Once upon a time, at the start of the last century, PG Wodehouse declared, with the fervour of the convert, that to live in America was “like being in heaven … without the bother and expense of dying”.
America used to do that to a certain kind of Brit, and to those who saw themselves as Greeks to the Americans’ Romans: we’d fall hopelessly in love, however much they abused the relationship.
My own long affair with America, as an idea as much as a reality, began in the bicentennial year, 1976, with a graduate scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. Among the lovely red brick of old Philadelphia, I maxed out on the promise and possibilities of the American revolution, its majesty, optimism and rhetoric. Those pioneers of radical political self-expression, Jefferson, Franklin, et al, became idols of deep faith. For instance, years later, on a return visit to the Constitution Center, I was brought to tears by a video devoted to that love letter to democratic principles, the US constitution, and the eternal magic of “We, the people”.
Today, after the pre-election convention season, it’s almost impossible to imagine such emotions. Like many Europeans who once looked across the Atlantic at a great democratic experiment, I’ve quit. Somehow, I must cultivate indifference to disguise the end of a long love affair. It’s become an agony to express this disillusion, but I have to try.
The first intimations of this crisis probably occurred when, visiting New York in 2017, I attended a famous Public Theater production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Central Park. From the moment a strawberry blond Caesar (Gregg Henry in a Maga baseball cap) bounded on stage in a white shirt and a long red tie, this was a polemical interpretation that set cultivated New Yorkers at odds with the culture warriors of Fox News. Now, it seems eerily prescient of America’s nightmare: the disintegration of a great society under the leadership of an orange monster, half-clown, half-tyrant.
Like many US admirers, I’ve made allowances for a necessary disruption. I’ve argued with sceptical friends that America is not “broken”, the federal system remains resilient, and the grip of the constitution still sure. But once my admiration for the United States choked and died this year, bludgeoned by the racism, cruelty, corruption and outright stupidity of the current administration, this loss of faith became desolating.
I have always loved America for its language, the snap of Twain or Lincoln and the sonorities of Douglass and Melville. First and last, it’s a society built of words and ideas, those uplifting expressions of reason and the pursuit of happiness, that quest for “a more perfect union”, the new world’s dream. The ideas of the founding fathers, reiterated by Americans from FDR and LBJ, to MLK and even Ronald Reagan, were fierce and idealistic but always humane.
The National Constitution Center, Philadelphia. Photograph: Maurice Savage/Alamy
Part of the US’s appeal, as a democratic experiment, is its Anglo-Saxon pragmatism, its willingness always to frame its radicalism as provisional, a work-in-progress. As former president Obama said at John Lewis’s memorial, any ordinary person could take up the unfinished work of the society, and remake it with new words. To many Britons, imprisoned by ancient, arteriosclerotic continuities, such drive is exhilarating. The audacity of a country constructing itself, from generation to generation, in the language and ideas of the moment, remains the age of reason’s most breathtaking assertion of human ambition.
The genius of the Declaration of Independence as a mission statement is the way in which it conscripts the American vernacular to serve a flag. Language makes unfinished humanity human. Without words, there can be no expressions of thought or sympathy; and thought nourishes the inward mind. This was the faculty the founders recognised as the republic’s best guarantee.
None of this is plain sailing. An exuberant process, full of life and optimism, the ferment of ideas is noisy, messy and occasionally violent. Yes, the tree of liberty was watered by the blood of patriots. But America’s fundamental humanity would always be an inspiration to writers and poets, performers, lawyers and politicians.
Now it feels as if the well of US independence has been poisoned, and the air contaminated with noxious gas from half-baked conspiracy theories. Where language once provided a narrative line, now we find hate-filled presidential tweets. Ideas used to be a basis for community, now they only sponsor a raucous shouting match. Once, this experiment was arbitrated by trial and error, the interplay of trust and truth in the free traffic of well-founded opinion. This has now devolved into visceral internecine vendettas.
What’s died in the process are two fine American monosyllables: good faith. For the whole world, this is a democratic emergency. America was always a country where – with the usual caveats surrounding power politics – we could witness a society engaged in moral choices about improving the way people live. This was the shining city of the American ideal. Today, for millions across the “good Earth” of the astronaut Frank Borman’s inspired description, that light has gone out.
We, once faithful supporters, no longer have any appetite for a noble experiment consumed with rage, ever more vulnerable to the manipulation of untrammelled power, and tormented by habitual untruths. It’s these lies that are most lethal. Whatever treasury of words and judgments was stored up in Philadelphia during the 1770s, that bank is bust. This infamous 45th president will be remembered for many things, but the worst is the blizzard of his more than 20,000 outrageous falsehoods, the cynical disabling of the body politic.
When we contemplate the imminent battle between Democrats and Republicans, the former so eager for government but so incompetent at elections, the latter so ready for the fight but so deficient in sympathetic political capital, it’s hard not to become dismayed and fearful. How to preserve this democracy? Whence a new chapter of American revival? And is it too late for the voters to renew their lease on paradise?
Originally published: 2020-09-06 02:12:17