by Margaret Magnus
Margo's Magical Letter Page
A day or maybe two after my 43rd birthday, the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City collapsed. My first reaction after realizing that the news wasn't a joke, was not fear or even sorrow; I experienced instead a purely visceral sensation, a tingling went up my spine and something shifted in the pit of my stomach. Only then did fear and sorrow set in and I begin to wonder what this would mean... clearly it is an act that will hang in psychic space and will not be put to rest until its course is run. I realized that I am, after all, American... I am a member of the group that was attacked. I feel a sort of supermind encompassing me and the rest of the nation. I feel it sucking me up into itself, taking me with it on some course I know not where. I feel its force, not by virtue of any of my opinions or attitudes, not even by virtue of my race or cultural inheritance, but by virtue of something else which I can't quite name.
I look forward somewhat uneasily to all the flag waving and to all the self flagellation that is sure to ensue. And on some level, despite the knot in my stomach, I sense somewhere in the back of my mind, that this is a gift... I fear saying that out loud. But some festering wound has been punctured and now it will drain - what's true and what's false on both sides will reveal themselves for what they are. Something which had all along been virtual and which therefore existed only in the realm of the imagination had suddenly become actual. From someone's perspective, a magnificent work of art was brought into being when those buildings collapsed... God has spoken. The great otherness of the outside world has finally touched and wounded American flesh on American turf.
Assessing the 'Enemy' and Assessing Ourselves
Tactics and Evolution
My first thought upon hearing the news of the attack was that from a tactical and strategical perspective it made no sense. Perhaps the act did not have any strategical or tactical intent at all, but only a dramatic one -- I don't know. But the insanity of it must be obvious also to the average Moslem -- the Moslems as a whole are therefore either insane or not responsible. If I were to stab Mohammed Ali while he were eating his lunch, I'd make very sure I incapacitated him fully on the first blow. And even then, I wouldn't sit around stupidly waiting for what came next. Why get the most powerful military force that has ever existed completely ticked off, and yet leave it fully capable of retailiation? Why? I think it's worth asking.
Whoever is provoking the US to attack the Moslem world by claiming they act in the name of Islam obviously doesn't have the Moslem world's best interests at heart and obviously doesn't represent it. Hence from their perspective, the battle they just won was never intended to be a military victory, but rather a moral victory -- perhaps a sort of brotherly invitation to participate jointly in the joys and pleasures of the blood bath. The focus of the attack is not so much to collapse a particular country. What was it really?
At the time of the event, I would have said that it was perhaps an effort to make us resemble them... but now that no attempt has been made to follow up with a nuclear bomb in either Chicago or Atlanta, I venture to say that the whole drama happened in some little fantasy world internal to these people, a world which only tangentially has anything to do with my world. Clearly it is also a world where America is responsible for all evil everywhere. And although this act did not break America, and was not intended to break America -- our response could, if mishandled by us, lead to brokenness on a scale the world has not yet known. WWII demonstrated clearly enough that the fantastically false nature of the allegations do not render the believer benign.
In a backhanded sort of way, the act was a compliment, an expression of faith that we have the moral and intellectual wherewithal not to transform mankind to dust.
On another level any such act can always be understood as some form of communication -- it betrays something about the nature and mindset of the attackers. The only way I can see to lend meaning to the deaths of those people is to try to read that message... to try to pull out of ourselves and consider what it all says about us, the world, and our place in it.
If you listen to our government, its focus has been, it seems to me, tactical... how to remove certain people, terrorist groups... what methods to use, and that sort of thinking is necessary in the heat of battle. And maybe that's the function of government. Maybe one cannot and should not expect otherwise. However, I think it's also clear that we are dealing with mythological forces which are not going to be exterminated by anything so simple as a war... by strategics, tactics, bombs, or for that matter humanitarian aid and negotiations. Unless we understand and improve the climate that allowed these people to come to power in the first place, they'll simply be replaced in a short time by another more robust strain of terrorist goon. If we are going to get past this, it's not so much going to be a matter of winning as one of evolving.
Which is not to say that I am a pacifist. I read Mein Kampf once upon a time... I'm not sure why. But even if you've not read it, I think it's fairly obvious that Hitler and his henchmen were not going to respond to any Ghandian sort of pacifist resistance. Ghandi's tactics are a major contribution to our thinking about conflict, and they worked against the British government, but Churchill was not Hitler. (I think that qualifies as an understatement.) It wasn't as if Hitler had to kill12 million instead of merely 6 million before he would see the error of his ways and begin to feel regret for his misdeeds. In my opinion, he was implicitly asking to be killed. He clearly took pleasure in murderous rage, and that's how he wanted to die. If I were Hitler, I hope someone would kill me before I did too much damage. Don't they say that you should do unto others as you would have others do unto you?
We are therefore called upon like Arjuna to go out on the field of battle and do whatever conniving is required to take the relevant parties out. But in the process of conducting this war it will be critical not to identify the goons with other groups which they are not and do not represent -- the Arabs generally, the Moslems generally, the people of Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq...
The Weaknesses of Closed vs. Open Societies
The weaknesses in a Western society have just been made obvious if they weren't already. We do not wish to live with high security. We like our civil liberties. So we are vulnerable to this sort of attack.
But the weaknesses of the forces arrayed against us, though perhaps less transparent, are much more fundamental. The fundamental weakness of an ideological regime is that it is by definition out of touch with reality. An ideology is a sort of fanatasy world which goes around trying to prove some false premise by acting consistent with it... And truth by its nature always wins the day. Truth by definition is that which remains standing when everything else has fallen. A society rooted in a religious ideology cannot be as wealthy, I would argue, as our Western societies, precisely because they are not being real about what actually works. And it won't be sufficient for them to kill all Westerners to accomplish their goal... they have to kill the very will to be happy... they have to kill Nature, the Cosmos and God...
Another way to regard the weakness in a terrorist ideology is that it is centralized, and its source of power is not consistent with what the people as a whole want. People do not ultimately wish to be driven by fear... they prefer to be free to follow the proverbial inner voice without being shoved around. Such a regime therefore has to expend vast amounts of energy just to overcome this natural resistance to domination and to stay in control. This is expensive, so the cheapest way to maintain control is through terror. Our Western governments are in control thanks primarily to the broad-based will of the people... they therefore don't have to expend as much extra energy to stay in control. They can spend their energy more effectively elsewhere. Regimes of terror are thus inherently divisive... they inherently act counter to nature... they are fighting God, in a manner of speaking, and they will always eventually fall.
It has been claimed that these terrorist forces are not centralized, but I doubt that. I doubt it, because anything that stays alive by using terror/fear must ultimately be centralized. If I act out of fear, I am responding to something outside me... I am answerable to a central point. If that point collapses, I no longer need fear it, and I am returned to myself. If I act from my own will, I am instantly my own agent... no longer subject to any command center. So if some center collapses, it's not my center anyway. I carry my center within me. They attack the Pentagon, the WTC as if it were our center, because in their ideology, these symbolize who we are. But they are not our center, and in vanquishing these, they have not vanquished us... they have played out some phantom in their imagination, only to find the very real dragon at long last aroused.
In a democracy, our center is within each one of us to a much greater extent than it is within anything that acts in the name of terror, and the challenge is to keep it that way. The battle is not to protect the US, whatever that is, but as individuals to hold our own center in the face of fear and not to collapse into fear-based thinking, not to go off into our own imaginations, not to respond to ideology with ideology.
American Fear and Moralism
When a virus attacks a body, there are two outcomes... it dies, or it gets immunized. You can get rid of a virus using a medicine, and once attacked, you must do so or die. But you cannot get rid of all illness using penicillin... to optimze good health you need good food, good air, right thinking, goodwill. This particular illness is obviously fundamentally within us, and our susceptibility to catching it is due to some weakness in our constitution... Something in our consitution invites it in. But what?
It was we who armed and to a large extent trained the Taliban. Why did we do that? We feared the Soviets. I believe we are susceptible to the extent that we have acted out of fear. The Taliban was funded primarily by narcotics money. The narcotics market could easily have been undermined by simply legalizing all drugs. The reason we don't legalize drugs is based in a sort of moralistic fundamentalism which in a way resembles the fundamentalism of the Taliban. This attitude sort of puts us on the wavelength of these kinds of people. Outlawing drugs implies a sort of paternalistic attitude... the government is grown up and the citizenry consists of little kids... it's anti-democratic. This happens whenever the laws cease to control only what you have a right to do to others, but start mandating what you have a right to do to yourself. And there is this side of American culture.
Money and Power
So this attack really brings up for me the question of the true nature of anti-American sentiment. In large part, I think it must simply be that we are the richest and most powerful nation on earth at the moment. It is envy. The attackers claim, of course, to be motivated by holiness, reverence for life and most anti-American sentiment -- even when not so blatently hypocritical -- is couched this way. Still, the sentiment wouldn't even be there if it weren't fundamentally about MONEY. If it were about cuckoo clocks, they'd be attacking Switzerland. If they didn't care about money and power, they'd be sitting at home eating felafel. Preoccupation with money is implicit in the attack, but it's couched in a pious ideology, which has ultimately led to evil.
On a deeper level, the battle is, I believe, fundamentally between two habits of thought. What is under attack is not a specific country -- not the United States... it is a whole way of being which we share with many cultures... we just happen at the moment to be the most conspicuous of them.
I'm often ashamed for my country, and have felt betrayed by the fact that the government implicitly acts in my name. As I drive down the main street of my little New Hampshire town, I see flags and signs hanging on over half the businesses saying 'God bless America'. And I think to myself,"Yes, God bless America... but God bless it because it has at times been able to say, 'God bless us everyone.' God bless it because it has occasionally actually acted as though it believed that all mankind is indeed created equal. God bless it for the promises it has kept. And God mend its every flaw."
Do we have the sense to realize that something immensely valuable will be lost if the entire world is as compulsively converted to the Wendi-Burger, Pepsi and ZipLoc as we are? If we merely took the time and energy of spirit to feel what it is that moves our fellow nations, we would instinctively never run any of it it down. But all too often, it doesn't even cross our radar screen. Do we now have the spiritual force to transcend our pettiness and move on to a new phase in this great experiment we have laid out for ourselves? Can we live as though not only all Americans are created equal, but also all Iranians and Israelis and Palestinians and Afghanis and Ethiopians are created equal? Does America have the moral force to transcend even itself? Do we recognize that we vitally need the rest of the world as it is and not as we are? I think the test ahead will prove deceptively difficult, and I do not think we can pass it without help.
I think at least one basic problem is that certain ways of life are incompatible with our own. They really are. The dynamic with which we are identified cannot be reconciled with a religious fundamentalism that insists that all peoples either convert to Islam or die. If that were truly the choice, then the outlook would be bleak for both sides. I can't imagine life as an Afghani woman any more than I can imagine life in a concentration camp.
But it's much worse even than that. History has shown that our way of life is not even reconcilable with certain cultures that welcome us and wish us peace, nations not beset by maniacs. The natives of North America could not be allowed to live as they always had... not if the railroad was to come through and Boeing was to be established and Chicago and Hollywood and AT&T and NASA were to come into being... the buffalo hunt is not reconcilable with the Internet, and the buffalo hunt had to give way... And the inability for both to occupy the same space is not even essentially a physical limitation, but one of pure energy. A buffalo hunt in a world that has the Internet is not a real buffalo hunt, just as a Bedou tribe in McDonaldland is not a real Bedou tribe. Even when our invasion of these worlds is not military, but 'merely' cultural (or some would say anti-cultural) and economic, it is just as debilitating for all that. We are a force which breathes life into all these strange inventions and which makes them actual. I think to some extent all nations have that effect, but our version of it seems to be particularly insidious. And it is that very force that also ran over the natives of North America and continues to run over them and over others as well.
Too Big for our Boots
There are also complaints about our style. Americans are too arrogant. We do not show respect for age or rank. We're too proud.
Actually, I've never met a nation that isn't wholly convinced it's morally and intellectually the best, so we can claim no monopoly here.
But as for our lack of respect, I would say this. I respect wisdom because it is wise, and competence because it is competent and try to support the feeble because they are feeble. But I can't see favoring the old just because they are old, or men just because they are men. I can't see acknowledging rank unless it is gained by means of something real, like competence or courage. Respecting age and rank just because they are old and accepted is a denial of the inherent equality of man. If you would be free of pride, then you must insist that the unique and equal station to which God has entitled you be realized. If it is denied you, then it is right that you should stand there indignantly and insist that it be restored to you. Not to do so is cowardly and perpetuates evil in the world.
And to tell yourself that you don't require this equal station because you have some inner freedom or holiness that compensates you is a manifestation of pride. And to cut your brothers and sisters down at the knees because despite their youth or sex or race or station in life, they stand insolently and insist on their fair share is to superimpose hypocracy, cowardice and self-deception on top of pride. I regard it as a matter of fact that all men are created equal and endowed with these inalienable rights, just as all men are ultimately innocent in the eyes of God. Not to insist on these rights is therefore to doubt the goodness God and Her power to set things right in this world. So I say as Aunt Eller in Oklahoma, "I don't say I'm no better than anybody else... but I'll be damned if I ain't just as good.
"There you have the democratic spirit in a nutshell.
I've been told several times now by Asian and Eastern European correspondents that the reason we are suffering from the bombing is injured pride. (The Western Europeans never draw this conclusion. It seems to be an Eastern thing.)
Now this strikes me as really interesting, because it speaks to a fundamental difference in outlook... Injured pride? I try to picture the mindset which would assume such a thing.
I was scared out of my wits. I myself wouldn't do what these terrorists did unless I was prepared to defend myself from the inevitable... which means I would not bomb the WTC unless I was also in a position to wield something really frightening, like the potential to nuke Chicago. I was scared that they were in fact rational and on some level prepared for the fight. As it turns out, it seems, they simply had no concept of reality. I don't believe the Taliban wanted to lose Afghanistan.
I feel quite confident that the emotion that went through me as a result of the attack was not injured pride. When my president does or says something foolish, I feel something akin to injured pride. When we cheat another nation of its revenue in some way, I feel shame. But I do not feel shame because someone else acts immorally toward me. They're the ones who should feel shame. What I feel instead is fear for what they might do given that they obviously have no sense of shame. They don't care how barbarous they appear -- perhaps they don't even know how barbarous they appear, and when you cross that boundary, there's no telling what you'll do. History attests amply to that fact. No... the emotion in me is quite simply fear that these guys might burn down my house...
But the fact that they interpret our upset as injured pride must, I think, mean that they regard us as putting up the WTC as a sort of strutting around in front of the world showing how great we are. I think any immense technological achievement is very cool, make no mistake, but I don't believe we invest that sort of emotional energy into strutting around...
What it means in a scarey sort of way that we are that much more powerful than they even give us credit for. We're so powerful that we don't care that we're powerful... we're semi-oblivious to how we're regarded.
Ironically, I feel convinced that it's a power that anyone could easily have for themselves by a simple change of attitude combined with more awareness on our part of what is really going on.
The Irrational Nature of anti-America Sentiment in Western Europe
I bring up Western Europe, because the irrationality of these attacks is obvious. The irrationality of European sentiment is less obvious... and Europe happens to be close to my heart. I wish they liked us.
I've spent years in Europe listening to the America-bashing... After a couple months of 'but, but,, butting' the Western Europeans, it seemed pointless to suggest that there might be a difference between America under Reagan vs. Russia under Stalin or Germany under Hitler. I just found myself sinking again and again into the corner at gatherings, finally disappearing into the next room and contemplating what it was that made them feel inclined to lay into us much more frequently and harshly than into Soviet Russia who surely presented a very real menace and whose lands even bordered on their own.
Much is made of the misbehavior of the CIA, particularly in the Third World, and I do not deny it. But for all that, I do not think that was what really lay at the root of the sentiment. We did bad things to be sure, but the Soviets shut up 60 million people in camps and ruled with a regime of terror that cramped the daily life of every single citizen. I witnessed it personally. A Soviet invasion was a real threat. The Soviets would have invaded Western Europe if they could have gotten away with it. Norway (which I keep bringing up because I happen to have lived there) was not really protected by its few thousand troops at the Soviet border... they were protected by the fact that the Western world regarded them as one of their own, and we were the most powerful member of that alliance... Nevertheless, we did not install any puppet regimes in Norway or tell them what language to speak or how to educate their people... we left them free to run their own affairs in their own way. Why did they use their free press to attack us more than they used it to attack the Soviets? I've asked myself this 10,000 times.
Despite the evil in some of our activites abroad, I don't think the claims that our wealth is acquired through slavery or shifty political and economic practices really hold water. I lived in the USSR under Brezhnev, and I'm sorry, but our abuse of power does not even closely resemble that of the USSR or Germany under Hitler... The Soviet regime was worse in every way. That's all. I think everybody knows that. When an overtly sadistic act directed at innocent people such as the bombing of the WTC occurs, many people are angry at the Taliban, of course, but many are also talking about how bad the US is and how we deserved it.
If our government had just done something outrageous like the Taliban are clearly willing to do... such as crashing four jets with innocent people into downtown Mecca or dropping an atomic bomb on Paris, no one would be sitting around philosophizing about what the Arabs or French did to deserve it. They would be pissing in their pants for raw terror. If there's a legitimate reason for laying into the States more than into Iraq under Hussein, please someone tell me what it is in simple terms that I can understand.
This Sep. 11 attack targets America particularly, because we somehow symbolize more perfectly something that they both hate and long for than do the nations of Europe. Somehow it was better to blow up the Pentagon than the Kremlin even though it was primarily Russia that brought Afghanistan to its knees. Isn't that interesting? I find that very interesting.
Reasons for Western European anti-American Sentiment
Is the fact that many people attack the US rather than the Taliban a consequence of implicit racism? Little dark people can't be held to the same moral standards as those of tall white people? Is that it? Sometimes it seems as if these nations aren't even in the running in the European mind to be regarded as equals... the remaining vestiges of the colonial mentality.
Or is it something else? There's a way in which the formal support of the US but popular lack of support in Europe serves to make them more obscure to attack. If governments officially ally themselves with the US, they aren't subject to economic sanctions or other forms of attack from us. But when the populace itself cries out about how terrible the US is, they make themselves more psychically invisible to terrorist attack. Britain, by more overtly supporting us than does the rest of Western Europe also seems to me to make itself more visible and therefore vulnerable to terrorist attack.
Is it perhaps a sort of adolescent inclination to attack the parent or protector who they can safely trust not to strike back -- a way to vent their fear about that which truly threatens them -- the big, bad world at large? Many nations in a very real way hide behind the protection of America, but they attack her verbally in order to upstage her morally in the eyes of the world? Is that not part of it? A looking good act?
Or perhaps it's the opposite, a sort of parental attitude on the part of the 'older', 'wiser' nations toward the youthful America, as if by virtue of living here you never grow old and wise, but remain doomed to live out your life with the psychology of an adolescent? Do nations grow wise with age? Or depressed, disappointed and battered?
In my better hours, I find this dynamic forgiveable -- indeed probably inevitable, because other Western countries are not in as good a position to defend themselves from terrorism as we are. I think the anti-American sentiment in Western Europe is not so much a matter of envy as it appears to be in the East, because they're essentially as well off as we are. It is simply the natural response to the existence of an empire. America has been left behind now as the only superpower, they say... though a full scale war with either the Moslem world or China sounds daunting enough.
I think that something even in the Western Europeans really did feel genuinely more threatened by America under Reagan than by the Soviet Union under Stalin. I couldn't even say I blamed them wholly. I often miss the serenity which is Europe, and I wanted to throttle Ronald McDonald myself when he appeared on Karl Johann next to the stately old National Theater in downtown Oslo... He seemed indeed more menacing than a Soviet soldier would have been on the same spot, because he laughed... he was unafraid... he was even an invited guest to which the citizens voluntarily committed their hard-earned crowns. And he was quite literally made of plastic. As such, he was invincible...
People by nature bow to power -- they must -- and they also resent the necessity of doing such obeisance. You hate that which you are on any level answerable to -- you have no choice but to hate it -- and you are answerable to that which has power, no matter how reasonable or necessary it is or how it is acquired. That need not be anyone's fault. As long as the boss has control over the pay raises, you never start feeling warm and fuzzy about her. Every action relative to her has an ulterior motive. And every boss ever born has character flaws. Some aspect of your relationship to that person is always a little bit resentful and a little bit distant. I'm not suggesting we were sort of voted in as boss, which is part of the problem. We ended up here by virtue of our wealth. It appears to be our hour to strut upon the stage. How much fun is it really?
So one silver lining I've experienced in all of this is the moral support we received from other nations following the attack... The national leaders were, of course, required to express their condolences, because we do, after all, have a very large nuclear arsenal. But something in the worldwide condolences felt genuine, and I confess, it has had a healing effect on me personally. I'd reconciled myself to the fact that we Americans are pretty friendless in the world, and I felt that particular pang even more sharply when this happened...
What hurts to me far more than the loss of the WTC - after all, I didn't know any of those people personally... and I'm just as glad it was the WTC and not Notre Dame or the Taj Mahal... What hurts more than the bombing is the sense that the whole world on some level is probably secretly glad that it happened - our allies as well as our so-called enemies. I'm left now feeling that we are, after all, loved as well as hated.
The Nature of America's Success
Comparison with Western Europe
So I'd like to comment on the 'success' of America which I believe has something to do with this attack. Why is so much of the world starving while we spend significant percentages of our disposable income on two-story houses, pretty new four-door sedans, laptops with 14 gigbyte drives and $70 sneakers that glow in the dark?
Consider Western Europe. They have a very similar standard of living, similar values, similar lifestyle, similar level of education. Europe was leveled to the ground 60 years ago... and what did Denmark ever do to illegitimately acquire its wealth after the war? Or the Netherlands? Or Canada? If our success is in part due to the fact that we control South America in illegitimate ways, why do we not feel compelled to control Canada in the same way? Canada is surely in a better position to build weapons of mass distruction than is Mexico, but we do not fear for an instant that they will start to drop them on us any more than they fear that we will nuke Toronto. To those who claim we are simply pushing our weight around indiscriminately, I ask why? Why do we treat Canada differently from Mexico? It's not only that they are more similar to us... Canada is simply objectively stabler than are the countries of Latin America. We don't see illegal immigrants crossing the Canadian border en masse. It also can't be claimed that Canada has more natural resources than, say, Brazil.
What is it that makes some countries stabler than others? For one thing, the Canadians and Western Europeans share a certain liberality about freedom of the press and of speech, about women... we're all similarly democratic in spirit, governed by similar laws and containing similar institutions. The US is richer, but it has more land and a bigger population. For 150 years we've not had a major war on our land. More terrorist attacks like this could dissolve that advantage, and we'd get a chance to see what we're really made of. But by making that comparison, I think you can easily account for our wealth the same way you account for it in many other places, just on a larger scale. I think if Pakistan shifted to our style of economy, they would get richer without anyone else getting poorer. We're all without exception transparently richer than we were during the stone age, and we're still confined to the same little planet. Conversely, I think our changing to a more 'ideological' economy like that of the former Soviet Union would not improve the situation here or anywhere else.
Adam Smith -- Fact or Ideology?
There is also the view that although we may not for the most part have downright stolen most things, we have sold our souls to the devil in exchange for the superficial glitz of money... we have abandoned all faith and ideology and are godless, soulless and immoral. I think this idea lies much closer to what lies at the root of anti-American sentiment.
So one way I think of the question is this. Is Adam Smith is an ideology or an empirical fact?
I found Smith to be remarkably clear-sighted as well as compassionate in a dry sort of way. What I read strikes me not as ideology, but as simple fact -- that is the way economics works... in that I tend to side with most Americans. People do serve their own best interest first. They will be motivated by personal gain, however they conceive that, and work harder the more they anticipate to profit from it themselves... and an economy works best if we like good Taoists accept that fact and work within that framework rather than trying to resist it.
Arguing with Smith from that perspective is rather like arguing with Copernicus... you don't have to believe that the world orbits around the sun if you don't want to, but it orbits around the sun nevertheless. And if you refuse to acknowledge the fact and fail on ideological grounds to act out of it, then you can't expect others to compensate you for it. If you want to play the basketball game as if the basket is 5 feet off the ground when in fact it's 10 feet off the ground because that's what your ideology says, then that's fine, but you'll lose. And you can't expect the opponent to reorganize their entire way of life in deference to an ideology that's founded on false premises. The most respectful thing I can do for you is play hard and win, so that you'll get real and beat me at my own game... like the Japanese did. Similarly you show us where our own premises are false by beating us. I can't see by what other process we all could more effectively come to the truth of things. We have just been hit with such reality check, and it will be interesting to see how we deal with it.
The American position as I understand it is that if you are simply real about money, you won't dig yourself into the sorts of deep psychological holes that give rise to acts like this one. The need for money is real, and it works a certain way, so you should just figure out what the rules are and accomodate it, just as you should build toilets in your house rather than having ideologies against peeing. If there aren't any toilets, then of course you spend your whole life thinking about peeing. And if there are no toilets because you disapprove of peeing on ideological grounds, then not only will you spend your whole life thinking about peeing, you'll spend your whole life denying that that's what you're thinking about... claiming that your thoughts about peeing are really thoughts about God. And of course you get jealous of the people that have flush toilets. It's not the people who build effective toilets that are weirdly preoccupied with peeing... it's the people that don't. And if you're truthful with yourself about what really motivates you, you won't blow up my toilet... you'll just go build your own... and then we can all get on to something more pleasant and interesting.
For no matter how well intended we might be, we can't in principle feed a country the size of Russia if they are not acting consistent with the basic premises of workable economics. Only after they have converted to a workable system can we (the rest of the world) respond to authentic difficulties which are not artificially produced by false ideologies and help them through droughts, plagues or wars without bankrupting ourselves.
Once you get over these notions like that the world is flat, it's completely unproblematic. I tell my son that the world is round, and he says, "Oh, okay." The centuries of fighting and the lifetimes of breath wasted on that issue have evaporated entirely... they literally never were as far as he's concerned. The tremendous emotionality surrounding them was always completely unnecessary. And the belief of many Americans is that our fears about money can evaporate in just the same way... as if they never were.
The Morality of Ideology vs. Pragmatism
One of my favorite movies is Spielberg's Amistad in which a group of illegally enslaved Africans are put on trial for staging an uprising on the slave ship. They are brought into the US, and are repeatedly tried and repeatedly found innocent. The white abolitionist Tappan argues with the property attorney Baldwin saying that the cause must be fought on the battleground of righteousness in order to make a statement... as Christ made a statement. Baldwin counters that Christ lost. Tappan's idea is that if you simply win the case as expediently as possible, you have sold out on your principles... that's what we Americans are supposed to have done. We have backed away from all these issues of morality and principles and simply asked, "What's going to work? How do we win?"
But is that position really immoral? When president Van Buren appeals the favorable decision to the Supreme Court, and the Africans are forced to go through yet another trial, Tappan says to his fellow abolitionist -- a black man, Mr. Jodeson -- that although this is bad news, the martyrdom of the Africans would be a powerful force for the abolitionist cause. Mr. Jodeson's reply is that that merely means is that Tappan cares more about the ideology of abolition than about the slaves themselves. If you care about the slaves, then you will do whatever works so they can be free... you will sacrifice the ideology for the well-being of the individual.
If you care about women -- human women -- then you will unleash them from enslavement to the role of geisha or maid or madonna and let them be what they will, whether the guys like it that way or not... These are our bodies. It doesn't matter what men think. What matters is what we think. Then we can decide for ourselves whether and to what extent we wish to play the roles of geisha, madonna or maid.
Democracy and Equality Mean Capitalism, Commitment to the Individual over Commitment to Ideology
I think, in other words, that capitalism is intimately tied in with democracy... that what are regarded as our highest ideals -- like the inherent right of all mankind to be free and equal -- cannot be severed from what is considered to be the most base aspect of American society -- its commercialism. If you want democracy, then you must do deference to Adam Smith. If you try to avoid capitalism because you disapprove of money, somebody will be enslaved. Fundamentally, I think what's going on is that there is guilt about the very foundation of biological existence... we kill and eat or we die. And that guilt is being projected onto America. But that solves nothing, because we still all kill and eat. We're in this blood bath together.
I think that anti-American sentiment for the most part is rooted in something like Tappan's attitude, and the 'American' response is that of Mr. Jodeson... The attackers on the WTC cared more about some ideology that they conceived (falsely I believe) as Islamic than they care about individual Moslem people. This is transparently obvious. And to the extent that we remain true to our principles, we will win... we will win at the expense of some abstract Moslem or Communist or even Capitalist ideology, but we will win in favor of the freedom, health and wealth of the individuals who do or don't espouse those ideologies. Perhaps from some perspective that position can be regarded as amoral, but I cannot see that it is immoral...
Capitalism Does Not Imply Greed
This does not mean that a person will never make the sacrifices of wealth and power in favor of the joys that transcend these, but a person must be free to make these choices him- or herself. To the extent that society imposes by force what it conceives as a holier choice on people, that holiness will be false. True reverence must rise up from within, must be attained not by adhering under duress to some form, such as restrictions in diet or sexual conduct, but must be chosen freely from within as a result of the lessons which life by nature confronts us with. And that choice will never be free as long as there are severe social consequences for failing to adhere to some regime which is imposed not merely for the protection of the innocent, but for the 'sanctification' of those regarded as less holy than those in power.
Our system is founded on two basic tenets... that all men are created equal, and capitalism -- that they will act in their own best interest and are most effectively motivated if they have some prospect of gain and some freedom to choose how they understand that gain. Although we are often confronted with the position that it is capitalism that motivates anti-American sentiment, I believe that capitalism is inextricably bound up with the equality of mankind. Selling out to capitalism is regarded as selling out to Mammon.
But there's ample historical evidence that that temptation to sell out for money has nothing to do with our economic system. It has always been with us. And even Americans do not live by bread alone. Within this economy, I'm as free as anyone ever was not to regard the best life as the wealthiest life. I still have a choice how I wish to focus my energies and at what financial expense. And I often choose the less profitable alternatives because they seem to me more meaningful. The difference is that in a capitalist economy, if I choose a less profitable alternative, then I pay the price myself. In other economies, it's the less equal classes who pay the price for those who consistently get to choose the less profitable alternatives. It's not among Americans that wealth is illegitimately gained; it's in non-egalitarian societies. It's equality, not capitalism, that they hate... the requirement to bear the full responsibility for your choices yourself and to quit whining.
The Alternative to Capitalism is Slavery
The primary alternative to our style of economy is one in which all men are not created equal... the work that must be done in order that the more equal can have leisure to read the holy books and have options open to them is paid for by the servitude of the less equal. The vast majority of those who aren't created equal in terms of pure numbers are women. Certainly, having grown up in this culture myself... which I think of as based on at least the principle and to a lesser extent the practice that I am the equal of any man and entitled to the same opportunities... I have no inclination whatever to move to a place where those liberties are curtailed even a little, no matter what other cultural advantages there may be.
I lived in Russia for a time... I loved Russia. I miss the smells, the architecture, the vast spaces, the language, the cold, the summer nights... I miss their particular version of madness. But do I want to integrate myself into a culture where it's a foregone conclusion that I'll do all the cooking and cleaning? Forget it. Not interested. I'd rather struggle under the reign of Ronald McDonald and try to fight my way out from under the domination of the machine... but as an equal... as a whole human being... I'd rather have my whole self even in a less favorable circumstance. Ronald's weight is indeed ponderous, but not nearly so ponderous as the weight of an entire culture who regards me as only 40% human. And I suspect my attitude is quite universal among women who have tasted equality, as indeed it is among human beings generally. But the notion of equality is also very threatening to certain elements in any population...
Taxation in Europe and the US
The Western Europeans propose another alternative which isn't as fiercely capitalistic as ours. I don't think the European style of socialism differs from our own essentially in nature, but only in degree. Western European economies are at base capitalistic. The degree to which that effect is meliorated is determined by the rate of taxation which is superimposed on a basically capitalistic economy. Taxation functions as a levelling and cohesive force. It slows things down, makes life easier for the have-nots and closes off options for the 'haves'. I don't think the United States could in principle bear the levels of taxation of most European countries, because our population is not sufficiently homogeneous. If a lot of the capital is to be centralized within a free society, then the majority of the population better agree about what the money is to be used for. If 92% of the population is Swedish, it's easier to agree about things. But this society isn't even 6% anything in particular, much less 92%. On most days, it's bad enough that the president has control of 12% of my money. God forbid he should have more.
The Need to Insure the Minimum for Survival
I think we also acknowledge that winning a game of economics is dangerous, because people can starve if they lose. It's one thing not to afford a new Mercedes. It's another to go hungry. I think we are willing to accept that no one can afford for any nation on this earth to suffer or be inconvenienced or degraded to the point of hopelessness. Biological weapons are too easy to steal and let loose. I'm told the Russians have developed fabulous germs that can dissolve a person in an hour or two. Wouldn't that be amusing? Hussein has probably bought them already from unscrupulous former Soviets. Nukes are admittedly harder to launch, but not hard enough. The essentials of life must be available to all. But having established that and having levelled the playing field, I see no reason why not to fight a good, fair fight over inessentials like mansions on the Riviera, Olympic medals, pretty girls and good-looking guys.
I also find it helpful at times to put things in perspective. Adam Smith describes matter of factly how in 18th Century Europe, a poor family would need to raise four children to replenish the working class, because on average two of them would die by their 5th year. 250 years is not that long a time. Yet an infant mortality rate of 50% in the Western world has become unthinkable. Our standards for acceptable conditions are higher now. We may not be regarded as respectful of age, but life has never been better for the infirm and compromised. We can afford now not to give up on them.
The Imperative to Recognize Gaia
We are now forced by the very technologies we developed to regard the entire planet as a single organism, and to regard each nation as a unique and vital organ within that organism. I'm not speaking as a New Age idealist. This seems to me as practical and earthy advice as I know how to offer. If all things on earth are interdepent -- and obviously they are -- then it is crazy for us to think of some parts as separate from us or less important than us. The alternative is that we all die. It's obvious that any illness in any corner of this planet can and will spread throughout. We need to heal whatever is sick in the world immediately, just as when you so much as stub a toe your first priority is to insure that it's okay lest your whole body be crippled, or lest it become infected and the infection spread throughout. Healing begins by identifying the disease. Then the virus is eliminated, and in addition, the healthy parts of the organism are provided with nourishing food. We have not merely stubbed a toe... our liver is sick... our lungs are sick... Pakistan is not well, Afghanistan is not well, Palestine and Israel are not well. Large parts of Africa are often unwell.
Because we are strong,, this tragedy presents also an opportunity to us. If one is weak when attacked, one has no choice but to fight back, to live or to die as the case may be. But if one is strong when attacked, one has many more options. One can be creative. We are forced to take aggressive measures. And it seems to me that some sort of non-aggressive response on our part in this moment, if intelligently and creatively thought through and effectively implemented on a large enough scale might be more effective than 10,000 peace talks. Now we have an opportunity to consider and to act...
Indeed, on some level, it feels to me like this attack was an invitation to heal. It did not disable us militarily. In that respect, it's like a little boy who strikes a much stronger brother hard, not really fearing that he will get the full force of retailation back in his face and be killed. It's a cry for help, but this cry is born out of the energy of pure frustration. It is irrational, and so it seeks instinctively to set in motion forces which govern both brothers. That is, it is not really asking help of the brother, because that plea would have been rational and verbal. It is asking help of God. It does this by making the stronger brother aware of some pain or imbalance which he otherwise does not feel. In this irrational transference of pain, both brothers are united in a common system of energies which then works itself out by natural law... that 'working out' generally involves violence, but it generally also brings about a new balance.
It is by our actions we will determine what America is. We have been asked whether it is our hearts and minds and faith that matters more, or whether it is our perceived wealth and power. We can be grateful for this attack, because it has brought us into discourse with our fellow nations as nothing else could. It brings us back to the truth about ourselves, and makes us aware of the ways in which we are all individual and yet also bound together in a common world.
Things to Celebrate
Arab World Must Let Go of Itsa Invisible Berlin Wall
Saddamized in San Francisco
Tony Blair's Speech
Our World Historical Gamble
The Rage, the Pride and the Doubt
I Like France
Venner av Amerika
How Free-Riding French and Germans Risk Nuclear Anarchy
Don't Ask Peaceniks to Make Any Sense
My Left-Euro Friends are Wrong
A Calm Voice for the Invasion of Iraq
Al Quaeda's Fantasy Ideology
Photo of NY Skyline
Report of a Former Taliban
Interview with Naipaul
A Great Suggestion for Preventing Hijacking
Give Me Churchill, Not Burchill