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Joy in the Present
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22 February 2003

AWOL -- American Way Of Life?

Assumptions justifying worldwide imposition of democratic imperialism

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The "American Way of Life is non-negotiable" -- as indicated by President George Bush (Sr.) at the Earth Summit on the environment (Rio de Janiero, 1992). George Bush (Jr.), like his father, has declared the oil-dependent American "way of life" as non-negotiable.

Many commentators have noted the highly disproportionate use of the world's non-renewable resources by the "American Way of Life". Rather than attempt to reduce American dependency on oil (the "black drug"), like any addict, the American government wants to ensure the "fix" continues uninterruptedly. Hence the war against Iraq -- and those envisaged against other Middle Eastern countries. Constraints on an adequate supply are to be construed as a threat to national security. Ensuring the supply of oil in support of the "American Way of Life" is now to be achieved by military means -- to be followed by imposition of what is now being termed "democratic imperialism" to guarantee supplies of resources into the future, irrespective of the cost to others, to human rights, to international justice, and to the planet.

No arguments against this plan -- envisaged in writing by George W Bush's advisers before his election -- are considered either credible or rational. Rather such arguments are already being framed as indicative of subversive (or even traitorous) intent -- especially if formulated by Americans. It has become morally legitimate to target those who argue in this way -- because the "American Way of Life" is unquestionably a higher good. Those who promote it necessarily occupy the higher moral ground -- self-evident in a country uniquely blessed by God.

The fact that the planet will not support lifestyles worldwide -- according to the norms of the "American Way of Life" -- is also irrelevant. In true imperial tradition, democratic imperialism is focused on ensuring that that lifestyle is reserved for Americans and those who ensure the maintenance of American hegemony.

Given the emphasis on imposing hegemony by military means, it is a splendid irony that "American Way of Life" should share its acronym (AWOL) with the military term "Absent Without Leave". What does this association suggest for an understanding of the American hegemonic enterprise at this time? Some possibilities follow:

Absentminded: Is it the case that the "American Way of Life" is characterized by absentmindedness, an extreme collective case of "attention deficiency disorder" (ADD). This is a disorder that prevents certain children from maintaining their attention on learning tasks. As one source puts it:

With the growth of the attitude 'I am for me' or in other words, 'segregated individualism', Attention Deficiency Syndrome, a psychosomatic disorder is rapidly increasing all over the world. ADD, discovered in America, has now been detected in children and adults all over the world, creating unfounded social tensions, family disturbances and many individual problems. Lack of general love seems to be the cause of this unfortunate disorder [more]

What are the vital collective learnings by which American culture is currently challenged? ADD is associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) which would be consistent with the frenetic security response after 11th September.

Not-all-there: Is there a sense in which the "American Way of Life" involves the kind of psychological "absence" described colloquially by phrases such as: "not all there" or "gone away"? Without being equivalent to ADD, is this a case of not being "present" to immediate reality in any meaningful way? As with ADHD, this would be consistent with the positive values attached to "being on the move" -- with the intention of being elsewhere where reality "really" is. This favours leaving problems behind and "moving on" to new problem-free locations. Investment in space travel is thus framed as a way of extending the American dream to other planets -- neglecting the resource needs on Earth.

Absenteeism: Are there ways in which the "American Way of Life" is characterized by absenteeism, namely failure to be present at gatherings where issues of consequence to world society as a whole are discussed? This tends to be confirmed by the absence of American representatives from international conferences on issues of significance to non-American parts of the world. It might also be characterized by a failure to buy into any world consensus such as on issues of the environment -- and a derogation from international treaties in general. Where such initiatives cannot be blocked, the "American Way of Life" would then justify a voting pattern of "abstention".

Avoidance: A key feature of the "American Way of Life" might be understood as one of avoidance of problematic issues -- as is the caricature of going AWOL. A distinction should be made here between neat technical challenges (that can be solved by technological gadgetry and patented inventions dependent on closed system thinking for their development, manufacture and application) and those open system challenges in which those involved in the solution are as much a part of the problem as those for whom it is supposedly conceived and implemented. It is such open system challenges that are most characteristic of the social problematique. Of them it might be said that if one does not understand how one is part of the problem, one cannot understand the nature of the solution required. Since the "American Way of Life" is, by definition, the solution, it is clearly vitally important to avoid associating it with any problem. It is no wonder that environmental and resource issues are so systematically avoided by those practicing this lifestyle.

Gone AWOL: There is a sense in which the "American Way of Life" celebrates the merits of unconstrained freedom in life -- hanging out -- uniquely free of any responsibility or constraint. Advertising media endeavour to articulate this as a way of marketing products. Repeated advocacy of "freedom", by politicians and interest groups, can be understood in this context as offering freedom from any responsibility to others or to the planet. No wonder the "American Way of Life" is so uniquely attractive to many in other countries. Any implication that freedom has a price is then considered unacceptable -- except to the extent that those imposing any constraints on this freedom should be condemned and treated as dangerously hostile to a God-given right.

Without leave: In military use, "Absent without Leave" implies that no authorization has been given for absence, namely no suspension of obligation has been accorded. In the case of "American Way of Life" does this suggest a deliberate setting aside of a contractual obligation to the larger world community -- ignoring some form of implicit social contract? In community-oriented societies such a contract is considered self-evident and individualism is considered an aberration. What is the implicit contract that individualists have with larger society, or with the world as a whole? Is failure to respect such a contract a "crime against humanity" or a "crime against the planet"?

Arrogation of right: For conscientious objectors in time of war, "going AWOL" is an arrogation of right to act according to one's individual conscience and in defiance of what others are perceived as erroneously framing as the collective good. Is the "American Way of Life" to be considered as just such an arrogation of right by one people in defiance of what many other peoples are struggling to define through international institutions as the collective good? Is it not then ironic when Americans claim to be acting for the good of humanity and condemn others who fail to appreciate this -- and American disavowal of such institutions?

Repudiation of authority: This is associated with the previous characteristics. In the case of going AWOL, it is the rejection of the authority of the military to which allegiance may have well been sworn and pledges made. In the case of the "American Way of Life" this takes the form of the repdiation of international law, except insofar as it supports the actions that the USA chooses to undertake. No higher constraint on the USA is admissible.

Cowardice: In the military, "going AWOL" is considered and treated as an act of cowardice and an inability to face up to the enemy -- and to the risk of wounds and even death. Similarlry, there is a sense in which the "American Way of Life" can be interpreted as an act of cowardice in terms of the inability to face up to the conditions of deprivation which are the enemy encountered daily by the majority of people in the world -- and in terms of the threat to well-being and the dangers to life through malnutrition and disease. In both cases there is an overriding fear of engaging in personal sacrifice for the good of the collective.

Irresponsibility: As suggested in various ways above, in military use, "Absent without Leave" implies a degree of irresponsibility, including a cowardly failure to support one's companions in arms -- in situations in which each is dependent on the other for survival. In a wartime situation this is closely associated with "desertion" for which the punishment is severe -- possibly death. To what extent is the "American Way of Life" to be considered an equally reprehensible form of irresponsibility and desertion? The irony is of course that it is those opposed to it, or who suffer from its consequences, that are now subject to severe punishment -- and possibly death.

Stealth: There is an interesting sense in which the stealth and surreptiousness associated with "going AWOL" is partly shared in pursuit of the "American Way of Life". It is a characteristic of the latter that the resources required to sustain it are acquired by negotiations and practices that some interpret as involving deliberate stealth. Both the practices and the stealth may well be denied.

Attractor: Both "Going AWOL" and the "American Way of Life" share the function of being major attractors away from some more constrained condition. In the military, "going AWOL" is a fundamental temptation when things get very bad -- as they can, whether due to harassment or under fire. But the "American Way of Life" is a profound attractor for those living in impoverished conditions who dream of bettering themselves and the well-being of their families -- hence the stream of asylum seekers and immigrants. For some developing countries this attractor can be very dangerous to the development process -- through the brain drain. And, especially for local communities, the major challenge of sustainable development might be expressed in terms of how to develop an alternative "strange attractor" to vie with that sustained by images of Coca Cola and hamburgers.

Abduction: There is a curious parallel to the way in which people are effectively "abducted" by both the "American Way of Life" and through "going AWOL". Clearly the process of attraction described above can be expressed in terms of the seduction by something believed to be better -- "strange attractors" are seductive in unforeseen ways [more]. But there is also a sense in which people are "abducted" in both cases -- in a way which echoes the preoccupations of the many "alien abductees" in the USA, amongst the 50% of a representative sample of the population believing there is life on other planets [more], and for whom there are now special support groups [more]. Belief in having been kidnapped by extraterrestrials, and subject to molestation and operations, has now been extensively studied. It is associated with particular imaginative character traits, notably those disposing to memory repression and false memory syndrome [more; more]. There is a case for exploring, using such methodologies, the experiences by foreigners of the "American Way of Life" (possibly deliberately implanted through "exchange programmes") -- recognizing the parallel with some purported intentions of extraterrestrials to ensure the perpetuation of their species. Similarly kidnapping of military personnel, and subjecting them to various processes, is a standard practice amongst intelligence services in order to "turn them" into double agents -- a concern expressed in relation to "alien abductees".

Life-and-Death: There is a curious symmetry between "Absent without Leave" (from the military enterprise of causing death to others elsewhere to protect the life of some) -- and the "American Way of Life", as a celebration of a form of life sustained primarily by the death of others at the present time.

Is the "American Way of Life" to be considered as having "Gone AWOL"?

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Pointers to the Pathology of Collective Memory


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