On election day the driver bringing my children from Half Way Tree to Mona asked me if I’d voted. “I’m for Bush,” he volunteered. “I think we need a strong leader.” This man drove a purple SUV, and had confessed that, between jobs, he stayed home watching TV. So he probably knew more or less what the Bush administration and Fox News wanted him to know.
But that imperial “we” put me to thinking about just whose interests the Bush administration serves. Not all of the people driving the shiny new SUVs that have clogged Kingston traffic would identify themselves as Bush supporters. But Bush and the “regime of oil” are certainly protecting their right to imitate the American dream.
In truth I’ve been looking for the exit since Reagan was elected in 1980. In the past few years, what John Le Carre has called the “madness” of American media and politics has reached such a shrill pitch that I’ve tuned out almost completely, turning instead to Spanish-language media and internet sources.
But I was born in Oklahoma and reared mostly in Texas. It is impossible for me to run away from the evidence of just how closely the mood of many Americans has come to match the dictionary definition of fascism. “A totalitarian governmental system led by a dictator and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism, militarism, and often racism.”
My best friend in Austin, Texas, a reggae DJ, forwarded me a note from his ex-wife. She now teaches at a Christian school near Houston. Inspired by a principal who portrayed John Kerry as an enemy of America and Christianity, her students put up a Bush poster outside her door. The students asked her who she was voting for. Since she declined to answer, they assumed it was Kerry. She found a swastika painted on the carpet of her classroom.
These are not isolated incidents. During the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, I heard a San Antonio evangelist bellow “Thank God for Fox News!” Strange bedfellows, conservative Christians finding support for their triumphalist politics and final days theology from a cable network that rose to prominence peddling sex and violence.
After the election, my left-leaning friends circulated a new map of North America. The “United States of Canada” now extends down the west coast, and into the upper Midwest, including holdout states like Minnesota. The rest of the former U.S., “red America,” is now tagged as “Jesusland.” Or “Greater Texas,” in some variants.
Many Americans who opposed Bush are in denial. Lots of them also drive their SUVs to work--46% of the private fleet is now 4x4s. Putting a “No Blood for Oil” sticker on your car is a nice gesture, but when our leaders declare that the American Dream of unlimited consumption can never be questioned, they speak for most liberals too. U.S. citizens, 5% of the world’s population, account for 25% of the world’s oil habit, now 75 million barrels a day. The Bush administration has read us perfectly: we want cheap energy “without inconvenience or sacrifice.” So in practice we support an “any means necessary” approach to securing the national fix.
I read an interview with a U.S. soldier who thought that freedom for Iraqis meant shopping malls and fast food from Basra to Baghdad. Yes, you too can join take part in “an American revolution,” as Chevrolet advertises. That’s right, be a real revolutionary, buy an SUV. “Americans are the only nation ever to drive to hell in an automobile,” Oklahoma humorist Will Rogers once remarked sardonically.
You won’t hear about it on TV, but there are some undersides to the romance of the road that Americans are intent on exporting globally. Traffic accidents kill off 42,000 Americans every year--a monthly death toll bigger than 9/11. Americans lose an estimated 8 billion hours a year of work time stuck in traffic jams. We are responsible for 25% of global-warming emissions. Our cancer rates are going through the roof, much of this related to our oil addiction.
“The American way of life is simply not sustainable,” Arundhati Roy says bluntly.
Yet who can resist it? My students at the University of West Indies are glued to North American cable TV. They can hardly imagine an alternative. That is the lifestyle they are emulating. I asked a young Jamaican friend of more radical inclinations: just who might be willing to stand up to North America? “China in a couple of years,” he said.
China only consumes 8 percent of the world’s oil, but it has accounted for 37 percent of the growth in world oil consumption since 2000. Picture 1.2 billion Chinese and a billion Indians driving cars. The Gulf Wars are just pea shoots compared to the coming battles over dwindling oil resources. The future may look a lot like Mel Gibson’s Mad Max movies (while his fans work themselves up on entertainment like “The Passion” to hurry towards that apocalyptic destiny).
“For each mile we drive, we enjoy the spoils of war,” observed the Canadian writer William Braun. The troops in Iraq are no longer even going through the motions of “protecting” or “liberating” Iraqi people. Increasingly, they are fighting to protect oil pipelines and facilities.
“The only rational response to both the impending end of the oil age and the menace of global warming is to redesign our cities, our farming and our lives,” George Monbiot writes. But “our problem is that no one ever rioted for austerity. People tend to take to the streets because they want to consume more, not less.”
Since arriving in the wake of Ivan the Terrible, a chorus of Jamaicans has advised me that I simply must purchase a car to survive here, even as they complain about the traffic getting worse by the day. Jamaicans copy the worst of the Americans, a colleague told me. As for me, I’m still walking, bicycling, and taking the bus. I’m not trying to run away from the problem, I’m just looking for some company in creating an alternative.
Gregory Stephens is a Lecturer in Cultural Studies and Film in the Dept. of Literatures in English, University of West Indies-Mona. He has also taught Communication at the University of California, and Human Relations at the University of Oklahoma. He can be reached at: Gregory.firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit Gregory's website at: www.gregorystephens.com.
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