The news media proclaim continuous change — each chapter equally surprising — in the American political soap opera. The real story is one of continuity, like the changing of the seasons. Campaigns reflect in magnified form the irrational concerns of the alarmed cattle that the American people have become.
About American political campaigns, an excerpt from “Social Hygiene”, Money and Class in America, Lewis Lapham (1988).
Transferred into the political arena, the doctrines of social sanitation oblige all candidates for public office to feign the clean-limbed idealism of college sophomores. Even the meanest of politicians has no choice but to present himself as one who would remove the stains from capitalism’s bloody clothes and wash the sheets of the American conscience. The post of innocence is as mandatory as the ability to eat banquet food and endure the scourging of the press.
No candidate can say, with Talleyrand, that he is in it for the money, or that it is the business of politicians to add to the wealth of their handlers. The system in place is always assumed to be corrupt, and the electorate expects its once and future Presidents to tell wholesome lies — to present themselves as honest and good-natured fellows (not too dissimilar from high school football coaches) who know little or nothing of murder, ambition, lust, selfishness, cowardice or greed. The more daring members of the troupe might go so far as to admit having read about such awful things in the newspapers. But the incidents in question invariably have to do with a foreign country or with somebody belonging to the other political party.
…the vast majority of the American people prefer the purity of its illusions. The society choose to believe that the world’s evil doesn’t reside in men but exists, like the air, int he space between them. To the extent that drug addiction can be defined as a foreign conspiracy — a consequence not of the ancient human predicament but of new export strategies in Bogata — the Americans can take comfort in their righteousness. Like the late Howard Hughes hiding on a roof of a Las Vegas hotel from the armies of invading bacteria, the innocent nation affects a sensibility grown too refined for the world.
The media cater to the affliction by their incessant dwelling on the fear of disease, crime, foreigners, drugs, toxins (in earth air, fire, and water), poverty and death. Urgent bulletins about these seven deadly contagions constitute most of what passes for the news.
During the spring and summer of 1987 the media promoted the fear of the AIDS virus into a near panic. The vest evidence suggest that in the US the virus almost never accompanies the act of heterosexual love. between 1981 and 1987 no more than 18,000 people had died of the virus (as opposed to 900,000 people who die annual brom tuberculosis), and of the dead, all but a tiny fraction (.012%) were homosexual, intravenous drug users or persons infected by blood products. The media nevertheless insisted on a n epidemic certain to affect the general population.
The concern with pollutants of all kinds — in the atmosphere, the sea, the slums, the Thrid World — also governs the shaping of American diplomacy. If a foreign country doesn’t look like a middle-calls suburb of Dallas, then obviously the natives must be dangerous as well as badly dressed.
An excerpt from “The Precarious Eden”, a chapter in the same book:
Certainly it is fair to say that as a people Americans suffer from acute hypochondria, which is, of course, an expensive and delicate condition of the sort available only to the rich. So virulent are the symptoms of our uneasiness that we can become inordinately frightened of the nations likely to do us the least harm. Who can image the British empire in the 19th century, or the Russian empire in the 20th, being so terrified of states as weak as Libya, Nicaragua, Grenada and Vietnam?
The feeling of being vulnerable increases with the feeling of self-importance, and pretty soon the heirs to the American fortune come to imagine themselves as fragile as antique porcelain. Their counselors observe that with enough effort it is possible to avoid a specific risk, and so they go on to assume that with even greater and more costly efforts they can escape all risks. The fear of death sponsors the need for more regulation, more bureaucracy, more weapons …
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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp relevance are:
Posts about American politics:
The USA *after* this financial crisis – part I, about politics, 13 October 2008
What happens to the Republican Party after the election?, 2 November 2008
America’s elites reluctantly impose a client-patron system, 5 November 2008
Immigration as a reverse election: our leaders get a new people, 6 November 2008
R.I.P., G.O.P. – a well-deserved end, 7 November 2008
America gets ready for new leadership (or is it back to the future?), 14 November 2008
Lilliput or America – who has a better way to choose its leaders?, 19 November 2008
Conservatives should look back before attempting to move forward, 5 December 2008
The Democrats believe we are stupid. Are they correct?, 19 December 2008
President Bush gets in a few last blows on America before he leaves, 13 January 2009