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Why America's Problem Is Cultural, Not Political

Stephen Gabow

Here are some questions that ask the same thing in different ways. How can McCain/Palin even stand a chance in this election, given the state of the country? Why hasn't "conservative" become a dirty word, given the results of the last 8 (or is it 30) years of conservative rule? How come the Republicans get away with lies, dirty tricks, thievery and gross hypocrisy, over and over again? Why are congressional Democrats so spineless, so deferential around Republicans?

I think the answer is that conservatives and Republicans are more attuned to the American people and to the roots of American culture. I cringe to say this, but somehow deep in our values, hopes and dreams we are primed to be conservative. And the Democrats, being politicians, can sense it; they know it in their heart of hearts.

To begin with, America has been soaked in poisonous homegrown racism for three hundred years. It affects every American child. Yet even aside from that elephant-in-the-room, we have to fight our native culture to maintain a leftist perspective.

Citizens of other countries can draw on their own revered cultural icons to promote rebellion or revolution, or the notion of a social community. In 2004 Canadians voted for "The Greatest Canadian." Tommy Douglas, a socialist and reformer known as Canada's 'father of Medicare,' won the honor. The English have Robert Owen, the French have Emile Zola, the Germans Karl Marx, among many others.

What about the USA, home of revolutionary democracy? Who do we have? Franklin Roosevelt? Joe Hill and Eugene Debs? Martin Luther King? The freedom riders? Elizabeth Staunton and Susan B. Anthony? Mario Savio? Malcolm X? John Brown? Tom Paine? Emma Goldman? With the exception of King and FDR we remember these people only vaguely, if at all. Our founding father heroes have been stripped of their revolutionary content, to emerge in our times as staunch Christian conservatives. Whether Thomas Jefferson was actually an agnostic social revolutionary is not the point; he is perceived as something else.

We love stories about poor boys making it big. Who of us has not dreamt of being a millionaire? We admire and love Bill Gates and Henry Ford by making their lives into stories of good men working hard and earning their wealth and freedom, and by excising anything negative from their stories. Our high school students know that Henry Ford built the first mass-produced automobiles, and that he offered a living wage to his workers. We don't recall, though, that Ford advocated for Hitler and published anti-Semitic crap in his Dearborn Independent.

On TV and radio we are deluged by endless get-rich-quick commercials; one salesman after another hawking his easier, faster way to make "life-changing" money. Or we peek into millionaire mansions, the "cribs" of the rich and famous, the garages full of Ferraris and Rollses. Or we watch the parade of new luxury products. Is greed really good, we wonder? Haven't too many Americans come to believe that making money in itself is a goal worthy of a lifetime's pursuit? In Thailand they talk of "suspiciously wealthy" individuals--people so rich one should be suspicious of how they got it. We have no similar concept.

Who can count the American heroes dispensing justice from their fists or from the barrel of a gun? From John Wayne to Charles Bronson, Dirty Harry to Rambo and the young Vito Corleone, we thrill to our heroes walking tall, carrying a big stick (but preferably a gun, which is much more practical) to right the wrongs of society. They do it pretty much alone. No social action to achieve social justice here.

Rambo invades Vietnam to free American prisoners. Bronson's character fights and kills the evil inner city gangs. They both avoid the incompetent government and corrupt police force. A despicable judicial bureaucracy wrongly stops Dirty Harry from dispensing real justice.

Here we have a righteous vigilante who fights for freedom, and also, of course, his beloved family. The young Michael Corleone does what is necessary to "protect his family." We want to forget he is a gangster and murderer. We want to forget Bronson's character is killing, because he is right to fight evil in any way he can.

In all this there is a strong flavor of the virtuous ends justifying the means. If you have to lie, cheat and kill to achieve the Kingdom of God on earth (the true America), so be it. Sound familiar?

When Rambo blows up a hundred Vietnamese to rescue American prisoners, we know he's only killing bad guys. Bronson's character kills and the bad guys' blood runs in the streets. No innocent victims here!

We can't cheer Rambo in the real world, but we can swear our undying love for our soldiers, somehow forgetting that their messy job involves killing innocents. And when our fighters come up with slogans straight from Rambo, like "killing is our business, and business is good," we shrug.

Americans don't vote for eggheads. I remember Adlai Stevenson running against Eisenhower. Stevenson didn't stand a chance, not least because he was pegged as too intellectual to be President. We prefer our leaders to be plain spoken, practical men who don't think or read too much. A cowboy, maybe. It is hard to think of an American icon, fictional or real, who is an intellectual. Who comes closest? Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain?

I bet John Wayne would be a strong supporter of the Bush administration. He would cheer us on to "victory" in Iraq and Afghanistan. We'd have to respect the opinion of such an American hero. But then we forget that John Wayne was born Marion Morrison, and it is documented that he was a draft dodger during World War II.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Stephen Gabow has been an activist since the Free Speech Movement and is a physical anthropologist, and Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at San Francisco State University.

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