Thursday, October 26, 2006

Steinbeck on the American view of government

In the summer of 1947, John Steinbeck and Robert Capa, a renowned war photojournalist, spent 40 days touring the Soviet Union. The aim of their travels was to observe and record the everyday lives of ordinary Russians; the product was A Russian Journal, published in 1948.

Steinbeck and Capa spent the first few days of their trip in Moscow waiting to find out which section of the Soviet government would sponsor them, what kind of clearance they would get, where they would be allowed to go, and all that sort of totalitarian bureaucratic nonsense. At one point, the two men were in a meeting with a Mr Karaganov at VOKS, the Soviet organisation for cultural relations with foreign countries. Steinbeck and Capa liked Karaganov “very much”, and the three of them spoke together in a clear and straightforward manner. Karaganov asked Steinbeck and Capa for their views on several matters, and this is what they had to say about people and governments:

“It seems to us that one of the deepest divisions between the Russians and the Americans or British, is in their feeling toward their governments. The Russians are taught, and trained, and encouraged to believe that their government is good, that every part of it is good, and that their job is to carry it forward, to back it up in all ways. On the other hand, the deep emotional feeling among Americans and British is that all government is somehow dangerous, that there should be as little government as possible, that any increase in the power of government is bad, and that existing government must be watched constantly, watched and criticized to keep it sharp and on its toes. And later, on the farms, when we sat at table with farming men, and they asked how our government operated, we would try to explain that such was our fear of power invested in one man, or in one group of men, that our government was made up of a series of checks and balances, designed to keep power from falling into any one person’s hands. We tried to explain that the people who made our government, and those who continue it, are so in fear of power that they would willingly cut off a good leader rather than permit a precedent of leadership. I do not think we were thoroughly understood in this, since the training of the people of the Soviet Union is that the leader is good and the leadership is good.”

Consider that that was 1947 and we are now nearly 60 years later. How far we have come! In The Old Amerika we didn’t trust our government, we watched our elected representatives at every turn and we made sure they didn’t overstep their bounds. But in The New Amerika, we can trust our government just like we were taught and we don’t have to keep an eye on our representatives (who may or may not have been elected). The government watches us instead, and we don’t even need any checks and balances anymore. The training of the people of The New Amerika is that the leader is good and the leadership is good. Hallelujah!

* Thanks to Radost Mike who quite literally sold me the book.

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