Monday, January 07, 2008

The Body Disappeared

[Originally posted at on October 3, 2006]

Last week, Congress passed a bill that essentially repeals habeas corpus for all, including U.S. citizens held as enemy combatants. One should have expected a general uprising. If immigrants filled the streets of this nation to protest stricter immigration rules, surely U.S. nationals would rise in protest against the repeal of one of the most sacred protections of individual rights. Instead, the bill passed without hardly any noise. After spending 15 years in this country, I was shocked indeed by this turn of events, but not entirely. Why? Because the American public has become too dumb to follow anything more complex than American Idol, and because it suffers from ASC (American superiority complex.)

When I first came to the United States, I immediately noticed how pervasive a belief most Americans seem to have in the superiority of their country, in all aspects of society. America's claims of superiority have always sounded rather hollow to me, because many of the people who alleged the nation's superiority have never been outside the U.S. It's like American comedian Lewis Black says: How do they know there aren't countries that are just giving free shit away everyday? Like Canada, with health insurance. Few things are more pathetic than a people who claim to be the best in the world without the support of the knowledge of, or even interest in, what goes on outside its city limits. Of those that have had the benefit of exposure to other cultures, many have received their education as servicemen in the Army or some other military outfit, hardly the best way to get to appreciate the richness and complexity of other cultures.

In general, there is an astonishing degree of ignorance and presumption about foreign countries, which allows Americans to make sweeping, ridiculous statements like "America's healthcare is the best in the world." (Go ask the 40 million uninsured and the other 40 million underinsured what they think of the best healthcare system in the world.) The blame for this ignorance lies to a great extent with the American news media, which acts as a facilitator for this dubious superiority complex.

For a European on American soil, it is always shocking to see how superficially international, and even national news, is treated by the news media. Newspapers, with the exception of a few national ones (NY Times, Washington Post, IHT, etc.,) deal mainly with local issues. On television, reporting focuses largely on local news. Typical network affiliates have five or six newscasts a day. Only one, the evening news, deals in any noticeable measure with national and international news. Public television alone offers political analysis of the news in any depth (and hardly ever without any bias).

The situation of cable news may be even worse. With all the coverage of child abductions, Amber alerts, tabloid gossip, and reporting of gory or voyeuristic crimes of little or no national or international relevance, they engender the impression that there is nothing else relevant going on in the world to fill a 24-hour news cycle--unless, of course, it involves the United States in some shape or form. Panel discussions typically feature people too partisan and too busy to regurgitate talking points to engage in constructive debate with other guests or the host. Just think of the parade of jingoistic talking heads that litter such discussions on any given day (mostly on Fox News, but MSNBC and even on CNN have their share, too.)

A quick survey of the “radioscape” is even more disheartening. Radio has been taken over not just by conservatives, but by some of the most extreme voices in the conservative field (whom I will not name, because they do not deserve the publicity—take my word for it,) which might explain the vitriolic, partisan, and twisted logic that characterizes most of the viewpoints that fill the airwaves. The typical host and the typical caller share a worldview in which the world had its ass saved in WWII by America, who has therefore earned the eternal right to exert its planet-saving influence when needed, either by forceful exports of democracy, or by force alone. After all, people in other countries are either pussies, like the French, or illegal immigrants, like Mexicans, whose real goal is to reclaim the land that the United States took from Mexico in Mexican-American war. In this worldview, anything anyone says against George Dubya and/or America is a form of penis envy and/or treason, punishable by deportation to a third-world country, particularly if uttered by fellow Americans.

In such a climate, the impression prospers that nothing valuable exists outside one's national borders. Once that impression has taken hold, there remains nothing but a vacuous an ignorance-fueled sense of superiority over the rest of the world.

The United States, it seems to me, have been in a downward spiral for the last five years at least, since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The ongoing trade-offs of the civil guarantees that have made this country so unique for the illusion of security have been made possible by a pathetically misinformed and ignorant citizenry and have led to the creation, in scattered order, of appalling phenomena that only a few years back would have been unthinkable in the country that boasts the highest level of freedom and justice in the world. Things like "free-speech zones" at political conventions, presidential visits, etc; the systematic use of torture; the stifling of dissent, media consolidation ostensibly aimed at reducing the plurality of opinions; the smearing of political adversaries; the gradual but inexorable privatization of the electoral system by a clique of ill-intentioned political agents; the pursuit of illegal wars, the unlawful spying of citizens; the seizure of library records... I could go on listing the unpleasant and dangerous changes that this country has endured rather sheepishly and very guiltily in the last five years. The repeal of habeas corpus is only the last in a long list of disgusting compromises accepted by an ignorant and apathetic citizenry, in exchange for the promise of an unattainable protection from evil.

Unfortunately, we have reached a point where ignorance is not only pathetic, it is also dangerous. Ignorance, gullibility, and chauvinistic boastfulness are being exploited by those in power to pursue an agenda that has brought the nation closer to the brink of a dictatorship. It is quite a spectacle, as a rather uninvolved observer, to see people who think that they are "the freest in the world" do away with a fundamental constitutional protection of freedom without so much as a squeak. While not everyone agrees on the source of the quote (Benjamin Franklin?), few would disagree with the statement that "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." Only an ignorant people would silently accept such a tradeoff.

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