“I don’t think anyone ought to stand up anywhere in politics and say there is a group that are so wealthy that they should be given a free ride and should be excluded from having to carry the kind of burdens that other people have, particularly in a time of austerity like this. If we’re going to be a coherent society, and that is absolutely fundamental to our success and our prosperity, everyone has to carry a share of it.” So said Susan Kramer on the Today program/me, (BBC Radio 4).
The phrase “coherent society” struck me.
I was half-asleep in the middle of the night when this show was on. In an accent cloaked in good woolens this was how articulate someone could be while being provoked by news presenter Justin Webb, who jumped on the Lib-Dem Treasury Spokeswoman for being disingenuous: Did Nick Clegg not even tell her about his policy? But she held her ground, pushed on and then she came out with the above. Maybe she read it from her notes, but she spoke uninterrupted.
The idea that the people at the top of the socioeconomic scale have any duty to those at the other end and that this connects to our success as a society, or that coherence is of value, does not seem to come into play here in America. I don’t think we are especially interested in being a coherent society.
In these pre-election days of political rhetoric, people are wanting to restore the promise of America or turn it around or get it back to work. America has oratorical coherence, in the moment. Words are spoken with emphasis and precision, (except when someone uses the “wrong words.”) It all sounds like it’s supposed to make sense. It makes sense when you agree.
Definitions of America are partisan. It’s about freedom. No, it’s about freedom. America is symbolic of being about potential, sacrifice, freedom, success, road trips, individuals, immigrants and baseball, but what you have is a celebration of the individual and sports tribalism. America is not about sharing or collective responsibility. We make promises to America about getting them a job so they can afford their own health insurance and be free. In my family’s lore, the 10 newly arrived immigrant brothers drank a pint together at a pub in Philadelphia before setting off independently to seek their fortunes.
From the other room, I can hear the convention. During Romney’s acceptance speech, people break into chanting “USA, USA.” It was weird. It sounds both forced and completely fanatical. He was pushing their crazy patriot buttons.
I have been thinking about America in the dystopic atmosphere of The Orphan Master’s Son, a novel about modern-day North Korea, a book that I was surprised to find myself reading let alone liking for the humor and for the way the idea of identity and story are considered and played out. Adam Johnson’s portrayal of America through the eyes of his North Korean characters is distorted and funny with shards of truth sticking out.
In the word’s of Johnson’s fictionalized Dear Leader to a Texan Senator:
“Yet in America’s capital, five thousand black men languish in prison due to violence. Mind you, Senator, your prison system is the envy of the world—state-of-the-art confinement, total surveillance, three million inmates strong! Yet you use it for no social good. The imprisoned citizen in no way motivates the free.”
There was much in the novel that was awful to read, hear about, think about. It is a book I would recommend to you, but with a bunch of disclaimers about heartbreaking, toe-curling brutality, but then it is also a provoking interpretation of how society shapes our story.
“‘But, in America, people’s stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters,'” says Dr. Song, one of the government officials in the novel who travels to Texas with the protagonist.
Much of the rhetoric of British political debate is towards a fair and just society. There is less I and more we. In America, we champion the rights of the individual; the we is less about all of us, but rather for the people in our ideological camp, our demographic bubble, maybe, if pushed, our state. The restraining hand that keeps the flailing arms of the opposing parties from pummeling each other is the law. If there is too much we it ceases to be about us and becomes the I of whatever government or dictator defines us. Then it becomes them.
As the novel’s North Koreans release their American kidnap victim, the loudspeakers report:
“Still, her departure was a sad one, as she was returning to America and a life of illiteracy, canines, and multicolored condoms. … And we must admit: she belonged with her people, even in a land where nothing is free—not seaweed, not suntanning, not even a basic blood transfusion.”
Image: Tower of Babel, c.1563, Pieter Brueghel the Elder