Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Rules for America

This is not something I ordinarily do, but I came across this in the comments at Eschaton, and I don't have time to plow through the transcript of Bill Maher's show to see if this is accurate or not. Transcripts are here, but this one is not available yet. Apparently it's the season finale show, which just aired last night. I'm just taking it as accurate at the moment.

last night on Maher's show, Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and now UN High Commissioner for for Human Rights was on , along with Joe Scarborough and, wonderfully skewed, John Waters.

anyway, Robinson kept returning to the point that outside of the US, people were looking with sadness and shock at what is happening to the US now. She was, in a very sane and civil manner, laying it all in Bush's lap and kept bringing it right back to the fact that he had culpability and responsibility.

By the end of the show Scarborough was literally screaming at her. It wasn't even his own show. She's a stateswoman, the former president of a country and he's yelling his lungs out at her.

Because she broke the rules. No one is exempt.


I'm taking it at face value because I have no doubt it is true. Why? Literature, primarily.

In Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens' protagonist finds himself, for the mid-part of the novel, in America. 19th century America, of course, which is still more frontier than country. The passage is clearly a fictionalized response to his visit to America, memorialized in American Notes for General Circulation, a book which scandalized Dickens' audience, and for which he had to apologize to Americans. My copy of Chuzzlewit even includes an apologia appended to it by Dickens.

My memory for detail is fuzzy, but Chuzzlewit encounters an American during his travels who, although having never ventured beyond the borders of America, is quite convinced he knows better than Chuzzlewit what the state of affairs is in England both politically and socially. He berates Chuzzlewit for disagreeing with him, and further insists that his view of England and Europe proves the superiority of America.

Chuzzlewit's view of America, however, is quite different. He finds himself on the site of a land fraud scheme, a tyipcal "I have some land in Southern Louisiana to sell you." Given the history here in Texas of fulsome praise for the swamps and bayous and mosquito-infested fens of the Houston area, all meant to lure gullible Germans and others to Texas (it worked, too), there is more than a little historical precedent for the situation Dickens imagined. Chuzzlewit, like Dickens, ends up quite disappointed with the "experiment" in America, decaying as it rapidly did into fraud and scam.

But the emphasis on the superiority of America, based on a willful and unrelenting blindness, is as American as applie pie. It's an identity issue for us. Still sensitive to the fact that we are the "New World" and are in many ways a derivative culture of Europe, we are still prone to think that any evidence of our imperfection is evidence that the emperor has no clothes. And such nakedness we will not brook.

Well, some of us.

The fact is, of course, that Europe is neither inferior to us, nor superior to us. But the fear of our own national shortcomings, and the absolute refusal to accept our weaknesses and so properly assess our strengths, still drives both our politics and our foreign policy.

And, as Atrios pointed out in the post this comment was attached to, still determines the course of our national political discussion. What happens beyond our national borders is ferociously discounted, and what happens beyond the Washington, D.C. beltway is likewise, discounted.

It is a situation ripe for harsh and serious correction.

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