Friday, 22 January 2010

The US - how to avoid a sense of despair

I've been in the US for the last 3 weeks and, although I know what Rufus Wainwright meant in his song "Going to a town" where he says "I'm so tired of America", that's not it for me. I'm far from tired of this country, whether in it, or out of it back home. I happen to have had that song on the brain, and it prompts me to assk, if not "tired of America", then what is my sense of discomfort at the state of things here? Before attempting to answer that, might I add that I don't much relish the state of things back home in the UK either, but that's another story.

Everything about this country is big - most obviously, geographical size, economic power =financial and political influence in the wider world. To the sheer clout created by massive natural resources and industrial might, was added the high moral tone associated with the country's formation - one thinks of William Penn, the constitution, the Civil War, the Marshall Plan ETC. The result is a readily justifiable national sense of self-importance and righteousness - the implication that God is a capitalist, and the United States is his prophet. This opinion should be taken as an assessment not a criticism. I'm sure that, had I been born in the States, certainly in the first half of the last century, there would have been little to discourage me from this conviction if I had chosen not to go looking for it.

Particularly within the warmth and relative security of "The Homeland", there are two marvellous traits in the American character, which make for a chink in what could be the total armour of that self-importance. American hospitality and generosity, particularly on an individual level, is second to none, as we have seen with the relief effort for the recent Haitian earthquake. And, like most of us, Americans want to be appreciated; they want to be loved. Without these traits, US capitalist fundamentalism could simply run riot in the world, with no vestige of conscience. While some may think that it has, there is some unease in the american soul, as shown by their reaction to anti-Americanism exhibited by foreigners. It drives them crazy. Why can't these damn foreigners be as grateful as they sould be? "Why don't they love us?
"I'm just a boy whose intentions are good.
Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood."
If they didn't want to be loved, they wouldn't care, and I love them for that. As those of us in personal relationships may know only too well, there's nothing more gut-wrenchingly infuriating than the feeling of having what one believes to be one's most sincere good intentions interpreted as altogether something else. This is where both parties to the relationship need the insight to appreciate that our intentions may indeed be more selfishly motivated than we're prepared to admit, or, on the other hand, to acknowledge that we may be too cynically dismissive of real sincerity in our partner. Both things are possible. So it is, I think, with nations.

So that's the background to my reaction to this country. The sheer scale of it and its actions means that the things I like about it, I like a lot, and the things I dislike about it, I dislike a lot. Notably, in the latter case, financial self-interest thinly disguised as democracy.

The "despair" of my title stems from a feeling that elements in the American system and psyche are in danger of cancelling each other out. The conviction of what americans don't want is counter-acting any ideas about what they do want, so nothing happens. Scott Brown was swept to victory on a traditional anti "Big government" agenda. In the area of health care reform, he talks about getting things that need fixing put right slowly by private enterprise. Given the history of health care reform in this country, how long is that likely to take? and, as long as health care remains primarily about profit, is there any prospect of a universally affordable solution? Meanwhile, everyone who has been uninsured will continue to be uninsured and at risk. Those who pontificate about how private enterprise can fix this have perfectly adequate health insurance of their own, so they can afford to argue until another president comes in, and there's someone else to blame for nothing having happened.

My sense of despair is with the american electorate, which, no doubt for reasons of history, appears to fear government more than anything. Apparently, anyone who can touch this raw nerve doesn't actually have to put forward any workable proposals, they just have to stop anyone else doing anything in case it might be the tip of some terrible bureaucratic iceberg which could fatally hole and sink all personal liberty. Now the invasive bureaucratic State is a problem, as we know only too well in the UK, but, eventually, the electorate has to ask itself the question, given the perils of excessive government, which we wish to avoid, what needs to be done, and how is it to be done? I have little faith in governments, but I have even less in corporate insurance companies. The American people must free themselves from always falling under the spell of these libertarian snake charmers, and espouse politicians who at least are prepared to make a stab at achievable policy. They had a flirtation with change when they voted for President Obama, but, faced with an inexperienced president, whose agenda could only ever have been accomplished through the co-operation of his political opponents, fear in the US seems to have reasserted itself as a much more reliable winner of elections, while its politicians appear to cynically embrace this fact for the sake of gaining power for themselves and their corporate masters.

I think the president's detractors would add much more force to their arguments if they allowed him to fail in action, rather than paralysing the process on which action depends, and then saying "there, we told you it wouldn't work. And this goes for Democrats as well as republicans.