America's Pandemic Aristerophobia

In this day and age, there are no longer distant friends, only distant friendships… which little by little tend to dissipate. Our busy lives are often to blame for converting the first to the latter, as if providing a built-in sieve to determine who is to remain as a friend.

Once a year, for a week (Christmas to New Year), I try to make amends for any loss of contact with people who have offered me more than just a casual acquaintanceship. And following Samuel Johnson’s admonition, that “a short letter to a distant friend is an insult,” I try to maintain or revive friendships with long missives… post-letters to those friends who remain technology-shy and long e-mails to those attuned to the PC lifestyle. I concluded long ago that the transmission of personal thoughts and feelings, in a true friend-to-friend exchange, does not bode well when resorting to what often turns out to be an untimely telephone call.

This week of joyful giving has always been doubly rewarding by also becoming a week of joyful receiving.

And so it was at the close of 2005. Among those sending me greetings, and yet another pearl of wisdom, was my Greek friend, and sharer of happy days in graduate school, Stef. He had just finished reading my last column, “Americans in the Bubble,” prompting him to compose a mini-dissertation on what he terms as Americans’ just deserts: Bush governance. It is poetic justice to Stef that we might be harvesting what we have twice sown… via those funereal Tuesdays; in 2000 first; then, in 2004.

Stef’s verbose, but painfully accurate, commentary did nothing but underline what he and I had concluded two years before about an administration that came to power in 2001 obsessed with changing the socio-economic, as well as the political, makeup of the nation. A change accelerated by the catalyst gifted to the Bush Administration via the fear-enabler that became the 9/11 episode.

You need be reminded, however, that Stef is no America-basher; [I] having witnessed time and again the opposite to be true. His criticism, or even mild indignation, is not rooted in hate, but respect and admiration. His rehashing of this political coma which Americans vegetate under, accounting for most of his e-mail, was tail-ended with a summary paragraph that said it all for him: “True political discussion in America started to grow silent shortly after World War II; it was almost inaudible by the time Reagan left office; and Dubya has finally silenced it all. Americans, Republicans or Democrats, all appear to exhibit the same phobia: Aristerophobia. Remember our discussion 37 years ago, Ben?”

Do I remember! Aristerophobia was our coined diagnosis in mid-1968 for the state of mind of America’s soon to be called “silent majority,” as Bobby Kennedy’s career was cut short by bullets and Nixon was deemed to be a shoo-in to assume the presidency. Aristeros, Stef would tell me, meant left, or inclination to the left, in Greek. Aristeros… that’s what Americans feared! Fear of aristeros… of anything that leaned to the left. And “the left” meant any deviation from the status quo. Not just the anti-Vietnam war movement but those who espoused inevitable social change, including coming to terms with the civil right changes that had already become law. Conservatives and liberals were then being defined in much the same way as today… although liberals then had to contend with being labeled as “commies,” much as today they are tagged as unpatriotic or even traitors by the Bush Administration… and their lowly know-nothing minions.

There’s an irony in all of this, for the left is almost non-existent in the US. Not that there isn’t a dormant or latent left, but for now progressives are just a handful with voices that just tiptoe. And if we narrow it down to politics, or the mainstream media, there are no lefties in the mix. Not that some of those people, in their hearts, lack “aristeros” feelings but they know that to survive, politically and/or economically, they must mask them.

It’s almost comical to observe the new pro-Bush vocal majority, a generation-plus removed from its predecessor pro-Nixon silent majority, refer to the mainstream press as liberal… and to do it with a straight face. But one guesses that here, also, relativity comes into play.

The right-left political spectrum in America is not the semicircle with 180 degrees of thought-provoking political diversity that one would expect in a democratic nation as large and complex as the US. Instead, we have narrowed our gauge to a quarter-circle, 90 degrees of Right, and nothing else. Governing America from an existing political center can be no consolation to four-fifths of the citizenry whose socio-economic interests are found left of that fictional center… one that is 45 degrees Right.

Communicable aristerophia has become pandemic, and there appears to be neither a balm, nor a vaccine, in the horizon to remove this fear. Well, perhaps in a generation or so, as the economic gap between haves and have-nots becomes an unbridgeable chasm, enlightened democratic populism will come in to save the day; but not ‘til then.

Thanks for resuscitating our word, Stef.