In the novel "Plot Against America," a kind of historical science-fiction, Philip Roth has Charles Lindbergh, famous aviator and isolationist, win in the 1940 American presidential elections. He, along with his Secretary of Interior Henry Ford (who was in real history a well-known anti-Semite), establishes a regime friendly to Nazi Germany in the U.S. The Jewish family through which Roth tells the story rightly fears the worst. Lindbergh, of course, finally disappears on one of his flights in 1942 and history returns more or less to the track that is known from history textbooks.
Roth’s tale might come to the mind of anyone observing how the tale of contemporary America is being interpreted by the conservative and religious right, whose extreme fringe has mobilized in the form of the populist tea party movement. History, however improbable, as it has been written since the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008, changes into some sort of alternative history in the interpretation of these groups, a history which has deviated from the one that, according to the American right, should be the actual one.
The president is portrayed as a dead-end track: an incompetent, albeit oratorically gifted politician, a secret sympathizer with political Islam, a naïf who has allowed himself to be dragged into the byzantine snares of Russian imperial interests, an indecisive pacifist who has allowed himself to be lulled by Iranian lying about its nuclear program. America, they say, stands at a dangerous crossroads.
A similar tale is also told by our right. Occasionally, when reading certain Czech dailies and magazines, we can get the feeling of being at a tea party gathering where Sarah Palin depicts Obama (in language bordering on racism) as a socialist, indeed almost a pupal communist, whose reforms are an attack on liberty and who refuses to see that the world is still a contest between Good and Evil.
Although the American right’s fight with Obama is unfair, but partially understandable in the context of the domestic political power struggle, the assaults of the Czech right on Obama are mainly grotesque. They apply political yardsticks of Czech provincialism to American reality. They also apply a kitschy aesthetic whose roots can be found in, for instance, Czech “country music” and cinematic Westerns approved by the censors for distribution during the communist era. George W. Bush fit this aesthetic better than Obama.
Obama roused this knee-jerk ideological-aesthetic opposition to himself on the part of the Czech media when he canceled the placement of a radar component of American anti-missile defense on Czech soil, which was perceived by the rightist administration and kindred spirits in the commentators’ community as a symbol of special relations with the most powerful nation on earth. His decision exposed to ridicule these unrealistic ambitions, as well as a certain type of black-and-white vision of the world that requires the image of an enemy, which was Russia in the “radar” context.
Since the beginning of Obama’s presidency we have been confronted, in a considerable portion of Czech media, with critical, sometimes downright spiteful commentary on Obama’s political acts: stimulus packages for the American economy, supposedly a disproportionate empowerment of the state, fatuous (or, seen from the neoliberal viewpoint, useless) attempts to reform the health care system or, so they say, indecisive conduct in Iraq, Afghanistan and in conflicts with Iran.
Obama deserved his criticism in the Czech media for his supposed inability to effectively solve the oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, relative lack of success at the Copenhagen summit on climatic change and for the package of regulatory measures aimed at financial speculation, which will certainly damage financial markets seriously. Occasionally he was teased for things he couldn’t do anything about, such as being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Most recently the theme of critical attacks has been Obama’s support for the placement of a Muslim house of prayer in the vicinity of the place where the World Trade Center stood before Sept. 11, 2001. It is, they say, an expression of insensitivity, although we could argue that it is to the contrary an expression of the deepest respect for religious freedom — and of a viewpoint separating Islam from Islamic fundamentalism.
The head of the foreign division of the most widely read Czech daily was not fooling around some time ago when he directly called Obama a “nincompoop,” equipped, of course, with considerable charisma and the ability to speak seductively and brilliantly. Nevertheless, he assured us, Obama’s “fairy tale” is already coming to an end.
One former Czech foreign minister noted aptly in a conversation with this author that the Czech right is not critical just toward Obama. It feels betrayed by all of America. It is offended by the fact that America elected Obama at all.
That is an interesting observation in which there is much truth. In the Czech national psyche there arose in the past, namely in the communist era, a sort of color-print, idealized notion of America that was connected with the conviction that in a world tossed about by relativism and weakness, there at least existed one land that continued to distinguish between Good and Evil, even in its policy.
Even the Hollywood hero, be it in Western tales, comics or thrillers from contemporary (and sometimes even from the fictitious future) America, can have various “flies in the ointment,” but in the final accounting, thanks to him, Good reckons with Evil.
Bush tried to find his place in this tradition, but the definitive triumph over Evil somehow evaded him; moreover, he got America into astronomical debt. There has been no further comic book hero to walk onto the scene, someone who could bring the somewhat bungled work to a successful conclusion, but rather the son of a black immigrant who speaks a complex language of multiracialism, consensus and international law. Things have become more complicated.
A whole generation of intellectuals from the former lands of the Soviet Bloc, traumatized by the Cold War and having grown up in a confrontation with the Evil Empire, has not been able to grasp that America is governed by a politician who regards their life dilemma as belonging to the past. That was nicely shown in the form of an open letter to Obama, in which some former leading politicians from these lands expressed their fears that he was sacrificing Central Europe with his accommodation toward Russia (which they continually see as a danger).
Obama has certainly made mistakes, but the criticism of his presidential acts cannot be removed from the context of the overall situation in the world and in America. It is not just that he inherited many problems from the previous administration, but also that he took office as the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s was getting underway.
Once again, a great variety of theories on the end of the American empire are turning up. Most recently, for example, in an abundantly discussed text by British historian Niall Ferguson in the journal Foreign Affairs. He pointed out not only steeply climbing American debt, a stagnating high rate of unemployment, but also the supposed inability of American political elites to solve these problems.
Ferguson’s prophecy is certainly nothing new. Warnings against a forthcoming speedy downfall of America have already been a (profitable) branch of Western intellectual industry for some time. Historian Paul Kennedy’s book "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" from 1988, in which Kennedy also predicted a rapid collapse of America, became famous.
In that same year, Allan Bloom’s book "The Closing of the American Mind," in which the author warns against the decline of the American educational system and the consequences for America associated with it. Later, further authors joined in the writing of bestsellers comparing America to the Roman Empire in its last phase. Charles Kupchan, T.R. Reid and Jeremy Rifkin would also break their sticks over America’s back.
The author of the famous “Clash of Civilizations,” Samuel Huntington, also expressed a considerable dose of pessimism, especially in light of the supposed inability of America to cope with the onslaught of Hispanic immigrants. Fareed Zakaria wrote last year in his bestseller "The Post-American World" on the retreat from glory, no matter how much that may be caused by the rise of other countries. The last book of the late Tony Judt, Ill "Fares the Land," is also a certain warning. The book warns that the American model of social services is dysfunctional to the point that it could threaten American democracy.
Hollywood production of recent years has also put its finger on the “American Age of Anxiety”; there has been a conspicuous growth in the number of films with apocalyptic narratives. Unlike in the past, however, the apparently unavoidable catastrophe is headed off less often by an “American” hero but frequently by a savior with supernatural powers.
And sometimes the tragic end cannot be staved off, as we read in "The Road," recently adapted to film, by Cormac McCarthy. In extreme cases, as in the famous Avatar, the “American hero” turns against his own civilization because it is no longer possible to save it.
What many of these gloomy predictions miss and what Czech commentators on American events often fail to understand is the extraordinary ability of American society to constantly “reinvent” and revive itself. America has stood on the brink of apparently irresolvable catastrophes several times: civil war in the 1860s, a world economic crisis in the 20th century, lack of preparedness for engagement in world wars stirred up by Europeans and the lost war in Vietnam. Not only did America overcome these calamities, but they also strengthened themselves.
The same can be said of basic societal changes, such as the end of slavery or the launch of President Lyndon Johnson’s project, the so-called Great Society, whose aim was to overcome the remnants of segregation and racism. The election of Obama was to a certain degree the culmination of this project, which acquired a tremendous dynamic in the societal ferment of the late 1960s. And it is logical that he expresses through his politics the long-neglected pressure of a significant component of American society for the creation of an effective system of social welfare and health services, which should have long ago been a natural part of such a mature and wealthy democracy.
To this day, the almost 200-year-old work of Alexis de Toqueville, "Democracy in America," serves one better at comprehending America than the catastrophic predictions of contemporary authors, which are often dictated by the attempt to make it on the bestseller market. Toqueville was the first to notice the remarkable vitality of American democracy, which grew up from an environment of a civil society and whose creation was the American state.
And so there has always been more sense in studying the state of American democracy from the bottom up, and by no means primarily through its institutions, as we would do it in Europe. And on this level, America appears to be in thoroughly good form. Just as in the past, countless discussions are underway in the form of physical forums as well as virtual communities where not only are problems of American society inexorably diagnosed, but solutions are also sought.
As long as there exists a land on earth whose public consists of a myriad of topical spaces which by one means or another form a chain and create a real public opinion (as philosophers Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor write on the phenomenon of the public), it will be America.
The aforementioned criticism of the American educational system by Allan Bloom (who incidentally was the model for the character of Ravelstein in Saul Bellow’s last novel, which says something about American reality) awoke a typical American debate: thorough, emotional, self-examining. Nearly a quarter-century later we find in all prestigious rankings of the best universities of the world at least six or seven American ones in the top 10. It is therefore likely that not even the current crisis will break America.
Its retreat from the position of absolute world hegemon will obviously continue because of the birth of new economic powers. In Obama’s world, however, those are not necessarily America’s enemies, who want to subordinate America to their will. His multilateral project harmonizes with this conviction.
What many critics of America, especially those who see it through the prism of geopolitical games or ideological preferences, thoroughly underestimate is the reality that America is much more than just a state. It is an endlessly complex and vital organism, a civic project within whose framework all immigrants to the U.S. become Americans, whereas in Europe immigrants often live on the margins of society, perhaps even in their third generation. Obama is a mark of this complex project. And it is therefore premature to write him off.
The article first appeared in the Právo insert Salón of Sept. 16, 2010.
The author is director of the New York University in Prague and lectures in the Social Sciences Faculty of Charles University.