This is a rant. It’s not an essay. I am not proving anything. I just say what is on my mind. If you don’t want to read it, you’re welcome to leave my blog right now. I am not happy either with these thoughts flooding my head on 9/11.
I am really, really fed up with the primitivism of what so many Americans understand as “power.”
Let me put it as simply as that: true power does not reside in guns, money, or muscles. I’ll repeat: true power is not to be found in handguns, rifles, tanks, rockets… or the stratospheric executives’ and celebrities’ incomes… or the foot/basket/baseball players’ hypertrophied muscles. More guns for the Army… more money for the stupidly rich… and more gyms and steroids for muscles do not make America stronger.
I came to America in 1990. My love for America is rooted in the way my parents looked at America as the beacon of hope to all repressed people in the world (sounds like a cliché – to you may be). America, to me, is first and foremost about democracy and political freedom… and then, eventually, about economic opportunities (yes, believe or not, I did not come here dreaming of finally being able to buy myself a BMW).
Despite all the fascination with the American “cowboy” and “gun” traditions, people worldwide still see America mostly as the place where life is free from the unimaginable (for Americans) violence of 20th century European wars, fascism, Russian bolshevism, East European Stasis and Securitates, Chinese and Khmer Rouge communisms, African tribal wars, South American dead squads, Taliban “power” over women, etc.
The real power of America – a terrific power over the minds of billions of people – is in the IDEA of America. The idea of freedom from “powers,” “lords,” aggression, and fear. It’s not about hamburgers, jeans, jazz, or Elvis. Jeans, hamburgers, jazz, and Elvis were always just SYMBOLS of America. This might be news to many Americans, but local food almost anywhere in the world is way better than McDonalds.
America’s power is not in Rocky’s muscles – it’s in the idea that Rocky CAN have a life free from petty dependence on the local crime “lord.”
And then again, I came in America in 1990… and was baffled by “Jesus is Lord” bumper stickers (oh, how we miss our English lords) and “aggressive” and “greedy” as required (good) personal traits… and by images of gorilla caricatures (a.k.a. football players) and fat-ass ugly baseball body shapes being shoveled into the heads of youngsters as ideals of masculinity. Then came the Detroit interpretations on the theme of “power”… and a whole new culture of driving personal tanks (a.k.a. SUVs) sprang out. What a joke! Primitive is a mild word to qualify this stupidity. And it’s not just stupidity. This compulsive need to identify with infantile “power” imagery (grown “boys playing with toys”) is unfortunately the other face of a growing sense of insecurity and fear. Only people fearing other people can enjoy hiding into a car with the size, look, and weight of a military vehicle. That’s not the America I was coming to.
And since 9/11… the biggest mistake… a terrible mistake… was to forget where the big power of America resides. 9/11 is an attack on America by an ideology. The terrorist acts are just a tool. In today’s world, you don’t fight an ideology with tanks. Tanks bring easy short term “mission accomplished” stuff… and most often long term pain for everybody involved. Reagan was much smarter – he brandished a “strategic initiative” (an idea basically + some money invested for credibility)… and the Soviets were scared appropriately. It worked. Smart Reagan, stupid Bush – both Republicans. The difference is in intelligence. Ironically, the problem with Bush is not so much with his “messianic” talk about freedom – as some suggest – but with his limited understanding of true American power. As a result, American power in the world is diminished – and this makes me angry. The stupid “power” talk and imagery displaced and diminished our real powers. You cannot beat global religious extremism and global crime lords (think Russian and Columbian) with gun/money/muscle “power.” They feed off and thrive on this. That’s their turf. That’s their world. They are happy to meet you there.
Democrats cannot find their way out of the primitive “power” speak and metaphors either. My sad feeling is that nations learn mostly by experience. Unfortunately, Americans may have to see what “power” and “aggression” really mean in the scale of what other nations have gone through – and then only “unlearn” the infantile language of gun/money/muscle “power.”
Just to make sure there is no misunderstanding about my understanding of “power”: (1) I think power starts and ends in the heads and hearts of people, and (2) brut gun/money/muscle power is needed to treat some heads and hearts… on a case by case basis – I totally support the military action in Afghanistan.
Update October 10, 2006:
Here is a good example of what I’m talking about – from an email from a nonprofit organization… notice the language and the metaphors:
“This week, the world’s biggest brands will throw their advertising muscle and millions of dollars in sales into the fight against global AIDS and extreme poverty…”
In a time when (post Vietnam) generals are so very careful with their language, American civilian life is flooded with war/money/muscle metaphors.
Update September 11, 2011:
From today’s NYT:
“Our weakest area is combating Al Qaeda’s ideology,” Michael E. Leiter, a director of the National Counterterrorism Center in both the Bush and Obama administrations, said last week.