Friday, May 19, 2006


In the last post, I mentioned that about fifty percent of Americans don't believe in evolution. One might dismiss this as another deplorable instance of religious fundamentalism that seems to be sweeping the world in general. But fifty percent of the scientifically most advanced nation in the world?? This kind of large scale belief in many issues purely based on faith, in the face of overwhelming evidence that shows otherwise, seems to be unique to America. Why is this?
9/11 notwithstanding, Americans seem to be some of the most afraid people in the world. This fear is subtle and general and not always evident. In spite of an unprecedented history of security in which not a single international war took its toll on American people on their own soil (It's instructive to note that during WW2 for example, a total of about 300,000 American soldiers lost their lives, while that many Soviet soldiers were killed in a single battle), and even in a current world where many other nations live in a much greater shadow of terror, Americans still seem to be living in an envelope of fear. One can easily argue that a general belief in religion, creationism etc. is a direct result of this state of fear- people turn to god because only that can be the one manufactured certainty. It's a foregone conclusion that the American government is in no small way responsible for capitalizing on this paranoia. Michael Moore has documented this phenomenon pretty well in his documentary, some hyperbole notwithstanding. In fact, many governments have twisted such situations to their advantage throughout history.

Why are Americans so afraid, and so ready to believe in most things which their government imposes on them? I believe it is a confluence of many factors. One surely must be economic prosperity, which simply removes the burden of becoming alert and aware international citizens from their shoulders. If everything is well at home, why would the average citizen pay attention to what it is happening in the world, even if all that can also potentially happen in his own country? I am not saying that blissful ignorance is a necessary consequence of economic security; I only think that it is so in the case of the US. America had never had a taste of terrorism, and so Americans extrapolated and thought that they probably would not even in the future. This was in spite of the bombing of the American embassies in Africa, as well as the attack on American troops in Lebanon in the 1980s. Probably again, until apocalypse actually comes trotting to your doorstep, you can blissfully shut your door and surround yourself with toys and entertainment, and a warm illusion of peace. Because Americans have never faced terror at home, once they do, they cannot independently evaluate threats for themselves because of 'lack of experience', and so have to trust their government to tell them what's dangerous and what's not. If this attitude was present in the beginning, it was only exacerbated with the arrival of the Bush administration. It hardly needs to be enumerated that people want to turn to sources of reassuring certainty in such times, and what better cocoon of warm certainty than religion? After all, the 'only' thing science has to offer is a tentative, uncertain future, based on the best current data. Religion offers a much more pervasive druglike miasma of faith and belief, no matter that in the end, it is simply the farthest thing from reality that we can imagine. After all, every man has his own reality. One only wishes that this false vision of reality does not lead him to harm other human beings, an expectation that sadly cannot be substantiated from history. Sometimes, people need to only close their eyes to blind themselves from reality and see their own version of it, and that's what they have been largely doing, again because few events have jolted them out of it.

Noam Chomsky thinks that the reasons for Americans' fear lies in history. Michael Moore also has enumerated this factor in his film. Moore thinks that Americans have always been afraid of something right from the beginning; first it was the British, then the slaves, then the Soviets and nuclear war, and so on it extended to killer bees from the South, deadly viruses in their food supply, and serial killers lurking at every corner. The high crime rate in the 80s and 90s did not help to dispel such kind of fear. Interestingly, if this fear encouraged common Americans to own guns, then it ironically really made their world a dangerous one, except that now they had themselves to fear. More paranoia which the government and media handsomely capitalized on in the form of propaganda.
Chomsky also thinks that Americans have an unspoken fear of retribution for their actions. He is refering mainly to the imperialistic-like policies that the US implemented after the Second World War, especially in Vietnam and Latin America. He thinks that somewhere, Americans know that they have meted out injustice under the guise of spreading freedom and democracy, and this past is coming back to haunt them. Actually this is true, and there are obviously many foreign states who think of American governments as hypocritical and brutal entities, who have conveniently hid behind a facade. I agree that in fact, this may be what's truly happening. But I am not sure I agree that this is what the people think is happening. I am not sure how many people are even truly aware of American foreign policy, say during the 1980s, and I feel that an even lesser number of people would think that their government really deserves to be punished for those actions.

Most importantly, I concur with a point Richard Dawkins makes, in which he questions why such fundamentalist and regressive beliefs are common especially in the US, compared with Europe and the UK. In no other developed nation to my knowledge, is the creationism-evolution fiasco such a visible, bitter and resounding debate for example. Dawkins thinks that religious fundamentalist and evangelical people exist everywhere, but it's only in the US that such people much more frequently and in much greater numbers actually come to power. I quite agree on this, and one just has to take a look at the current administration's members to see examples of this stunted tunnel vision and misguided conservatism prevalent in the government. But it's also a vicious cycle, because after all, it's the people, half of whom are misguided, who elect the government. The government in turn manufactures their consent, which would ensure that they elect the same kinds of leaders in the next election. Why do the people elect such leaders to power? Again, I think it has to do with some of the former reasons. Perhaps they think that being a religious fundamentalist has nothing to do with good and sensible governance, because they have never had a taste of what kind of a dictator to his own people a fundamentalist leader can be. Apart from isolated incidents, Americans have never experienced extreme actions directly wrought by a fundmanetalist leader. Most people don't care whether evolution or creationism is taught in school, because it has never directly had an impact on their daily life as such. Unfortunately, such issues always have a more general and greater impact that goes beyond their immediate context, and the most insidious consequences are also usually the slowest, quietly eating into the foundations of education, politics, and social progress. This needs to be understood.

Sometimes, the only remedy for getting out of this cycle seems to be Newton's 'external, unbalanced force'. The Arab oil embargo in the 70s suddenly made Americans realise their obsequious dependence on foreign oil, a realisation that was very quickly lost though. 9/11 was a hideous and tragic event. One surely cannot wish for such events. But one of the great truisms of humanity, is that good comes out of the most depressing and shocking circumstances. Sometimes the good is simple awareness. Awareness can come from things much less dramatic than terrorism and oil embargoes. And that's what is needed now. No matter how complicated and hopeless matters seem, I believe that putting the pressure on and quietly but relentlessly fighting, will always continue to be a successful if slow remedy for spreading awareness, and it should be so especially in a country where freedom of speech has at least traditionally been respected.


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