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Edward Hoagland | The Nation

Edward Hoagland

Author Bios

Edward Hoagland

Edward Hoagland’s seventeen books include African Calliope, about Sudan; he has written on Yemen, Uganda, India and other places. He recently published a memoir, Compass Points (Vintage).

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The country is riven and ailing, with a guns-plus-butter nuttiness in
some of its governing echelons and the sort of lapsed logic implicit in
the collapse of trust in money-center capitalism, which has been an
undergirding theory of a good deal of the work that many people do. The
tallest buildings, real profit centers, fall, as "wogs" and "ragheads"
defy us, perhaps comparably to how the "gooks" in Vietnam did (from
whose example Osama bin Laden may have learned that we could be
defeated). But that was on foreign soil, and we believed that we had
pulled our punches and beaten ourselves, and so remained triumphalist
for the remainder of the twentieth century, as we had been practically
since Reconstruction.

Now we're not so sure. For the first time since the War of 1812 we have
been damaged in continental America by foreigners, having made other
people hate us, though we had never needed to pay attention to such
matters before. Proxies could fight the malcontents for us in places
like Central America, and the Japanese and Germans, would-be conquerors,
had not felt much real animus, becoming close, amicable allies after the
war. Our first World War II hero, Colin Kelly, three days after Pearl
Harbor, flew his B-17 bomber (as media myth had it) in kamikaze fashion
to hit a Japanese cruiser, before the Japanese made a practice of it. To
give your life for your country, like Nathan Hale, is an ideal that's
since evaporated.

Obese individually and as a nation, and trying to stall the aging
process, we talk instead of cars and taxes, sports and movies, cancer
and entitlements, but with a half-unmentioned inkling too of what more
ominously may be in store--a premonition that our righteous confidence
might have served us just a bit too well. We never agonized a lot about
killing off the Indians, or our slaving history either, once that was
over, or being the only nuclear power ever to incinerate multitudes of
people. We've hardly seemed to notice when free enterprise segues into
simple greed, because our religious beginnings countenanced rapacity, as
long as you tithed. Settling the seaboard in official belts of piety,
whether Puritan, Anglican, Quaker or Dutch Reformed (only the frontier
tended to be atheistic), we seized land and water with abandon, joined
by Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists and what have you, westward ho. Each
group encouraged its rich men to creep like a camel through the eye of
the needle, and political freedoms were gradually canted away from the
pure ballot box toward influence-buying.

We swallowed all of that because the New World dream envisioned
everybody working hard and getting fairly rich, except when undertows of
doubt pervaded our prosperity, as in the 1930s and 1960s; or now when,
feeling gridlocked, we wonder if we haven't gone too far and used the
whole place up. We seem to need some kind of condom invented just for
greed--a latex sac where spasms of that particular vice can be
ejaculated, captured and contained. Like lust, it's not going to go
away. Nor will Monopoly games do the trick, any more than pornographic
videos erase impulses that might result in harm. The old phrase patrons
of prostitutes used to use--"getting your ashes hauled"--said it pretty
well, and if we could persuade people to think of greed, as well, that
way and expel its destructiveness perhaps into a computer screen,
trapping the piggishness in cyberspace might save a bit of Earth. The
greediest guys would not be satisfied, but greed might be looked on as
slightly outré.

Some vertigo or "near death" experience of global warming may be
required to trip the necessary degree of alarm. The droughts and water
wars, a polar meltdown and pelagic crisis--too much saltwater and
insufficient fresh. In the meantime, dried-up high plains agriculture
and Sunbelt golf greens in the Republicans' heartlands will help because
African famines are never enough. We need a surge of altruism, artesian
decency. The oddity of greed nowadays is that it is so often solo--in
the service of one ego--not ducal or kingly, as the apparatus of an
unjust state. Overweening possession, such as McMansions and so on, will
be loony in the century we are entering upon--ecologically,
economically, morally, commonsensically. But how will we realize this,
short of disastrous procrastination? Hurricanes and centrifugal violence
on the home front, not to mention angry Arabs flying into the World
Trade Center? That astounded us: both the anger and the technological
savvy. These camel-herding primitives whom we had manipulated, fleeced,
romanticized and patronized for generations, while pumping out their oil
and bottling them up in monarchies and emirates that we cultivated and
maintained, while jeering at them with casual racism in the meantime,
when we thought of it, for not having democracies like ours. To discover
that satellite TV, the Internet and some subversive preaching should
suddenly provide them access to divergent opinions disconcerts if it
doesn't frighten us, as does their willingness to counterpose
rudimentary suicide missions to the helicopter gunships and F-16s we
provide the Israelis. "Don't they value life?"

They won't be the last. The Vietcong were as culturally different from
the Palestinians as we are and yet succeeded in winning a country for
themselves, at a tremendous but bearable cost, which the Palestinians
will also undoubtedly do. Self-sacrifice can be a match for weaponry,
not because the Americans or Israelis value Asian or Arab life--at key
junctures and for essentially racist reasons they have not--but because
of the value they place on their own citizenry. As many as fifty
Vietnamese lives were lost for every American's, but that was not a high
enough ratio for us, even though, unlike some Israelis, we don't ascribe
to ourselves a biblical imprimatur. So we let them have their land, and
the domino calamities that had been famously predicted did not result.

To equate our own revolution with anybody else's is quite offensive to
us. Mostly, in fact, we prefer to forget that we had a revolutionary
past and kicked thousands of wealthy Tories into Canada, seizing their
property. We were slow to condemn apartheid in South Africa, having
scarcely finished abolishing our own at the time, and have been slow in
general to support self-governance in the warmer climates or to
acknowledge suffering among people whose skins are beiger than ours. And
if our income per capita is sixty or eighty times theirs, that doesn't
strike us as strange. We are a bootstrap country, after all. They should
pay us heed. And the whole United Nations is "a cesspool," according to
a recent New York City mayor.

But primitive notions like those of Ed Koch invite a primitive response.
And box-cutters in the hands of Taliban fundamentalists are not our main
problem. We have gratuitously destroyed so much of nature that the
Taliban's smashing up of Buddhist statues, as comparative vandalism,
will someday seem quite minuscule. We have also denatured our own
nominal religions: that is, taken the bite of authenticity out of
Christianity, for instance. Our real problem, I think, is a centrifugal
disorientation and disbelief. There is a cost to cynicism (as in our
previous activities in Afghanistan), and the systematic demonizing of
communitarianism during the cold war made it harder afterward for us to
reject as perverse the double-talking profiteering implicit in phenomena
like Enron, when we had thought that anything was better than collective
regulation and planning.

But ceasing to believe in revolutionary democracy--whether of the
secular or Christian (or Emersonian) variety--has proven costly. A
decent regard for the welfare of other people, in international as well
as local life, is going to be more than just a matter of private virtue.
In a shrinking world it may be a survival tool. Fanaticism doesn't carry
as far unless catastrophic economic conditions lurk in the background,
as we learned in the case of Germany between the two world wars but
then, when non-Caucasians were involved, forgot. Our foreign aid budget,
once the cold war ended, collapsed into spectacular stinginess, and our
sole response to September 11 has been police work. This can probably
erase Al Qaeda--which became after its instant victory that one morning
quite superfluous anyway--but not the knowledge of our vulnerability to
any handful of smart and angry plotters in this technological age. We
might see an explosion of those.

Our national self-absorption (in which the focus seems more on trying to
stay young than helping the young) may give capitalism a bad name.
Simple hedonism and materialism was not the point of crossing the ocean.
Our revolution was better than that. It was to paint the world anew.