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Sunday, 12 December 2010

The American Dream

“We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age's most uncertain hours
and sing an American tune
Oh, and it's alright, it's all right, it's all right
You can't be forever blessed”

(Paul Simon, American Tune)

My life has been equally divided between two countries, Ireland and Germany (with a two year interlude in Italy, like a hinge between the two), but there is a third land which has had almost as profound an influence on my life in myriad ways and which I feel I know almost as well as the other two, although I have never physically been there. I write, of course, of the United States of America – and this feeling of closeness, even intimacy with the USA is something I believe I share with hundreds of millions, even billions worldwide.

It is not my intent here to write a panegyric to the US – there are enough of these being produced, mostly by US citizens, a phenomenon which can be variously described as patriotism, or as an exemplification of the brash lack of humility which so often manifests itself as a characteristic of a very particular American form of hubris. (Though, to be fair, this sort of ignorant self-aggrandisement is not an exclusively American phenomenon.) Characteristic of this is the very designation “American,” which, strictly defined, describes all the inhabitants of North, Central and South America but has been unthinkingly and unquestioningly appropriated by the residents of one country. Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly evilly and provocatively pc, I take a perverse pleasure in using the term US Americans, partly because it seems to annoy many of those so described. But more often than not I find myself also succumbing to the conventional usage and I will continue to do so in this post (crying pardon from Canadians, Mexicans, Brazilians, Nicaraguans, Argentineans and all the others who have just as much right to the epithet as the inhabitants of the US).

Neither, however, do I want to write an anti-American philippic, of which there are also more than enough extant, with greater or lesser justification. Such instinctive, knee-jerk anti-Americanism is characteristic of that class in which I would generally be categorised (educated, European, post-60s, left-leaning liberals) and I will cheerfully admit to having taken such positions frequently in the past. Indeed, I will probably be guilty of taking them again in the future, although I will also immediately qualify this statement with the observation that their provocation usually has very concrete causes. But, if I am honest, I will readily concede that such positions are myopic, one-dimensional and, in the end, produce only parodies.

It is an expression of the value of the idea and reality of the USA that it calls forth, enables and tolerates such reactions. It is, in fact, the inevitable shortfall between the ideals which the US espouse for themselves and the reality in which they are imperfectly lived out that gives rise to this whole critical engagement. If you give yourself values such as freedom, equality and opportunity and then fail to live up to them in practice, you’re going to be criticised. More, this criticism and the creation of an environment of tolerance and confidence within which free opinions can be expressed without fear are themselves a very part of those ideal values which are constantly being lived out practically.

Which is all fine for the enfranchised and (hopefully) empowered citizens of the republic in which they participate. But where, Americans may ask, do others, non-Americans, take the right to comment on what America does, to loudly express their opinions on US matters, even to try to engage in debates and influence outcomes?

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
(First Amendment to the US Constitution, 1791)
[Explicitly declared to apply to the internet by the Supreme Court in its judgement of 1997, Reno v. ACLU]

Freedom of speech is one of the primary values expressed in the new experiment for human societies initiated with the American revolution and particularly since 1945, when the USA became a (perhaps unwilling and unwanted but nevertheless undeniable) major global quasi-imperial power, this freedom of opinion, including opinion about America itself, has a global dimension, since what America is and what it does has very concrete implications for the world as a whole …

Ah shit, no, this won’t do at all! I can write a reasoned, informed, clever, analytic post about America and I will get about as close to the reality as a picture of a loaf of bread can satisfy a starving man. So …

A new experiment, a confused European dream of expansion and freedom and rights and room, some of whose prerequisites involved the depopulation of half a continent and the importation of hundreds of thousands of slaves from yet another one, concretising and defining and refining itself in a forge of ideals and revolution and wars (including a civil war), a chance to do it again; do it new and do it bigger and do it better …

Military and economic might, dominating the world with Marshall Aid and Pershing Missiles, with Coca Cola and aircraft-carriers, with General Motors and GIs, with McDonalds and Microsoft and Marines, with B52s and Levis jeans, with napalm and chewing gum …

A powerhouse of hard work and ingenuity and cultural creativity, astounding and appalling and seducing and swamping the world with its concerns and expressions, its legends and stories; from cowboys to Capone, from Scarlett O’Hara to Lady Gaga, from Emily Dickinson to Bart Simpson, from Kerouac to Prozac (and can you hear Alan Ginsberg Howl!?)

Jazz and Delta Blues, Swing and Country & Western, Rock n’ Roll and Hip-hop, the sounds of America define our global aural culture; Hollywood and American TV delineate our global dreams – John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Marilyn Monroe and Thelma and Louise, Meg Ryan faking an orgasm in When Harry Met Sally, Tarentino and The Matrix, Lassie and Flipper, I Love Lucy and Golden Girls, Get Smart and The A Team, Sex and the City and South Park

America’s heroes and superheroes and antiheroes, born of American experiences and fears and fantasies have long become global, Santa Claus and Superman, Bugs Bunny and Forrest Gump, Jessie James and Michael Jackson, Elvis and Oprah …

America’s world has become our world, our dreams been subsumed into the American Dream; Facebook has half a billion users and half the world seems to be twittering, American Idol has clones worldwide and the doings of Paris Hilton and Brangelina are more real to many than the shapes thrown by their own politicians.

Since the GIs stormed Omaha Beach, your wars have become our wars; we have watched Vietnam on TV and protested against it with you and gone through the heartrending reckoning with the wound you inflicted on yourself with it, through The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now and Oliver Stone’s attempts at cinematic self-therapy. We have seen the lessons your military people have learned from that and have consequently – with you – been witnesses of carefully stage-managed shock and awe …

And we watched with you, united in disbelief and horror nearly a decade ago now, as the planes hurtled into the Twin Towers and the towers fell, taking the last ragged traces of American innocence with them …

… inaugurating a new phase in the struggle for the American soul, a new discourse on the ever-changing meaning and interpretation of the American Dream; its value and relevance. For the 9/11 attacks were not simply a reaction to perceived injustice backed by and oppression committed by an overweening global superpower, imposing its systems and dominance on the world; but a blow against the Dream itself – a Dream seen as being invulnerably convinced of its own validity and superiority, and resented, more, hated as such.
In this, bin Laden and his sympathisers have had great success, for the invulnerability, the naïve security in the power of the righteousness and self-evidence of the Dream have been shaken.

Shaken but not destroyed – at least not yet. The idea that is America, the Dream that entices the world has been challenged and one part of the reaction to this challenge is to abandon aspects of the openness, the freedom at the heart of the Dream in order to defend it. So the debate becomes a matter of life and death, a fight for the soul of America, a discussion involving the whole world …

Well how dramatic! There you go again, Francis, analysing, producing rational constructions of momentous import. And what are they, really, if not just another expression of your own captivation with the American Dream? Investing everything with millennial meaning, seeing life as a Hollywood script, the good, the (somewhat) innocent threatened by forces of evil; existence and one’s very moral soul faced with challenges to be bravely surmounted in a drama of love and truth and glory, rising above one’s own limitations and weaknesses to struggle, to endure and, finally, to achieve the inevitable victory (usually with the help of a few faithful friends) – Luke Skywalker against Darth Vader!

It’s a dream we’ve all bought into, more or less, even – to an extent – those who oppose it, for they let their own positions be defined by that which they oppose. In the end, we all need dreams and hope is the strongest of all self-fulfilling prophesies.

And the good guys always triumph in the final reel …

There’s so much music I could have chosen for this, from Chuck Berry’s Born in the USA to Green Day’s American Idiot. In the end, I’ve chosen Paul Simon (and Garfunkel) as I did at the beginning of the post:

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