Scorn and the USA

Uncle Sam

Observing the recent furor over the revelations of the US government’s tracking of phone calls and e-mails, two trends of response stand out. One the one hand there is the mixture of outrage and disappointment that greets any exposure of state subterfuge, yet on the other, no less animated, is the barely concealed glee at alleged American corruption. This merits some thought.

There is a species of political thinker for whom anything that discredits the United States is welcome news. The American writers Chris Hedges (Empire of Illusion, The Death of the Liberal Class) and Morris Berman (Why America Failed, Dark Ages America, The Twilight of American Culture) are prime examples of this, but Canadians are overrepresented among the type – I’m thinking of Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick, Michael Enright of CBC radio’s The Sunday Edition, and Ronald Wright, author of What Is America? (2008). If not openly rejoicing in American decline (real or imagined), they at least find the topic endlessly fascinating. Online comment boards, as well, are replete with anonymous Canadian mice chortling over the latest stumbles of the Yankee elephant. These are some reactions to a CBC story on fugitive Edward Snowden: “no one trusts the US anymore after Assange and Snowden. Except the Americans. How does a nation become so gullible?” “[Julian] Assange, Snowden and the likes are my heroes, this brave people are the only feeble protection left to keep us from slavery to our governments and their rich controllers [sic].” “Snowden is maybe the last world hero – the last voice of freedom before they slam the doors shut on all of us.  He sacrificed for nothing practical – no one can stop the fascists – but at least he let us know that the ultimate fascist state has already started.” “Most dangerous terrorist in the world lives at 1600 Pennsylvania ave” There’s much more where that came from.

Surely there is something disquieting in these displays of schadenfreude, for that is certainly what they are. On rare occasions when armchair and professional pundits delve into the political culture of, say, Poland, Brazil, or Australia, the problems troubling those societies are usually seen as issues to be constructively addressed, but the problems of the US are more often treated as failings at which to sneer. No matter that thousands or millions of ordinary Americans may be badly affected, as with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the financial meltdown of 2008: if American leaders and American values suddenly look bad, then there is an inevitable cackle of I-told-you-so commentary. After the Katrina disaster in New Orleans, Heather Mallick gloated (in her Globe and Mail post at the time), “The United States isn’t clean, it isn’t competent, and it can’t meet its own basic needs…Brand America. A rich, go-getting, meat-grillin’ nation. The American dream. The Dream Team, Marlboro Country. Live free or die. Every man for himself. Just do it! I’m lovin’ it.” People who find nothing amusing (or even interesting) in Russian censorship, Latin American poverty or Chinese pollution take positive delight when the same afflictions turn up in the US.

The other irony, of course, is that it’s the very transparency of the American system that allows the convenient piety of sniggering at a nation so open and so accessible, whose vices are obvious but whose virtues can be taken for granted, and which outsiders can find so reassuringly recognizable yet still gratifyingly different. Someone once said that, in terms of cultural identity, Canada is America’s stalker – an obsessive and tortuously conflicted fan consumed by the daily crises of a flamboyant celebrity who is blithely unaware of the fan’s very existence. Americans and non-Americans who find smug satisfaction in US pathologies, too, can be fatally compromised by their simultaneous embrace of US dynamism: the same scolds who deride Fox News, the Tea Party, and George W. Bush as characteristically, damnably American will at the same time celebrate jazz, gay marriage, and John Stewart as expressions of a separate territory that credits all mankind. The infringement on personal privacy by government surveillance, to be sure, is a serious matter, and to the extent US authorities have violated their country’s basic legal principles, anger and criticism are justified. But that is not the same as the US forever serving, right, wrong, or otherwise, as the nation we love to hate.

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