By Jonathan Power*
The United States of America has a “culture of ignorance”. Polls say that round half of all Americans appear to feel no shame about that being so. In the south the total probably goes up to around 65%, whereas in the north, including California, it goes down to 35%.
It is a rough and ready way of putting it but it is the other 50% who voted for President Barack Obama. Obama-types are less religious, more scientifically orientated, less racist, more pro health care for the poor, more aware of the world outside, more convinced that war solves little, and knowledgeable to the extent they know their immediate neighbour, Canada, does a much better job of making a good life than their country does.
It’s the “culture of ignorance” half that is now pushing for a tougher military response in the Ukraine war, pumping up military muscle power vis a vis Russia. It’s this half which tried to sabotage America’s economic recovery after the 2008-9 crash by demanding tax cuts for the wealthy and cuts in social welfare for the poor and refusing to study or countenance Keynesian uplift economics. It’s this half which promotes a culture of gun-buying and electoral boundary manipulation.
I left my home country, England, to do my master’s degree in America. I worked on the staff of Martin Luther King and lived in the West Side ghetto in Chicago.
Later, I wrote a foreign policy column for 17 years for the world-famous American paper, the International Herald Tribune, and was selected for that role by one of the greatest editors of modern times, an American Jew, who told me the day he took me on at the age of 33 to “write what I wanted, when I wanted”. He kept to that promise, despite my critical stances on American foreign policy.
Back in Europe I campaigned from a distance for Obama and think what he achieved is historic (although I think his Russian policy was gravely mistaken). Every time I see him on television, I am reminded that no European leader has his charisma, his intelligence or his ability to talk in the most sophisticated and learned of ways.
So I love America. But I also despise America. I’m afraid of America’s footprint in the world. I think Europe and Canada make sense and America doesn’t.
Dylan Roof, the young man who went into a black church in Charleston and murdered nine worshipers, is a child of the 50% who make up the “culture of ignorance”. He maybe an extreme form of it but the ingredients are all around him. Some 60 years after Martin Luther King and his winning of historic civil rights legislation and after 8 years of Obama the undercurrent of racism is alive and well. Tied into a knot with the culture of gun ownership and the murders it breeds, it shows no sign of abating.
The senators and representatives who lead the “culture of ignorance and violence” make sure that there will be no extensive controls on the owning of arms, even those purchased from factories that produce for the army.
These congressmen and their many friends in the media, business and finance manage to denigrate coherent, intelligent, argument as somehow unpatriotic, conducted by those unaware that America is “a beacon upon a hill”. I recall President Richard Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, who in one diatribe spoke of America’s thinking class as “pointed headed intellectuals who can’t even park their bicycles straight”.
He would have liked the chairman of the Senate environmental committee who brought a snowball into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax. (I doubt if either of them could throw a snowball straight!)
Half of America sincerely believes its country both invented and perfected the idea of freedom and that the quality of life surpasses anywhere else on the planet.
Yet international rankings place America barely in the top ten. America’s rates of murder and other violent crime dwarf the rest of the Western world and that of most of the Muslim and Asian worlds. So does the prison incarceration rate, not least of young black men, often convicted of non-violent, petty, crimes.
The US’s average levels of educational achievement and scientific literacy are, in world terms, embarrassingly low. (Nevertheless, its “good” 50% sustains the world’s best universities, produces the most Nobel prize winners for science and the highest standards in medicine- if you can afford it.)
The southern “Bible Belt” produces world-class ignorance. It rejects Darwinian explanations of mankind’s creation and insists that the notion that God created the human race in seven days be taught in schools. In the military one can hear high-ranking officers proclaiming that they believe in an inevitable confrontation between good and evil and that we live in the “final days”.
America teeters on the edge of abandoning reason. Obama tried to fight this. He partly won and partly failed. Sad to say, it is doubtful if President Joe Biden or any successor will leave a legacy as good, despite Biden’s benign intentions.
As I wrote last week, in contrast Russia has a deep and profound culture. It has many faults, not least its system of government and its attitude to human rights but there is something in its roots that will always make it more sensitive and more sympathetic a political and social entity than its North American counterpart.
Read a sentence or two of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and you will see what I mean: “He had learnt that, as there is no condition in which man can be happy and entirely free, so there is no condition in which he need be unhappy and not free”. Russians understand this, Americans by and large don’t.
Dostoevsky wrote that the brother Mitya, said in “The Brothers Karamazov”: “I hate that America already! And though they may be wonderful at machinery, every one of them, damn them, they are not of my soul. I love Russia, I love the Russian God though I am a scoundrel myself.” Russians can see right through themselves. Too many Americans—50+%—can’t.
* Jonathan Power was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers.