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October 30, 2008

On Visiting "the Greatest Nation on Earth" - Lincoln Allison reflects on the state of the USA before the election

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison reflects on the state of the USA before the election - and retains his affection for America the place while trying stifle his irritation at America the idea.

I met a redneck in the woods where Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee all meet. There was no doubt that he fell into this category because he had a pickup truck and a rifle and he had just shot a whitetail doe. He called me "sir" and we had an informative conversation about the stalking, freezing and cooking of his prey. He told me that he would expect to return with something on only one hunting expedition in three. A fair sport in other words and - putting aside childhood memories of the death of Bambi's mother - an activity which contributes positively to an exceptionally well managed eco-system.

I mention all this to establish my innocence of emotional anti-Americanism because I want to insist that I have more in common with rednecks than with educated Parisians or with members of the Nobel Literature Committee. It is true that I probably wouldn't share much of the rifleman's religious beliefs, but that also applies to the other two stereotypes. And the reason that I am trying to establish this innocence is that one cannot help but be tempted to anti-Americanism by the amount of in-your-face boasting that America does.

It didn't help that we arrived in time for the Republican Convention where the talk of "greatest nation on earth", "last, best hope for mankind" and "shining city on a hill" is always thick on the ground.

About twenty per cent of the pre-owned car salesrooms and rodent exterminators along the small town strips of the country proclaim "God Bless America" which leaves you wondering whether they mean mainly America or only America or what.

And it is particularly irritating when the announcer at the US Open Tennis Championship at Flushing Meadow tells you that you are attending the world's greatest tennis tournament when you are sitting watching finals and semi-finals in an over-heated, under-attended concrete bowl where many of the spectators spend their time squabbling over the few seats which offer any shade. In terms of style or atmosphere, which are what matter in major sporting events, the US Open isn't fit to lick Wimbledon's bootstraps.

That American archetype the travelling salesman addresses me over breakfast in Lake Worth. With the casual, factual style of someone telling me that neither New York team has qualified for the baseball playoffs this year he informs me that "This is the best country in the world . . . " then adds, ". . . but it's in a hell of a mess right now". Because the TV is on in the background covering the endless saga of meltdowns and bail-outs.

So then he adds that i'ís the greediest country on earth. Best and greediest, huh? Polls show that 75% or 78% or 80% of Americans think their country is "headed in the wrong direction" or some sentiment along those lines though "conservative" Republicans have insisted until very recently that those who hold this view are the victims of whingeing leftist propaganda.

It is sometimes quite shocking to anyone from Europe to observe the ease with which you can turn on patriotic emotion in America; it seems more like the intensity that you get with small countries like Georgia or Norway than anything you would expect from a large, powerful country. We were at a charity concert of country music in Nashville; the theme seemed quite radical and critical because the funds were being raised to provide food for the "food banks" for those who were going hungry.

But then one of the singers burst into a speech about how his gran'pappy had won six purple hearts (!?) and this became a song about if it wasn't for the marines we'd be speaking German and living under the flag of Japan (That way round for reasons of scansion, I assume). Far from being sullen and embarrassed as they had been when the same singer did a Johnny Cash imitation, the audience stood to its feet and hooted and hollered with enthusiasm.

Yet when Joe Biden says it is patriotic to pay taxes they hoot and holler with derision. So it is: I love my country; Long Live America; God Bless America; I would do anything for America - except give it money. This is the Great American Schizophrenia: the nation is the greatest on earth, embodying the highest values and a manifest destiny to grow and to lead. But "the state" is to be resented; "Washington" is to be decried; "Big Government" is deeply corrupt.

Of course, to a non-American that which is loved and that which is hated are the same thing. "The greatest nation on earth" has no pre-existence as an ethnie in the way that European nations do to different degrees: it is purely the construction of the American state, a state which is to be feared and admired to high degrees because it has achieved the greatest feat of nation-building in history. Eat your heart out Soviet Union, Mexico, Canada, etc. because you never managed to do what the United States did with a potent mixture of force and propaganda.

If you were an American soldier born in 1830 you might have killed Mexicans, Southerners, dozens of "Native American" tribes and even Mormons for the integrity and expansion of your state-nation. Yet their descendants, far from exhibiting the resentment normal in such cases, go dewy-eyed at your star-spangled banner and put it on their altars and make their children swear your oath of allegiance. But you should not confuse having had the most successful nation-building exercise in history with being the best nation.

As usual, Alexis De Tocqueville explained this first. On the one hand there is the USA as a contingent reality, a particular story in time and space, perhaps more "exceptional" than most. But there is also the USA as an idea, the embodiment - according to Tocqueville - of at least seven centuries in the progress of European ideas. It is to my mind a pretty incoherent set of ideas: democracy and liberty at the same time - I don't think so.

Americans imagine on a daily basis that they are "free" in ways that other people are not while their state owns more land, controls more education and enforces more regulations than is the case with most other developed societies. And, worse than that, the pressures of social conformity have always been greater than in older forms of society; this seems to me to have been a constant theme of American writing from the earliest times to modern Hollywood: I just read, for example, Willa Cather's O Pioneers which is set in Nebraska between 1880 and 1910 and the relation between the newness of a society and its lack of tolerance of eccentricity is a major theme of the novel as of so much American writing.

Since America the idea and America the place operate at different metaphysical levels the tribulations of the latter hardly affect the former; American patriotism ignores the dismal facts about the American economy and American power.

You can scarcely enter a bookshop or newsagents or watch one of the more serious TV channels without being aware that somebody is saying that the American Century is over. It has dawned that "globalisation" was never really an American game with Starbuck's and McDonald's as its significant players and only the most superficial of observers could have thought it so. The USA is just not global enough to win the globalisation game: Indian tycoons and English games and Russian oligarchs and the commercial vestiges of the British Empire are all far more suited to the task.

I don't agree with the majority of Americans that the country is headed in the wrong direction. I travelled thousands of miles around America in bicentennial year - 1976 - and I also read a good deal about the centennial year,1876. In the earlier of the two periods the chattering classes were convinced that American values could not survive the greed, corruption and ethnic-demographic change which was taking place - much as Michael Moore and others are convinced now.

This year, a third of a century after the bicentennial, we zig-zagged from New York to Chicago, then down to Lexington and the Cumberland Gap and west to Texas and it seemed to me that America was a better country than it used to be. The big cities are cleaner, safer, more cosmopolitan and more interesting places than they used to be. Above all, the country does not crackle with the racial tension and contempt which used to be its worst feature in 1976. That story is far from over, but it is a story of progress in the best sense.

America is not the greatest nation on earth: there isn't one. Like most places, it is good in parts. The National Parks are superb, but the waste of energy is appalling; the meat is excellent, but the bread is mostly terrible stuff; the musical heritage is a gift to the world, but much of the town planning should not be imitated at any price. I try to stifle my irritation at America the idea and retain my affection for America the place.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy.

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Mr Allison is looking at America in the same point in the trajectory of its history as Spain in 1600 . Either Sarah Palin wins and the fat lady sings or the nation will march through the streets weeping , beating their breasts with clenched fists and chanting Hussein. They may not speak German under the Japanese flag since the Russians defeated the Germans for them and the Japanese got nuked by a bomb made in Hungarian.But that was war time.
In peace time the Americans are failing . Twenty years from nw America will speak Spanish and fly the Chinese flag. Immigration will lead to the first as Hispanics become a majority and repudiate America's apology for English and economic failure to the second due to Chinese economic growth and America's grotesque indebtedness. the lunatic American experiment will be over. The USA will have joined the CCCP in the garbage pail of history. Goodbye Uncle Sammy. A gentle riddance.

Posted by: Mentor at November 1, 2008 09:36 PM

Dear sir, you merely pressed your nose to the glass. I don't have the time to correct all your misapprehensions, however I don't mind pointing out that the core American point you are missing is that words are considered fallible and that the logorrheic text-obsessives are considered untrustworthy. Seemingly bizarre American contradictions that can be set out verbally, fall away when they are not named. Symbolic codification is not necessarily instructive here. As a metaphor, we function just fine.


Posted by: kev at November 4, 2008 02:56 PM

Mentor is right. China's strength is that it is not multi-cultural the way America is. There are a billion Chinese Chinese with a long proud history. America is just the assorted misfits of the globe who have ended up there because they could not make it back home. During the Korean war huge numbers of American prisoners went over to the side of their Chinese captors and broadcast for them. This was not to escape from poor conditions but because Americans lack a primordial identity - it is possible to persuade an American out of his identity by telling him that you the enemy incorporate the values of his silly constitution better than America does. You can not do that to the Chinese. They know who they are and always were.

Posted by: jack at November 4, 2008 05:40 PM

"China's strength is that it is not multi-cultural the way America is."

Absolute nonsense. For starters, these supposedly homogenous Chinese don't even all understand each other, to a far greater extent than is the case in the United States. There is very considerable ethnic and cultural variation in China - just because all them Chinese look the same to the commentators here doesn't make it so.

Posted by: melon farmer at November 6, 2008 06:04 PM

For those who believe in China as this unstoppable monolith fated to annihilate us all, Khruschev style (and look what happened there) may I recommend Will Hutton's The Writing On The Wall

Posted by: double dutchman at November 6, 2008 06:59 PM

Dr. Allison,

I don't agree with your conclusions about my country (excepting the point about bread), but I enjoyed reading them. Kudos to you for venturing beyond Manhattan... few foreigners have the pluck. :) My hope is that we made you feel welcome enough to merit another long visit before the next one-third-century expires.

- Isaac

Posted by: Isaac at November 7, 2008 06:29 PM
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