Coronavirus and the Roar of America
I read an article once, by a man whose name I cannot remember, which attributed the differences between occidental and oriental cultures to the incidence of communicable disease. Asia, he argued, has historically been prone to outbreaks of diverse and deadly communicable diseases. As a result, foreigners were treated with suspicion, since foreigner people often carried foreign diseases. Communities became close-knit and largely self-sufficient, in order to protect themselves from disease. This grew into modern collectivism.
Europe was the opposite. There was less communicable disease, which meant more and freer interchange between societies. The wealthiest people were often the ones who traded goods from one area to another. Foreigners were not outcastes, as they were in Asia, but often wealthy visitors. The ability to move freely became a pathway to wealth. This grew into today’s individualism.
These two patterns developed over the years, with the result that in Asia, community is the currency, while in Europe, the individual is king. This expresses itself in a variety of ways. For example, if you look at Nike ads in America and Nike ads in South Korea, you will notice that the American ads often contain just one person, standing out from the crowd, wearing Nike shoes. A Korean ad, on the other hand, will often show a crowd of people wearing the same shoes. It is cool to be unique in America; it is cool to be part of the group in South Korea.
If you travel to Phnom Penh, you will notice that all the gold vendors are on the same street. It is the same in Bangkok and Hong Kong. I remember travelling to Luang Prabang once, a town in the north of Laos, and finding that all the sandwich shops were clustered in one arcade right in the middle of town. You could not walk around the corner from your hotel and find a sandwich shop; you had to walk all the way into the middle of town, and then you had a choice of 20.
The tree grew from the seed, but we’ve seen recently that the tree has retained the seed within it. When the coronavirus broke out (interestingly in Asia), communities in China and Taipei went straight into lockdown. It was not difficult to enforce. The community took care of itself. Compare that to America, Land of the Free, where it has taken months for even rudimentary lockdown regulations to come into effect, and still not everyone’s paying attention. To this day the residents of Florida and several other states are allowed to go about their lives however they choose; spring breakers and beachgoers flaunted social distancing requirements, saying it was just a strategy to “ruin their fun.”
This calls to mind something Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov 150 years ago. Russia was changing at the time, away from the traditional way of life (northern European countries have tended historically towards collectivism, I suspect because the winters there isolated communities in much the same way that diseases isolated communities in Asia. This is also reflected in an inclination towards socialism, also similar to Asia), towards a more European outlook. He wrote, “Interpreting freedom as the multiplication and rapid satisfaction of desires, men distort their own nature, for many senseless and foolish desires and habits and ridiculous fancies rare fostered in them. They live only for mutual envy, for luxury and ostentation. To have dinners, visits, carriages, ranks and slaves to wait on one is looked upon as a necessity, for which life, honour, and human feeling are sacrificed, and men even commit suicide if they are unable to satisfy it. We see the same thing among those who are not rich, while the poor drown their unsatisfied need and their envy in drunkenness. But soon they will drink blood instead of wine, they are being led on to it. I ask you, is such a man free?”
There are two interesting points that come from this quote. The first is that Dostoyevsky seems to foresee the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks, some 35 years ahead of time. The second is the striking resemblance of this quote to what we see in our own world. Read “dinners, visits, carriages, ranks and slaves,” and think of the Kardashians, and all the other apples of the public eye. And read “interpreting freedom as the multiplication and rapid satisfaction of desires,” and think of the young people of today who cannot even sit for two minutes without having to check their phones. Think of the proliferation of addictions to which we are all falling prey. And think of what we’re taught in school, that whatever you happen to dream of, it is your right to go out and achieve it.
We are, or at least have been until recently, the most physically free generation in the history of mankind. We have the right and the means to travel anywhere in the world, to live anywhere, to be naked on the beach, to have sex with whomever we wish, to walk across the government grass, to sit wherever we choose on a train. Physically, we are almost completely unbound. But spiritually, we’re trapped. People are addicted to their phones, to exercise, to socialising, to shopping, to Facebook, to Instagram, to reading, to smoking, to drinking, to coffee, to being occupied, to being seen. I have often said that if you want to find out what you are addicted to, sit down for three days in a room, and do nothing. You will quickly discover all the things you are bound to, and the sick feeling that binds you to them. In the last couple of weeks, people have been forced to conduct that uncomfortable experiment; many have found it close to unbearable.
It’s ironic that we are spiritually addicted to our own physical freedom. We are addicted to satisfying our desires in whatever way we fancy. We are addicted to the luxury of choice. The vast majority of humanity that has come before us did not enjoy such a possibility. Ultimately, we are addicted to individualism – to being individuals who wield the right to use the world to satisfy our desires. We are the puppets of our own neuroses. It’s a sad kind of freedom.
This essay leads now, as everything else nowadays seems to, to Donald Trump. People often seem flabbergasted that the people of the United States of America could ever elect such a man to be their president. I think this is misguided. If I had the opportunity to elect the leaders of the world, Donald Trump would not be among them. But I was not the one doing the electing here. It was the people of America who elected Donald Trump, and I think it is quite clear why they elected him: Donald Trump is the prototypical American. He is everything that America stands for, condensed into one person. He is the archetypical individual. He seems to exist independent of the rest of the world, unaffected by the opinions and the advice of other people, unaffected by facts and what has until now been possible. He is like a separate entity from the rest of the world, and he imposes his will upon it. He was elected basically because he convinced half of America that he deserved to be president. He exerted such a tremendous will-power that 50 million people fell in love with, when no one thought at the beginning of his campaign that he would win a single vote.
Donald Trump is the embodiment of the American Dream: the right to win as an individual, no matter what the cost. Just as the Beast rose out of the sea in the Book of Revelation to represent all that was ungodly, Donald Trump rose up out of the Land of the Free, and he represents all that is American. He is America’s roar, and we would do well to listen.
Why? Because with each generation, and each decade that passes, we become more and more American. Our values are more American. Our way of life is more American. America, for better or worse, is our future. We will never be completely American – a different spirit animates Australians to the one that lives in America; but we will resemble them very closely. The more we become interested in the satisfaction of our own desires, no matter what the cost may be; the more people go to Bondi because they want to be in the sun on a nice day, regardless of what diseases they might contract and give to their grandparents; the more we think of ourselves as individuals fighting against the world, trying to win money out of it to ensure our security; the more we worship wealth, fame, status and luxury as the currency of life; the more we listen to our own desires and think of ourselves the first, the more we come to resemble Donald Trump and his America. And I think now, and the few months ahead of us, might be a good time to stop and ask ourselves if that is what we really want.
Cover by Annie Spratt