49th Parallel

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Scott Lucas
University of Birmingham, 10 January 1999

In four days, the President of the United States of America will go on trial before 100 Senators. If convicted, he will be the only person ever to lose the office. And the cause will be this: that he had "sexual relations" with an office intern and tried to cover up the affair, eventually obstructing an investigation and lying to a grand jury.

This is surreal and a little silly. As the US Government considers the next round of action against Iraq even as United Nations inspectors are revealed to have passed detailed intelligence to American agencies (which should surprise whom exactly?), as Kosovo remains of the verge of war, as Sierra Leone and Angola are wracked by insurgencies, and as a new unit of currency called the "euro" changes the face of global economics, this country is consumed by rumours that Bill Clinton fathered the illegitimate child of a black prostitute. Tens of thousands continue to die violently, usually by a bullet from a cheap handgun; little advance is made, even amidst an unprecedented economic boom, in the battle against poverty in urban areas, prisons are filled to overflowing as a steady procession of inmates are put to death by injection or electrocution, there is no decent health care provision for a substantial minority of the population, but none of this will matter in forthcoming weeks.

Yet, as I sit in a California hotel room channel-surfing through yet another round of television talking heads ---Senators, White House spokesmen, ‘experts’, commentators --- not to mention Fox Television’s contribution of two men trying to set a world record by squirting water from their eyeballs, I discover I am glad that this is occurring.

I am pleased not because I am certain that President Clinton should be convicted. I’m sure that some part of his anatomy had some sort of exchange with some part of the ravishing Monica. And, giving a deposition stemming from a civil case in which he was accusing of requesting a similar exchange from yet another woman, he was not only evasive, he not only constructed elaborate definitions of sexual relations (so if he touches her, that’s sex, but if she touches him, it’s not, got it?), he lied. However, I am not certain that Clinton’s transgressions are more worthy of conviction than, for example, lying to the US public about trying to assassinate Fidel Castro, fabricating the Gulf of Tonkin incident to send tens of thousands to their deaths in Vietnam, withholding information about exposing unsuspecting citizens to radiation, LSD, or other toxic substances, or selling arms to Iran at inflated prices and using the profits to fund a military force to overthrow the Nicaraguan Government, flouting clear Congressional prohibitions in the process.

At first, I’m happy because, while this farce is on-stage, the US capacity to inflict global damage might be restricted. I fear, however, that a curious mix of schizophrenia and apathy means it’s business as usual. There might have been grumblings when the furor over the President’s deposition coincided with bombings of ‘terrorist’ camps in Afghanistan and pharmaceutical companies in the Sudan but in the end shoulders were shrugged, just as they were in December when attacks on Iraq were curiously juxtaposed with the impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives. There will be nothing incongruous on 19 January when the leader of the Free World gives his State of the Union address only hours after Senators consider the case for his dismissal from office.

No, I am pleased because each descent into the political quagmire exposes the vagaries of the US system. Let’s be clear: this just isn’t about one Presidential rogue and his trousers. This is the culmination of the excesses of ideological zealotry not only from the ‘Religious Right’ but from a secular hatred of any belief or activity castigated as ‘liberal’, fuelled by media gorging themselves on tabloid scandal and by a populace consuming itself in spectacle and voyeurism. Why bother with discussion when you can be shocked? Why take the time for study and reflection when you can take in and recycle vitriol?

I’m pleased because it’s not necessary to rely on out-of-fashion Marxist analysis to criticise the world’s greatest superpower. It’s always difficult to keep referring people to surplus value, concentration of capital, and exploitation of less developed countries when most ‘educated’ people have a more prosperous lifestyle than their parents. Now boring economic analysis can be complemented by a critique which takes in political and cultural dimensions.

This episode does make some sense when, living in the US, you realise that the religious zealots who believe as much in the vengeful hand of God as they do in love thy neighbour were casting Clinton into hellfire (long before any confirmation of his affairs) for mortal sins like smoking marijuana, for demonic proposals like allowing homosexuals to serve in the armed forces, for appointing a Surgeon General who said that masturbation might not be bad for you, and for advocating the rights of children. Never mind that Clinton immediately fudged a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy for gays in the military, fired the Surgeon General, backed away from children’s rights (and any other ‘liberal’ platform) when challenged, and denied any inhalation when living the wild life at Oxford. The God-fearing still wanted blood.

Similarly, you can get caught up in the radio barrage of interminable right-wing rants from Rush Limbaugh, Michael Reagan, Gordon Liddy (who served time for the Watergate break-in), Oliver North (who should have done so for Iran-Contra), the ‘Black Avenger’ Ken Hamblin, Dr. Laura Schlesinger, and a myriad of local wannabes. With these guides, who would never accept conspiracy theories such as the support of Government officials and/or private sponsors for Cuban exiles to knock off JFK, you can revel in conspiracy theories that New Age maniacs are taking over the schools, that environmentalists are trying to destroy the US economy, and that Hilary Clinton’s affair with the White House aide Vince Foster led to his suicide.

Or you can revel in an ‘apolitical’ culture awash in vapid self-analysis and tut-tutting at the follies of others. This is a country which easily forgot the 1992 Los Angeles turmoil as it drowned in all-day, everyday, coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial. This is a country which didn’t blink an eye when a CNN correspondent linking the bombing of Baghdad to a 4th of July fireworks display. This is a country which stood by apathetically while the zealots and their Congressmen destroyed what passes for social revolution in 1990s America, demolishing the 1993 effort for a limited national health care programme because it was ‘socialist’ and gutting the crime bill because it funded late-night basketball leagues in inner cities but didn’t fund enough prisons. This is a country content to take its vision of history and model communities from the Disney Corporation (no need to recall that Uncle Walt was a paranoid, union-bashing mogul who helped usher in the Hollywood blacklist and McCarthyism).

I hope that these following weeks of turgid Senate deliberations, which may or may not be enlivened by putting Monica on the stand, will provide more than an opportunity to sneer at the colonials. This isn’t just an exercise in anti-Americanism, to be dismissed as in 1954 by Leslie Fiedler’s whine in the CIA-subsidised journal Encounter: ‘Conditioned by…principled self-hatred, the European intellectual finds it hard to forgive America for being willing and able to let him live.’ Instead, this should be a catalyst to put to liberate Britain from the albatross of the ‘special relationship’.

It has been striking to see the gatekeepers of British opinion, as hearings led to impeachment and then to trial, wring hands in distress at the damage to US power, disguised in their rhetoric as ‘leadership’. Anatole Kaletsky wrote in September in The Times on 19 September that a ‘seismic shift in American politics…could be extremely dangerous for global economic stability, which has never depended more than it does today on American leadership’. Ditto The Observer: ‘Public life in the US demands better than this, especially at a time when US political and economic leadership is so critical for the world.’ [A postscript: The Guardian, which should really know better, went even further on 23 January when it effused about our US masters: ‘Bill Clinton is at last forging a new brand of progressive politics. It is not the old left approach of his first year [Heaven forbid!]….[It] could provide some useful guidance to his trans-Atlantic pupil, Tony Blair.’ All this for an address with the radical measures of putting some money into Social Security to keep it afloat, ‘progressive words for America’s women and minorities’, and promises of some insurance cover for the mentally ill.]

An obvious retort is that it might be a good thing if US ‘leadership’, to bomb countries and to maintain an economic stranglehold on others, to intervene ‘diplomatically’ in the British legal process to request the return of General Augusto Pinochet to Chile, to threaten a trade war with the European Union over bananas, was curbed. The more substantive point is that Britain’s lovelorn gaze across the Atlantic stands in the way of progress for this country.

There may be serious as well as frivolous objections to Britain’s evolving political, social, and economic integration with the European Union. One that should be dismissed, however, is the idea that this island can sustain a privileged position as the bridge between the US and Europe. Britain might come in handy when Washington, for public relations as much as military purposes, needs a few Tornado missions and applause from Tony Blair and when there’s money to be made out of British research (although it does appear that more dollars than pounds are the outcome), but otherwise most Americans couldn’t give a damn, especially now that Di’s dead. President Clinton and his coterie might enjoy reliving their Rhodes Scholar days but Bonn as much as London affects their political calculations.

In the 1950s Britain made a serious error when, with eyes glazed over by mythical Anglo-Saxon leadership of the Free World, it not only stood aside from but tried to sabotage the formation of the European Economic Community. Of course, it’s possible that bemusement with the current proceedings in Washington will reinforce the misleading if comforting notion that Britain still provides the brains for US brawn. Maybe, however, with the veil lifted off a US, despite its wealth and influence, immersed in social and political confusion, Britain might actually seek a position of independence. I’m not under any illusions that the clutches of McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Spielberg can be eluded, but this doesn’t have to translate into cheerleading for the latest US adventure abroad while giving up economic advantage at home.

Dr Scott Lucas is not a self-hating European intellectual but a native of Alabama who is now Head of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham.