What book is emblematic of the USA, a nation that wants to dominate and be loved, to demand the impossible and wonder why it doesn’t happen?
Some years ago, Susan Crean amusingly suggested that nations might be defined or understood through their emblematic children’s books and according to whether the protagonist was male or female. England would be seen as an Alice constantly confronted by absurd rules and conventions, Italy as the rebellious and soul-searching Pinocchio, Switzerland as the determined and self-sufficient Heidi and Canada as that intelligent, concerned survivalist, Anne of Green Gables.
An Iraqi writer friend and I were discussing Bush’s re-election, which seemed to prove the much-quoted dictum, “Those who forget their past are obliged to repeat it,” and my friend observed that the dictum echoed a theme apparent, for instance, in the framework of The Arabian Nights, where time must be detained and the act of storytelling repeated until the vengeful king learns from his wife Sheherazade the length of old sins’ shadows. What American work of fiction, my friend asked, would l think of as descriptive of the country as a whole?
Reminded of Crean’s theory, I wondered which book would best mirror a nation that wants to dominate and be loved, to rule by force and yet remain democratic, to exploit natural resources ruthlessly and be ecologically minded, to demand the impossible and wonder why it doesn’t happen. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? The Catcher in the Rye? The Cat in the Hat? What work best illustrated the USA’s wish for the impossible reconciliation of two opposing desires, as embodied in the recent elections?
Ultimately, it mattered little who the winner was. With the exception of certain tax measures and a token show of concern about the lack of health care, there was little difference between the policies espoused by Democrats and Republicans. Either way, the war in Iraq was to continue, the Kyoto Agreement was not to be signed, the International Court of Human Rights was not to be recognized. And although the Democrats’ platform suggested some consideration of a multilateral share of world power, for neither party was there any question about where the power must lie.
Symbolically, however, there was a difference. In choosing the steadfast Bush over the reflective Kerry (the Americans did not vote for a party but for a figurehead), the citizens of the United States announced themselves quite clearly: dogma over dialogue, brute force over diplomacy, the industry of war over intellectual enterprise, financial profit over humanitarian concerns. They defined themselves conclusively as a nation in which, if words are still a means of communication and not merely of propaganda, the main purpose of language is to delimit what that society deems to be “civilization.”
Against a sit-com self-image of what is American, Americans have constructed a many-faced Other that occupies the rest of the world, whether the “Islamic nations,” the “Asian societies” or the “old Europe,” much as medieval Europe invented for itself a universe of monstrous races outside the city walls. This Other, necessarily inimical, must be kept alive through ignorance along the imaginary “axis of evil.” The Other must be a caricature; therefore, reporting on the Other must be consistently faulty (witness the wilful incompetence of the American journalistic media, and the fact that of the hundreds of thousands of books published in the United States every year, fewer than one percent are translations). Symbolically, Americans have chosen a whitewashed image of themselves kept alive by a shady evil Other.
And yet, this symbolic dichotomy can only be maintained if it is not contested. If almost fifty percent of Americans voted for Bush, almost fifty percent voted against him, and of the latter many have been eloquent critics of the government for several years. Those questioning voices need now to be heard, even more loudly than before, because if forced into the arena of dialogue (that is to say, obliged to confront, outside the language of propaganda, questions of economic mismanagement, political abuse, social welfare, international co-operation), these two-dimensional opposing identities may crumble. Enforced prejudice (on which these politics are based) cannot sustain scrutiny or reflection. It exists only to fuel the corporate machinery of profit, profit even at the cost of that society’s very existence, and it is possible that constant questioning may stop it and ultimately diffuse it. Nothing is less certain, but if Americans (together with the rest of us) are to survive, try they must. Perhaps this defeat of humanitarian values will incite an even greater struggle on the part of those who still believe in such values, a stronger, better co-ordinated resistance and, in the end, the collapse of a corporate society that has already proven its fatal weaknesses in its mission to attain the impossible: endless growth.
So my friend and I returned to Crean’s proposition, extending it. Every civilization, even the most tyrannical, has its defining book, a legend or fairy tale that in times of conflict becomes cautionary. For Alexander’s Greece it was the Iliad, for the German Reich, the Götterdämmerung of the old sagas, via Wagner, for Thatcherite Britain, the nostalgic epics of Tolkien. It may be that for America today, that book is The Wizard of Oz.
Bleak as the book may seem, there is hope in its conclusion. Dorothy, the enterprising heroine, must discover that the Emerald City owes its marvellous colour to the green-tinted glasses its citizens are forced to wear and that the Wizard is nothing but a humbug whose success lies in giving people only what they think they want. “How can I help being a humbug,” the great Oz asks in the last pages of the story, “when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can’t be done?” The question still resonates today, at the beginning of the first year of George W. Bush’s second reign.