I am writing this in the first week of the year 2012, which, as I am sure has not escaped you, is an election year in America. No big deal, you may say, because every year is election year in this great democracy, for each year its citizens, to be able to make it to the next year, need to be fed the usual acres of egghead gobbledygook and overwrought born yesterday explanations. Without elections, stark madness fueled by extraordinary jingoism would meet its end. And why would anyone want to bring about a different, reality based understanding of what democracy is? Why would anyone try to avoid the ultimate cataclysm that is awaiting our society if we continue government by media-controlled orgy and media-registered orgasm?
Indeed, I am not thinking very positive about the democracy of this “first and greatest” and self-appointed “only democracy in the world.” In the past, I was thinking differently. I was amazed by the goods the checks and balances delivered. For as far as I could understand it, I admired the political system. I was living in California for six months during the year 1980, one of those heated election years, when Ronald Reagan was invited to become the U.S. President, and for the first time I followed much of the race from nearby. I was still blind enough to be pleasantly surprised by the furor of the debate and the apparently intense involvement of the voting public. Elections in Europe were so uneventful, even dull, in comparison.
The first Americans who became good friends were Bobbie and Herb Singer, she a historian, he a psychologist, from Berkeley, California, formerly from New York City and both with Jewish grandparents who had emigrated from Russia at the turn to the 20th century. Bobbie was a member of the American Communist Party and Herb was not a lightweight thinker either, so it did not take many visits of Ans and me to Berkeley and of them to our home in the Netherlands before my optimistic views of America were … let me say I this way, shaken a bit. Since then, my disappointment with America has steadily grown. So, why did I, in 1994, decide to leave the Netherlands and settle in the U.S. and why if I am so disappointed am I still here? “Why don’t you get the f..k out-a-here,” I can hear the advice.
I have to tell you (part of) my personal history. In my schooldays in the Netherlands, the U.S. was revered for its contribution to ending the Second World War and liberating the Netherlands from its German oppressor. But America was still (especially until the wide introduction of television, which brought us the prime of American entertainment as well as all the B series, and the Cs and Ds, and of course the rest of the gobbledygook) – America was still a faraway entity, admired, yes, known, no.
I was the exemption to the rule. I was learning of all good things American fast, because my parents’ neighbors had a son in oil who worked for what was then Caltex and he had The Saturday Evening Post weekly sent to their The Hague home. I was the lucky guy who got the magazine after they had finished reading it. You could say I, in the 1950s in the Netherlands, grew up with Norman Rockwell. With colorful ads for grand Buicks and Cadillacs; with the doctor who said smoking was good for my health; and with cartoons I sometimes had a hard time to get the gist of. Americans had fridges and freezers, too, and mowers they proudly sat on while cruising their lawns. So, I grew up with all the clichés of America the beautiful.
In my Dutch high-school strangely enough America was no subject. Europe was – my French teacher was a Dutch count, yes, who resembled the then French President Charles de Gaulle and he turned me into a Francophile; my English teacher was a Jesuit who resembled Arthur Conan Doyle and he made me an Anglophile; my German teacher had written a thesis about German witch trials in the Middle Ages and, although he was a nice guy, had to deal with the Nazi inheritance which kept turning Dutchmen off from becoming Krautlovers. My only confrontation with something American occurred in my final high-school year when my class was invited to visit the U.S. Embassy in The Hague. In those days, the Americans did not yet need fortresses to keep their diplomats safe; the door was always open; the U.S. Marines sergeant at the door saluted with a smile; the library had comfortable reading areas comparable to those of to-day’s Barnes & Noble bookstores; and, most important of all discoveries, a fresh copy of Playboy Magazine would be the centerpiece of the reading table, out in the open and for everyone to consult. Come to think of it, perhaps Playboy’s disappearance from the U.S.I.S. libraries was the fore-bode of the demise of the American empire. Also, the Marines stopped smiling.
Later, I was drafted into the Royal Dutch Air Force and blessed with the opportunity to work with the 32nd U.S.A.F. air defense squadron based at Soesterberg. Their officers’ mess had the greatest of, for me, “new” foodstuffs, and Coke of course, and, not to forget, Bud. The base commander’s daughter had stepped from the pages of the Post, correction: from Playboy’s centerfold, and –I will never forget it– wore a daring gold chain around her magnificent ankle. Later, my bookshelves carried the weight of a ton of American literature, ripe and green. I was an early admirer of everything American. No one can say I did not love America. I stood on stand-by alert duty when John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas and, boy, was I ready to beat the hell out of those Russkies.
After 1980, though, my interest widened, deepened. As America isolated itself more and more from the rest of the world, Gore Vidal, Hunter S. Thompson, Naomi Klein and others became my gurus. Not that I did not meet other-minded Americans. In fact, I could not avoid them: in our Leyden street, you won’t believe it, lived a Texas oil man and his family who had newly arrived from Bahrain; a U.S. Navy pilot who came to teach the Dutch navy how to fly the Orion; and a computer geek from California who worked as a consultant in Amsterdam. Plenty of barbecues, lots of TexMex food. They did not understand a Lefty; at one party while discussing politics, the Texan pacified a somewhat disturbed American colleague by telling him, “No, Ton is not a socialist, he is a social person …” and at another party an American flyboy asked if I did not feel threatened, living so close to the Iron Curtain. I didn’t know what he was talking about.
My deepening critique of America notwithstanding, I simply had to live there. So, since 1994, I have been a keen observer of … how many elections? Four presidential ones, numerous primaries, almost uncountable other elections, national, state and local. One of the elections, in 1996, had Ans and I involved with Chase County, which we then were visiting, and which needed a new sheriff. Gerald Ingalls, a newly made friend, was the strongest of the candidates. On election night, we went out to the county courthouse in Cottonwood Falls to hear the results and were astonished not to find the newly elected sheriff there; in fact the courthouse was practically deserted because everyone, including winning and losing candidates, had decided it was more important to attend the local high-school’s football game, since many of their sons were playing. Life has its priorities. This was one of the experiences that confused me with regard to the status of democracy in America. There would come more, of course. Enough to have me totally confused and enough to soon make me miserable. Where had those checks and balances gone? Where was “my” America? Gone with the wind.
I do not have to provide all the details – y’all know most. Yet with corporations using tax breaks to bankroll think tanks only there because public opinion has to be swayed, my patience has reached its limits. Who is funding whom? Where went accountability? Whose democracy is it anyway? The moneymakers use all the jingoism they can buy to fight each and every attempt to limit their freedoms because these would prevent their society from reaching the perfection they have a right to, and see, their system works! Media eggheads in their pay (and well-paid they are too) utter gobbledygook overwrought enough to deafen and deaden the whole f…ing electorate many times over, and the voting public, not that they all vote, loves it! Freedom is what the moneymakers and their think tanks and lobbyists and mouthpieces claim to stand for, but, as George Monbiot said, the freedom they promote is not freedom from hunger or poverty, from industrial injuries or exploitation, from pollution or unscrupulous banking. “When these libertarians say freedom, they mean freedom from the rules that try to prevent them from behaving as they wish: mistreating their workers, threatening public health, and using the planet as their dustbin.” Italics are mine.
It is in this situation that I find myself in the, altogether, 19th year of my being physically present in the United States. I will not leave. But, by Jove, what has happened to “Of the people, by the people, for the people”? Why has true democracy been replaced by a representative system with its confusing and dumbing mix of mass elections, its myth of honest elections, its party political machines, and its essentially ignorant leaders who can only because they are reading from teleprompters be charismatic? Why do Americans and, I must admit, under American influence and marketing guidelines, Europeans and Asians and Africans et cetera as well, spend so much time thinking about the demos (people) in democracy and not worry about the kratos (the rule)? Someone recently said that democracy needs more than the feeling of irritation that comes with being ruled; it needs a sense of purpose, some “kratos that all demos can live with.”
And, no, I will not turn my back on America. I am too much attached to the beauty and the freedom offered by the wide open spaces. And to a whole bunch of just sensational Americans who are not the parasites America allows itself to be ruled by. Also, I am consoled by the hope that the people who nowadays behave as if they are 17th and 18th century French dukes, and who are not more deserving of their wealth and their public status than oil sheiks sitting on top of oily sands, will be met by a 21st century type of guillotine. I want to be around when the knife falls. I, with my sense of history, have already started taking knitting lessons.
Post Scriptum: I am reminded that public debate and political competition were called agon or aegon by the old Greeks, those guys who brought you democracy. So that’s where the words “agony” and “anguish” come from … Suddenly so much more is understandable.
Matfield Green, KS, January 2012
Photo: Risk Hazekamp (Berlin, Germany), of a magnificent horse escaping from ruins and heading for freedom (in western Kansas).