New Internationalist

The Other America _is_ America

Issue 351

Having taken us to Tucson and introduced us to an alternative America not often appreciated by the outside world, David Ransom reflects on the empire’s imperial dreams. What looks like perpetual war on the rest of the world, he argues, is also a pre-emptive strike on the American people themselves.

David Ransom
David Ransom

Of course there is another America. The place seethes with inspirational dissent of one kind or another across the vast expanse of a country so bewilderingly diverse it can easily be mistaken for the world itself. Just because no-one was told about it doesn’t mean that thousands of people never took to the streets of San Francisco – and every other major American city – to oppose the bombing of Afghanistan. Just because Rupert Murdoch’s publishing arm tried to bar it from the bookshelves, that didn’t stop Stupid White Men, journalist Michael Moore’s attack on America’s business and government élite, from becoming an instant best-seller.

On 11 September 2002 the flagship BBC radio news programme Today sent a reporter on to the streets of New York to sample public opinion on the prospect of war with Iraq. During two hours of vox pop he was unable to find a single New Yorker in support of it. Not one. As the rampant Hawks in Washington shamelessly exploited the 9/11 anniversary to promote a ‘pre-emptive’ war on Iraq, opinion polls suggested that 70 per cent of Americans did not endorse it, at least not without the backing of the UN.

True, ‘President’ George W Bush has been riding high in the opinion polls since 9/11. In a crisis Americans famously circle the wagons around the President, or the nearest thing they can find to one. By July of this year, however, they were rating him very poorly indeed on social issues like health, education and employment. After all, only a minority ever voted for him in the first place. Most Americans are as far-removed from the power of Washington, the money of Wall Street and the dreams of Hollywood as everyone else.

So let’s dispense with myth. The other America – the one in Tucson, Syracuse, Austin, Gainesville, Durham, Yakima, Pittsburgh and Peoria – is America. The question is, why have ordinary Americans – not entirely unlike the rest of us – found it so difficult to make a difference? This matters, because if anything is to be done about this emergent ‘Super-Rogue’ then the American people are going to have to do a great deal of it themselves.

In 1962, when Washington was looking for precedents for an invasion of Cuba, the State Department obligingly cited no less than 103 foreign military ‘interventions’ between 1798 and 1895 – slightly more, on average, than one a year.1 Since 1945 Washington has added at least 193 – slightly more, on average, than three a year.2 What is still called ‘Yankee imperialism’ by its neighbours to the south has been a recurring theme of American history from the day the very first European immigrant set foot on Native American soil. The new ‘Bush Doctrine’, elucidated for Congress on 17 September this year, is that the US Government will ‘never’ permit anyone to challenge its military supremacy, and will act ‘pre-emptively’ against anyone who even tries – a recipe for what Gore Vidal styles ‘perpetual war for perpetual peace’.2

But how to convince the folks back home that the ‘Homeland’ faces destruction and that perpetual war is the only valid response? The job of the Federal Government is to impose some sort of conformity on the persistent diversity of the United States. Many Americans – notably those whose forebears were not brought to the country as slaves – share a belief that they or their ancestors fled to ‘the last place on earth’ from somewhere a great deal worse. By this ‘exceptionalism’ they are propelled into the immediate future, avoiding if they can any prolonged contemplation of the present for fear of being overtaken by ancestral phantoms from the past. The working assumption in Washington is that if the American people can be corralled into this shared fear of everywhere else, of ‘the other’, then those approval ratings will stay right up there, come what may.

American exceptionalism is, nonetheless, vulnerable to senseless acts like 9/11 – the first serious loss of civilian life from foreign ‘intervention’ on the American mainland since the original European invasion.

The present, and a degree of reflection, then become unavoidable – if only because many Americans’ own worst fears have caught up with them.

What they are then forced to contemplate looks pretty grim – ‘President’ Bush with his eyes firmly fixed on the mid-term congressional elections in November. Unless otherwise engaged, the American people might just get it into their heads to express their disapproval of the bluff usurper. More particularly, they might be able to focus their attention on a corporate crime wave that, since January, has been threatening to take the oil-soaked, business-friendly regime in Washington with it.

When Enron finally consumed itself with greed in January, so too did Andersen their auditors and JP Morgan their bankers – the zenith of the ‘new paradigm’ economy on which Americans have come to rely for their daily bread. Combined with a slump on Wall Street, the evaporation of pension funds (though not for the half of all working Americans who don’t have them) and the loss of more than a million jobs, the wealth of America was shown to be resting on fake figures buried in a mound of shredded paper.

Scarcely one elected representative could be found to inquire into the fiasco – or to do anything else, for that matter – who had not been in receipt of pay-offs from its perpetrators. As the corporate-backed politicians hurriedly gathered at the White House in late July to applaud their preposterously named Corporate Responsibility Act, they resembled nothing so much as the Politburo of the Soviet Union hailing the latest fake production figures. ‘It’s not the system that has failed the people,’ intoned a succession of officials for the TV cameras. ‘It’s people who have failed the system.’

READING THE RIGHT WAY UP

‘Let it not be said that people in the United States did nothing when their government declared a war without limit and instituted stark new measures of repression.’ This is the opening sentence of A Statement of Conscience: Not In Our Name, a brief and brilliant polemic which is still being signed by many thousands of Americans. It can be accessed through the excellent website of Z Magazine <http://www.zmag.org/>

Quite where to start with the mass of ‘activist’ websites is a conundrum, but if you want a fairly gentle start it’s not a bad idea to find your way into the network of organizations inspired by Ralph Nader through Public Citizen <http://www.citizen.org>

Perhaps best of all is http://www.indymedia.org/ which manages to combine an internationalist outlook with separate sites for upcoming actions in almost every state in the union – a reminder that the most interesting things are often going on well away from the mass-media headlines and Washington DC.

All of the books cited in the text or references of this magazine come highly recommended; vibrant and often very funny writing is one of the true pleasures of dissident America.

The mantra is: ‘Everything Has Changed Since 9/11’. The truth is: nothing has changed at all. Corporate bosses are still extracting fortunes from the corporations they run – or run into the ground, as the case may be3 – which have, in their turn, to extract fortunes from everyone else. The very same Larry Kudlow who in March 1999 thought the system so perfect that the Dow Jones share index would inevitably hit 50,000 is still dispensing his wisdom to viewers of CNBC, the stock-market TV channel, as the index sinks below 8,000.4 The same Washington Consensus of corporate welfare, privatization, free-market frenzy, environmental destruction, deepening inequalities and pseudo-democracy that has been inflicted as ‘structural adjustment’ on the rest of the world is still being visited on the American people themselves.

What Washington hawks Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleeza Rice are to the rest of the world, Attorney General John Ashcroft is to the American people. The bombs may fall on Afghanistan or Iraq, but the Patriot Act, the Office of Homeland Security and the huge military burden are aimed straight at the American people. They, too, are degraded by the indefinite detention without trial of an unverifiable number of unnamed people, and of non-people in Guantánamo Bay.

In such circumstances it seems to me quite perverse for the American Left to lose itself in tactical disputes about whether or not Ralph Nader should have run for the Greens in the 2000 presidential elections. There is some anger that by running in ‘marginal’ states Nader may have cost Al Gore the election. But then, by common consent, Al Gore contributed to his own demise. Even had he been elected, Enron would still have blown up, the corporate clones would still have controlled Washington and the underlying issue still would have remained essentially the same.

The question is, why have ordinary Americans – not entirely unlike the rest of us – found it so difficult to make a difference?

That issue is the crisis of democratic legitimacy, a profound and vertiginous abyss that has been opening up beneath the American people for some time. What has been made obvious to them is that their government has been hijacked by a bunch of crooks whose dirty money controls the entire electoral process. One result of this is that less than half the Americans who are entitled to vote feel that there’s any point at all in doing so.

The astute political scientist, Joel Rogers (see Rolling Thunder), suggests that the priority now is for Americans to start talking with each other again. What their conversations are surely bound to conclude is that America the Super-Rogue is no longer America the land free from colonial oppression – if, indeed, it ever was. The time has come, finally, to embrace the present, to insist on a degree of political internationalism, economic localism and military isolationism – to turn current orthodoxy on its head and the world the right way up.

Establishing a new democratic legitimacy will take a massive effort of will and imagination. To my mind there is just one thing above all others that prevents this – the pernicious legacy of racism. In case you doubt that it persists, consider this: the average income of a black American is still 61-per-cent less than the average white income; the same as in 1880.5 Nothing has changed in more than 120 years.

In Tucson, Rose Augustine told me that she’d been asked to run a ‘racial justice’ booth at the Rolling Thunder event. She had not been very well, so she hadn’t been able to do it herself – and there was no booth. ‘Am I the only one?’ she asked me. In the event, the segregated Hispanic community of Tucson was conspicuous by its under-representation. This is not to suggest that Rolling Thunder was racist; merely that the legacy weighs – as it should – more heavily on progressive America than on current orthodoxy, which profits from it.

Time and again in American history the destructive impact of racism has hindered the development of the feminist, environmental and labour movements. Sojourner Truth faced it in the early years of women’s organization.1 The Declaration of Independence refers to ‘merciless Indian Savages’ – many Native Americans today feel that they are treated with contempt by white-dominated environmental institutions.6 Most of the labour unions originally excluded blacks. To make any headway, as the AFL-CIO may now be doing with its ‘new internationalism’ (see Yes we can!), racist divisions have had to be breached. It is entirely within the gift of ordinary Americans to breach them.

However, the legacy of racism in America will never finally be dispatched to the ‘waste bin of history’, where it belongs, while Africa remains on its knees. Labour in the US will never have its full dignity while in Latin America it lives in penury. The military burden on the American people will never be lifted while it weighs no less heavily on the people of Asia. Transnational corporations will only be reined in locally when they are brought under democratic control internationally. Let no-one say there is nothing to be done.

The other flag

I have to tell you a story about a fellow I met in Mississippi. We were driving along the Gulf coast east of New Orleans passing through miles of beach-side communities including even some ante bellum mansions once owned by Louisiana planters. We picked up the local paper one morning and saw a tiny item about a lone protester, Jason Whitfield, who was opposed to the city of Biloxi, Mississippi hoisting a confederate flag – flown by the South in the Civil War – in a display near the beach. This issue has been explosive elsewhere in the south, notably in South Carolina two years ago. Anyway, we went to find the guy, just to give him some words of support. So we drove the beach strip, virtually empty in the staggering heat of the early morning, trying to track him down, which we did eventually. Whitfield was a young black man, 21 years old, camping on the beach right beside the flag display. He’d been there for nearly a month in blistering sun and he wasn’t leaving till the flag came down. He was smart and articulate as he spoke to us about the legacy of slavery and that flag as an insult to blacks everywhere. He had a cell phone and was working the media. No matter where you go in the US you only have to scratch the surface to find that inextinguishable spirit of dissent.

Wayne Ellwood
  1. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (Longman, second edition, 1996).
  2. Gore Vidal, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (Thunder’s Mouth Press / Nation Books, 2002).
  3. Special investigation in The Financial Times, 26 July 2002.
  4. Thomas Frank, ‘Talking Bull’, in The Guardian Weekend, 17 August 2002.
  5. A study by Richard Vedder, Lowell Gallaway and David C Clingaman, cited by Michael Moore, Stupid White Men (ReganBooks, 2001).
  6. This feeling was conveyed to me in no uncertain terms in Tucson by Richard Moore, Director of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice.

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