by Zafar Bangash (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 18, Shawwal, 1438)
America’s greatest success lies not in the fact that it is able to project itself abroad as a society of vast opportunities, instant riches and absolute freedom; its real success lies in convincing millions of Americans at home of this fiction. Even the victims of America’s raw capitalism are forced to join in drum-beating about its mythical virtues.
Outside America, such propaganda mouthpieces as the CNN, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) are employed to project the US as a land of milk and honey. People are told that if they are not in America, they have seen nothing. It is true that all countries use propaganda to project a positive image of themselves, but America has been singularly successful in this enterprise.
People who have never set foot in America may be forgiven for not being aware of its true nature, but what about those who live there? Do they not see the reality of America with its crime-infested, run-down neighbourhoods where most people cannot venture outside their home after dark? America is the richest country in the world, yet it has millions of undernourished and poor people, including about 20 million children. American government officials and their media never tire of proclaiming America as the world’s “leader”; American “values” of consumerism, greed and junk food (McDonalds’ hamburgers and Kentucky fried chicken, for example) are projected and promoted globally.
America, we are constantly told, is a meritocracy, in which everyone has an equal chance to get rich if they have the ability to do so. The poor in America are told that they are at fault for being poor because of their laziness and failure to seize their opportunities. Everyone is told to chase the “American dream”; those who fail to make it must blame themselves. The irony is that the vast majority of poor in America actually believe this fiction; this is propaganda at its best.
Vladas Anelauskas, a former Soviet dissident and journalist from Lithuania, was also taken in by American propaganda about freedom, glory and instant riches, at least for a while. In this massive book, meticulously researched and documented, he peels off the layers of propaganda to expose America for what it is. In 13 chapters, he focuses on such issues as moneyed politics, the state of education, crime and poverty, the non-functional judicial system, the burgeoning prison population and America’s role as a global cop and villain. In doing so, he exposes the dark side of life in America which, he says, he never imagined existed when he was in the former Soviet Union. The only time he heard it mentioned was in Soviet propaganda broadcasts although these were so crude that most people, including himself, simply dismissed them. Because he was a human rights activist and a Lithuanian nationalist struggling against Soviet hegemony, he was psychologically resistant to Soviet propaganda and vulnerable to western propaganda.
It was only after coming face to face with the harsh reality of life in America that he realised how misinformed he was, despite earlier warning signs. Of his first encounter with a staff-member from the American Tolstoy Foundation in Vienna, the organisation that “helped” high- profile dissidents to migrate to the US, he writes: “I will always remember how somebody from the Tolstoy Foundation’s staff in Vienna put it: I had the ‘choice’ between spending the night on a park bench and going to America” (p.18). He regrets that he fell into the trap, but then as a dissident, he says, he was both physically and mentally exhausted at the time and did not think carefully through the choice being offered.
This was one of the many mistakes he admits he has made. Anelauskas realised long after coming to the US that the RFE/RL programmes run by the CIA, as well as the Voice of America, were hugely sophisticated in their propaganda and had far greater impact on making people believe that the Soviet system was absolutely evil and that the US was the best place on earth. With hindsight, he realises that much of what these stations beamed to the outside world had little relation to reality.
Anelauskas is not complaining because he has failed in America; on the contrary, he has done well because of his journalistic and writing abilities. What he refuses to accept is that he must join the cheer-leading about America’s “greatness” when he knows the reality to be otherwise. He is in a unique position to compare life in the former Soviet Union with that in the US.
His starting point is to admit that things were not as bad in the erstwhile Soviet Union as US and western propaganda made out. In the Soviet Union, he did not witness the huge disparities in people’s incomes that are so prevalent in the US; basic minimum wages and housing were guaranteed to all. True, some freedoms were usurped, but Anelauskas feels that that was a price worth paying if people were left with some dignity and not forced to beg in the streets. In the US, on the other hand, under the guise of freedom, which is severely constrained anyway because it is monopolised by a tiny coterie of corporate executives, millions of people are forced to beg, sleep in the streets or go without proper shelter and medical aid. He makes a telling point: there are more murderers in America than there are doctors or scientists. One might also add that the US has the dubious distinction of having more prisoners relative to its population than any other country in the world. Only South Africa under apartheid ever came close; now America is truly number one.
Anelauskas was a prominent dissident when he came to the US in 1989. He had served the US well by exposing some of the horrors of life under the Soviet system and how it brutalised people. He readily admits that he was being used by the Americans, but he did not mind that because he truly believed communism to be evil. What he did not realise at the time was that the American system was no better. This sobering assessment comes through clearly in his examination of America’s social, political and cultural behaviour. Now he calls himself a dissident again, this time against the American system.
This book is a shocking indictment of a society which runs according to the dictum ‘dog eats dog’. Anelauskas is also bitter about the fact that dissidents from the former Soviet Union were welcomed and supported only while they were useful to the US in its propaganda effort; once they outlived their usefulness, the US and its government departments, think-tanks and various right-wing organisations all discarded them. He makes a telling comparison, perhaps rather nostalgically, that in the US he saw Vietnam War veterans picking food from trash cans, something that would have been inconceivable in the former Soviet Union, where war veterans were well looked after. America has built an impressive monument - the Vietnam Memorial - to the dead of the war, while many of those who survived the war have to scrounge in trash cans for food!
Anelauskas has done a great service to all those who believe in human dignity and freedom, by showing America for what it really is, not what its propagandists would have the world believe it to be. America is in the grip of a corporate Θlite who have no religion, moral principles or scruples. Human beings are commodities; once they outlive their usefulness, they are discarded. This is as true of individuals as it is of countries and their rulers. The fate of such loyal servants of America as the Shah of Iran, Marcos of the Philippines and Papa Doc of Haiti should serve as a warning of what America is really all about. Alas, most people, especially rulers in the Muslim world, have a remarkable capacity for self-deception.
Anelauskas, however, is not one of them. His well-documented book should be compulsory reading, especially for those Muslims who are mesmerised by American propaganda, so that they see the real face of America beyond the glittering facade. America’s lure is great but its reality is horrible. As one commentator wryly put it, even if you win the rat race (it is still a race for rats).
Muslimedia: November 16-30, 1999