Two Americas

By Wayne Brown, Jamaica Observer

So the debates are over, and by the polls John Kerry decisively won all three - not a startling achievement, admittedly, for an educated man pitted against this particular incumbent. Bush himself (in what was not a confession but a roughneck's boast) once declared that he didn't read the papers. But the defining moment of his presidency, to this columnist, was those seven minutes on 9-11 during which, having been told that America was under attack, the president remained sitting there in that Florida classroom pretending to listen to children reading.

'Pretending to listen' doesn't mean Mr Bush was thinking. No - what Mr Bush was doing, that fateful morning, was trying to think. (The reader wishing to verify this should get hold of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911, now out on DVD.)

For, faced with the enormity of what he'd just been told, you could see the gears in that long-disused brain grinding and seizing, the electrical impulses balking at the synapses. In default, they left on the president's face an expression of the saddest vacuity - for vacuity in homo sapiens is always sad. In that mortal crisis, in Mr Bush's head, many things were trying to happen - and couldn't. Watch the film of those seven minutes if you don't believe me.

Likewise, the defining moment of the recent debates was probably the president's reference to the 'Internets'.

Now, across the length and breadth of the world - everywhere, in fact, except in the mysteriously misshapen hearts of that one-half of America that loves him - Mr Bush's 'dunciness' has long been the standard fare of jokes. Asked, for example, why she intended to vote for Kerry and against Bush in the coming election, the American novelist Amy Tan replied, 'Because I have a brain'. And Jay Leno early last week speculated that Mr Bush was preparing for the third and last debate by walking up and down the Oval Office saying to himself, over and over, 'It's Internet. Internet. Internet!'

And, sure, in a brutal, existential light, 'dunciness' is funny.

But such humour is also ultimately reactionary. Once we've indulged in 'the laughter that slays', we're apt to think the butt of our joke is somehow dead. There's a metaphysical truth in that, of course: he or she is now dead in our hearts. But in the real world, (s)he isn't. Millions of Germans and other Europeans - including many Jews - who in the 1920s and early '30s laughed at Hitler's 'upstart antics', never lived to have the last laugh.

KERRY. is the expression of the other America

As Dan Chaon, the American writer (who read from his work in Jamaica a couple years ago), wrote recently: 'Back in 2000, Bush seemed like a joke - a smirking, callow, old-money twit with a fake Texas accent. Now, four years later, he seems truly, frighteningly dangerous.'

Indeed. Nor did Amy Tam stop with her quip quoted above. She went on: 'The current president has used fear to instil obedience, has redefined patriotism as a willingness to sacrifice constitutional law. How can I not vote for a candidate like Kerry, who is rational enough to defend our country without arm-pumping and high fives when the bombs fall on another country?'

So when you've finished laughing at Mr Bush and his 'Internets', stop and take a sober look at what that gaffe means. It means that - just as the younger G W, in his freewheeling, hard-drinking, rich-kid days, never once bothered to leave the US to take a peek at the wide world beyond it - President Bush, the most powerful man in the world, has probably never been online.

And what this means in turn is that The Leader of the Free World is radically alienated from the culture of the free world (although, hell, even terrorists use the 'Net) - a world at whose heart that extraordinary invention has been pouring forth an infinite fountain of news, information, knowledge, the wisdom of the ages - as well as, okay, sex - for more than a decade, while at the same time collapsing the barriers of space to put people from all over the planet in the same 'room' with one another.

The American Constitution debars foreign-born citizens from running for president, the suspicion being that such characters might retain a covert loyalty to the land of their birth. But what virtual country, then, retains the loyalty of G W Bush - a man who in 2004 has contrived to remain innocent of the defining instrument of culture in our time?

'Ah, solving that question

Brings the priest and the doctor

In their long coats

Running over the fields.'

Philip Larkin, the late British poet who penned those lines, was talking about a different question; but his stanza applies. In Mr Bush's 'country' the doctors are always running over the fields - or at least over the sands, and through the streets, of forever-being-bombed Iraq.

And as for the priests, consider this:

Kerry has said that he personally opposes abortion but believes the decision should be the woman's. (He is therefore 'pro-choice', not 'pro-abortion' - though that defining nuance would probably be beyond the grasp of barbarian minds.) And last week, the New York Times reported that a group of American Roman Catholic bishops were 'blanketing' their flock with the news that if they voted for Kerry they would be committing a sin; and that they would have to confess and repent their vote before they would be permitted to receive holy communion again.

Again - let the reader pause and take that in.

The likeliest response, I imagine, will be incredulity. But incredulity can be as reactionary as comedy. So pause for a moment and really take that in.

And understand the danger in which the Republic - a nation founded on the seminal principle of the separation of Church and State - stands today.

These bishops, let it be remembered, had nothing to say a year ago when it was revealed that, for many years, large numbers of American Roman Catholic bishops and priests had been exuberantly buggering little boys. (To the contrary, their response had been to cover up those crimes - not just 'sins', but crimes - quickly and quietly transferring the criminals to other dioceses, where they were free to start again from scratch, preying on the children of a new flock.)

Nor has it occurred to these bishops that it might be a sin to vote for the man who unleashed unwarranted death and destruction upon Iraq: an overwhelming military attack, with a bogus rationale, resulting in the killing and maiming of tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children. To the contrary: these Men of the Cloth are avidly engaged in organisational work intended to deliver the Catholic vote to the man who launched that gratuitous, and ongoing, death and destruction. (Meanwhile, Catholics who vote for Mr Kerry can go straight from the polling booth to the confessional booth and repent their 'sin'.)

It's hard to imagine the shame and suffering of real Catholics faced with such a debasement of their titular spiritual guides.

Dan Chaon again: 'I find myself particularly repelled by Bush's professed 'Christianity', even as his Administration repudiates every value that Christ represents.'

But that is G W Bush's real country, a country of churches and guns: a place awash with Larkin's doctors and priests, and quite devoid of newspapers, the 'Net - or, presumably, any scientist not actively engaged in designing either bigger and better oil-drilling platforms or the next generation of nuclear bombs.

For there are, in fact, today two Americas; and for more than a year now - because that is how long this dangerously exacerbating presidential campaign has been going on - one of them has, like a black hole, been feeding itself by drawing all the forces of darkness unto itself: the unreconstructed, and no longer so covert, 'southern' racism; the mindless American bellicosity (surf the US TV channels some idle evening and count: you'll find that at least half of them are airing programmes or films featuring guns); the isolationism, hubris and ignorance of the world; the lobotomised and intolerant religiosity; and the age-old American paranoia - the ineluctable product of metaphysical guilt - that produced 'Salem' and, in our time, McCarthyism.

These are the Bush legions in the coming election: the National Rifle Association; the evangelical and fundamental Christian Churches (among which must be numbered, these days, American Roman Catholicism); the impoverished and semi-literate descendants of the Daughters of the American Revolution, from whose consciousness - as they drive around swigging beer with shotguns clipped to the rear windshields of their pick-ups, in a thousand two-mule southern towns - the hope of spotting some innocent deer or beautiful buck to kill is never very far; and, of course, big business - very big business - those 'leaders of American industry and commerce' who know that the current president's first order of business is to license their looting of the US environment, Treasury and citizenry, and who have no other interests.

These are Bush's People, and they are in fact the mirror image of militant Islam: a fervid competing presence in the same jostling darkness.

And so Samuel Huntington was wrong: the real 'clash of civilisations' in our time is not between cultures in discrete parts of the world but, first and foremost, between civilisations within the United States itself.

Because, after four years of Bush, it's necessary to keep reminding ourselves that there's another America - one that is cosmopolitan, informed, sceptical and secular, and prepared to put its faith in curiosity (science, the 'Internets'), freedom of association and expression, tolerance of the Other, civic responsibility, and the rule of law.

That America exists still, and is the hope of the world. In this election, its expression is Kerry. And if today, according to the polls, with a mere 16 days to go, the outcome of this very real 'clash of civilisations' is still too close to call, it behoves us all to pay the closest attention.

For the last elections of comparable significance for the world took place on November 6, 1932, in Germany.

Copyrightę 2004 Jamaica Observer.