Opinion: Once Upon a Time in the West

A Commentary by Jakob Augstein

This week, the United States nearly allowed itself to succumb to economic disaster. Increasingly, the divided country has more in common with a failed state than a democracy. In the face of America's apparent political insanity, Europe must learn to take care of itself.

Hate has become a part of the everyday culture of American politics. Zoom
AFP

Hate has become a part of the everyday culture of American politics.

The word "West" used to have a meaning. It described common goals and values, the dignity of democracy and justice over tyranny and despotism. Now it seems to be a thing of the past. There is no longer a West, and those who would like to use the word -- along with Europe and the United States in the same sentence -- should just hold their breath. By any definition, America is no longer a Western nation.

The US is a country where the system of government has fallen firmly into the hands of the elite. An unruly and aggressive militarism set in motion two costly wars in the past 10 years. Society is not only divided socially and politically -- in its ideological blindness the nation is moving even farther away from the core of democracy. It is losing its ability to compromise.

America has changed. It has drifted away from the West.

The country's social disintegration is breathtaking. Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz recently described the phenomenon. The richest 1 percent of Americans claim one-quarter of the country's total income for themselves -- 25 years ago that figure was 12 percent. It also possesses 40 percent of total wealth, up from 33 percent 25 years ago. Stiglitz claims that in many countries in the so-called Third World, the income gap between the poor and rich has been reduced. In the United States, it has grown.

Economist Paul Krugman, also a Nobel laureate, has written that America's path is leading it down the road to "banana-republic status." The social cynicism and societal indifference once associated primarily with the Third World has now become an American hallmark. This accelerates social decay because the greater the disparity grows, the less likely the rich will be willing to contribute to the common good. When a company like Apple, which with €76 billion in the bank has greater reserves at its disposal than the government in Washington, a European can only shake his head over the Republican resistance to tax increases. We see it as self-destructive.

The same applies to America's broken political culture. The name "United States" seems increasingly less appropriate. Something has become routine in American political culture that has been absent in Germany since Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik policies of rapprochement with East Germany and the Soviet Bloc (in the 1960s and '70s): hate. At the same time, reason has been replaced by delusion. The notion of tax cuts has taken on a cult-like status, and the limited role of the state a leading ideology. In this new American civil war, respect for the country's highest office was sacrificed long ago. The fact that Barack Obama is the country's first African-American president may have played a role there, too.

The West, C'est nous

There's no deliverance in sight. One can no longer depend on politics in America. The reliance of Congress members on donations from the rich has become too great. Nor will there be any revolutionary storming of the Bastille in America. Popular anger may boil over, but the elites have succeeded in both controlling the masses and channeling their passions. Take the Tea Party, which has enjoyed godfather-like bankrolling from brothers and billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch and found a mouthpiece in Rupert Murdoch's populist, hatred-stirring Fox News.

From a European perspective, it all looks very strange: it's a different political culture. There are other rules at play, different standards. More and more we view America with the clear notion that we are different.

Still, America's fate should serve as a warning: We must protect our political culture, our institutions and our state. The success of Thilo Sarrazin, with his anti-Muslim message, shows that even Germany isn't free of the kind of cultural coldness that can eventually ossify the vital functions of the political system. Our society has already made significant and deplorable steps on the path towards growing inequality and de-democratization.

Nevertheless, at least one good opportunity springs from America's fate: The further the United States distances itself from us, the more we will (have to) think for ourselves, as Europeans. The West? That's us.

Article...
  • For reasons of data protection and privacy, your IP address will only be stored if you are a registered user of Facebook and you are currently logged in to the service. For more detailed information, please click on the "i" symbol.
  • Post to other social networks

Comments
Discuss this issue with other readers!
21 total posts
Show all comments
    Page 1    
1. hatred and propaganda
mae 08/05/2011
I laughed my head off. This piece of rubbish coming from an inhabitant of the continent that produced fascism, nazism and communism. While the author may stew in his hatred of America taking an opportunistic swipe at the budget deal making in congress and trying to distort it into some kind of third world like status. The rest of the world has noticed that it is Europe or rather it is the EU which is so similar to a third world comic opera and still is laughing over how Greece cheated on its budget numbers for 10 long years and the third world like incompetency of the EU in allowing it to happen. The rest of the world has noticed that it is present day Europe that produces the Le Pens, Haiders, Geert Wilders and Thilo Sarrazin - not America. And the rest of the world has noticed that it is in an European country that Haider's heirs are running neck to neck with the major parties. Very soon Germans will be living next door to a country with a fascist chancellor. No doubt than the bile and venom towards the USA will increase tenfold to overcome the shame of it all. This article drips with distortions, half truths and lies in an attempt to demonise the USA, a hateful diatribe against the USA and they have the nerve to talk about Fox news? LOL
2. Anti-Americanism
mae 08/05/2011
I think the author of this article can recognise himself here.... "The fundamental role of anti-Americanism in Europe in general, and particularly among those on the Left, is to absolve themselves of their own moral failings and intellectual errors by heaping them onto the monster scapegoat, the United States of America. "For stupidity and bloodshed to vanish from Europe, the U.S. must be identified as the singular threat to democracy (contrary to every lesson of actual history)." ---Jean-François Revel
3. Democratic control in the US
liontooth 08/06/2011
Unfortunately it appears to be correct that the US is no longer under effective democratic control. It wouldn't take that much, however, for such control to be reestablished -- people just need to realize that enough is at stake to take the system back.
4. Easy to see who is behind failed state here...campaign finance, media, universities
planckbrandt@gmail.com 08/06/2011
The truth is failed state is necessary for max profits, just like in places like Congo over last decade for max mining potential. Foreigners own mineral rights here. Brits own more than any other foreign group. Russians own here. Of, course, our own ruling elites own tremendous wealth here. The democratic state hinders them. EPA major block. DOI major block. MMS major block. Look where the demolition was in the last administration? Murdoch media came here to do in US what it did in UK and also Australia the generation before. His son Lachlan heads up a mining company. Media is old hat for them. The real game is and has always been natural resources. It is obvious this has been information warfare against American people to destabilize this state so they could get in and do the mining they've been waiting for, and drilling. They also had to block development and capitalization of renewable energy explicitly since the 1970s. This small group of Americans and foreigners did this here over 30 years. The summer they parade the Prince around with his Disney bride, is the very summer that group get out of US and EU exactly what they need to maximize their profits everywhere they have assets. It will be even better for them here when there are no police anymore, no labor laws, like Mexico or somewhere like that. This is what they engineered. And, the Rehnquist and Roberts Supreme Courts allowed it to go on despite our obvious rights to be protected from our property being pilfered. 400% rise in ammo sales since crisis started in 2008 is foretaste of what probably is coming.
5. Old values vs new values
ioanonimus 08/06/2011
Seems that the mood at Spiegel start to change. This article shows somehow that at least some authors recognize that parts of the West are no longer attached to “our old values and meaning”. These parts are more attached to a wrong culture of rogue financial operators and military industrial complex, both of which own the political landscape via “donations”. Something that Eisenhower tried to warn long time ago in his last speech and his political will. They should also understand that Europe, on one side, and America and UK on the other, start to drift away on very different paths. This will not be an easy process as there still are a lot of influent agents of US in Europe, from banks directors to politicians and journalists and a lot to lose for them and their masters. We can see this in the orchestrated attack from the City of London and Wall Street against the financial system of Europe, started in 2009 with “Euro crisis”, and from the Anglo-Saxon press reactions. I can only hope that Europe still can be a place where the “old values” remains normal values. An interesting article and also some amusing vitriolic reactions on the forum.
Show all comments
    Page 1    
Keep track of the news

Stay informed with our free news services:

All news from SPIEGEL International
Twitter | RSS
All news from World section
RSS

© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2011
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH




About Jakob Augstein

European Partners
Facebook
Twitter