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Waltons and Simpsons—Allegories of Consciousness
June 8, 2002
By Luciana Bohne

A few days before the arrival of George W. Bush in Berlin -- protected by 10,000 police ("the largest security operation since the Nazi era," wrote London's Mirror with spiteful relish), whisked off in an armored limousine, delivered to the sealed-off area of the Brandenburg Gate, housed in a hotel off-limits to ordinary guests, the sky above him off-limits to commercial flights, bundled off to meetings via underground labyrinths -- a Berliner Zeitung editorial anticipated the planetary sheriff's visit unambiguously, "Never has a president of the United States been so foreign to us and never have German citizens been so skeptical about policies of their most powerful ally."

Gee whiz, what could have made them so bitter after just under eight months of delirious expressions of sympathy for 9/11, when 100,000 Berliners spilled out in the now sealed-off area of the Brandenburg gate proclaiming they were all Americans in solidarity with US grief?

As European born, I am tempted to reflect on this reverse turn.

More than a decade ago, then-President George Bush Senior pontificated at large, "We need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons." By which I take him to have meant a politically obtuse and therefore compliant citizenry, exclusively absorbed by work and the daily challenges of private relations and their sentimental upkeep; committed to a vapid, feel-good ideology that sees in neighborliness, not laws, the cure for racism, sexism, and poverty; parochially sequestered to lives of mind-boggling disengagement from the fate of the empire they don't know they have.

In Italy, in the 30's, we had a word for this political quietism, the backbone of Mussolini's fascism -- "qualunquismo." It's a made-up noun from the adjective "qualunque," meaning "anyone," and it signifies the compelling desire to be like everybody else (Bernardo Bertolucci directed a great film in l970, "The Conformist," adapted from Alberto Moravia's novel, on the fascist-era's neurosis to want to lead assembly-line-constructed lives). Anti-intellectual to a fault, this citizenry would be obsessed by sameness, down to the pettiest last detail of fashion, morality, and thought -- the better to spot who's with them or against. This citizenry would be paranoid because difference would be criminalized. The paranoia, in turn, would be reinforced by media propaganda -- back then, fascist-controlled radio.

Since 9/11, under the son's usurped rule, Father Bush's wish has come true: 90 percent of Americans have gone to live on Walton Mountain. There, they seek their obsessive security at the expense of civil liberties, the rights of minorities, and the right to dissent. There, they buy Hallmark cards to send consumer love on Father's Day and Christmas. There, they see, hear, and speak no evil. There, they watch television and think they are free. They cannot consider that the US media reports the news from the perspective of power and not of people. There, they do not hear of a new study of ABC World News, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News which reveals that 92 percent of all US sources interviewed are white, 85 percent are male, and 75 percent are Republicans. They go on internalizing the values of this elite American ruling minority that denies them health care, a modern, useful education, affordable housing, a safe environment, job security, and a secure old age.

The Europeans have been there and done that -- the unity thing, the patriotic scam. It landed them in the bloodbath of World War II. Those Europeans not yet stricken by neo-fascist nostalgia still remember the rubble of their cities in which their flags burnt to ashes -- the hunger, the orphans, the skeletal survivors of the ovens and the prison camps -- the death. They have nightmares of Hiroshima. They remember, above all, the admonishment of the Nuremberg trials where they were instructed that human beings have international duties which transcend national borders.

They remade their world in the image of capitalism, but they thought they could remarry it with a dowry of treaties, international law, and human rights resolutions. No people were more zealous than the Americans in de-nazifying Europeans (while giving protection from prosecution to select Nazi criminals, to be sure, but all in the service of the Cold War and the guarantee of capitalist survival). At Bergen Belsen, General Eisenhower made sure that the camp's outlying populations would be forced to view the remains of the carnage so that they would not be able to deny the responsibility of their collusion by silence. No one preached to Europeans more insistently than Americans that modern nations were built on a free press, participatory democracy, civil rights, international law, and respect for treaties.

Being willing and apt pupils in gratitude for the bounty of the Marshall Plan (which, they didn't know made America even richer), Europeans embraced this grand international liberal rhetoric and never thought they would see a day (in spite of the evidence of US actions in Korea, Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, Indonesia, Chile, and the incessant meddling of the CIA in their own backyard) when the US would be misled by a know-nothing, accumulative megalomaniac, a throwback to one of their own destructive crowd spellbinders, illusionists of invulnerable power, murderous demagogues. They didn't know that capitalist history, in fact, must repeat itself in order to stay in history.

They woke up on January 29, 2002, on hearing the Texan say "axis of evil." It is hard for any European to explain exactly why this admittedly gross and lurid overstatement would sound the alarm bell that the fate of the world rested in the hands of a spoiled and stupid American child. At best, they can say that they remember an "axis" -- Berlin, Rome, Tokyo -- of which at least two members had the best-stocked, readiest, and most modern military death machines in the world. They were not ragged states at the periphery of power centers like North Korea (suspected to have been added to the list to disarm charges of racism against the Arab and Muslim world). The smartest US president since Abraham Lincoln used a diction that showed no consciousness of history or, indeed, of the proportions of reality.

Then, too, there was the questionable, cheap use of the word "evil." The Europeans had spent a generation after WW2 thinking about evil and the silence of God, as the true horror of the massification of death became known. We need only turn to the films of Ingmar Bergman, the essays of Albert Camus, and the plays of Jean Paul Sartre to gauge the monumental postwar cultural engagement with the thematics of evil. Evil, for Europeans, is something more frightening than the infantile, self-promotional murderous mayhem of a man with a vintage beard, making a fashion statement in traditional Arab-desert garb -- a movie villain whose evil announces itself unmistakably. Evil does not begin and end with a single, individual man. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, and Stanley Milgram verified in his famous obedience experiments in the 60's, evil is ordinary, even banal, men and women, whose moral equipment is too weak to resist following orders, doing their unquestioning duty, deferring moral responsibility to experts and leaders.

Evil, at any rate, cannot be reduced to a conveniently simplistic Satanic caricature for the consumption of right-wing, underdeveloped and superstitious minds. Europeans rejected the religious view of the world in 1789 -- not all of them, but enough to reaffirm the secular state after World War II. Today, only 5 percent of Spanish, 4 percent of Italians, and 12 percent of Britons attend church. The Vatican calls it the de-Christianization of Europe. By contrast, 45 percent of Americans attend church regularly.

The bourgeois democracies the Europeans reinvented would be civil societies -- free of the obscurantist stranglehold of churches. Their capitalism would be tolerant. The parliaments would work with the socialist and communist parties, allow them to have seats, co-opt them, of course, buy them out when possible, but certainly not send them to the electric chair or hammer them with questions of "Are you now or have you ever been..." Until recently, European states would support the welfare state so that the masses could be tolerable to live with. Bourgeois Europeans gave up a lot of the profit cake to create a credible, sustainable capitalism (at least in their own minds).

And after all their sacrifices and efforts, the Exxon King, Earl of Enron, Duke of Yucca starts babbling of axis and evil and unilateral nuclear strikes -- revealing the underbelly of the beast they had so carefully shrouded. He was spoiling it all with his return to the rhetoric of open imperialism and the most base jingoism. It's a question of form and decorum, always with the Europeans of the higher orders.

For people protesting in the streets, none of this is news. They are the Simpsons -- long pointing to the economic and moral fallout of the crisis of overproduction and the problem of the rate of profit of a senescent capitalism slouching toward the third world to be reborn, to recolonize, to pauperize here and abroad. They are irreverent: "Peace for the world and pretzels for Bush," their banners proclaim in Berlin. Also, "Bush the Warmonger" and "You Are Not A Berliner." If you ask them, they will spit out a litany of US-led policies that destabilize the world and make it hell for most people to live in: scrapping the Kyoto Environmental Protocol, the tariffs on steel, the unsigning of the International Criminal Court, the denial of the independence of Palestine, the treatment of Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners in Guantanamo, the death penalty, the Cuban blockade, the Iraqi sanctions, the bombing of Yugoslavia, the Nuclear Posture Review, globalization, the poverty of the Third World and insufficiency of aid, subversion of democracies across the globe, including the latest in Venezuela, the appalling US record on human rights, and its phony "war on terror."

The guardians of these disenchanted Simpsons, worry about their reelection. They hope against hope that the most popular president in US history will not make war on Iraq. Even the conservative challenger to Chancellor Schroeder, Edmund Stoiber, says that Germans in general do not see Iraq as a threat. Members of Schroeder's coalition, the Greens, were hissed and booed off the streets by protesters accusing them of hypocrisy for supporting the bombing of Afghanistan and now wanting to cash in on votes by denouncing the transatlantic warmonger. These days, a politician can't be too careful. Eighty members of the Bundestag refused to be present at Bush's speech, and they were replaced by eighty retired politicians to fill in the empty spaces.

Christopher Patten (UK), Tory self-confessed yanko-phile and commissioner for EU-US relations, exemplifies the perplexity and impotence of European rulers, "An abyss is opening between the Western allies. They disagree on an increasing number of issues, from the Middle East to the death penalty; from the environment to international justice. Are they still allies when one of the partners acts increasingly unilaterally?"

Good question. And while the Simpsons in Europe rattle the cages of their masters exposing the joke of the "war on terror," the good folks on Walton Mountain look forward to the Fourth of July when they can hang out more flags.

 
Luciana Bohne teaches film and literature at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. She welcomes comments at lbohne@edinboro.edu.

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