing and insincerity, and it is sacrifice and devotion to principles. America has a character historian Page Smith called, in a usage that is now dated and inaccurate but still understandable, “schizophrenic.”
One of the threads holding together the vast, chaotic, noisy battle that is America is the simplistic patriotism instilled like religious fervor with anthems, uniformed marching bands, baton twirlers, slogans, color guards, and a pledge foisted on children that has always smacked of what one expects in authoritarian societies.
Patriotic excess has at least two roots. One is the desire by those with power to hold this explosive thing called America together and to use its resources and influence to their own ends. Thus we almost never see figures like George Bush or Dick Cheney without American flag pins on their lapels and big American flags as backdrops to speeches, as though one could possibly forget what country they come from. These symbols are being used as powerful totems. You can’t sneer at the flag even when it is a pathetic mediocrity or an essentially evil figure wrapping himself in it.
The other root is the almost excruciating sensitivity many Americans feel about their national identity. This is something one expects to find in any young and raw society, but America does appear a bit slow in maturing beyond it. Undoubtedly, the discomforting nature (for some) of a highly diverse population whose composition actually keeps changing provides a retarding effect. So, too, does America’s crude social Darwinism. This is a land where it is not hard to find a lot of loneliness and anger, people ready to embrace those chest-thumping moments of presumed society.
Of course, a confident individual doesn’t need to strut or brag or threaten. Brash patriotic displays reveal a childish need for constant reassurance. This doubt and uncertainty is a theme running through American history with, for example, the highly self-conscious efforts of the Concord Group about seeing an American literature created, or with authors like Henry James, T.S. Elliot, or James Baldwin effectively fleeing either the excesses or the cultural sterility of their native land.
That is the more charitable explanation, and I believe it holds for the most part. But there also is that dark corner of the American soul with its attraction to fascism. After all, fascism represents in part a desire for certainty and predictability. Perhaps only the Hitler-tinged figures of the world feel the need for a vast dumb-show of patriotism every time they give a speech or make an appearance, and I believe what we see in George Bush who is more given over to this display than most American presidents hints at something quite dark and fearful.
Many outsiders do not understand that in American society, two or more great and divergent currents run simultaneously at all times on most issues. I refer to something more profound than the existence of two political parties, neither of which stands for any great principles. For example, many think of America as the land of casualness, lack of formality, hatred of bureaucracy, and the embrace of the individual. And in part, they are right, but only in part.
At the same time that noisy right-wing hacks blubber night and day about unlimited individualism, Americans in their ordinary lives experience some of the world’s more intense spasms of mindless bureaucracy and anti-liberalism, often the result of legislation created by the very same right-wing forces with their seemingly irresistible desire for control.
As any potential immigrant, even the spouse of an American citizen ostensibly entitled to live in the country, soon learns, the paperwork, restrictions, and bureaucratic hurdles of legal immigration to the United States are formidable, ungenerous, and costly, something that was true even before 9/11.
As anyone who has taken a mortgage in the United States knows, the transaction involves one of the largest and most complex piles of paperwork that can be imagined. Something like an inch-thick stack of legalistic documents no ordinary person can hope to understand must be signed.
As anyone who has filed income tax in the United States knows, the forms and rules must rank as among the ugliest, most complex, and indecipherable on the planet.
And, of course, there are the many intrusive, blundering public and secret agencies with which America abounds. The FBI, the NSA, the CIA, the ATF, the DEA, Homeland Security, military intelligence, naval intelligence, State Department intelligence, state and urban police security agencies, the INS…. New ones are created regularly, especially when right-wing extremists enjoy power as they do now.
Albert Einstein wrote to a friend in 1947, “America has changed…. It has become pretty military and aggressive. The fear of Russia is the means of making it digestible to the plebs.” Since Einstein was a refugee from Nazi Germany and always displayed great sensitivity to signs of authoritarianism, his words offer an important historical insight to distinct change in the external policies of the United States. What has followed is a long series of colonial wars and interventions, a remarkable portion of which have been unsuccessful and pointlessly bloody or have resulted in the establishment of tyrannies. It is not hard for a thinking person to find things to “hate” here without reflecting on any broader concepts of America.
As for what Canadians represent, I can only think of Canada fighting Hitler two years before America, suffering in World War Two about twice as many deaths per capita as Americans did. I think of America’s kidnapped diplomats in Iran and the brave Canadian diplomat who hid some of them from danger. I think of the wonderful people of Newfoundland generously, without charge, putting up hundreds American air-travelers grounded for days following 9/11. I think of the many generous gifts Canadians sent to 9/11 families. I think of Toronto sending a fleet of men and equipment to Buffalo, New York, when it was buried in seven feet of snow.
Anyone with sense would be grateful for a neighbor like that, but Canadians still have no use for your damned war.