Sunday, June 14, 2015

Why I'm Avoiding Writing About the Americans

I really did want to catch up with this season and review each episode of "The Americans."  I also would like to write that parallel show I would call "The Russians" and maybe a reunion show for 5 years from now called, "The Americans and Hawaii!"

But there's a growing allergy I have to the show, which became evident last year when it became clear that Jared killed his family, and the Jennings' handlers wanted their daughter Paige to be the next Jared.

And as the time period in which the show takes place reflects more and more of my own Cold War memories, I'm disappointed by the moral relativism embodied by the show.

Now, I should say at the start that I have never approached "The Americans" as straight drama.  No,  it's one of the most hilarious shows I've ever seen.  It reminds me a lot of the Pink Panther, except there isn't a clumsy Inspector Clousseau (although Stan could give Peter Sellers' beloved character a run for his money)....there's just a bunch of overdramatic spies whose lives defy reality  (I've also compared it to the "House" series, in which John House comes up with the weirdest diagnoses known to man, breaks laws while supposedly saving patients, and provides wonderfully cathartic entertainment for a lot of medical residents I know).  There are just a lot of goofy impossibilities, the very least of which was the Jennings' children expressing suspicious curiosity about their parents' odd hours and behaviors only one time last season (when around the ages of 11 and 13) and finally in one huge burst of teenage accusation from their eldest in the 9th show THIS season.

Plus, as a die hard anti-Communist, I am tittilated by any glimpses, however exaggerated, of how Soviet spies might have worked in the States during the eighties.

And uncomfortable and confusing feelings about whom to sympathize with is par for the course.  I knew that all along.  It's like Mad Men.  No one, except maybe the kids, is really likeable when you think about it.  And yet it seems like the Rezidentura is being kind when he tries to fix Nina's predicament when she confesses her double agent activities.  And it can seem like a relief when Martha is able to fool the guys at the FBI (for now) who are zeroing in on the bug Phillip (as Martha's husband Clark) convinces her to plant in Agent "John Boy" Gad's office.  Likewise, I've somehow managed to root for Stan even after he coldly, COLDLY shot a Russian guy who may or may not have been linked with the KGB and killed him during the first season.  And after watching him totally throw his marriage in the toilet.

I should also add that one fear I had about the series...that it would paint Communism as great, something that just was misunderstood because we were enemies of Russia...hasn't come to pass.  The Communists love their kids, they look out for each other, Elizabeth misses her mom....but the show doesn't paint them as somehow better than the Americans, and economic differences are not discussed. Dissidents who've come to the US have generally been portrayed as heroes, Phillip's kidnapping of one to ship back to the motherland looking sinisster an heartless.  (There's a new dissadent this season but she appears to be more of an unraveling KGB agent).

When Paige, the Jennings' daughter, confronts  her parents about the secrets they're hiding, and Phillip and Elizabeth fess up about who they are, she asks them why.  "We're doing it for our country."  The idea is that patriotism is fine on either side of the divide, the US or USSR, but there's no talk about what the differences are.  Phillip and Elizabeth did have one discussion, towards the end of the first season, in which Phillip chides her for complaining about America.  "We don't have it so bad," he says.  Look at this house, the neighborhood, everything we can buy for the kids....

And Elizabeth responds by lauding the toughness of people at home who don't have as much, reminiding him they do what they do for those people.

And that's about as Marxist as it gets.

But I think that fact pushes an idea of the US and USSR as equivalent somehow.  If you prefer luxury and the easy life, live in America.  If you prefer tough people and don't mind not having hot running water, live in Russia.

And that's where reality is most absent in the show, I think.

Let me take Elizabeth's past as an example, and compare it to the lives of real Soviets of her generation.

There were a couple great flashbacks of teenaged Elizabeth and her mother at home in Russia this season.  In one episode, Elizabeth is cajoling her mother to go with her to a war memorial ceremony. Her father died during the war, and Elizabeth has always gone to this yearly event, and in this conversation she tells her mother, in Russian, that her mother should go, because all the men fought so bravely and after all, her husband was one of the dead heroes.  Mother responds by informing Elizabeth, obviously for the first time, that her father died because he was shot for desertion.  He was a coward and traitor, she says.

And we're to believe that a year or two later, Elizabeth jumped up to take the opportunity of sacrificing her life at home for one living in luxury in Washington DC, assassinating CIA operatives and communicating in code over shortwave while playing the role of soccer mom.  Her mother not only gives her blessing, but insists she go.

If Elizabeth were real, at least according to ex-Soviets I've interviewed for my Cold War project, and Cathy Young's great autobiography, and some of the great post-Soviet films depicting Soviet life ("The Lost Empire," for example),  she would have been the only one at her high school not hiding out in a friend's apartment listening to Beatles recordings imprinted into old x-ray film, the only one not giggling when the Comsomol representative came to her class and tried to recruit kids into a life of pollitical slogans and worship of creepy old dictators.  If she and her mother hadn't been totally derailed by Khruschev's Secret Speech (which wasn't secret very long) denouncing Stalin, which seems likely by her "my country right or wrong" attitude, I'm sure other people looked at her funny.  Did they still have a picture of Comrade Stalin at home?

In short, in a country famous for a secretive government and in which every thirty years or so a wave of surprise arrests shocked the country, patriotism was not the norm.  No one in the USSR was untouched by at least one man made tragedy during its short life: the Ukraine famine, Stalin's purge of people in power, Stalin's purge of everybody, Stalin's purge of Jewish doctors, Beria's arrest and torture of thousands of "true believers", the war (of course), and Stalin's imprisonment of his own soldiers who had been captured by Germans as POWs (they went straight from the POW camps to Siberia).

A friend from Iran told me once that one of the biggest surprises for him when he moved here was how much Americans respect the law.  "In Iran, the law is foolish, so if you follow the law, you're seen as a fool."  In the USSR, the constitution, and the laws on the books, weren't necessarily foolish.  They promised freedom of speech and of religion, pretended to prevent corruption, and were set up to provide for the safety of the people.  It was the stuff NOT written down that was so scary.  And anyone Elizabeth's age should have known this....particularly if she was the daughter of a single mom who struggled.  There was no utopia in the USSR.  There isn't one in the US either, but no one has promised one here like the engineers of Communism crowed about a Worker's Paradise, a Utopia.  Just like in Iran, you'd expect anyone with a lick of sense to be a lot more cynical about the powers that were.

And to get down to brass tacks, there are differences between the US and USSR economies that made one of them an evil empire.

Capitalism, true capitalism, which is really just free trade, is becoming more and more rare in the US, but in the 1980s there were some vestiges of it left.  History has been written so that if you compare Communism to Capitalism now, even if you are "pro Capitalist", there is a tendency to see Communism as more compassionate, a better option for those who have less.  But it isn't.

let me remind you what Capitalism isn't.

It is not "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."

It is not the rich taking money from poor people and purposely keeping them poor.

It is not bailing out banks.

It is not bailing out anybody, big or small.  (There is no such thing as "too big to fail."  There is such thing as "the bigger they are, the harder they fall.")

It is not in any way, shape or form subsidized by government.  Any "help" from government automatically changes a financial act from Capitalist to Socialist.

More information describing capitalism can be found in my entry on it. xxxxxxxxxxxxx

Communism, even as just an economic system without the secret arrests and man-made famines and paranoia that may have just been endemic to Russia, leads only to despair.  The briefly cited reason why is that collectivization de-motivates industry (industry in the sense of people's drive to create and to work).  Why work hard if you're only getting the same amount as your colleague?  Guaranteed?  Motivation dies, which leads to poorly made stuff, which leads to no one wanting to trade with you.  which leads to shortage of things you need in your economy that you can only get from trading partners, which leads to unrest, blah, blah blah.  Any way you slice it it's going to come up rotten.

And whether it was communism that led to it, or once again an indemic paranoia inherited from Ivan the Terrible and the later inbred cousins of European royalty who often took to rounding up the peasants and torturing them, the governmnet of the Soviet union frequently rounded a lot of people up and tortured them.  Or, if they were a well-known unhappy camper, like Andrei Sakharov or Alexander Solzhenitsen, they spied on you openly and made your life only as miserable as they could without getting censure from the UN.  It wasn't a nice place.  (In fact, Putin is starting to make Stalin, Ivan the Terrible, and the Romanov's look like Florence Nightengale, but I degress....wouln't Stalin look great in that cloaked nurse's outfit Ms. Nightengale wore, though?)

So even without mentioning the inherent differences between capitalism and communism--and the suitability of capitalism for a society that values liberty--the show could show more of a nod to some of the differences in our societies as a whole.  And the threads of pent-up feelings of deprivation and isolation that will unravel as the Berlin wall will fall down, about 5 years from where the series is at now.  Otherwise, the writers will paint themselves in a corner in which the end of Communism will be either the tragedy as which Putin sees it, or a boring piece on NPR.

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