The View on America

Mar 4, 2006 by

HAROLD PINTER, the 2005 recipient of the Nobel Literature Prize, dedicated only a small portion of his December 8 acceptance speech to literature. Instead the bulk of his speech dealt with U.S. foreign policy since World War II and the way the United States disguises its crimes and hypnotizes the public through crafty rhetoric into believing it is a force for good. He felt it necessary to use his platform to scrutinize the U.S. because as he said, unlike the crimes of other recent powerful aggressors such as the Soviet Union, U.S. crimes have only been superficially recorded and acknowledged.

To the many Americans who believe that the Democrats represent the dissident left in the U.S., Pinter’s speech may sound semi-insane. Here is a man announcing before the Swedish Academy that the United States “supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War,” that the Iraq invasion was a “bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism” and that the “crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, [and] remorseless.”

Now one thing you realize once you move out of the United States is that such attitudes are not fringe beliefs. At least in Cyprus, few would contest the claim that the U.S. invaded Iraq to gain control over the oil reserves and to consolidate power in the region; and Cypriots—who have experienced their share of real security threats—find the notion that Iraq posed a threat to the superpower a comic piece of absurdity. In fact, it is so widely accepted that, beneath the missionary façade, the U.S. is purely in the business of empire-building and profiteering that it is as blasé to mention as a Bush joke.

But although many of the foreign policy illusions that prevail in the U.S. due to the scope and sophistication of its domestic propaganda system do not exist in Cyprus, the island is rife with other illusions about America.

One illusion is that the U.S. is a police state that silences dissenters. It is common, especially among Europeans, to scoff at the claim that the U.S. is a free and open society. This is usually because they define “free” or “open” in some vague non-political sense meaning “liberated from fears and psychological fetters” or “expressive.” But an open society does not refer to whether or not its citizens take an untamed laissez faire approach to life or whether they gesticulate and yell at each other when they argue. It has to do with whether or not they have the political freedom (regardless of how much it is exercised) to say things distasteful to the ruling class without getting chucked into jail or shot in the back of the neck while in bed.

Despite the recent curtailment of civil liberties, which includes the shameful World War II style internment of Arab-Americans, the US is not a police state. The US government has not incarcerated Michael Moore for presenting Bush as an inept buffoon in Fahrenheit 911, nor has the FBI assassinated Noam Chomsky for his relentless analytic assault and condemnation of the nation’s leadership and policies, something that in other countries would have landed him prison time or a rendezvous with the chopping block.

In the U.S., as elsewhere, unacceptable views may lead to your losing your job or being ignored by the mass media but you will not be deprived of life and liberty. There are exceptions—especially if you represent a movement that threatens the economic order of the society as with Black Panther leader Fred Hampton—but considering that the mere publication of a racist cartoon in a Danish newspaper can prompt killings and mass riots in other countries or that a novelist can be tried for the crime of ‘insulting Turkish identity’ after making a few statements about Armenians and Kurds, the freedom of speech that Americans won through popular struggle should not be glossed over.

Another claim, although more fashionable in mainland European circles than in Cyprus, is that “Americans are dumb,” a phrase that often tempts me to reciprocate in sentiment by hanging an American flag, along with my naked behind, out of my window. Such clairvoyant proclamations about the intellectual capacity of 300 million people generally come from people who have never been to the U.S. and who are merely swallowing and regurgitating trendy drivel. But the hare-brained insult, which is often followed by “because they voted for Bush” does also reflect the incredulity at how around half of American voters could have chosen George W. Bush—for the second time—as their president.

But what is often unrecognized, and what you can only understand if you live in the U.S., is that without the gutter media to terrify the American public into thinking that it was under a grave threat that could only be warded off by a strong, capable, no-nonsense war leader—which of course Bush was portrayed as—the emperor without clothes would never have been elected.

Other bits of fantasy that I have heard is that Bush is working with Bin Laden, who is “probably living in luxury in America,” and that Kofi Annan takes direct orders from Washington. Though nowhere near as absurd as the Bin Laden claim, the notion that the U.N. is no more than the U.S. dressed up in international drag is untrue, which is precisely why Bush and the moneyed class he works for are so hostile to the U.N.

Despite the occasional loutish remark, people in Cyprus do not generally dislike Americans. In fact, due to the great distance between the U.S. and Cyprus, Americans are something of a rarity and a welcome curiosity on the island. There is an aura of mystique about the U.S., which has something to do with the land of prosperity myth and Hollywood, which gives the impression that the U.S. is full of car chases, gun fights, slinky babes and unending thrill.

And Cypriots, who are increasingly under the impression that the world fashion capital is Nicosia, bear none of that hypocritical scorn towards American consumerism that is so common elsewhere by people who—if only given the opportunity—would unabashedly commit themselves to a gas-guzzling, fashion-frenzied, gadget-buying existence.

The American language and accent, which is a novelty due to the British prevalence on the island, is also popular among Cypriots, who love to bandy words like “fuzzbuster” and “weedwacker” and imitate the swaggering thickjawed “how ya doin’ partner’ American who has never existed outside of old Hollywood westerns.

There is also a perception on the island—mostly on part of the island’s British population, who as a people understand better than anyone about the decline of empires—that Americans lack cynicism and jadedness. Americans are seen as over-optimistic, over-self confident, and always ready to promote themselves with their stack of business cards and I-can-do-anything attitude, something that to the British community seems at once naïve, refreshing and silly.

Although such perceptions are often formed after meeting Americans, they are almost exclusively the result of meeting middle to upper class Americans who have the economic liberty to travel and the gungho attitude that goes with it. But due to the economic and social system of the U.S., which is correctly seen by Europeans as scandalous for a nation of such wealth, a large number of Americans who have it rough will never be seen and therefore never represented or reflected in the perceptions of ‘the Americans.’ When most of the world thinks of America they imagine lavish film sets, immaculate bombers, pearly-toothed entrepreneurs, and of course a strutting George Bush, but they do not see the vast groaning underworld that stands like a mute Atlas beneath it all.

It is this America—the unseen America that in all its dizzying array can be found in the Appalachian hills and New England mill towns and isolated Native American reservations and ailing Midwestern farms and ghettos of Chicago—that makes the U.S. an infinitely more complex and interesting place than the one-liners it is often reduced to.

Only when this invisible America is recognized and considered will one be able to say anything about ‘the Americans’ without sounding like a parrot in a cage.

 

‘The Anglo-American Conspiracy’

Among Greek Cypriots you learn quickly that there is this evil cloud looming over Cyprus called the ‘Anglo-American conspiracy.’ It amounts to something like this: the U.S. and Britain are perpetually plotting to undermine Cyprus by keeping the island divided or by handing it over to Turkey.

There is no denying that the U.S. and former colonial master Britain have played a dirty role in Cyprus. It is also no secret that the U.S. (and by extension Britain) is on chummy terms with Turkey, as it is with the other two major recipients of US military aid in the region, Israel and Egypt. But while an Iraqi might justifiably talk about an ‘Anglo-American conspiracy,’ references to any such present conspiracy regarding Cyprus smacks of a government smokescreen.

Foreign conspiracies, like foreign threats, are excellent for the ruling class, because it allows them to pawn off on a distant group of schemers the miserable bog into which they themselves have herded the country. The public is more apt to huddle under the willing wing of a so-called strong leader if it seems like the great powers are conniving to ruin their lives.

Although the longer one stays in Cyprus, the more compelling the Cypriocentric worldview becomes [the sun and planets revolve around Cyprus], one realizes upon leaving the island that perhaps Galileo was right after all. It turns out that Cyprus is not the top foreign policy priority for Britain and the U.S., which are presently too busy causing havoc elsewhere to be as dedicated to subverting the Cyprus Republic as many believe.

It is true that Britain, which has two bases in Cyprus, would oppose any reunification plan requiring that they pack up their bases and go. But an ‘Anglo-American conspiracy’ in Cyprus, while perhaps defensible three or four decades ago, has now merely become, as a friend recently called it, the ‘caramel of the politicians.’

A recent example of how the Cyprus government invoked the ‘Anglo-American conspiracy’ was when the Cyprus government accused the U.S. of funding the ‘yes’ vote to the Annan Plan through the United Nations Development Organization UNOPS. A chain of bad journalism resulted in a report that the U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher had admitted that the U.S. possessed a secret list of Cypriots on both sides of the Green Line whom it had bribed to support the Annan Plan.

This ‘report,’ which the journalist Makarios Droushiotis would later expose as an utter falsehood, was enthusiastically picked up by the Greek Cypriot media and politicians, who then began an ugly smear campaign against these “paid agents of the Americans,” among whom were a veterinary services director, a headmistress and a girl scouts coordinator. The subversive programs being funded with millions of dollars meanwhile included cancer and Alzheimer’s research, assistance for dyslexics, waste management, and a shady conspiracy to protect the sea turtle.

Something similar happened in the U.S. media just before the Gulf War when a weeping 15-year old Kuwaiti girl, whose identity was being withheld allegedly to protect her family in Kuwait, testified that she witnessed Iraqi soldiers ripping newborn Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and leaving them on the cold floor to die. The testimony was reported as fact. As a result, numerous Americans who had been opposed to any invasion of Iraq suddenly favored an invasion, outraged at the grotesque inhumanity of the Iraqi soldiers. Only later, through the efforts of a Canadian journalist and the Harper’s magazine publisher, was it discovered that the young woman who had testified was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States.

On a Cyprus-related chat site someone recently claimed that the Cyprus Mail—the newspaper I write for—is “funded by the Americans.” Presumably he said this because the newspaper is not a government mouthpiece, which for him implies it is part of the Anglo-American conspiracy. The logic is the same as the well known “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” The only difference is that in one you have a neat universe of good guys and terrorists, and in the other of good guys and paid agents.

In Cyprus there has been no solution to the division for so many decades partly because any reunification would require a shift of power and those in power who have congealed their public persona based on the division do not want to lose their authority. Without the Cyprus problem to solemnly orate about, they would also face the added burden of having to write fresh speeches. So the best way for them to ensure that nothing changes under the sun is to blame everyone and perpetually play the embattled victim.

The victim mentality is strong in Cyprus and wins a lot of sympathy, in part because the history of the strategically situated island of Cyprus is indeed one of endless invasion and occupation. Like the petty officer’s daughter who grew up in the barracks, everyone wants in on the action. But the ‘rape of Cyprus’ can also be invoked as a crutch to thwart self-critique. And one begins to detect a touch of insularity and self-pity after repeatedly hearing to a chorus of sighs that Cypriots “suffer the most in all of Europe” or “are the unluckiest people in the world,” especially when at the same moment a Filipino ‘domestic assistant’ is scrubbing the kitchen counter.

Cypriots have been indeed been victims of outside powers and the conflict on the island that culminated in a coup and invasion was largely due to the machinations of the three guarantor powers—Britain, Greece, and Turkey—who under the approving gaze of the United States have in sum managed to guarantee nothing but inaction, ethnic violence and perpetual occupation.

But Cypriots have also been victims of another group, one that opposes unification of the island but has nothing to do with an ‘Anglo-American conspiracy.’ It has to do with leaders who do not want to give up their political clout and with real estate developers who, pound signs in their eyes, fear a drop in value of their booming southern coastline properties or, north of the Green Line, the loss of their phony title deeds.

And Cypriots have increasingly become victims of a subtler adversary but perhaps the most dangerous one in the long run: the defeatist victim-mindset that has become the standard conception of Cypriot identity.  The result is a perpetual state of follow-the-leader inaction which—Anglo-American conspiracy or not—only guarantees more domination and less real sovereignty.

Constantine Markides

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1 Comment

  1. Michael-John Tavantzis

    I really enjoyed the first part of this. It is a refreshing look at foriegn attitude towards the US. ‘American Pictures’, created by a European, is a good example of this part of America: http://www.american-pictures.com/english/index.html

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