I suffered an epiphany this morning. It was not a pleasant experience. I realized, slowly, incrementally, and mind-ragingly unavoidably, that former Soviet Gorbachev had our number down pat. In many ways, he was the modern Alexis de-Tocquville, being able to observe our country far more accurately and honestly than we.
While Alexis admired us, and looked at us in awe, he also saw the unnecessary roughness, greed, and the corrosive impact of religion on our country. He viewed our prisons, and worked hard to learn about life of the common man. He strongly felt that "a mild, stagnant despotism was the greatest threat to democracy," and that Americans might be willing to allow despotism as the easiest solution to an immediate problem.
Gorbachev, the Soviet Prime Minister who led the eventual destruction of the USSR, was a communist in the Lenin-styled ideal, not the failed caricature that the USSR had become in the end. He felt that communism would bring freedom, enlightenment, and democracy to a country that sought it. He also feared that the USA would teach Russia the wrong lessons, not about democracy, but about greed, unbridled capitalism, and even greater inequality between people.
Today, when Gorbachev speaks with regret, he frequently mentions Vladimir Putin and his puppet, Medvedev, as signs that a country might have taken the wrong path. While he congratulated Putin on stopping economic chaos, the attacks on the free press, the erosion of demcoracy, and the increase in the state security apparatus are all signs of failure.
Gorbachev's views on the US are particularly telling. He predicted that the Soviet Union (before its fall), would inch ever closer to a democracy and capitalism, while the US would inch ever closer to the worst parts of socialism.
From a depressing point of view, Gorbachev was right on both counts.
Because my parents escaped from eastern Europe during WWII, which then became part of the Soviet Union, more than most people, I was taught about the evils of Socialism and even more, the evils of the USSR. Given the many relatives I lost in Siberia (who I never met, only only heard of in passing from my eldest relatives here) and the nuclear danger that the USSR posed, it was easy to swallow those lessons whole, without chewing or analysis.
Simply put, I, like many here, was taught a simple equation: USA = Good. USSR = Bad.
Listening to Ronald Reagan describe our sworn enemy as the Evil Empire both energized me, and shocked me enough to rethink what exactly the USSR represented.
In 1976, I attended a summer at university in the Soviet Union, learning the language, culture, history, and more importantly, American history from their point of view. (I never suspected that the South represented the future collective socialist society, and how it was unfortunate that the bourgeois used their economic power to stop it in its tracks). Without seeing socialism at work, up close and in person, I doubt that I would have voted for Ronald Reagan the first time. But I did, and my first vote has bothered me ever since.
In my spare time, I walked. Museums, cultural events, bars, former churches, mosques, and temples, I met many people, and learned a great deal about how they lived. Speaking their language helped immensely. Two questions that I heard each and every time I met someone new stunned me. "Why do you hate us? Why do you wish to attack us?"
In 1990, I returned, first as a conference attendee and organizer, seeking contacts with their legal system and attorneys, and in 1991, when I accepted an invitation to teach at their local law school. Those were heady times, I can tell you. The Soviets had literally "turned off the gas," leaving this small country without heat, oil, or gasoline.
To show you just how pervasive their brainwashing was, even while I was teaching, and this country was celebrating is freedom from the USSR, individuals came up to me and asked, "Why did you hate us?" and "Why did you wish to attack us?"
The epiphany I had involved Gorbachev's prediction, that the USSR would move towards capitalism and democracy, while the USA would move towards the worst parts of marxist leninist governance.
Let's take a look at a step by step comparison of the USA today.
Much like the Soviet Union, the USA had several decades of widespread growth. We had a thriving middle class, and our social safety net had prevented starvation and malnutrition, for the most part. While there were problems, some quite deep and horrific, until Reagan's attack on the social networks and protections for the poor, people had a chance to live life freely.
In the USSR, until the 1980s, people also experienced a decent lifestyle, despite what anti-soviet "experts" like John Bolton, Dick Cheney, and Don Rumsfeld might have said. They were guaranteed a job, housing, food, and clothing. It was not the best living, but everyone was entitled to survive. After 1980, the soviet middle class took a downturn, made worse by their ill-advised invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and by a growing arms race. Just as our middle class began to stumble, so did theirs, although the huge differences in the standard of living made their fall that much more painful, at least at first.
Racism increased in the Soviet Union just as their economic structure began to crumble. In the early years of the USSR, there were ham-handed efforts to create equality between all races, and between the sexes. But, as the exercise of some power corrupted the leadership, ultimately, the government's power was completely corrupted. Racism returned, often with a vengeance. Their dislike and mistrust of Chechins, or anyone coming from a soviet state ending with "Stan" grew exponentially, especially during the occupation of Afghanistan.
Racism in America has also reared its ugly head. Just dip a toe in places like WhirledNutDaily, or Red State, and the racism is scary huge. It used to be limited to african americans. Now, that target group has grown to include muslims and arabs. The idea that a Fox News viewer could be so deluded as to drive to Ohio simply to burn a mosque down - well, that reality is the New America. Kind of makes one proud, doesn't it? Our growingly equal opportunity racism, that is.
If there was one word that described the foreign policy of the USSR, it was paranoia. With good reason (and due to many CIA blunders), the Soviets were petrified that the US was going to attack them. While here in the Colonies, we were told that aggressive foreign policies were for our own good, to benefit our security, to make sure that the damned Russkies would never be able to attack us, our very steps and aggressive actions created utter fear and paranoia in the USSR. The election of Reagan was like a nightmare coming alive.
One thing that such fear caused was even greater support of the Soviet State, because the enemy (the USA) would be so much worse. We have seen similar support of a corrupt leadership in Iran. The harder we push, the more people return to supporting the Mullahs, even if it was not in Iran's best interests.
Today, paranoia drives much of the public policy debate in Washington. The Tea Buggerers are the leading source of this fear, although brilliant fear-mongering by the Cheney/Bush administration went a long way in creating the sense of fear and foreboding. Today, the USA has become as paranoid as the USSR of the early 1980s. Hell, we even have US senators complaining about the Soviet threat. 20 YEARS after its collapse! Luckily, we adopted another soviet fear - too many of our people fear the Stans as much as they did, if you include Iran into the mix.
Surveillance was the constant in the USSR. Unless you experienced it, you simply cannot understand how pervasive, how corrosive, and how effective (in making you fear your own government) surveillance was. In my college dorm, every room was bugged. We were followed on the streets, and people were afraid to meet in public. (People were questioned about our conversations every time I met with someone new).
A government official who I befriended explained their system in a matter of fact way. 3 out of every 10 people had the job of watching the other seven people. That was their job. And one of the 3 was watching the other watchers. He claimed, after our second bottle of vodka, that this was the only way to keep dissident elements from destroying his country from within. Given my own experiences at the time, this was not a case of puffing or exaggeration, but of simple fact. (5 minutes after I found my passport missing, there were 60-100 armed guards searching the entire Lenin Square where I had apparently lost it. They found in 10 minutes later).
A funny thing happened on the way to our forum. American lost its soul. With little or no debate, our spineless, fear based Congress passed the Patriot Act and allowed the NSA, CIA, and FBI to spy on us, here in the Colonies, without any constitution prohibitions or controls. If anything, the spying has become more pervasive and more damaging.
We have become Sovietized, at least as to how our government now spies on us. What is worse, is even though we suspect how pervasive it is, too many people accept it as the norm, not as a temporary unconstitutional spasm of fear-based insanity. Even in the former Soviet countries, their government does NOT spy as routinely or as deeply as America spies on its citizens.
The Soviets achieved some magnificent results, particularly in military design, space, and other scientific endeavors. While Americans like to brag about our scientific prowess, (although creationists and anti-evolution TeaBuggerers are doing their best to destroy our science base), the Soviets beat us on many fronts.
Who was the first to put a man in space? USSR
Who landed on the moon first in an unmanned vehicle? USSR
Who landed on Venus first? USSR
Who created the first workable supersonic fighter jet? USSR
Who created the best anti-aircraft missiles? USSR
Which country has the best heavy lift missiles currently in use? USSR, oops, Russia
Which country routinely created better missiles, aircraft and helicopters for military use? USSR
Which country tried to spread its influence by supporting corrupt leaders, offering military support and protection, and installing bases on foreign lands? Heh. Take your pick. There is little difference between the USSR of the 70-80s, and the USA of today.
Think of yourself as a Russian General. Look around at your borders and what do you see? A militarized NATO based, US military presence. In Poland? Same thing. Turkey? Ditto. Canada, Yup. Japan? uh huh. Korea. Same. Afghanistan. ditto. In fact, Russia is surrounded by the US military. Why else would we have massive bases in Germany? To prevent the Nazi forces from attacking Belgium, or vice versa?
Because of the constant propaganda we receive domestically, we forget (or easily swallow their lies) why we maintain such a huge military presence around the world. We also ignore just how painful it is for other countries to accept our forces in their lands. Think Saudi Arabia, as just one example.
During the current debate, what is the one strident point that TeaBuggerers in Congress hate the most? The possibility that we may cut our military budget. This is despite our spending more on the military than the next 47 countries COMBINED!
Need for one Big Enemy
One thing that Stalin, Krushchev, and others understood was that a people needed one distinct enemy. By having one defined, existing, and convenient enemy, the people would always fall in line in support of their own country. Nikita once said, "All the sparrows on the rooftops are crying about the fact that the most imperialist nation that is supporting the colonial regime in the colonies is the United States of America." Given just how aggressive we have been against the USSR, it was easy for the Soviets to define us as the one Big Enemy.
Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, we do the same here. We used to have the USSR to blame for all our troubles. Then, it was Iraq, Afghanistan. Today, it is Iran and Al Qaida. If we did not have one Big Enemy to fixate upon, to blame our woes on, to explain the need for a bloated military, domestic surveillance, and the need for war, what would happen to our society? Hell, we may even have enough money to pay for roads, bridges, schools, fire and police, and even energy research!
Even today, GOP TeaBuggerers are beating the war drum against Iran. Why? A country that has never attacked anyone in their 3000 year old history is suddenly Public Enemy #1? Yet, talk to any Republican office holder, and they are adamant about getting ready to invade Iran.
Guess who said this:
Surely, God on high has not refused to give us enough wisdom to find ways to bring us an improvement in relations between the two great nations on earth.False Hero Worship
America has been badly served by its professionals, especially in the military. Pat Tillman was killed by his own troops. Yet, the US military hid that fact, and tried to honor him as a hero, rather than tell the real story.
Jessica Lynch was never captured, turned into a POW, nor raped or abused by Iraqi Military. Instead, she was injured, and the Iraqis tried their hardest to save her life. Yet, the US military concocted a faux story, and even allowed a domestic TV station to begin a "Story of a Hero" tale about her. Her embarrassment at having her story abused, altered, and falsified - simply so Americans could have a hero to worship, was palpable. But that is not the only time that the US military lied to us.
When a country is forced to manufacture heroes, or labels heroes every time that someone does the job for which they were trained, there is something wrong with that country. Not every military person is a hero. Not every police or fireman is a hero. Not every sports player is a hero, SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY DID THEIR JOBS.
A failed, failing society is forced to manufacture heroes, in order distract the public. To get their attention. To make us feel good about bad or failed policies, and to avoid facing our problems straight on. That is America today, just like it was the USSR in the 1980s.
We have begun another tradition, one used to excess by the USSR. Take a look at the Soviet military leaders of the 1980s. They each sported a chestful of medals and ribbons.
Now, take a look at David Petreaus. Is he or is he not no different than the Soviet Generals of yesteryear? He ran a failed policy, he repeatedly brushed up his resume, while covering up his failures, and he managed to convince people that all those medals and ribbons have made him into a hero. Instead, the reality is far less pleasant. Yet to hear the GOP in congress, he walked on water, except when his lover was found to have US military secrets in her computer.
We overuse the term "hero" almost to a level of absurdity. That is another clear sign that our society, our political system is failing.
Pressing or demanding identical beliefs from others
Probably, one of the strongest indicators of our failing society, is how we demand uniform beliefs from others. Thinking differently is a sin, quite possibly traitorous. Christians today complain of a war on Christmas. Seriously? A WAR? Bullshit.
Christians in Congress have managed to attack other religions and non-believers, in a way I did not think possible before. We have end of worlders like Bachmann and others in office. We have the Supreme Court chief justice of a backwards southern state be elected, even though the ideas he espouses, and will apply in office, are filled with hate, racism, discrimination, and fear-mongering.
A sign of our weakness is seen every day when christians and conservative politicians try to impose their rules and beliefs on the rest of us. Our religious history is not a sign of strength, but, rather, destructive, corrosive, illogical, and irrational. Much like religion in general.
There are other topics, like Growing Economic Inequality (which the USSR had, with a very small, very rich powerful leading class), or our Foreign Alliances with Scoundrels and Criminals; or even worse, our Refusal to Deal with Our Own Mistakes and War Crimes (thank you, Mr. Holder); and even Attacks on Unions and Control of Labor. In each of these situations, we grow ever closer to the failed USSR's approach to the same subjects.
We are left with one dismal, sad, and depressing conclusion. We have become the Soviet Union.