The deep cultural shame of the United States

Viktor Cherevin keeps a giant painting to Napoleon's defeat in Moscow, symbolizing his intense pride in Russia, and his desire for Russia to triumph over military enemies.

Viktor Cherevin keeps a giant painting to Napoleon’s defeat in Moscow, symbolizing his intense pride in Russia, and his desire for Russia to triumph over military enemies.

Jon and I watched Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit recently. Jon, especially, is a huge fan of the entire Jack Ryan series. The movie was good: basically taking the elements of existing Jack Ryan novels but re-purposing them into a story that updates the setting and context of the character from the Cold War to the post-9/11 world.

But, like any good Tom Clancy (or “Tom Clancy-inspired”) story, the bad guy was a classic twisted evil bad guy: wealthy Russian businessman, Viktor Cherevin. I don’t think it will be much of a “spoiler” to tell you that the entire motivation of his character was an absolute hatred of the United States. He is seen in a church, praying for Russia to be avenged. Throughout the movie his conversation shows his intense pride and loyalty to his homeland of Russia, and a deep resentment for America (and “the west” more generally) for the fact that Russia has declined. His last words in the movie are “I did it all for Russia”.

This isn’t uncommon for bad guys in American movies, right? Over the last half century or so, they were almost always either Russian or German, and they always hated the United States because they blamed the United States (or “Western Culture”, or “Capitalism”, depending on the specific movie) for the collapse and failure and shame of their country.

And we Americans love to look at these characters and say: “Oooooh….. how deliciously evil and twisted! How alien and strange! How completely different those bad guys are from what we, the good guys, are like!”

But I would like you to stop for a moment and think about something.

We in the United States have never experienced massive, culture-wide national shame.  Yeah, we have differences of opinion about Gitmo or the Vietnam War. Yeah, good-hearted people feel bad about the fact that we’ve all but wiped out the Native Americans: but we were never the object of world-wide hatred for it. Our history with the Native Americans causes some Americans to feel some shame… but that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the complete and utter collapse of the Soviet Union, and the world-wide perception (except maybe in China) that this represented a complete and utter failure of the fundamental philosophy, communism, on which the nation was built.

I’m talking about the complete and utter destruction of Germany and world-wide shaming of the entire country and culture as a result of the horrors enacted by Hitler.

That’s an entirely different scale. Americans—as a group—have no idea what it feels like to be a member of a humiliated culture.

How would Americans be, under those conditions? Would they be angry? Would they feel vengeful? Would some of them be obsessed with feelings of patriotic revenge?



Let me make sure some things are very clear, since this is a very touchy subject. I am in no way saying that maniacal vengeance-fueled anger against the United States is “justified”. I am not defending the fictional Viktor Cherevin any more than I defend real terrorists who feel like they have some kind of “grudge” against America or the “Evil West”. I love western culture, and I love the United States, and I find people who despise Western Culture as weird and alien as most Americans find them.

Neither am I saying that these cultures should not have been destroyed and shamed. Naziism was horrific. The Soviet Union was a dysfunctional corrupt Frankenstein of a country, and I fervently hope it doesn’t come back under Putin.

But I also know that the feeling of being a person from one of those cultures has got to be confusing. My mom was born in Germany in 1937. She was child when World War II was over. She had no idea what Hitler was doing or any of what was going on.

But she grew up in an America where Germany was constantly used, in movies and books, as the ultimate caricature of anything evil. She moved to the United States when she was a teenager, and she has always been very apolitical. But she’s still German.  So how does it feel for her, every time the bad guy in a movie just happens to have a German accent?

The same thing with Russians. The collapse of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Berlin wall. Even if you despise communism and the old Soviet empire with every fiber of your being, it still must grate on you, mustn’t it, to know that the place you were born is always always used as a symbol for evil in this country?

I’m using, as examples, people from Germany or Russia who live in the United States because I want you to realize that this feeling doesn’t have to come from being “indoctrinated” or taught by evil older generations who bear a grudge against the United States. It is a feeling that can come up even if you are raised in the United States, but simply know that your accent will make some people think, “Oh! That person is from the country where Hitler ruled,” or “Oh! That person comes from the country that we almost went to nuclear war with.”

It’s got to feel weird. Do you know how you would feel?

As a patriot, it is difficult, maybe even impossible, to imagine my country doing something that would bring upon the United States a true world-wide national shame. Things would have to get so bad, would have to have gone so wrong… I just can’t wrap my mind around it. I can’t visualize how it would even play out.

But I do know this: If the American empire collapsed because it did something so evil that the world turned on us, and as a result we became a symbol across the world of a country and culture that collapsed simply because it was despicable,….. there are Americans who would not take that well.

No, sir. Not well at all.

There are Americans who would be very angry. They would feel very vengeful.

And I’m sure they would make fantastic caricatured action-movie villains.