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Martin LeFevre: Back in the USSR

Meditations - From Martin LeFevre in California

Back in the USSR

A professor of mathematics at the local college, who left the Soviet Union just before its dissolution, makes a most scathing indictment of the social and political atmosphere in present-day America. Old enough to remember Khrushchev, he says, “America today feels like communist Russia.”

What on earth does he mean? Clearly people are free to come and go in the USA, which they weren’t in the USSR. When I was in Russia a year before it collapsed, even Russian citizens still had to show ID cards to get into many of the buildings.

Andrei responds by pointing to the Patriot Act, the loosely defined, ever-expanding legislation enacted after 9/11, replete with many intrusive and unaccountable features. He likens it to the all-powerful eyes of the Soviet State, which was legitimized and sustained by a continuously propagandized fear of foreign invasion. “Isn’t that the climate in America today, with an even more pernicious, market-driven media propaganda machine?” he asks.

We ran into each other after our runs in the park, and as we stood in the graveled parking area in the chilly, darkening gloom of a wintry dusk, a black SUV drove in and parked nearby. Our conversation had been quite animated to that point, but we subconsciously toned it down, and then joked about being overheard even in this “liberal” California college town.

“That’s just the way it was in the Soviet Union,” Andrei says, “you never knew who might report you, or whether the vast apparatus of the State had singled you out.”

A BBC news report, predictably not picked up by major American media, came to mind. With wrenching irony, the European Commission has initiated investigations into the CIA transportation of mostly Arab subjects to Eastern Europe for torture. There have been many reports of unmarked planes refueling without permission in various Western European countries, flying over territories without clearance, and disappearing, with their human cargo, into unknown bases in sympathetic places.

Circumventing the Geneva Convention, the Bush Administration only calls it a “war on terror” for domestic and foreign propaganda purposes. Captives are not prisoners of war, but rather “enemy combatants” who can be detained without due process, ‘interrogated’ using the latest ‘techniques,’ and kept for indefinitely or infinitely long periods.

“So you don’t like the festive Christmas cheer a couple of days after Thanksgiving?” I asked. “Why don’t you go back to Russia then?” Andrei looked at me for a moment, unsure whether I was kidding or not.

I stop for tea and the Times on the way home. Shoppers dribble in to Starbuck's from the Best Buy electronics store across the parking lot to grab a cappuccino, or to meet friends. The atmosphere is breezy, even lively, and employees introduce themselves to faces they’ve seen more than once, and say goodbye to the regulars when they leave. How cynical of me to think that they are trained to do so, or that the Greeter heralding the plasma screens and garish displays at Best Buy isn’t at the entrance because he likes people.

I was doing OK, with no pangs of existential angst, until the 20-something Greeter called out to a group of teenagers leaving the store ahead of me, “stay out of the rain guys!” Suddenly the real or attempted authenticity, covering up the fake job, papering over the empty, hyper-stimulating electronic environment, was too much.

In this porous world, where definite boundaries have become permeable membranes, America is not a place, or even a cultural icon, but the definer, indeed the very definition of globalization. The scenes of shoppers pushing and shoving, falling all over each other to be one of the first hundred to get a DVD player for a buck, or a sucker’s 50% discount that will be marked off another 50% after the holidays, is the shape the entire world is taking, not merely the USA is making.

At the very least, we have to find bottom in America, and elsewhere, if there is to be a bottom. Otherwise the rupture between humankind and nature will be complete in a decade or two. Then, if Gaia earth doesn’t revolt by reversing the magnetic poles or shutting down the jet stream (name your natural catastrophe), much of the land will look like a high-tech desert for the rich, and simply a sandpit for the poor.

It almost makes one nostalgic for the false certainties and tangible insecurities of the Cold War.


- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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