Many have already noticed: The U.S. really, really doesn’t feel like the world leader, or even as a ‘first world country’. Of course, I write that sarcastically, as I detest expressions like ‘first world’, and the ‘third world’. But readers know what I mean.
Bridges, subways, inner cities, everything is crumbling, falling apart. When I used to live in New York City, more than two decades ago, returning from Japan was shocking: the US felt like a poor, deprived country, full of problems, misery, of confused and depressed people, homeless individuals; in short – desperados. Now, I feel the same when I land in the US after spending some time in China.
And it gets much worse. What the West used to accuse the Soviet Union of is now actually clearly detectable in the United States and the United Kingdom themselves: surveillance is at every step these days; in New York, London, Sydney, and even in the countryside. Every move a person makes, every purchase, every computer click, is registered somewhere, somehow. And this monitoring is, mostly, not even illegal.
Speech is controlled by political correctness. Someone behind the scenes decides what is acceptable and what is not, what is desirable or not, and even what is permissible. You make one ‘mistake’ and you are out; from the teaching positions at the universities, or from the media outlets.
In such conditions, humor cannot thrive, and satire dies. It is not unlike religious fundamentalism: you get destroyed if you ‘offend’. In such circumstances, writers cannot write ground-breaking novels, because true novels offend by definition, and always push the boundaries. As a result, almost nobody reads novels anymore.
Only toothless, ‘controlled humor’ is permitted. No punches can be administered intuitively. Everything has to be calculated in advance. No ‘outrageous’ political fiction can pass the ‘invisible censorship’ in the West (and so, novels as a form have almost died). Those who read in Russian or Chinese languages know perfectly well that the fiction in Russia and China is much more provocative and avant-garde.
In the West, poetry has died, too. And so has philosophy, which has been reduced to a boring, stale and indigestible academic discipline.
While Hollywood and the mass media keep producing, relentlessly, all sorts of highly insulting and stereotypical racist junk (mainly against the Chinese, Russians, Arabs, Latinos and others), great writers and filmmakers who want to ridicule the Western regime and its structure have already been silenced. You can only humiliate non-Westerners in a way that is approved (again: somewhere, somehow), but God forbid, you dare to criticize the pro-Western elites who are ruining their countries on behalf of London and Washington, in the Gulf, Southeast Asia or Africa – that would be ‘patronizing’ and ‘racist’. A great arrangement for the Empire and its servants, isn’t it?
We all know what has happened to Julian Assange, and to Edward Snowden. In the West, people are disappearing, getting arrested, censored. Millions are losing jobs: in the media, publishing houses, and in the film studios. The Cold War era appears to be relatively ‘tolerant’, compared to what is taking place now.
Social media constantly represses ‘uncomfortable’ individuals, ‘unacceptable’ media outlets, and too ‘unorthodox’ thoughts.
Travel has become a boot camp. This is where they break you. Move through the Western airports and you will encounter the vulgar, insulting ‘securistan’. Now, you are not just expected to pull down your pants if ordered, or take off your shoes, or throw away all your bottles containing liquids: you are expected to smile, to grin brightly, like an idiot. You are supposed to show how eager, how cooperative you are: to answer loudly, looking straight into the eyes of your tormentors. If you get humiliated, still, be polite. If you want to fly, show that you are enjoying this stupid and useless humiliation, administered for one and only reason: to break you, to make you pathetic and submissive. To teach you where you really belong. Or else. Or else! We all know what will happen if you refuse to ‘cooperate’.
Now, ‘they’ will use double-speak to let you know that all this is for your own good. It will not be pronounced, but you would be made to sense it: ‘you are being protected from those horrible Third World monsters, madmen, perverts.’ And, of course, from Putin, from the Chinese Communists, from the butcher Maduro, from Assad, or from the Iranian Shi’a fanatics.
The regime is fighting for you, it cares for you, it is protecting you.
Sure, if you live in the UK or the US, the chances are that you are deep in debt, depressed and with no prospects for the future. Maybe your children are hungry, maybe, in the US, you cannot afford the medical care. Most likely, you cannot afford housing in your own city. Perhaps you are forced to have two or three jobs.
But at least you know that your ‘wise leaders’ in the White House, Congress, Pentagon and security agencies are working day and night, protecting you from countless conspiracies, from vicious attacks from abroad, and from those evil Chinese and Russians, who are busy building progressive and egalitarian societies.
Except: something does not add up here.
For years and decades you were told how free you were. And how oppressed, unfree, those against whom you are being protected, are.
You were told how rich you are and how miserable “the others” were.
To stop those deprived and deranged hordes, some serious measures had to be applied. A right-wing death-squad in some Central American or Southeast Asian country had to be trained in US military camps; a thoroughly absolutist and corrupt monarch had to be supported and pampered; a military fascist coup had to be arranged. Millions raped, tens of thousands of corpses. Not pretty at all, but you know… necessary. For your own good, North American or European citizens; for your own good…. Even for the good of the country that we designated for our ‘liberation’.
Few dissidents in the West have been protesting, for decades. No one has been paying much attention to them. Most of them became ‘unemployable’, and were silenced through misery and the inability to pay their basic bills.
What happened, suddenly? Because something really happened…
The Empire got tired of plundering the non-Western parts of the world, exclusively.
Well-conditioned, brainwashed and scared, the Western public began to get treated with the same spite as people in the plundered and miserable parts of the world. Well, not yet, not exactly. There are still some essential differences, but the trend is definitely there.
The Western public cannot do too much to protect itself, really. The regime knows everything about everybody: it spies on every citizen: where he or she walks, what he or she eats, drives, flies, watches, consumes, reads. There are no secrets, anymore.
You are an atheist? No need to ‘confess’. You are confessing every minute, with each and every computer click, by pressing the remote control button, or by shopping on Amazon.
Is Big Brother watching? Oh no; now there is much more detailed surveillance. Big Brother is watching, recording and analyzing.
General Pinochet of Chile used to brag that without his knowledge, no leaf could ever move. The old, fascist scumbag was bragging; exaggerating. On the other hand, Western rulers say nothing, but they clearly know what they are doing. Without their knowledge, nothing moves and nobody moves.
Arriving from China, from Russia or Cuba, the first thing that strikes me is how disciplined, obedient and scared, the Europeans and North Americans really are. They subconsciously know that they are being controlled and cannot do anything about it.
When trains get delayed or cancelled, they sheepishly murmur half-audible curses. Their medical benefits get reduced; they accept, or quietly commit suicide. Their public infrastructure crumbles; they say nothing, remembering the ‘good old days’.
Why is it that I feel hope, I laugh with the people, in Mexico City, Johannesburg or Beijing? Why is there so much warmth in the geographically cold cities of Vladivostok or Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka? Why are the people of London, Paris, Long Angeles looking so concerned, so depressed?
Some historically poor countries are on the rise. And the people there show appreciation for every tiny improvement. Nothing is more beautiful than optimism.
The West has fought the so-called “third world” for many, long decades; oppressing it, tormenting it, looting it, violating its people. It prevented them from choosing their own governments. Now it has gone overboard: it is attempting to control and to oppress the entire world, including its own citizens.
As various countries all over the world are getting back onto their feet, resisting pressure from Washington, London, Paris and Berlin, people in the West are increasingly getting treated by their governments with the spite that used to be reserved exclusively for the “under-developed nations” (yes, another disgusting expression).
Clearly, the West has “learnt from itself”.
While countries like Russia, China, Vietnam, Mexico, Iran and others are surging forward, many previously rich colonialist and neo-colonialist empires are now beginning to resemble the “Third World”.
These days, it is very sad being a writer in New York City or in London. Just as it is frightening to be poor. Or being different. All over the world, the roles are being reversed.
• First published in New Eastern Outlook (NEO), Magazine of the Russian Academy of Sciences