Today we learned that the US will not press for a second vote on Iraq in the UN Security Council. Six hours later we heard George W. Bush present Saddam Hussein with an ultimatum that will almost certainly lead to war.
This may be the last opportunity for a brief peace-time lament for what has already happened to America, even if the US does not shred the UN Charter and initiate a pre-emptive war. I want to explain why I shall in future spend less time in this country, and more time in Thailand.
This is no longer the America I immigrated to in 1961. That was an age of acute social problems, in which however dreams of justice and equality were still being implemented. Today, after only partial implementation, those same dreams are being abandoned. The 1961 America has not vanished, but it has changed direction, perhaps irremediably. When dreams are abandoned, a nation’s fate is altered. What we now have is still the United States, but the US is currently moving towards a new age, of Post-America.
When I say this, I am not just referring to the Enron-type corporate crimes which have done so much to finance the distancing of both our political parties from the quest for justice. I am not just referring to the Bush Administration’s scrapping of international treaties on topics ranging from arms limitation to torture, nor its boorish diplomatic behavior and defiance of the UN Charter itself. I am not just recalling the abuse of electoral procedures in Florida, nor the judicial abuse which ratified it. Nor am I just talking about the redefinition of our government and civil rights in the name of “homeland security” — although it is a shock to learn that during a red alert in New Jersey “you will be assumed by authorities to be the enemy if you so much as venture outside your home, the state’s anti-terror czar says.”
I am talking about deeper changes beneath all this corruption, ineptitude, malevolence, and hysteria.
When I came to teach at the University of California for one year in 1961, there were no tuition fees here and almost anyone who qualified could afford a university education. I remember teaching a student who after seven years in the coal mines was using his savings to put himself through law school.
As late as 1970, 31 percent of the California state budget went to higher education and four percent to prisons. In 2005, these expenditure shares are expected to be 12 and 20 percent. In other words,expenditures have shifted from higher education to prisons.
Today the California Correctional Peace Officers Association is one of the most powerful political lobbies in the state. I wish them well, but there is something severely wrong when teachers in entire school districts are being given pink slips, and prison guards are looking for an increase in pay.
The cartoon strip “Doonesbury” depicted clearly where the money is going. George Bush, who ran in 2000 as the education president, has just offered $15 billion to Turkey as a bribe for its UN security council vote. The old dreams of a nation have been swapped for illusions of empire.
Empires are always bad news for their home countries, as the economist J.A. Hobson pointed out a century ago. Spain, one of Europe’s most progressive nations in the early 1500s, lost its progressive economy and middle class in a deluge of gold from Mexico and the Andes. In a more complex fashion, foreign wealth was also converting Britain from an industrial to a financial country, even before Britain’s social structure was further weakened by two disastrous world wars.
We can see this happening to America as well. Take housing. In 1961, with two years salary as a beginning lecturer, I could have bought a house in Berkeley. Today an entering lecturer might have to pay twenty years’ salary to buy the same house. As I write in Minding the Darkness (p. 156), you can expect no less when foreign capital, much of it hot money or flight capital, enters this country at a rate of $100 billion a year.
It is true that similar changes are occurring in many other countries, such as my native Canada. Until recently I would have accepted them as inescapable. But I have just spent six months in Thailand, where my wife Ronna had a temporary post teaching English. Thailand has its own severe and quite different problems: right now, for example, the army and police are overseeing a ruthless campaign against drug-traffickers in which well over a thousand people have been murdered. But in Thailand one can look back on America, and, out of love for America, breathe a sigh of relief not to be there right now.
What I am talking about goes far beyond the current policies in Washington. These policies grow out of what I now see as a deformed life style, a condition which even at its best is one of involuntary affluence that oppresses the supposed beneficiaries by its imposed obligations. (For most Americans this affluence is either beyond their reach, or slipping away as America’s economy slips further and further out of equilibrium.)
What we discovered in Thailand was a happiness that comes from greater simplicity, much as we lived in America when we were younger. We lived out of two suitcases in a single dormitory room with no kitchen, had no car, and walked each night to dine in a modest restaurant by the highway that had a roof but no walls. There the prices were cheap, fantastically so for us, but cheap also for Thais. The restaurant, newly opened, was crowded with all kinds of people, from students to the rich and their families. Night after night we dined at the same table with Thai professionals, some of whom became our best friends.
Post-America, as we remembered it and also after returning to it, presents a sad contrast. My closet is crowded with clothes I seldom wear, and the kitchen with arrays of gadgets we seldom use. Our commitments in Berkeley are so widespread that we continue to drive two cars, when in Thailand we got along without one. The shock of restaurant prices dissuades us from seeing friends there, except very occasionally and in small numbers.
I am totally aware that this account is very anecdotal, and with a tiny shift of luck our Thai experience could have been much less happy than it was. Nevertheless we saw vividly in Thailand what E.F. Schumacher learned in Burma a half century ago. Small is beautiful. Less is more. Happiness is found close to the necessities of life, not in needless complexity and meaningless multiplicity of choice.
Since returning to the US, I have shared these opinions with a number of old friends. To my surprise, most of them have agreed eagerly with my suggestion that something has gone deeply wrong in life in America today. My own ideas were crystallized by living abroad for six months. Almost none of my friends had been abroad for so long — even though occasional escape from the US, to come up for air, does now seem to be a pervasive habit of intellectuals and professional people. In any case, we all seemed to be on the same page.
What I have just said has important political consequences. When speaking and writing about what I find wrong in American exploitation of the third world, I have often, but tentatively, observed that a healthier policy will require cutbacks in the current lavish style of American living — particularly in the consumption of oil and gas. After Thailand, I see much more clearly how the political overreaching of US policy into the oil-rich regions of Iraq, Azerbaijan and even Kyrgyzstan is grounded in the social malaise of habitual, unchosen, and unwanted affluence.
Like Schumacher, I need to relate what I have just said to questions of spirituality. America is and always has been a deeply spiritual country. But that spirituality is no longer communally shared; on the contrary, the country is now divided rather than united by strongly held religious beliefs. Most of the forms of spiritual practice I find congenial here (whether Christian or Buddhist) are practiced either alone, or in retreat settings removed from the crossways of society.
Where we were in northern Thailand, almost everyone we met was Buddhist. But even the few Christians and Muslims we encountered exhibited a common spirituality with the majority; and this expressed itself in how they lived. People were extraordinarily generous; we received gifts even from virtual strangers. People seemed relatively uninterested in acquisition or money. When I asked the dormitory cleaning women to come in and clean our room, they refused at first to accept any money: “Mai ao; mai ao; I don’t want it!”
The people we knew best were like Americans in that they sought, competitively, the best possible education for their children. For themselves however they seemed much more interested in enjoying the life they already had, than in advancement or promotion. No doubt this was the consequence of our living in a small provincial city, Phayao; and I am sure one can still find a similar spirit in smaller American cities as well, such as Fresno or Fort Wayne. However I would judge that Phayao is closer than Fresno to the dominant values of its nation.
In Minding the Darkness (p. 160), I quoted from that great American dreamer Whitman: “Democracy is a great word / whose history remains unwritten / because yet to be enacted.” Today we have to wonder if the next chapter of that unwritten history will still be written in the United States. Or will it be in some other country, possibly even Thailand?
The answer I believe is up to ourselves. Part of that answer will lie in how America responds politically to a US invasion of Iraq. But the crisis I am talking about goes beyond politics. I believe that we must address the crisis of America’s fractured spirituality. Part of this task must be the religious reaffirmation, from all faiths, that this nation will only be happier when it shares more and consumes less.
UPDATE (3/22/03): Up to now I have been reluctant to complicate the political discussion of war with these spiritual considerations. But I have learned from responses to this post that my sense of malaise is in fact widely shared, even if usually not expressed. So is the practice of brief escapes abroad, even if this is not usually recognized as a defense of one’s sanity.
My long poem Coming to Jakarta testifies to the importance of recognizing and giving voice to one’s despair. This is for the sake of not just sanity but empowerment: despair converted becomes energy for our hopes.
My poem ends with a meaningful and timely quotation from the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, it will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, it will destroy you.”
I would be most interested in responses to what I have written, from Americans and non-Americans alike. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.