Philobiblon: Thoughts on America

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Thoughts on America

I find it hard to think about the US at the moment; it is all so depressing, the fundamentalism, the environmental destruction, etc, yet I've come across two arguments that have made me think about it more clearly, if no more happily.

The first is historical. (And I confess to knowingly little more than bare outlines of American history). But I have just read that in the 1800 election John Adams, president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Thomas Jefferson, president of the American Philosophical Society, both "major figures of the American Enlightenment who believed that what the Europeans had merely imagined was being realised and fulfilled in the New World".

The historian Henry May said that this "marked the real end of the Enlightenment in America. [Afterwards] the Secular Millennium rapidly turned into Manifest Destiny." and idealistic rhetoric and practice was replaced by popular democracy. (Quoted in F. Wheen, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, Harper 2004, p. 107)

Not a cheery thought really; if this is a two-century trend, how long before America gets to Saudi levels of fundamentalism?

My second piece of reading possible has an answer to that. In the November Prospect, which I've only just managed to catch up with, Timothy Snyder argues the similarities between George Bush's America and the world of Orwell's 1984. There's the totalitarianism, detention without trial etc, and, perhaps most spookily of all, the language. "As everyone knows, America's official discourse, as typified by the president's active vocabulary, has declined precipitously.

"His administration also generates Newspeak on purpose. The USA Patriot Act (Uniting and Strengthening America By Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism), for example, exploits the positive associations of the words 'USA' and patriot' to name a law that restricts the freedoms of many Americans ... The attackers of 11th September were 'our enemy', a general term that is then applied to people who had nothing to do with the attack, such as Saddam Hussein." ("War is Peace," p. 32)

No wonder everything possible is being done, from what I can see, to dumb down the American education system. Eventually that will have economic effects, but then I guess you just whip the slaves to work harder (than they already are).


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