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Selfishness and greed motor the American Dream

by Philip Brasor

Watching the war in Iraq from the vantage point of Japan, you don’t get as much of the propaganda-like white noise that accompanies the coverage if you’re watching it from the United States or the Middle East. But that doesn’t mean you get less information.

The dispatches of Asahi Shimbun’s “embedded” reporter, Tsuyoshi Nojima, have been enlightening, though it’s clear that such reporters are obviously being used by the U.S. military for its own benefit. He describes the troops’ opinion of daily meals (pork chops suck; M&Ms are manna from heaven), the toilet routine, and the mixture of anxiety and exhilaration he feels when his U.S. hosts hit their targets. In one revealing anecdote, he tries to explain to his new American friends the great Mesopotamian civilization that once ruled the land they’ve invaded. The response is total apathy.

The TV coverage hasn’t been half as interesting, probably because it’s dominated by pundits. The military analysis is good, but the political side is a muddle, especially when it comes to analyzing the “neoconservatives” who provide the Bush administration with its philosophical underpinnings. Loaded terms such as “Christian fundamentalism” and “democratic empire” are tossed around with no regard for context. How exactly do these men reflect the will of the American public — if, in fact, they do?

Sometimes, you can find context where you wouldn’t expect it. NHK is now in the middle of a 10-part documentary series about the global economy. The third installment, which was broadcast March 30, focused on American competitiveness, but not in the usual business sense of the term. Instead, competiveness (or, in NHK’s parlance kyoso-shugi, literally “competition-ism”) was presented as a social phenomenon.

It’s not a novel idea, but, indirectly, the hourlong documentary provided insight into attitudes underlying the U.S. public’s support for the war, which is especially significant given that the program, completed only a few weeks ago, hardly mentioned Iraq at all.

The theme was isolation, specifically the kind you buy. Focusing on a “gated community” in California, the documentary showed how the American Dream is about keeping the rest of the world at bay. Achievements are measured not so much by wealth itself, but by one’s ability to hold on to that wealth.

Gated communities are expensive suburban housing developments that are physically closed to nonresidents. This kind of isolation produces what one person in the documentary called an “enclave mentality,” which is also not novel. Whenever homeowners anywhere in the world complain about the deterioration of a neighborhood, be it physical or economic, they express such a mentality. What’s novel is its commodification.

“This is part of our culture,” one resident said as she explained how “moving up” is the American way. Luck is just as important as ability is. Another resident, who emigrated to the United States from India, recently lost his job as an executive with a cosmetics company. He and his family require $20,000 a month to live on. He sends out dozens of job applications, and says that finding a job that will maintain such a high standard of living has more to do with fortuitous timing than experience.

Work — in the sense of getting paid for one’s labor — is no longer the primary means of maintaining this stability. One man, an employee of a technology company, said that he is no longer paid a salary, but instead receives company stock. He sees his job as keeping the share price as high as possible. (If you want a micro example of how a disaster like Enron could happen, here it is.)

What these people have in common is that they aspired to live in such a place. All started out relatively poor and worked their way up, which is the social model that neoconservatives like best, since it obviates the entitlements and big government they hate. Economically, these people are not the mainstream — 93 percent of America’s wealth is held by 20 percent of its citizens — but they epitomize the cultural identity that the current administration favors.

What makes this idea peculiarly American is the total absence of noblesse oblige, a concept that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would surely attribute to “the Old Europe.” More significant is the belief that success itself is a kind of zero-sum game. “We’ll enjoy this as long as we can,” said a woman right after she and her husband moved into one of the community’s huge, sprawling houses. The couple who lived in the house before them could no longer afford it.

Because it can all change tomorrow and not everyone can achieve the dream (though everyone is supposedly free to pursue it), protecting that dream is very important. “What’s the point of having gates?” complained one woman about a municipal proposal to build a new public school on land inside the community; a move that would mean nonresidents could enter. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see how such a defensive impulse can extrapolate into paranoia about threats to “our way of life.”

What the neocons share with the inhabitants of gated communities is a belief that everyone wants what they want (thus the attendant belief that the rest of the world “envies” America). Consequently, they openly admit that “extreme materialism,” as one woman puts it, is worth fighting for. According to conservative columnist George Will, it’s every American’s right to own a gas-guzzling SUV not because it’s a free country, but because they’re fun to drive.

What the program revealed, perhaps inadvertently, is a cultural attitude that equates achievement with the right to not have to listen to others’ opinions. As long as you’re on top, you can ignore everyone else. The only scene in the documentary that included a reference to the war showed a man jogging on a treadmill with the TV in the background reporting troop buildups. He looked as if he was in his own little world.