US Excess: Stewart’s rally cannot save the rest of the world
Guardian journalist Hadley Freeman writes a good coverage of the ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’, Daily Show host Jon Stewart’s attempt, alongside fellow-satirist Steven Colbert, to bring to life a democratic movement crushed by circumstance, bone-headed political venery, and a media so irresponsible it is hard to take them seriously – except of course that many Americans do just that!
Recently, I wrote about the need to step back sometimes, see the greater picture. It is hard to see America in all its contradictory glory and shame when you focus on a single day, a single event. In keeping with my love of history, I find there are parallels with Ancient Rome as much as with Germany under National Socialists and Britain as we lost our empire. (I don’t believe this is an academic exercise either: all the time I write about current affairs, I ask myself ‘is there a solution, a cure to our ills, a way out of this tortuous circular maze, the repetitions of which Santayana captured so perfectly in his aphorism?’ In recognition of the fact that I’m very unlikely to find an answer, I study history to discover if I’m even asking the right questions. Here – admittedly by way of a diversion for the reader – is an example of provocatively ironic history, this taken from Barry Cunliffe’s Rome and Her Empire:
Almost continuous warfare for several centuries had greatly affected the Roman economic and social systems. In Italy men left the land to serve in the army and on retirement had little wish to return. Thus there was land to spare and this was bought up by the elite to be worked by slaves. The overall result was that Italians gravitated to the cities creating an increasingly unstable mob while the land came increasingly under the control of the senatorial class who drived much of their income from its efficient exploitation. The kind of monoculture practised – most frequently vine production – created surpluses which could only be turned to reasonable profit in foreign markets. To maintain any degree of stability it was necessary to ensure both an inflow of manpower (slaves) and raw materials and an outflow of agrarian surpluses, principally wine. This imperative gave a new impetus to military campaigning abroad. Put another way, for the social and economic system of Rome to survive it was necessary for the empire to expand continuously.
The emphasis on the last sentence is mine, made because of the way it reminds me of America’s love of ‘global trade’. Perhaps ‘passion’ or ‘infatuation’ might be better terms, but the passage I’ve quoted does seem to me redolent of so much that has passed 2000 years after the events that Cunliffe describes, yet are uncanny in their parallel paths.
Accordingly, and returning now to my subject, may I recommend to you a keen insight into the origins of the Rally to Restore Sanity, and the conflict that gave birth to it, in Simon Schama’s work. His 2004 Guardian G2 article on ‘the two Americas’ I found to be very clearly analysed, and this recent interview on CNN puts into perspective the current islamophobia, resurgent racism and fear of immigrants that seems to underpin so much political agitation in the US.
Some Americans, oddly in my view, question why we in Europe are so interested in US politics, why we dare express opinions about something they feel is none of our business. To those people, I remind you that our soldiers are dying in your wars, our pensions are disappearing down your drains, our environment is being poisoned by your companies and any chance of fixing climate change is destroyed by your dollar democracy.
Stewart sent a message to the world: “we’re not all cowering in abject fear, terrified even by our own shadows, seeing as how they are black. Some of us can still think straight”. The humour too is telling, for there is one characteristic of the tea-party right wing, and that is their utter lack of self-depreciation. Never was there a bunch who took themselves so seriously, and acted with such terrible self-importance. It is when that self-importance is not recognised, not respected but ridiculed, that the guns come out – literal or virtual. It is with regret I note that, historically, such strong rhetorical violence so often turns into the other kind, particularly in the context of an empire collapsing and seeking others to blame, both within and without.