The 21st Century: American Dreams? European Imagination? Asian Contempt?


© Terry Boardman  September 1997


The recent death of Diana, Princess of Wales has led many in the media to claim that ‘a quiet revolution’ has been taking place in Britain, and that Diana was a symbol of this. We now have a chance to consider Britain’s identity, they say, where we want to go as a people in the 21st century, and they reflect on how we are becoming more ‘feminine’, ‘compassionate’, ‘emotional’, letting it ‘all hang out’; how we are more ‘democratic’ and direct, less deferential, altogether more ‘modern’ – in a word, more like Americans. Andrew Sullivan, writing in the Sunday Times (6 Sept) claimed, with some justification,  Diana as ‘an American princess’. “She was following an American script,” he wrote, “and a highly contemporary one.” But do we all want to follow ‘an American script’? Do we have any choice in the matter? Or is the American script inevitable? Is there no alternative? Diana could arguably be called the princess, and the most prominent victim, of virtual reality culture, and this culture of virtual images is indeed largely an American development. Is it Hollywood’s virtual reality world of images that the British  wish to inhabit? Are we incapable of handling reality anymore?

When are we going to realise that the tide of violence and sexual licence which so many in the media and elsewhere  are wringing their hands about (whilst at the same time actively promoting!) is very largely a result of our infatuation with America? And when are we  – politicians, policemen, businesspeople, social thinkers, mediafolk, all of us – going to stop looking automatically to America for answers, and look instead, within ourselves? So much of American culture – the part that may be called “kulcha” -  IS violent, aggressive, competitive, macho, anally-obsessed. We know this, we have had ample  evidence of it, so why do we go on worshipping at this godless temple? The images of America, the Hollywood stars (our new cultural aristocracy), American academic and business gurus (the new cardinals) the cultural icons (from the Coca-Cola can and Levis to the Manhattan skyline) -  they all take us out beyond ourselves into a Neo-Mad’n'evil Universe; we have got used to looking up to the Vast Beyond that is America, the Unholy Roman Empire of our age. From before World War II when we became besotted with Hollywood cowboys and the frantic driving pulses of jazz music through to the “kulcha” of American rock ‘n’ roll and war movies of the ’50s on to the almost ludicrous superviolence of Hollywood trash movies of the 70s and 80s, we have given up on much of our own British and European culture, convinced that the hyped-up mayhem of Americana is somehow “modern”.

A Modern Merry Kulcha?
It is not truly modern. A great deal of American kulcha is actually in its spirit stuck in the 18th or 19th, sometimes even the 17th century. America’s very stance in the world – “we are the best” or “America the land of divine Providence” (as Colin Powell repeated at last year’s Republican Party convention) ” – comes from its 18th century Founders’ utopianism. There is nothing modern in Americans’ sentimental and anachronistic jingoism. There is nothing modern in Americans’ love of guns, their insecurity and fear of each other. It is but an angry old English individualism writ large. It was predominantly English values that created America in the 18th century – the values of self-centred English settlers, frustrated with the stuffiness of their tight little isle, led to the attitude of “This is MY land; I do what I want here, so keep off my 10 (or 10,000) acres or I’ll blow you away!”

 In Britain, the harshness of the Industrial Revolution  gave rise to a moral indignation and revulsion out of which the Labour and Socialist movements were born. These contributed greatly to a new sense of the importance of community in British life which has since balanced the selfish individualism of the early 19th century. But in America, there was always the possibility that if you did not like society, the country was big enough for you to go elsewhere and either found your own society (e.g. the Mormons and others) or live alone on a spacious farmstead. The labour and socialist movements did not grow to the same extent as in Europe where the more cramped conditions forced society to find social alternatives to mere egoism. American values thus remained largely those of the early 1800s, of the frontiersman and the pioneer – the rugged individualist, and Hollywood later amplified the theme.

Easy Ride on the Superhighway?
Businessmen look to America for the latest management techniques; we all look to Bill Gates and other American computer whizzkids to tell us how to drive down American-style superhighways to a super American-style future, but so many of the ideas of these American gurus and their cutthroat version of capitalism are again rooted in the individualism of the 18th century. One only needs to look at the views expressed every week by that propaganda strumpet of American values, “The Economist” of London. It speaks of the new world we have entered since the demise of Communism, of the electronic 21st century etc etc, of the superiority of American, of “Anglo-saxon” and “Enlightenment” values, and yet its own economic dogma of a Darwinian struggle of the fittest is rooted in the 18th and early 19th centuries; amidst all the media hype about the 21st century and the millenium, new this, new that, no-one asks how the 19th century Darwinism beloved by so many in the media is justified for the 21st century. There is nothing new in the substance, in the basic groundwork of American economic philosophy; only the language of slogans and buzzwords appears to be modern because of its abstractionism.

America’s kulcha of individual freedom and rights has turned into its opposite – into one of fear and insecurity, where everyman suspects his neighbour and looks to the law and the state for protection and redress. There is also the cruel irony that America’s trivialising Mickey Mouse kulcha of youth and childhood -itself a product and a sign of Americans’ awareness of the lively immaturity of their own society – has led to a situation where adults never know when they are going to be murdered or assaulted by their own children. This is not to say that Hollywood has not produced a number of fine and serious truly adult films, but they are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of the dross which clearly appeals to a greater number of Americans.

We have been told a million times that America is the land of freedom and opportunity. We have been “sold” the American line that ‘freedom’ means ‘freedom to do’ rather than ‘freedom to think’. Was Solzhenitsyn unfree when he was in the Gulag? From the American point of view, yes. But actually, as long as he was not brainwashed, he was free to think, and it was that true freedom that kept him human and led to his achievements and contribution to humanity. When individual freedom is not accompanied by a personal spiritual sense of responsibility, people will eventually obey every crazy thought that comes into their heads. This “why the hell not” attitude has been spread by American kulcha throughout the world. “Why don’t we do it in the road?” sang the Beatles, who had idolised American pop stars, and this sentiment, this fixation on what is between the legs has been spread through the world via American kulcha. Why are drugs today such a problem? Where did the modern drug problem come from? Largely from the association with American popular kulcha, first jazz and then pop and rock music. The drug kulcha was then legitimised by American intellectuals such as Timothy Leary and Carlos Castenada, who consciously propagated drugs as a way to experience a higher reality – a dependence on the greater force of nature to do it for you instead of relying on your own inner force.

Out There – In Here

Here we come to the nub of the problem, for the American worship of the individual paradoxically leads to seeking answers in powerful FORCES, in external ways which overwhelm – in technology (fast cars, rocketry, computers) or nature forces (drugs, sexual licence). This “culture” of force actually works to negate the individual and remove the quiet space which the individual needs to think and contemplate. Out of this calm centre comes real freedom. The American solution to problems is always OUT THERE, whereas in fact the answer is invariably IN HERE. Many modern American psychotherapies are based, not on American or western approaches, but on the ancient knowledge of American Indians or of Asian spiritual disciplines; the answer is sought out there, beyond me, beyond my culture. Such psychotherapies may produce more efficient, seemingly ‘centred’ businesspeople, but all too often they still do not question the fundaments of American business practice. They simply practise them less stressfully and more personably.

The central problem of the modern world in the late 20th century is essentially a spiritual one. We seek the divine, something greater than ourselves, even if we do not realise it. Many of us, particularly the so-called liberal agnostics and atheists, may not want to admit it in this secular humanist age, but that is what we seek deep down, some evidence that such exists, something ‘exciting’, that takes us beyond ourselves, if only for the duration of a Hollywood movie. We are too idle to think for ourselves, to realise that thinking is itself a spark of divinity within us, so we look for the spiritual in what is vast and overwhelming, whether it be sex, drugs, rock ‘n’roll or technological gimmickry; we wish to be driven and not to drive. American kulcha IS vast and overwhelming, and we rush to immerse ouselves in it – the latest movie, the latest computer, the latest kinky novel, the latest fashion.

American kulcha  is dominated by images of FORCE and POWER. These are of “Almighty God”. In America we feel subconsciously the power of the Father God, God the Omnipotent. We feel titanic forces, of creation and destruction, mostly the latter. Sweep me away God, erase my troublesome sense of self, this hard-won gain of centuries! So many of us do not really believe in real individuality. We wish only to belong, to conform, to be ‘hip’, ‘cool’, ‘bad’, ‘wicked’, and thus fashionable, i.e. one of the crowd: e pluribus unum (out of the many, one). From the Bible belt certainties of fundamentalists to the mawkish God-Bless-America sentimentality of Clintonesque liberals, so much of America is The Old Old Testament – of the chosen people under Providence and the forceful commandments of a mighty Machogod. There is little of the New Testament, little Christianity in the American Way. What is truly Christian in American society today comes precisely in what is NOT of the conventional picture of the American Way, in what is NOT  the exponentially expanding materialism of the American Dream. The truly Christian in America is to be found in the suffering and the victories of individuals and communities in America who have left the American Way and found themselves, people who know that it is more important to be a human being than to be a redneck, a feminist, a flag-waver.

Imperator Juvenalis

This is no criticism of the American people, but only of AmericanISM, which is not what America could be; Mark Twain would have despaired of it. It is a criticism of the presumption that America is fit to rule the world although the national community of America is not mature enough for the task.  This is an appeal to individuals who live in Britain, in Europe, not to lose confidence in their own path of destiny and sense of self. They need to recognise that America is a juvenile country; while it may have the vitality of youth, it has little maturity as a society, little depth, and almost zero humility. Americans, many of whom give the impression of living on an enormous island, ignorant of the rest of the world, need more humility vis-a-vis the rest of the world. They are in the unfortunate position of a people who have been forced by their own elites into donning a world imperial mantle before they deserved it or were ready for it. With a history of only 120 years behind them and only 33 years after the end of their own appallingly savage and divisive Civil War, they began to strut their stuff on the world stage in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Their elites  pushed them into this prematurely rather than giving them a dozen generations of peace and non-involvement in which they could really get over the wounds of the Civil War and develop their community’s substance. A combination of European stupidity and the greedy and envious ambition of American elites brought America to the pinnacle of world power just 50 years after 1898. What America should have been doing in those years was keeping itself to itself and developing its own maturity.

Instead, we see a society that reminds us not so much of the “mature” Rome of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius as of the earlier more decadent Rome  of Nero and Caligula, a Rome that becomes inwardly ever more decadent as its outer power grows. The world unhappily is dominated by a prematurely powerful and juvenile nation. But an ability to make powerful machines through the force of intellect (though the force may be American, the intellect is a gift of Europe and Asia) does not entitle Americans to lecture other cultures on how to run their societies, any more than a 14 year-old chess or computer genius should presume to tell his elders how to run society and order their lives. He may be intellectually precocious yet emotionally stunted and amoral.

Euro-fears run deep

In addition to the power of the US dollar and the subconscious shame felt by many Europeans about the European Civil War 1914-45 which the Americans decided to save us from, there is another factor which drives Europeans to look to America for salvation. Deep down, Europeans have always been afraid of “the East”. Though liberals like to shout ‘mea culpa’ because of the Crusades and later European imperialism which lasted nearly 500 years (1500-2000), they too easily forget that from the Huns in the 4th century, the Arabs in the 7th and 8th, to the Mongols in the 13th, and the Turks until 1685, Europe was under threat from Asia for 1200 years. Europeans feared, and not without reason, that their new individualising culture would be overwhelmed by the ancient collectivisms of Asia. Today, they look uneasily at the burgeoning power of China, the next “threat” whose name the western media dare not speak too loudly for fear of losing too many fat Chinese contracts for western companies. They also look uneasily at what their media insinuate or declare is the growing and dangerous power of Islamic countries.

There are powerful and influential forces working though the Anglo-American media which have an interest in tapping this subconsious western fear of “the East”. It is largely these forces which are driving us all further, faster towards the safe brawny arms of those virtual if not virtuous all-American heroes Uncle Sam, Superman, Batman, Rambo. Robocop, Terminator and the rest. “American brain and brawn will save us, as it did in 1917 and 1944″. We are not far now from the day when some kind of northern hemisphere confederation, led and controlled by America, will unite to defend itself against some imagined 21st century assault from Asia. Fear and a chronic lack of imagination will drive Europeans into such a disastrous arrangement. What we in Europe really need to recognise is that historically and culturally we stand between the extreme individualism of America and the extreme collectivism of Asia, and we also contain that polarity within our own continent – from the individualist instincts of the English to the more communal and social instincts of the Russians; in the middle, looking both ways, the Janus-headed Germans.

Europe’s Threefold Ideal

To align ourselves categorically with either America or Asia out of fear would be a colossal error and unworthy of Europe’s history. On the contrary, we need above all – and especially here in Britain where the modern commercial and industrial economy took off – to develop new thinking, both individual and social, which can truly realise the meaning of that great European idea which was blocked by the calamity of the French Revolution, namely, “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity”. Those ideals were not the product of the French Revolution, nor even of the so-called “Enlightenment”. Rather, they were frustrated by the Revolution. They arose at the end of the 18th century as the inexorable result of European, indeed all human, historical development – a process in which politics and economy had first been subject to the spiritual sphere and then had progressively emancipated themselves from it, demanding, and to a limited extent obtaining, their own autonomy.

These three ideals, or rather, this association of the three, is infinitely profound and creatively archetypal. Unlike the ideas of Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, David Ricardo, and Erasmus Darwin, not to mention the Freemasonic framers of the US Constitution, they reach far beyond a late 18th century reality, but they have remained only slogans. We have not consciously worked with them or sought to realise what they signify. They remain on the drawing board, a blueprint for a building that was never constructed. In the 19th century, many tried, consciously or unconsciously to bring fraternity into being. Socialism and Communism, even Fascism in its way, can be seen in part as abortive and mistaken efforts to realise the ideal of fraternity, and to allow fraternity to take its place beside the modicum of liberty and equality which had already been achieved. The totalitarian attempts to realise fraternity have failed, but we still need to turn the three ideals into practical social realities: liberty in the cultural, religious and artistic sphere, equality in the sphere of law and rights, fraternity and service to each other and to the planet in the sphere of economics. This means: a) a recognition of the fact of the world economy which has emerged in this century; we all depend on each other in this world economy. It must therefore be open and world-spanning; b) a respect for the differing national traditions and customs of law and rights, which reflect the individual histories of particular communities; “when in Rome, do as the Romans do, and not as the UN insists”; c) a firm acknowledgement of the need for absolute individual freedom to think and create in the spiritual-cultural sphere.

We failed to realise that the three realms of society each need their own independence and way of working, while yet remaining interrelated. Clinging to old monotheistic and monopolistic habits, we sought to make the three subservient to one. The Communists in the East made them subservient to the Political State; the result was disaster for the cultural and economic life, and eventually, for the political state itself. The capitalists in the West, and especially in America, have made them subservient to the Economy, an economy not based on the true economic principle of service to one’s fellows, which is fraternity, but on the cultural principle of liberty and freedom – the “free” market in which we are “free” to be wage slaves, selling ourselves and our labour, “free” to exploit our fellows with all the artifice we can think of, “free” to gamble on the stock market. The result, as we are being forced by events to realise, will be disaster for the cultural and political life, as well as for the Economy itself.

It is not unitarianism (one over two) we need, but a genuine threefolding (three-as-one). If we can realise this in our social arrangements, we shall create a newly moral society, which can gain the respect of Asia. If we do not do it, Asia will indeed eventually return to the assault, compelled by its own deeply-held religious and spiritual instincts to eliminate such an immoral society as we are now allowing to develop. Asia currently borrows the ideas for most of its material and financial technology from the West; it may even mouth the western economic dogmas of the free market and the survival of the fittest etc, but very many Japanese, Chinese, Indians, and Arabs, deep down, do not believe any of it. Like the Japanese, in their century of modernisation from 1853-1945, many Asians borrow from the West in order the better to be able to bury us and what they deem to be our pernicious and inhuman civilisation and wipe its stain from history. And if we continue to be mesmerised by the awesome but immoral power and the glitzy trivialising glamour of Americanism today, if we ignore what Europe can contribute out of the depths of its creative imagination, then Asia will replace us, and open another chapter in human development.

This page was first uploaded Dec 1999. Last updated 1.7.2012