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Freedom shrugged

by Anna Arutunyan at 12/11/2012 20:07

Barack Obama won the election, sans the ordeal of a dreaded tie with Republican candidate Mitt Romney – and many of the expats here in Russia breathed a collective sigh of relief.

I’ve lived in Russia long enough to notice how potentially destructive patriotism can become when channeled in the wrong direction. And I was deeply conflicted about this presidential race, for precisely these reasons. For the first time, I had a nagging suspicion that if a Republican like Mitt Romney were to win the race, it might actually quell the self-destructive vitriol directed at Obama. This was an election cycle, after all, where leading Republicans publicly admitted that their top priority was keeping Obama from being re-elected, even if that meant refusing to cooperate on dealing with the effects of the economic crisis.

And Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts developed a health care system similar to the Obamacare that Republicans have vowed to repeal, was forced to channel the same non-compromising ideology that has taken hold of the American Right in order to have any chance of winning – leading, for instance, to his disastrous “47 percent” gaffe.

I fear the vitriol won’t go away with Obama’s re-election. Which is why I’m not entirely relieved by his victory: What he’s up against in some ways negates the very principles of democracy. The radical view of the Tea Party – that taxes are evil – has roots far deeper than an underlying insecurity that part of the population still harbors about having a black president.

In fact, I suspect that the origins of the Tea Party go back to a very unlikely place: Russia.

I don’t think it’s an accident, for instance, that Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan cites Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” as the book that changed his life, joining the ranks of Rand’s cult following for her glorification of laissez-faire “selfishness” (it’s an irony that the book’s quasi-divine hero, John Galt, ultimately creates a new Golden Cow to worship, in the form of the dollar sign, which he suggestively draws in the sky).

It’s no accident because Rand was Russian – an emigre who fled the Bolshevik Revolution only to start worshipping her ideal of American capitalism with the kind of fervor that her compatriots would reserve for Stalin.

Why did her popularity start surging during the 1990s and particularly the last decade? Why did we start seeing members of the Guns & God contingent turn up at Tea Party rallies with posters proclaiming the advent of the atheist John Galt? How did the view that all taxes are evil suddenly permeate the Republican mainstream with the militancy of a Bolshevik dogma?

America may be in the throes of a far deeper ideological crisis, and part of its origins lie in the disappearance of its chief communist foe, the Soviet Union.

There was an illusion, perhaps accepted on some subconscious level, that capitalism had emerged as a vindicated creed, an ideology in and of itself that a nation could rally around in the absence of a clear enemy. But capitalism as an ideology doesn’t work for the same reason that communism as an ideology doesn’t: economic relations cannot be dictated by a creed without infringing on basic freedoms.

Yet sometimes, as we often see in Russia, what a protest movement really wants is often far from what it thinks it wants. Sometimes, societies in the throes of a crisis even yearn to give up their freedoms, and a virulently defensive touchiness about the word “freedom” is often a warning sign.

I’m hoping it never comes to that in the United States. But looking at America from afar, there’s an awful lot of talk about “freedom” – as if the lady doth protest too much. 

Anna Arutunyan is the politics editor of The Moscow News.

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