The following articles on the state of the American society were published in the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, the Danish daily Information and the Norwegian daily Bergens Tidende in January-February 2004
The empire of fear, faith and hope
1. THE EMPIRE OF FEAR
I ARRIVE at Newark airport with a new passport at the cost of SEK 250 with an EU-specified photo (slightly from the side, with one ear showing) and a new visa for foreign journalists at the cost of SEK 900 with a US-specified photo (head on, with both ears showing) but to no avail. After the usual questioning (about what I will do where and with whom) I join the small but steady stream of just landed passengers who are shown to the side for further processing by the immigration authorities.
Through a discreet opening in the monotonous wall behind the endless row of passport controls, I am led to a waiting room in front of a wall of raised desks from which paper-working officials have a view of some twenty not-yet approved visitors. An older woman who is about to miss her connecting flight is somewhat agitated but the others wait in tense calm, as in a dentist's waiting-room.
“ Will this take long?” I ask a female officer.
“ It depends,” she answers in a flat voice.
I had already been reading the horror stories about those for whom it had taken very long – as in the case of the head of the IT division of the British law firm Willoughby & Partners, who in May last year was taken aside in Los Angeles and not taken out for 16 hours – and then in handcuffs to the next London flight. The confiscated computer was released several weeks later at the law firm’s request – with no data, no explanation and no apology. This made Mr. Willoughby of Willoughby & Partners himself write a letter to the editor of “The Times”: “The head of our IT division is a Muslim. He is also a gentleman in every sense of the word. His fanaticism, if he has any, is restricted to cricket.”
The case is described in David Cole’s book “Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedoms in the War on Terror” which thoroughly details the U.S.’s judicial discrimination of non-American citizens after the September 11th, outside and inside the borders of the country.
And of course, at its border passages.
CITIZENSHIP HAS long been a dividing line in the United States, not primarily between an old and a new nationality but between an old and a new loyalty. It is loyalty that has conferred citizenship, not nationality. The loyalty to an idea, not the affinity with a certain people or a certain past. New Americans swear an oath, “the pledge of allegiance”, to the American flag “and the republic, for which it stands.” What kind of republic the flag stands for, and thus the exact wording of the oath is still debated – should equality be included, should God be named? – but there is no doubt that you swear loyalty to an idea. It is in line with this tradition that the Bush Administration has been pushing a new law (the Domestic Security Enhancement Act) which would authorize the American Justice Department to unilaterally withhold citizenship from Americans who are deemed to be members or supporters of “terrorist organizations.”
American citizenship defines a stance. Non-citizenship does that too.
The tradition is long and profound. From the Enemy Alien Act of 1798 to the Patriot Act of 2001, America’s presidents have been given extensive powers in time of war and emergency, to arrest, jail, and deport non-Americans citizens on the mere suspicion that future crimes might be committed – a certain notion of preventive justice that was well encapsulated in a statement by the American Attorney General John Ashcroft on October 25th 2001:
“ Let the terrorists among us be warned: If you overstay your visa – even by one day – we will arrest you. If you violated a local law, you will be put in jail and kept in custody as long as possible.”
Only non-citizens can of course be arrested and held indefinitely for overstaying a visa. Only non-citizens can be jailed and interrogated for months without the right to an attorney for violating a minor local law. Only against non-citizens have the U.S. Government been able to exercise preventive justice without stirring any opposition of political significance.
The two cases of preventive justice against American citizens that nevertheless have been brought to the public’s attention, Yasser Hamdi and Jose Padilla, the first captured in Afghanistan and the other in Chicago, have consequently and predictably stirred an opposition that could very well be of political significance. Both men have been held two years in preventive detention at a naval brig in South Carolina, unilaterally labeled as “enemy combatants,” and as such deprived of the right to a lawyer and the right to have the legality of their detentions tested in court (habeas corpus). It is true that the U.S. government also has labeled as “enemy combatants” the more than 600 non-citizens that are indefinitely held at Guantánamo Bay without being charged and tried, but against this relatively few American citizens have so far voiced their opposition.
What most American citizens thus have not yet grasped is that the line between citizens and non-citizens in the present “war on terror” is presently drawn in sand. The fundamental freedoms and rights that the American government – with reference to unspecified and classified threats of terrorism – can take away from non-citizens can it take away from citizens as well – and has so done.
The difference is of course that the constitutionality of laws that seem to curtail the constitutional rights of American citizens will sooner or later be tested in an American court – ultimately the Supreme Court – while the lack of constitutional rights of non-citizens is without appeal. The Supreme Court has not surprisingly decided to make a ruling later this year in the case of the American citizen Yasser Hamdi. And before Christmas, a federal appeals court in New York ruled that the U.S. government could not deny an American citizen on U.S. soil the right to a lawyer and a hearing in court (the case of José Padilla).
More surprisingly a federal appeals court in San Francisco the very same day ruled that these rights also must apply to the non-citizens of Guantánamo. “In our view”, the decision said, “the government's position is inconsistent with fundamental tenets of American jurisprudence and raises most serious questions under international law.”
The U.S. Supreme Court will hold some very sensitive decisions in its hands during this year of presidential elections.
THE WITHHOLDING OF legal rights from non-citizens being detained at the border stations of the Empire however, will probably remain a non-issue for the Supreme Court. I ask for permission to call Matthew from Goucher College who is waiting for me in the arrival hall to tell him that I have been delayed for an unknown period of time, but I am brusquely ordered to keep my mobile phone shut off. With a great effort of self-control, I adopt a look of composure. Composure is a wise strategy and, as it happens, the only one available.
Nevertheless I have to climb the walls for a while and thus get to study their dire decorations. On the wall behind the elevated desks are FBI-posters for wanted members of the Al-Qaeda. They all look the same, and probably don’t look like the same anymore. On the opposite wall, behind the seats with waiting non-citizens, there is a poster from the INS to the memory of those who perished on 9/11.
“We will never forget,” it says over a Stars and Stripes-draped World Trade Center in flames.
I reassume an air of composure and take out my travel reading, “Waiting for the Barbarians” by J.M. Coetzee, trying to ignore the symbolism. The story takes place at a disintegrating border post in a disintegrating empire, and regardless of what one can say about Newark Airport and the empire that extends beyond its borders, disintegration is not the appropriate word.
Still, it is the barbarians it is waiting for.
After about an hour it is my turn. The man behind the desk looks up from his computer screen and informs me that I last crossed the border of the empire at the airport in San Francisco. I knew that. He also informs me that I was investigated then as well. That I did not know.
My crime (as usual) is talking too much. When asked about what I was going to do at Goucher College I had answered that I was going to talk to students. I should also have added that I was going to do it for free. I added it now and the gates opened.
A lonely suitcase is waiting for me at baggage belt number seven.
SANFORD J. UNGAR is an old friend from my period as a TV-correspondent in Washington DC in the eighties. For the past few years he has been the president of a private college, Goucher College, in the neighboring city of Baltimore and is hosting my four weeks as a visiting scholar in this oasis for the teaching of liberal arts.
“Liberal” is also how most Americans would label Sanford, or Sandy as most people call him, that is to say a person with left-leaning views who would be expected not to have any greater sympathy for George W. Bush and his politics – and he hasn’t.
And still the “liberal” Sandy had managed to surprise, perhaps even slightly upset, a party of European business people by giving a dinner speech saying that the Europeans had not really understood the depth and width of the American trauma following 9/11 and thus had not understood the depth and width of domestic American support for the Bush administration’s war on terror.
“They could not understand me,” says Sandy, hoping that I would.
“What is it that we haven’t understood?” I ask back.
“That we Americans perhaps for the first time have been confronted with our own vulnerability,” he answers.
And I reply that most Europeans probably understood very well and that the initial empathy with America hardly could have been greater, but that the Americans had developed a vulnerability complex that people in Europe never had the luxury of developing because they never had the luxury of feeling invulnerable in the first place.
So maybe Sandy was right after all.
What we Europeans have not fully understood is the depth and width of the American fear.
The fear that “God’s gift to humanity” (George W. Bush 2003) would be undone by the “axis of evil” (George W. Bush 2002) and “liberty itself die out” (American revolutionary pamphlet 1774)
In that perspective, September 11 2001 was a more fateful day than December 7 1941. The Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor was devastating, but Pearl Harbor is not the Pentagon (that just as well could have been the White House or the Capitol).
There could not have been a more effective way to devastate the myth of American invulnerability and to do so before the eyes of the world than the attacks in the morning of September 11th. The floodgates to the great American fear had been let open.
ONE OF THE most palpable signs of the American fear after 9/11 is the new Department for Homeland Security. My request for an interview with its first Secretary, Tom Ridge, is unsurprisingly denied but I am scheduled to meet with the head of the information department.
The Department for Homeland Security has only existed for about a year and its authority and responsibilities are still somewhat unclear, particularly since neither the FBI or the CIA have been brought under its jurisdiction. 22 other federal agencies however have, among them the agencies responsible for immigration and border control.
I have thus already had my first encounter with the Department of Homeland Security.
There won't be a second one, in spite of my scheduled appointment. Following instructions I enter the parking area outside a former Navy complex in Northwest Washington which has rapidly been converted into the Department’s headquarters and, again following instructions, I begin looking for building 88, which after a long search turns out to be a checkpoint at the end of the parking lot. In building 88 a woman sits behind a bullet-proof glass wall. I search for an opening in the wall and find that the opening is a bomb-proof chamber with a door on each side of the bullet-proof wall.
I put my passport inside the chamber, carefully close the door on my side and wait. After a while, the women on the other side of the bullet-proof glass and the bomb-proof chamber puts on a pair of plastic gloves and very carefully opens the door on her side and takes the passport in her plastic-covered hands and looks first at the passport picture and then at the visa picture and then suddenly begins, with surprising energy, to page through a large pile of papers. And then again. And again. After the third search, I ask if we might call the head of the information department and let her know that I have arrived for the interview. But no, we first have to find something in that pile of paper.
When it becomes apparent that what is to be found in the pile is not going to be found there, the women grows tired of me.
“If you have the extension, you can call yourself,” she says and points to a telephone in a corner. “It is free of charge,” she adds.
I don’t have the extension, but I try to dial nine for the switchboard of the Department of Homeland Security, but this only takes me to the switchboard of the Pentagon. I ask the switchboard of the Pentagon for the number to the switchboard of the Department of Homeland Security through which I am finally connected to the office of the Information department, where I am told that the person with whom I thought I had an appointment is in Dallas.
At that moment, the alarm goes off in building 88. I flinch for a moment thinking that I have set it off because I am the only visitor in the building, but it turns out to be a cleaning lady who unceremoniously has pulled the back door open and without taking any notice of me or the guard has started to swab the floor. A strong smell of bleach rises to the ceiling. I yell through the alarm and the bullet-proof glass that I would like to have my passport back since my meeting apparently will not take place, but the guard is now fully absorbed with trying to turn off the false alarm. After five minutes the alarm goes silent and after another five minutes my passport comes back out. Turning to the exit, I barely escape falling over a two-foot yellow plastic cone saying: “Danger! Wet Floor”.
I drive back to Baltimore and visit the excellent college library where I can make a completely hassle-free visit to the Department’s web site (www.dhs.gov). I will there be able to assert that yellow threat alert is in force, “elevated threat of terrorist attack”. An orange alert would have been more alarming, "high risk". A red alert would have been the worst, “serious risk of terrorist attack.”
Fear in the U.S. comes in five colors.
Visiting the Department’s web site, I also find out that next time I, as a non-citizen, will set foot on U.S. soil, my fingerprints and facial features will be registered digitally and stored in a gigantic database that will be able to follow the trails of me and millions of other U.S.-visitors through the ports of entry and exit of the world. The new program for digital registration of non-citizens at the U-S. borders has without a hint of irony been given the name “US VISIT.”
On the web site, there is also a link to something called the U.S. HomeGuard, www.ushomeguard.org, where I am personally offered the opportunity to help guard some 47,000 of the most sensitive terrorist targets in the U.S. – chemical factories, power stations, gas storage facilities, water reservoirs, oil pipelines, and thousands of kilometers of coastal areas. The only thing that I have to do, besides becoming an adult American citizen, is to fairly regularly log in and review a picture from a security camera “somewhere in the U.S.” and within 20 seconds decide if something suspicious is to be seen. The pictures that are displayed for review are pictures in which a computer have tracked changes between one take and another. Millions of American citizens are in this way expected to spend time in front of their computers in their homes and review computer-selected pictures from countless security cameras from countless places in the U.S. and keep their eyes open to see if anything suspicious has occurred – and in this way daily to be reminded that suspicious things can occur anytime and anywhere.
“Fear’s Empire” is the title of the American social critic Benjamin Barber’s book about the new society that is evolving from the shock of September 11th, a society, he writes, that runs the risk “of becoming at once a willing colony and the capital of fear’s spreading empire”. President George W. Bush in his “cowboy self-righteousness” essentially reflects a wide-spread and deeply felt American idea that “fear can only be defeated by fearfulness.”
“Justice Minister John Ashcroft is often portrayed as a religious fanatic, but more than that he is a political populist who knows what plays in Peoria,” says Jeffrey Rosen, one of America’s most respected legal journalists as we dine on lively Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington an unseasonably warm November evening.
“ The new department and the new laws for homeland security have all gained broad political support in America”, he explains.
Jeffrey Rosen is presently writing a book on freedom and security in America.
His thesis is that freedom will need all the help it can get.
IT IS SAID that time heals all wounds. I visit the deep wound on South Manhattan, Ground Zero, and watch time doing its work. A few twisted girders have been made into a cross on a hillock in the center of the cleaned up hollow. A special observation site for the steady stream of visitors has been built along the side of Ground Zero facing Church Street.
A swarm of street vendors have gradually claimed their territories and are now selling pictures, souvenirs, and memorial books titled “Terror In America” and “Attack on America” and portable TV-monitors are loudly competing with innumerous DVD-recordings in endless repeats of that morning in terrorist hell.
The almost three thousand victims have had their names inscribed on a temporary commemorative wall along the upper part of the fence at the observation site. “The Heroes of IXXI”, it says, and I am convinced that the creator has wished us to discover a higher meaning in the beautiful symmetry of 9/11 in Latin.
Shortly the destroyed commuter train station under WTC will reopen for traffic, and in a few years the cleaned up hollow will be carrying new spears towards the sky, and as time goes by this wound too will be encased in the dynamic forgetfulness of the restless American movement of progress.
The American movement of progress is an historic counterbalance to the American movement of fear.
The American faith is another.
2. THE EMPIRE OF FAITH
SOUTHWEST AIRLINES is one of those new low-price carriers that successfully have invaded the terror-shocked US market for domestic air-travel. “Support Our Troops,” it says on its billboards. “A Symbol of Freedom,” it also says. No business class, no food, no pre-booked seats. The first to check in get to stand in the A-Line. Then the B-Line. Then the C-Line. Wise from recent experience, I check in early and get to stand in the A-Line with little more than a toothbrush and a question in my bags. The question is: How come that one of Washington’s most powerful lobbyists, a well-paid propagandist for the powerful and the rich, a close friend of George W. Bush, is leading the race to be elected Governor in one of America’s poorest and most Washington-hostile states?
Three hours later, I land in Jackson, Mississippi to find the answer.
It is Friday night but entering the central business district I find it dark and empty. No brightly lit restaurants or sidewalks. The buildings stand far apart and I have difficulties telling the difference between city streets and a country lanes.
“Why so few people out on a Friday night?” I ask the only guest in the empty bar in the Crowne Plaza Hotel, where the hotel rooms are situated above a four-story parking garage.
“Wait until tomorrow morning,” he says and laughs.
Before going to bed I walk into the still open souvenir shop in the hotel lobby to get me a local newspaper and check out the tourist books, but the local paper is sold out and the only books for sale have titles like: “Praying Successfully,” “Test Your Bible Knowledge” and “Prayers & Promises for Men.”
The first thing I notice the next morning is that the central business district of Jackson is no longer empty and that Jackson is a Black city. Jackson is a Black city on weekdays as well (70 percent of the residents are Black) but this weekend it is even more so, because it is homecoming weekend at Jackson State University. Homecoming is the annual return of the former students to their alma mater, and because Jackson State is “an historic Black university”, the thousands of people who have traveled to Jackson this Saturday morning to see the homecoming parade and go to the homecoming football game, are all African-Americans.
It is a colorful parade that during two sun-splashed morning hours energetically and confidently marches and dances and pirouettes and salutes and trumpets itself through the center of Jackson past the state government’s over-sized marble buildings with the provocative Confederate symbol well in view in the state flag.
Naturally, I also attend the homecoming game between the Jackson State Tigers and the Pine Bluff Golden Lions from the neighboring state of Arkansas. The home team is not winning, but it does not matter. The main attraction is not the teams on the field but the spectators on the galleries moving between rows and lanes with their well-visible symbols of different academic associations and groups. The homecoming game is not, in the first instance, a sporting event but a social happening and a cultural manifestation. Among the 30,000 spectators in Veterans Memorial Stadium this warm Saturday afternoon, I am the only white person.
Well, me and the still-governing Governor of Mississippi, Ronnie Musgrove, who has changed political labels from Democrat to “independent conservative,” and who handshakes his way through the stadium in a final effort to win the traditional Black Democratic votes against a staunch Republican lobbyist from Washington, D.C., who has practically ignored the Black vote and openly catered to ”white” feelings and prejudices, and who still has a clear lead in the opinion polls.
In the rapidly falling darkness outside the Stadium, the campaign for Black votes continues. Under a heavy barrage of rap and soul, in the mouth-watering aroma from grease-soaked barbeque grills, in the swarm of political propaganda, commercial ads and free food, I find Russell Labbe, my friend from the hotel bar the night before. He is serving gumbo and catfish to attract customers to the newly opened Jackson branch of the Liberty Bank, a New Orleans-based “minority-owned bank” owned by African-American capital – for African-American money.
I take note of a possible clue to my question.
FORMAL RACIAL discrimination was revoked late and grudgingly in Mississippi and informal boundaries between Blacks and Whites are still apparent and sharp. For the most part, Whites and Blacks live separately, go to school separately and pray to God separately. As Blacks moved into Jackson, Whites moved out. More or less veiled racism still plays a major role in Mississippi’s politics. The state has a white majority with a recurrent fad for obscure politicians. The Republican lobbyist from Washington, D.C. has deviously refused to distance himself from appearing on a notorious web site for “conservative citizens” with texts devoted to the “defense of racism”. By the same devious calculation he has adopted the slogan “change the governor, not to the [state] flag” (with the confederate cross).
The voters of Mississippi have never yet elected an African-American to a state-wide office and they will not do so in the upcoming election either.
Still, there are no noticeable signs of Black unhappiness with the situation, rather signs of increasing confidence and self-esteem. Increasing numbers of African-Americans are elected to local offices (in 1997, Jackson elected its first Black mayor) while ever more African-Americans are moving back to the South. Fifty-five percent of America’s African-Americans today live in the Southern states and contribute not only to their economic growth, but also to their growing cultural and political influence in the United States.
The South may have had a traumatic past but it is a past that both divides and unites. Many of the values that characterize the American South are shared by both Black and White, the cultural conservatism, the economic individualism, and the religious fundamentalism. The latter not the least. Running through the deep racial divide and the deeper socio-economic divide, cuts another divide that not only tends to separate the South from the rest of America but increasingly one America from another.
In the 2000 Presidential Election church attendance was a better indicator of how people voted than differences in income. Among voters who rarely or never went to church, 56 percent voted for Al Gore and 39 percent for George W. Bush. In the “red” states that voted for Bush (red is, somewhat confusingly, the color of the Republicans) 70 percent believed in the dogma: “On Judgment Day we will all be summoned before God to answer to our sins”, compared to “only” 50 percent in the “blue” states that voted for Gore. In red America you are against abortions and for capital punishment and for the citizens’ right to bear arms and carry bumper stickers saying “Don’t Steal! The Government hates competition” and “Real truckers talk to Jesus on Channel 10.” If the souvenir shop at your hotel offers religious handbooks instead of tourist guides, you most likely will find yourself in red America.
During the 1980’s and 1990’s the values in American policies have gradually shifted towards red, from Ronald Reagan via Bill Clinton to George W. Bush. Although Democrat, the Clinton had more red features in his policies than his Democratic predecessors and repeatedly referred to his upbringing in a poor evangelical family in the South. During the Clinton years, red America gained majority in Congress for the first time in post-War history. The politics and culture of the South had become the politics and culture of all America, New York Times journalist Peter Applebome claimed in a much-noticed book, “Dixie Rising.”
Everything that has happened since then, especially what has happened after September 11, seems to confirm his assessment.
When Democratic Presidential Candidate Howard Dean during a televised debate last October promised to win back the votes of “the guys with Confederate Flags on their pick-up trucks,” he rammed his head straight into the “red” wall that increasingly separates one America from another. His Democratic competitors accused him, rather absurdly, of appealing to racism, but most commentators realized that his real mistake was political naivety.
What Howard Dean was trying to say is that poor white guys in the South must be persuaded to vote along class lines, rather than racial, religious or cultural, which probably was naïve since it most likely won’t happen, and furthermore probably a bit stupid, since far from all poor whites guys in the South who vote Republican drive around with the Confederate Flag on their pick-up trucks.
The day after, Howard Dean apologized for what he had said.
Nevertheless, Howard Dean is the only Democratic Presidential candidate who has seriously attempted to challenge red America, since he is the only candidate who hasn’t made an issue of his religious beliefs, but to the contrary rather has made an issue of his lack of religious beliefs. He has been quoted saying “I don’t attend church regularly.” He has also said “My religion does not influence my politics.”
These are very bold statements, if not audacious. In the year 2000, 7 out of 10 Americans wanted a President with a strong belief in God – and that number has most likely not diminished after September 11 2001.
There is a historic link between collective fear and religious faith in America, American historian James A. Morone argues in a recently published book, “Hellfire Nation, The Politics of Sin in American History”, where he forwards the idea that American history could be read as a tale of fear, sin and salvation. The War on Terrorism, with its clear religious connotations, does not only fit nicely into that tale but has probably also contributed to its strengthening. In a first reaction to the terrorist attacks two well-known tele-evangelists, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, blamed it on the domestic followers of evil, the proponents of pro-Choice, because “when we kill 40 million innocent little babies we make God mad.” Even if they quickly had to retreat from that particular position, they soon enough could witness large parts of their fundamentalist conception of the world leave the sphere political rhetoric and enter the sphere of actual policy.
The September 11 2001 terrorist attacks did not bring forth a new American view of the world. They merely brought unparalleled American power into the hands of a very old one.
On the other hand, what is Howard Dean’s “new social contract for the working people of America,” or once upon a time Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, if not an essentially faith-based vision of good and evil in America? Perhaps another kind of religion, a more “civil” one, but with the same potential force to morally reshape the American society.
Within walking distance from the newly renovated temples of the American Revolution and Constitution in downtown Philadelphia, I have lunch with Camille Paglia, a sharp and provocative observer of the American society. In an thought-provoking essay (Arion, Winter 2003) she has highlighted the religious impulse in the American progressive reform movements in general and the sixties’ movement in particular.
“Today’s liberals have forgotten how important the religious element was in the movements of the sixties,” she exclaims. “And neither do they want to be reminded of it, because they fear it will tarnish their political ideals. Progressive politics do no longer offer salvation, only the sterile manipulation of federal welfare programs, and has subsequently lost their moral power and allure.”
“ I would even argue that the advance of Christian fundamentalism during the 1970’s and 80’s was a direct response the moral defeat of the movements of the sixties.”
If Camille Paglia is right, the deepening divide between “red” and “blue” America after September 11 2001 is not a divide between religious and secular America, but a divide between two American "religions", one currently more powerful than the other.
“MISSISSIPPI FIND yourself another country to be part of,” Phil Ochs once sang, but so he couldn’t have sung today. Deep-rooted racism is still a daily feature of Mississippi and Mississippi cannot be understood without it, but most of all Mississippi is today an unmistakably red state (57 percent of the votes went to George W. Bush and 40 percent to Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential Election) and is thereby a highly representative part of that America which grew stronger during the 1990’s. Even though Mississippi’s black population still votes overwhelmingly for the Democratic party – the Democratic Party of the South has more or less turned into a party of black and minority interests -- but if you ignore the racism (which you can’t) the social and cultural values of Mississippi’s blacks don’t differ much from those of its whites. The people of Mississippi as a whole are culturally more conservative, morally more condemning and religiously more fundamentalist than the people of blue America.
The name of the Republican lobbyist from Washington DC who wants to get elected Governor of Mississippi is Haley Barbour. He was born and raised in Yazoo City, situated where the rolling hills northeast of Jackson sink into the horizonless delta of the Mississippi river and where the remnants of the last cotton crop whirls like snow flakes in the light wind along the roadside a Sunday morning in early November. If Mississippi is the South of the South, then the Delta is the Mississippi of Mississippi, extremely racially segregated and extremely unequal. Rickety black townships, secluded white residential havens and shop-lined city streets all bask empty in the warming sun.
Empty because the churches are full. The whites fill white churches, the blacks fill black churches.
“The U.S out of the United nations” states one poster among all the posters in support of Haley Barbour in Yazoo City, not clear whether as an official statement by the Barbour campaign or an unofficial. There are a lot of unofficial statements in this campaign, which is the most costly election campaign in Mississippi history, an unofficially “white” campaign heavily garnished with all the unofficial code words of red America for economic individualism, moral conservatism, local self-sufficiency and religious self-righteousness. Haley Barbour has most officially utilized all the seductive tricks of the commercial TV-ad-industry to sell the American dream of individual success to voters who rarely if ever have had any personal experience with it, whereby the unofficial message has been that Haley Barbour will use his influential connections in Washington DC to give the American dream a little extra push in the State of Mississippi.
I recall a discussion with Richard Perle in Washington DC a week earlier. Perle belongs to that same Republican inner circle of power where Haley Barbour has his connections. He was a defense policy advisor to both President Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and is one of the main ideological promoters of the new American War on Terrorism. To my question of what has been the most important ideological change in American in the 1990s he had answered:
“ The end of the race issue as a political factor. Regardless of race, the poor people in America believe in individual success and wealth. With the accuracy of a laser beam the Democrats have aimed their policies at the African-Americans, the Hispanics, and the poor, but the fact is that the majority of Americans today are not African-Americans, not Hispanics, and not poor.”
“ I hope getting ten percent of the black vote,” Haley Barbour tells me on the morning before election day, standing in a blue sport shirt and khaki slacks shaking the hands of mostly white employees in an office building in downtown Jackson.
On Tuesday, November 4th, Haley Barbour is elected the new Governor of Mississippi by 53 percent of the voters.
He receives 15 percent of the Black votes.
SO THEN, WHAT was the answer to the question I had brought to Mississippi?
First, somewhat trivially, that political success in America is about unlimited resources and unscrupulous ads.
Secondly, and perhaps less trivial, that the assured faith of Americans is not only nurtured by fear but also by hope.
What might have been a decisive factor in the election of the new Governor of Mississippi was the expertly marketed hope of wholly new and more promising relations between Mississippi and that Washington DC, which in the great fear of nine eleven and in the assured faith of President George W. Bush has become the latter-day capital of red America.
3. THE EMPIRE OF HOPE
COMING FROM Jackson, Mississippi, in the deep South, to Baltimore, Maryland, a forty-five minute drive from Washington DC, I am immediately reminded of Mississippi again. On a large billboard along the permanently congested I-95 between Washington and Baltimore I read: “Charles Town, racing and slots; 3,500 slot machines just 48 miles away in West Virginia.”
At least as many slot machines – probably more (I never thought of counting them) – I had just been seeing in Mississippi. The Eastern bank of that stretch of the Mississippi River which marks the Western border of the state was in fact lined with them, from Tunica in the north to Natchez in the south, and then again along Mississippi’s semi-tropical Gulf Coast -- altogether thirty river boat casinos three or four decks high, that never closed and that never left shore and that even on a Sunday noon were crammed with people who in an eternal cacophony of rattling and clanking and jingling, silently and diligently contributed to the total spending of $250 million a month (!) of which about ten percent went directly into the coffers of the State. Slot machines had in ten years become one of Mississippi’s most important businesses and sources of income.
The legalization of gambling has in recent years become a rising temptation for a growing number of American States that are having increasing difficulties in making ends meet. The time is long gone when you had to go to Las Vegas or Reno to do high-stake gambling on slot machines. Nowadays you can do it in states where slot machines only yesterday were considered the cohort of the devil.
Soon also in Maryland, where the billboard along the I-95 between Baltimore and Washington DC is a bearer of tidings to come. The political push to make ends meet with a little help from legalized gambling on slot machines in one of the wealthiest states in the US – as measured by income per capita – seems to herald new and tougher terms for competition and success in America.
A FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLE of American society has so far been that life is not a lottery; that each individual is in charge of his own winning ticket; that the American society persistently churns out new opportunities for individual success and happiness. An unhappy or unsuccessful American is an American who has missed his opportunity or has yet to grab it. The American dream is the dream of individual success and social advancement through hard work. No short-cuts, no golden spoons, no slot machines.
At the core of this fundamental principle lies the American middle class, which is the only class that America acknowledges and praises and which all Americans strive to belong to and in most cases claim they do – even when they don’t. A few of those who so claim belong to an increasingly affluent upper class, many more to an increasingly poor underclass. One percent of the population owns nearly forty percent of the nation’s wealth while forty percent owns one percent. And in between, a middle class that has to run ever faster to stay in place.
THE DECISIVE ISSUE taking shape in America these years is not how to make the homeland secure but how to keep the American dream alive. This issue was not directly brought forth by the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, but it was dramatically highlighted by them since they with unmatched pedagogic efficiency evoked that irrevocable boundlessness of money, technology and communications which has made America physically more vulnerable and economically more interdependent than ever before. The historical path of the American dream – the hopefuls at the start, the successfuls in the middle, the icons at the top – does not necessarily begin in America any longer, nor does it necessarily have a happy ending. The hopefuls increasingly press on from beyond the border in distant places like Mexico, China or India and the icons increasingly turn their backs on the American Dream or turn it into reality TV.
An icon who has done exactly that is Donald Trump, American real estate billionaire and casino entrepreneur who will soon make his debut as host of “The Apprentice,” a reality show where sixteen competitors will make the American dream come true by setting up their own hotdog stand or news stand and one after another eliminating their competitors, whereby the sole winner will get to work for a year as head of a division within The Trump Organization earning a six-figure salary.
Will the American dream look more real on reality TV than in reality?
MATTHEW WARSHAW IS a personal assistant to the president of Goucher College in Baltimore. He is in his thirties and lives with his wife Cynthia and their two and a half year old daughter Sydney in Arlington, Virginia outside Washington D.C. Matt and Cynthia are both highly educated, with a combined annual income of $130 000, and definitely consider themselves to be part of the middle class, and yet Matt in our conversations keeps coming back to things they cannot afford or don’t dare to go for.
I note that Matt drives around in a not so new Honda Accord and that his workday begins at seven in the morning and ends at nine at night, and that he sometimes uses my presence as an excuse to switch a quick bite at his desk for a somewhat more relaxed meal in the excellent Goucher student dining hall, (where there is a separate BBQ counter, a pizza counter, a pasta counter and a sandwich counter) to which I am only too happy to co-conspire since I enjoy talking to Matt.
“So, how is it possible that $130 000 per year, closer to a million kronor, of which you only pay 30 percent in tax, cannot be sufficient?” I ask as we make our way to a free table.
“Because everything costs so much and because we have to put so much of it away,” Matt answers.
When I press him for details, he warily begins listing the costs for Sydney’s daycare (13 000 dollar per year) and the costs for housing, medical insurance, home insurance, life insurance, car insurances, car repairs, allocations for pensions and Sydney’s college education and everything else that an American middle class family in a wealthy part of the Washington area is expected to afford.
“We will need a bigger home, but the costs of a bigger home in our area would drastically diminish our margins and increase our social uncertainty,” Matt says.
INCREASING SOCIAL UNCERTAINTY seems to be the price that a growing number of middle class Americans will have to pay as increasingly expensive social costs are shifted over to the individual, without a corresponding increase in the individual’s capacity to pay for them. The Bush Administration has declared its intentions to privatize the federal system of social security, while an increasingly restless and “disloyal” labor market has become increasingly unwilling to pay for expensive social insurance and benefits.
“Our expenses have gone up without an increase in our security,” Matt says.
Furthermore, since today’s Americans live with a collective debt to future generations estimated at $44 trillion* (which is four times the current US GDP) it is very likely that the social expenses of Matthew and Cynthia Warshaw’s middle class generation will continue to grow – and their social insecurity along with them.
I accompany Matt back to his office across the Goucher campus with its pastoral tree-lined promenade walks, extensive green open spaces, patches of forest, ample sport facilities, meticulously designed halls and dormitories and realize how privileged these young Americans are who get to spend four years in a place like this – and still only be achieving what today is considered the minimal entrance ticket to the American competition for individual success.
An increasingly expensive entrance ticket to that, and of an increasingly uncertain value, since a college education per se increasingly is becoming the guarantee of nothing. Hence, the growing demand for college educations that nevertheless claim to guarantee something, which has tightened the competition and hiked up the fees and created a peculiar mixture of commercial assertiveness and academic anxiety in the world of American universities and colleges.
Matt asks me if I want to join him for a trip to Annapolis, the state capital of Maryland, to renew his license as a lobbyist for Goucher College and meet with the director of the university and college association in Maryland.
“Lobbyist?!” I exclaim.
“Yes, that is a part of my job,” he answers with an amused smile.
Soon enough I realize how important a part, since the State of Maryland has just proclaimed its intention to cut public grants to non-state universities and colleges, after having raised the tuition fees at its own state universities and colleges by more than 30 percent in two years.
The State of Maryland is home to some of the wealthiest communities in the US and to some of the wealthiest individuals in the country, but even the slightest increase in taxes is nowadays considered a far stronger political taboo than a two-digit increase in tuition fees – and the legalization of high-stake gambling on slot-machines.
The local newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, wages an energetic but probably losing battle against the latter. “Let’s not fool ourselves,” the paper writes in the editorial pages. “This is a race to the bottom.”
Today slot-machines, tomorrow 24/7 casinos, the day after tomorrow…
The race to the bottom is not the race of the American dream. The American dream is about a race where you compete by rising standards, not by lowering them.
What now seems to be the race on offer is the race of lowering standards.
For individuals as well as states.
WAL-MART IS THE LARGEST corporation in the US and in the world with 1.4 million employees and an annual turnover of $245 billion (more than the GDP of Switzerland and not far from the GDP of Sweden which in 2002 was $370 billion) and 3,000 discount stores all across the US. The “Wal-Martization” of America has become a notion signifying competition through lower prices, lower wages and lower security. Wal-Mart consists of huge supermarkets that sell everything from car tires and eye glasses to underwear and chickens at often substantially lower prices than other retail chains.
In a newspaper story about an ongoing union strike protesting the proposed “Wal-Martization” of yet another retail chain entailing salary cuts of 30 percent and drastically reduced insurance benefits, I read that even the strikers themselves tend to shop at Wal-Mart.
As do all of those that cannot afford to shop anywhere else.
As do all of those who can no longer can find a job in any other kind of company.
Some say that this is as it should be in America. That Wal-Mart merely is a new starting point for people who have to enter the American dream from the start.
Others say that Wal-Mart is the end of the American dream, since what Wal-Mart offers is a start with no continuation. That Wal-Mart has become the symbol of an America were it is no longer is possible to get from start to success – or even to a basic level of social and economic security – through salaried work.
NOWHERE HAVE I SEEN the traces of success and destruction along the path of the American dream as openly displayed as in downtown Baltimore where neighborhoods of success flourish next to neighborhoods of destruction. A single street, easily crossed by mistake, separates neighborhoods where doorways and windows are boarded up and the sidewalks are filled with junk and human hopelessness, from newly renovated and clean neighborhoods inhabited by young hopefuls on the move upwards.
“On one side of Eutaw Street is paradise, on the other side is hell,” says Seble Dawit who lives on the right side of the street, in Bolton Hill, which is one of the new enclaves of success in downtown Baltimore and hopes to survive as such by employing its own private security company along the relentlessly patrolling police cars in the neighborhoods of hopelessness around the corner.
Baltimore is an old immigrant and industrial city that has expanded neighborhood by neighborhood, incorporating one ethnic group after another; African-Americans, Irish, Poles, Italians, Jews, as new paths to success were constantly being created by Baltimore’s strategic position as a major harbor and railroad junction, laying the foundation for large-scale industries and a growing industrial working class.
Today, large parts of Baltimore’s steel industries, car industries, shipyards and harbor facilities lie as rusting remnants of an archaic past surrounding the once vibrant working class neighborhoods of Dundalk and Sparrows Point along the shores of Chesapeake Bay and the sea-route to the world. A few years ago Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt and the company buying the remains, International Steel Group (ISG), has not surprisingly offered fewer jobs at lower wages and harsher terms. Just as most new companies establishing themselves on the ruins of the old.
Driving on Dundalk Avenue I pass by a run-down shopping mall with mainly one discount store, Box’n Save, and one pawnshop, ”Fast Cash Pawn. Most anything of value. Open 7 days a week”. Some miles down the road along the same, once elegant, avenue sits a large building with a huge American flag hanging down from the facade and the logo of the United Steel Workers of America prominently displayed above it.
The parking lot on the outside is almost empty.
Is this the American economy and its process of creative destruction only once more running its natural course? Are societies like Dundalk and Sparrows Point inevitable remnants in the restless production of new opportunities for constantly new people with constantly new empty hands?
If so, one must nevertheless wonder what will be the consequences of a development where the new opportunities being produced seem to offer increasingly less money and security to people with empty hands, further narrowing the gateway to the middle class.
Seble Dawit who lives on the right side of Eutaw Street is an assistant professor in peace studies at Goucher College and thus a living example of the proficiency of the American society to produce opportunity, in this case for a young black woman born in Ethiopia of Ethiopian parents. Seble Dawit is of course an exceptionally gifted individual who has completed academic studies in both America and England and who has worked as a human rights attorney in Africa and who thus has seen a lot already, but when she drives her green Volvo across yet another razor sharp border between success and destruction in the middle of downtown Baltimore she says that in no other place has she seen such heartbreaking contrasts between poverty and abundance.
“What we are creating in our very midst is a class of people that is no longer a part of society.”
In Baltimore the Third World is just around the corner.
Was it there before?
I HAVE ALWAYS ASSOCIATED Americans with hope and energy. Even in failure Americans often seem buoyant, or at least not resigned. Nevertheless, I have begun to ask myself whether a state of affairs might not be emerging in the American society where hope and fulfillment are coming apart to such an extent that hopefulness will be transformed into resignation – or social anger.
“That will not happen,” says military strategist and social critic Edward Luttwak, who has written a provocative book on “turbo-capitalism” and its social consequences, and with whom I discuss the ongoing strikes against the Wal-Martization of the retail business over a late-night sushi in Washington D.C.
“Those who are on strike will eventually each go home and absorb the blow, make do with less money and with less medical insurance and with no child care and hope for the next opportunity to appear, if not to themselves so to their children. This society is not made for failures.”
I take another piece of sushi in the exquisite little restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue filled with the men and women of success, trying to ponder the significance of what Edward Luttwak has just said.
“Those who have not made it in three generations should perhaps be deported,” he adds sarcastically as if anticipating my question.
He is of course right. America is not made for failure. America is made for success.
Which is what should make the current state of the American dream an issue of some concern.
* The unimaginable figure 44 trillion dollar, or more precisely 44,2 trillion, shows the debt that the American Government presently has built up against its own future commitments, primarily towards the federal insurance for care of the elderly, Medicare, and the federal insurance system for retired workers, Social Security. The method employed to calculate this debt is called generational accounting and is based on an evaluation of the total sum of future Government expenses (in today’s dollar value) from which is deduced the estimated total sum of future Government revenues based on present budget policies and projections. With today’s rapidly growing budget deficit the US Government’s debt to future generations increases with 1,6 trillion dollars per year. Source: Fortune Magazine 11/24/03.