During the Second World War Harold Macmillan opined that the new role
of the British was to act as the Athenians to the American Romans. Clever,
though the quip is, it was also self-deluding and patronising. The British
had lost their pre-eminent position and it would take decades for this to
sink in. However, MacMillan’s sentiment, that the Americans need a
restraining and sophisticated voice of reason in their ears, is
particularly durable. Some European governments and not a few Australian
commentators have cast themselves in varying degrees as the new Athenians.
The new Athenians whine, if only the Americans would listen to us, they
are so crude, vulgar and gung-ho, and we are so sophisticated, refined and
considered. The subtext at the moment is one of blaming the victim: the
Americans really asked for September 11. Arundhati Roy called it a calling
card delivered ‘by the ghosts of the victims of America’s old wars.’
Well that explains it then. They had it coming; it was only a matter of
time before someone flew a couple of passenger jets into a crowded office
block on a Tuesday morning.
But come a famine in Africa or genocidal war in the Balkans and we want
the US there. We want America to be all things, and are disappointed when
it fails to measure up to the standards we set for it.
This is probably because we misunderstand the American Dream, and joy
in highlighting its flaws and follies. A nation of enormous wealth, with
such poverty, a nation with the most advanced medical technology and yet
lacking universal health care, a nation with some of the finest minds and
the worst schools. And aren’t those Americans dumb! We see these as
contradictions, as failures in the American experiment, but we miss the
America is the embodiment of liberal democracy. Government is there to
see that people can be left alone for the pursuit of whatever it is that
makes them happy. But power corrupts - governments interfere, regulate and
control. As such, power must be divided and devolved, and the more things
people have to vote on, whether it be for the town sheriff, state
representatives, congressmen, senators, and the town school board, the
better. And if people don’t want to vote, then why the hell should they?
And why not have a little conflict in the system? Lets have a
Republican President and a Democratic House. Why not do the same for the
state legislature? Who cares if there’s deadlock? Let them sort it out,
and leave Joe Average alone. Americans like nothing more than their
government to butt out. Australians like nothing more than governments to
butt in. We see government as a helping hand, and by God it had better be
there when we fall over. When things go wrong we look to government,
Americans help themselves and find a lawyer.
For Americans, government can’t do anything right. State welfare?
Hell no, I don’t pay my taxes to help some bum who can’t get a job!
Donate to a charity? Sure, why not. Volunteer to help out at the local
church community centre? Be happy to. Individualism it seems is perfectly
compatible with sociability and a strong sense of community.
The American experiment says that you can be anything you want to be,
if only you work hard enough; log cabin to White House in Lincoln’s
case, and trailer park to White House for Bill Clinton. If you’re poor,
well buddy you haven’t worked hard enough. It is for that reason that
few Americans demand the government provide universal health care, and
construct a welfare state. In America there are better ways of providing
solutions than getting the Federal government involved.
Not only is voting in America voluntary, but it’s voluntary to know
where Canada is, or care what happens in Mexico. Americans are frequently
accused of being ignorant. But when you live in a nation of over 250
million people, busy working in the pursuit of happiness, what does it
matter what is happening overseas? Americans are probably no more ignorant
than the average Australian, it’s just we’ve heard of America because
its awesome soft power is pretty hard to avoid. We, on the other hand, are
pretty easy to avoid. Imagine the shock for these people, when they find
out that some guy called bin Laden hates them so much he organises the
hijacking of four passenger jets to fly into buildings on the East Coast
of America. When Operation Enduring Freedom began, Arundhati Roy sneered
that Americans might be a bit hazy where Afghanistan was. Maybe, but on
the morning of September 11 an angry middle-aged American, with the smoke
from the Towers bellowing behind him, spoke into a camera "we’re
coming to get you for this, Afghanistan, Iraq, wherever you are".
Seems he knew a little geography.
The average American may be no foreign policy expert, but in a nation
that size there is bound to be a few. Some might even work for the
government. The Bush Administration is smart enough to recognise, wise
words from the new Athenians notwithstanding, that threats cannot be
ignored anymore. Doing nothing will not make Hussein go away. Unlike the
new Athenians they know that using passenger airliners as flying bombs is
not a desperate cry for help from the oppressed. Rather it is an
expression of violence from dysfunctional middle-class Arabs who hold
values diametrically opposed to ours, and blame the United States and
Israel for the fundamental failure of Arab nations to do anything right.
Sometimes they have a point. But then again, Hitler had a small point
about the Treaty of Versailles, but that didn’t mean he could march into
the Rhineland, Czechoslovakia, Poland and attempt to conquer Europe.
As to Iraq, surely the Middle East will be a safer place without Saddam
Hussein. Should it choose, America has the economic and technological
superiority, which must have something to do with the American Dream, to
make short work of Mr Hussein. It might anger some mad mullahs in the
Middle East, but they need reminding their time has past.
The new Athenians are not that dissimilar from first-year political
science students I know who rally against the United States’ hegemony
and the vulgarity and selfishness of the American Dream, adopting the
mantra that if wronged by the United States a nation or ethnic group must
be a paragon of virtue, all the while wearing American designer label
clothing, drinking a can of Coke and settling in for an episode of The
Simpsons. It is excusable in an 18-year-old, but everyone has to grow