Years ago a New Zealand publisher of tarnished repute told me his simple secret to life. "Deny, deny, deny," he said, over one of his legendary dinners. I was young and for a short while taken by him and his defective philosophies.
I was reminded of him as I stood on a balcony in Los Angeles and watched a thin trail of smoke rise elegantly above the hill behind my hotel. It was the tinder-dry first day of the fires that were to ravage many parts of California and I had just read Joan Didion's new book, Where I Was From. Her insights into the mindset of that community, the greed, acquisitiveness and wasteful extravagance lurking beneath eternal sunshine, were prescient.
But it was the denial that Didion got right into, the state of mind that blithely builds and rebuilds along flammable chaparrals and into high, dry forests without concern for the ecological burden, or the reality of fires, that have been part of that ecology from time immemorial.
San Francisco author Rebecca Solnit calls America feckless.
"Californians," she says, "are no different than other Americans, just more so."
But when you start to look, really look at the culture of denial that seems to pervade America, feckless is an understatement. From the top down it's more like a profound and willful ignorance.
President George W. Bush recently told the world, that he gets his news from objective sources. "And the most objective sources I have are the people on my staff," he said, without a shadow of doubt crossing his brow.
Everywhere you look here you see mind-boggling denial. Like the new advertisements for KFC that extol eating fried chicken as a weight-loss tactic. Or the daily parade of people so fat they individually overflow the booths in a cafe near our hotel as they fill up on super-sized portions of everything. Or the willful denial entailed in believing all those 'nature-friendly' advertisements for ultra-polluting four-wheel-drives that make up most of the traffic on the roads.
Freud described denial as a primitive defense mechanism, a way to reduce anxiety by refusing to become aware of certain unpleasant aspects of external reality.
And certainly, from the untruths that begat the war against Iraq to the denial inherent in this country's attitude to the environment, the external reality of America is increasingly unpleasant.
Take the legislation last week that virtually eliminated industrial smokestack regulations, despite the fact they were already the lowest in the industrialized world. Or the effective abolishing of wilderness protection in favour of oil and other exploration interests. The list goes on, all amounting to the rolling back of 30 years of environmental gains, all at the behest of big polluting, corporate campaign contributors.
Or the rejoicing last week at short-term economic gains caused by tax cuts for the rich at the direct expense of social programs for the poor. Or that national debt is increasing by $1.59 billion a day but none of the increase is being spent in areas of social need.
All while a new report reveals more American families are too poor to eat anything but the cheapest junk food, and the gap between rich and poor has never been so large (the top 1 per cent own 30 per cent of the nation's wealth while the bottom 40 per cent own 1 per cent.)
Or the scary little fact that the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights does not apply to the workplace. The minute you extrapolate this fact, fill it with the abdication of government in favour of the corporate takeover, leaving every citizen exposed to the unbridled capitalist agenda, you see that denial is not just a river in Egypt, it is a gushing torrent in America.
But to take these things on board would be tantamount to seeing the American dream as Didion does. As a miasma. So, instead, Americans deny the reality before them and vote as the people they think they deserve to be, namely affluent Republicans.
I know that calling denial a cultural attribute is a harsh pronouncement. And, clearly, as our local publisher with his own special mantra proves, it's not an exclusively American trait. But in this country of smoke and mirrors it is an essential mindset, the only way to carve a life inside the deadening dream of endless consumption without cost.
In the end, can there be anything more tragic, more symbolic, than the story last week of a man burned beyond recognition, huddled in his bathtub, his charred cat clasped in his arms, in the burned-out shell of the blue-collar California home he refused to believe would burn down?
Not all Americans are in this state of numbed hubris. Staff Sergeant Georg-Andreas Pogany, an Army Special Forces interrogator isn't. He publicly described his reaction to seeing the mangled body of an Iraqi. He began shaking and vomiting and was terrified he would be killed.
And for this, his inability to deny the truth of war, his undeniably real response to the prospect of dying horribly? He faces a dishonourable discharge and prison time. For cowardice.
Barbara Sumner Burstyn is a freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz), and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website to read more of her work: http://www.sumnerburstyn.com/.
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