By Tom Kando
I have often wondered how to reconcile my love for America with the mistakes which this country makes. This schizoid situation was awakened in me again when I juxtaposed (1) Jan’s comment on Madeleine’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? post of January 9 and (2) Ken Burns’ The War - the magnificent 7-part documentary film about America in World War Two, which I recently saw again.
I agree with just about everything Jan writes, in her scathing critique of American politics, and at the same time I see the nobility and the greatness of the American people, as depicted by Ken Burns. How can this be?
The most obvious reconciliation of these two perspectives is to see this as a class conflict, a conflict between the people and their corrupt elite, who cleverly brainwash the population. Jan is right, there is much of that. I see the deterioration of which she speaks in even allegedly “liberal” media such as NPR and the Sacramento Bee, which devote inordinate space to reactionary voices, under the guise of “equal time.”
But there is another perspective. I can see two Americas in another sense, too. Not just in the sense of poor vs. rich, of progressive vs. reactionary. I can see two Americas within the spirit of the American people.
1. The enduring greatness of the American people is documented in Ken Burns’ The War: It shows not only the heroic sacrifices of our men overseas from 1941 through 1945, but also the courage, strength, goodness and selflessness of all Americans, both overseas and at home. The footage alternates between the bloodbaths of Omaha Beach, Iwo Jima and a thousand other places on the one hand, and the wise, sensitive and intelligent comments of veterans, relatives, widows and others on the home front.
I know, the war caused far more death and suffering among other people. For every American killed by the war, 60 Russians died, 40 Chinese, 15 Jews, 20 other Europeans, 30 Germans, 30 Japanese. “Only” half a million Americans died, almost all soldiers. A majority of Russians, Jews and others were civilians - women and children.
But this is not what I want to write about. What strikes me, in Ken Burns’ rich historical document, is the nobility and the morality of the American people....and the contrast with the mentality of their enemies, and even that of some of their allies.
It’s quite simple: America saved the world. And it did this with calm strength, not rancor. Leaders like FDR and Eisenhower, and the masses of the American people, were determined, not bitter or enraged. Their hearts were filled with courage and an unfailing belief in goodness, not frenzy.
Courage takes many forms. There is the pathology of the Japanese kamikaze and of today’s deranged suicide bomber. Loyalty to country and to cause is also universal. But the courage and determination of the American people have been of a special kind: Americans never became nihilists, killing for the sake of killing. They never lost sight of the ultimate good, the value of human life and happiness. Even during the depth of the mayhem, comradeship, a loving family back home, a glass of beer, the war’s eventual end - such things continued to sustain Americans, who continued to appreciate and to look forward to life, and to occasionally smile through it all.
To the typical Japanese fighter, the noble thing was to die in combat and to take a maximum number of enemies with you. In occupied countries, people suffered and waited to be liberated.
Americans were free from the viruses which had infected much of the world - fascism, imperialism, genocide and cynicism. Americans were psychologically healthy. They did not doubt that they would win, because they knew that lunatics like Hitler and Tojo could not. Americans did not hedge their bets. They knew that they were the only ones capable of beating back the beast. Equivocations such as Clint Eastwood’s movies about Iwo Jima, which show moral equivalency between the Americans and the Japanese in the Pacific war, are reprehensible.
To this day, this remains a good culture, a great culture.
2) But we have morons like Glenn Beck and his followers, like this college student interviewed in the January 11 Sacramento Bee. According to a Time Magazine survey, Glenn Beck is the most popular man in America today. The Sacramento Bee student said that it is unconstitutional to force Americans to buy something against their will, namely health insurance. Morons.
So the question is: where does the stupidity come from? Why does this noble people willingly accept so much bs? Accept the lie that unfettered free enterprise works for the greater good of all (after nearly 3 years of that system’s catastrophic performance).
Maybe the naivete is rooted in the very nature of the American people. Americans believe in inherent goodness, and they are very slow to anger. They find political fights tedious. They’d rather be happy. And help someone who is downtrodden. They are the quintessential bon vivant. Life is too short to be angry. Even when they get into a fight, Americans are rarely angry. That’s what I saw in Ken Burns: Even in Iwo Jima, they weren’t really angry. They just tried to survive. They killed so as not to be killed.
What this means, for America’s current confrontation with international terrorism, is this: What to do, and how to it, are complex questions. But there is no doubt that radical Jihad and terrorism are just as wrong as the Nazis and the Japanese militarists were 60 years ago.
And another thing: I am an immigrant and a guest. I came from nothing, I had nothing. America has given me everything. What right do people like me have to snub our noses at the people who gave us everything? It is not my place to criticize. It is my place to be thankful. If and when I do criticize, as it is in my nature to do, it should be benevolent and constructive, not an I-am-better-than-thou attitude, a we-Europeans-do-everything-better. leave comment here
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
By Tom Kando