by Valdas Anelauskas
The Land of Misery and Plutocracy
o foreigner who visits the United States fails to be asked by at least one American: “So, how do you like America?” And, as a rule, they always ask in such a tone that only an affirmative answer is considered possible. Personally, I have heard this question at least a hundred times. At first, I tried to be polite. My answers usually were quite diplomatic, such as, “Well, it is interesting here, and different from my country,” or something of that sort. But today perhaps the most diplomatic answer I could give would be: “To put it mildly, I do not like it at all.”
Much water has flowed under many bridges since that day when I first stepped on this continent. My world outlook has changed a good deal and now I understand a lot of such things that I wasn’t able to comprehend earlier. Today, reflecting on the time when we first arrived here, I realize how naive I was. Or perhaps ignorant. I really believed that the United States of America was a democratic and free country. Moreover, I imagined it to be a highly advanced and progressive nation, maybe even the most civilized country on earth in history. How foolish of me!
Just before starting to write this I flipped through the pages of an old booklet that I had found in a stack of papers. It was the program for the 1990 U.S. Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. To my shame and chagrin, I must admit now that I was not only a participant, but one of the featured speakers at this conference, side-by-side with Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms, Phil Gramm and others… what should I call them? It’s hard to pick a name strong enough for such … individuals.
Being in political exile from the former Soviet Union, I was duped by the U.S. Government and lured into this country. Now, as I understand how it happened, I am embarrassed that I allowed myself to be fooled. Today I blame myself for some of the direct consequences that have followed. Since my wife was pregnant at the time we came here, our daughter was doomed to be born and suffer in this extremely unpleasant social environment. Now, she can’t even attend school here, because of the constant danger of being infested with head lice from her American classmates…
Without getting too deep into the particulars of my personal story, I just want to make my premise clear before proceeding with what I have learned while living here in America. First, I have to make it understood that I had absolutely no animosity or bias with respect to the United States before coming here. If I did, I wouldn’t have participated along with Gingrich and his ilk in gatherings of right-wing American politicians. If I had any prejudices, they were for — not against — the USA. It may sound bizarre, but there was a time when I had a portrait of U.S. President Ronald Reagan on my writing-desk in Lithuania.
The truth is I simply wasn’t informed enough to have a fully formed opinion about the United States at that time. In fact, I knew very little about this country and this society. But I was always curious about America and I wanted to find out more. Beyond the grim reality of life in the Soviet Union came glimpses of a shining place, a good place. I wanted to understand this system, and how this society functioned. I really had no idea what true capitalism was like. This is why I came. I simply wanted to learn more about it.
All the information concerning the United States that we had while living in the Soviet Union came mainly through propaganda sources: Soviet official propaganda — naturally anti-American — on one side, and American propaganda such as Voice of America and Free Europe radio programs from another side. It goes without saying we tended to believe American sources more. After all, the American propaganda always was much more sophisticated than the clumsy Soviet “agitprop.”
That being so, all my limited “knowledge” about America at that time was derived entirely from those propaganda sources. I had an eclectic mix of both very positive and very negative impressions in my head. Unfortunately, such information wasn’t sufficient enough to form a solid opinion. One couldn’t have a clear picture of American reality based only on such unreliable accounts. Therefore, when I was offered an option to come and live here, I was foolish enough to swallow the bait.
Well, there are still thousands, perhaps even millions of naive people around the world who still dream about coming and living here. America remains the destination of choice for those who wish to emigrate from their own countries. It is still like a mysterious enchantress to many. Actually, this is the main reason why I’m writing this now. I want to tell the truth to the people who are either ill-informed and know next to nothing about this country, or whose knowledge is distorted by propaganda.
In Lithuania, my native country, which was occupied by Russia at that time, I actively opposed Soviet communism and fought against it at every opportunity. As a result, I was expelled from the Soviet Union. One cannot say that I came here with a communist mindset.
I always hated that Soviet version of their mock-socialism and my opinion on the whole remains unchanged. The Soviet system made claims to be “real socialism,” but it wasn’t socialism at all. At least, it wasn’t characterized by the democratic egalitarianism that I define as socialism, and that I would like to see in the world. As a matter of fact, the Soviets distorted and defiled the very concept of socialism.
Now I have spent almost nine years observing American society. Not only observing, but studying, analyzing, and comparing it to other societies. When I lived in the Soviet Union I thought that the Soviet communist system was the worst possible social order. Evidently, I was wrong. The more I scrutinize the American reality, the deeper I am shocked by all the evil that I see here.
Ironically, after I contrast actually-existing American extreme capitalism with defunct Soviet Communism, I judge this system as no better than the other. Moreover, after living here, I realize that the American system is perhaps worse. Actually, from my point of view, they are both like two ends of the same stick. It makes no difference with which end to strike. Both cause the same pain…
There can be no doubt that only a very few people in the former Soviet countries would claim that the communist system was perfect or even good, but perhaps even fewer would say that what they have now is better. Everyone would agree that the Soviet system had very serious flaws, but in some ways — actually many — yes, it was considerably better than what they have here in America. I’m of the opinion that for the vast majority of working people, the Soviet system, though bad enough as it was, would have been definitely more acceptable than this American version of extreme capitalism, if they had a choice.
Well, we can see now how “happy” the majority of the people in those former Soviet countries are today, after they have tried out the reality of “free markets” on their own backs. Most people that I personally know, my close friends, relatives, and acquaintances who live in post-Soviet countries including my native Lithuania, acknowledge today that even the bad Soviet system wasn’t so terrible when compared to American-style laissez-faire capitalism.
According to a recent report published in the British medical journal Lancet, the average life expectancy at birth for Russians plunged dramatically since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The study reports that the collapse of the USSR and the subsequent restoration of capitalism has created an unprecedented demographic catastrophe: “The magnitude and steepness of the fluctuations in mortality rates and life expectancy in Russia are without parallel in the modern era.”
A wild and free market fury has led to a massive drop in the standard of living and to cultural decline in former Soviet countries. Health care and education have sharply deteriorated. Almost all of the social gains won through the hard work and sacrifice of generations of people have been destroyed.
On the other hand, the power of the old Communist Party nomenklatura (cadre) has not only remained intact, it has grown. Former party and KGB functionaries enriched themselves enormously. They have become the ardent champions of private property. They dream now of not only matching the wealth and luxury of the American capitalists, but to exceed it.
The Russian economy today is in severe crisis. The level of production continues to sink. Social differentiation has reached a very sharp level in Russia, as well as in all other post-Soviet countries, and brings about quite different moods within the various layers of society. Those few who have accumulated enormous wealth are, of course, happy with the changes. They want to preserve the status quo so they can hang onto what they have plundered.
At the other pole of society is the overwhelming majority. These people have been thrown into an existence marred by poverty, spiritual devastation and exhaustion. Viewing events through their personal perspective, they regard the present state of affairs as a complete social disintegration tantamount to the end of civilization and culture.
Now after living here and seeing the capitalist reality by myself for long enough, I have no doubt about it either. All those horrible things in Russia are coming from here, from America. These are the very things that I see here every day. That is why I no longer have illusions about this country, this system, and this society. What I have seen here is fundamental injustice, brutal exploitation, ruthless competition, vulgar materialism, rampant consumerism, morbid individualism, obscene greed, odious hypocrisy, ad nauseum…
To be honest, when I had to study the works of Karl Marx in school, I wasn’t attracted by his ideas very much. It was required work assigned with little inspiration. But my experiences elevated me to where I can see more clearly. I am beginning to understand that the “old fellow” perhaps was right about more than he was wrong. It took me eight years of living in the citadel of capitalism to comprehend things and to become a staunch supporter of a democratic socialism. The sickening reality of America transformed me from a sort of pro-capitalist libertarian into a socialist to the core. My ideal now is a socialist society built upon justice, rule by the people, and solidarity.
It would not be an overstatement to say I came here to America with a very open mind. But I had my eyes open wide as well, and it didn’t take long to see reality clearly. If after all that I had learned I could turn back time and be able to return to the year 1989, I wouldn’t make such a stupid decision as to move here, of course. Well, I don’t think that I will stay in the United States for the rest of my life. Could I wish it on my family?
With this essay I will try to shine a light on what should be all too evident human rights violations that the United States of America refuses to discuss. After years of observation, I have concluded that this system is fundamentally unjust and inhumane. America claims to be “The Land of Liberty and Democracy,” but after living here I realize by now that this is not true. In reality, the United States of America is a land of misery and plutocracy.
Now, I shall proceed with a detailed explanation of why this is so. I also must emphasize that what I say about the United States is based not only on my personal, subjective experiences but also on objective observation, study, and analysis.
n 1998, humanity will mark the 50th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On December 10th, 1948, the U.N. General Assembly adopted this document of extraordinary importance, and in doing so achieved the goal stated in the U.N. Charter of fostering international cooperation “in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the first treaty in the practice of international relations to enumerate the basic rights and freedoms that all human beings should enjoy. It proclaimed that everyone is entitled to a standard of living adequate to provide for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care.
The United States along with other countries also signed this international human rights document which covers the right to life, to work, to support when unemployed, to fair and favorable working conditions, to social security, to medical care and to education as well as to political rights.
When the United States of America signed United NationsCharter, the terms of that Charter supposedly became the supreme law of the land in this country. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that international law is “part of ourlaw, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction, as often as questions of right depending upon it are duly presented for their determination.”
In addition, Article 6, section 2, of the U.S. Constitution states that “all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the Supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges of every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” Therefore, it is the duty of federal, state and local governments in the U.S. to protect any and all rights granted its citizens under the UN Charter, including the right to “adequate standard of living.”
Propagandistic juggling of human rights issues has always been one of the integral parts of U.S. foreign policy. American propaganda has always been very outspoken in blaming other nations for violating human rights, but the United States violates the human rights of its own people perhaps more than any other country in the world. The way this nation treats its poor is a clear mockery of fundamental human rights.
While in the Soviet Union, I was myself a vocal advocate for human rights. One of the reasons why I was expelled from the USSR was that in December 1988, on the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I renounced my Soviet citizenship in an act of protest against the occupation of Lithuania by the Red Army.
But it now should be made evident that at least some of my dissident activities at that time were partly incited from abroad, from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. After serious thought I understand now that, quite often, I was simply used as a pawn for the U.S. Government to implement its plans in the dirty Cold War game.
The United States was interested in the downfall of the Soviet Union because the globalization of the world economy has intensified the competitive struggle among the capitalists. This forces them to scour every corner of the world for raw materials, cheap labor, and markets for their products. The former Soviet empire is a huge source of cheap raw materials, and possesses a highly educated work force. It is also a great potential market. To open those possibilities to U.S. exploitation, the Soviet political economy had to be destroyed
The U.S. government, through the CIA and its other intermediaries such as Radio Liberty/Free Europe encouraged us to think that all our fundamental human rights were terribly violated by the Soviet system. It was sort of an inspirational hypnosis for us. As a result, we — a handful of Soviet dissidents — fought against often only imaginary injustices and violations of our rights. The American CIA was the conductor and orchestrator of many of such activities. They used us as an assault force in their psychological war against the Soviets.
I don’t want to claim that there wasn’t any violation of human rights in the Soviet Union at all. And, of course, I’m not talking now about the Stalinist period of the Soviet history. I simply was born later and did not live through that. Of course, there were always some serious violations of people’s political and civil rights such as, for example, freedom of speech or freedom of religion. Whenever the United States commented about human rights in the Soviet Union it was always with reference only to political rights.
However, in my opinion, the right to have a guaranteed job and to make a decent living, the right to get free medical help when you are sick, the right to free education, housing, social security — are all much more important material needs for the vast majority of people than political liberties or freedom of worship. When you get seriously sick, you need to see a doctor first, not a priest.
In the modern world, the realization and exercise of rights and opportunities in the socio-economic sphere form the basis for the quality of life enjoyed by the citizen. Moreover, social-economic rights form the basis for all the other rights and freedoms of the citizen. Political rights are mere gestures if people are denied the right to work and, therefore, to subsistence. The freedom to speak his mind is little consolation to a starving person.
In the Soviet Union most people took their guaranteed right to work, to education, and to health care for granted, as an accustomed element of everyday life. As the respected American historian Stephen F. Cohen wrote in 1989, “The term ‘human rights’ includes a whole range of economic and other welfare problems, in which the Soviet Union, in the world context, can boast considerable achievement.”
On the other hand, as I have witnessed, the rights and freedoms of a significant portion of the U.S. population have a merely formal, and thus hypothetical, character. The truth is that many basic socio-economic elements of decent human existence are not guaranteed in the United States. As Karel Vasak, director of the UNESCO’s Division of Human Rights and Peace said in 1978, “The right to work can mean no more than permission to starve to death if the state does not organize the conditions for its exercise.” As with all basic human rights in the United Sates, that’s the way it goes.