- 20 Jan - 26 Jan, 2018
HOME FREE IN AMERICA
- 16 Dec - 22 Dec, 2017
- A Letter From America
There are at least two problems with writing about America. One is that it is such a vast and various country that it’s impossible, really, to write about “America” as a whole without resorting to abstractions that risk being meaningless at best. The second problem, closely related, is that most Americans’ experience of our own country tends to be mediated through, well, the media. We deal with our country’s confusing and daunting complexity by ruthlessly reducing it to a string of tiresome cliches, slogans and stereotypes. And then we indulge in bitter disputation about these among ourselves on Facebook and Twitter.
Five years ago I solved the problem of America’s vastness, to my own satisfaction at the time, by driving around the country. I spent three-and-a-half months driving more than 18,000 miles, and thought that I was being a clever, alert journalist because I was timing my trip to coincide with the 2012 presidential election. Little did I know – if I had waited four years, I would have written a very different book.
But I do think it was worth making the trip that I made, at the time that I made it. The value of the book that resulted is perhaps that it preserves, as in amber, a version of the United States of America that is no more. And it documents what we might all come to remember as the last normal election in American history. I also succeeded, I think, in being what Paul Theroux calls “prescient without making predictions”, by paying close attention and writing about concrete things that I actually saw and heard. “One of the motivating premises of my project,” I wrote, was that “America was not separate or different from the rest of the world… And I had seen for myself that while the United States, plural, might be in some sense a single country, they are also an archipelago of disparate communities. Whether the centre would hold was an open question.”
Not to put too fine a point on it or state the obvious, but the centre ended up not holding. The question now, for all of us living in America at the end of 2017, is: Now what? A year after the political earthquake of November 2016, we all suffer from different versions of buyer’s remorse. The actress Susan Sarandon made waves recently by telling The Guardian: “I did think [Hillary Clinton] was very, very dangerous. We would still be fracking, we would be at war [if she was president]. It wouldn’t be much smoother. Look what happened under Obama that we didn’t notice.”
Sarandon was roundly attacked from the left – the writer Katha Pollitt called her an “idiot” – but she had a point. On the other hand, one of my own relatives told me, “I must admit I was naive about my vote for Trump. I had expected and hoped he would be a disrupter but I never imagined he would have such lack of respect for some of the basics. You know I don’t have any respect for Hillary and I’ve no doubt there would be lots I would be dissatisfied with had she been elected. However, one big difference is that I don’t think I would be hearing about it day in day out.”
This is where America is at, until further notice. Not only are we at each other’s throat, we’re also all unceasingly bombarded by the perpetual onrush of aggressive moves on multiple fronts by the Trump administration, not to mention weird unpredictable phenomena like the ever-morphing and never-ending fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal. I’ve always been someone who keeps up with current events, out of both, interest and a sense of duty as a citizen. But now, I don’t open my laptop first thing in the morning with any anticipation or eagerness. I’d rather read a good book – so often that’s exactly what I do.
One good book I’ve read recently is the novel Hello America, by the famously prophetic British novelist J.G. Ballard. In his introduction to the reprint edition that I read, Ballard wrote:
Whenever I visit the United States I often feel that the real “America” lies not in the streets of Manhattan and Chicago, or the farm towns of the mid-west, but in the imaginary America created by Hollywood and the media landscape. Far from being real, the sidewalks and filling stations and office blocks seem to imitate the images of themselves in countless movies and TV commercials. Even the American people one meets in hotel lobbies and department stores seem like actors in a huge televised sit-com. “U.S.A.” might well be the title of a 24 hours a day virtual reality channel, broadcast into the streets and shopping malls and, perhaps, the White House itself.
Ballard wrote those words more than two decades ago, in 1994. Perhaps the most basic problem for all of us in America today is that we have been trained – for decades now – to see no distinction between reality and reality television. And now, with the ascendancy of social media as the virtual place where national arguments take place, we are all too busy scoring rhetorical points to listen to each other or to remember – or care – that we are all in it together. We consume the media, and it is us.
For whatever it is worth, what I will be trying to do in this weekly column is stepping out of the white-water rapids of the American mediascape to share with you some things I actually see and hear around me, in the America I grew up and live in. I will try to do what I always prefer to do: talk to actual people, in person or (if necessary) by telephone, ask them to tell me what is on their minds, and actually listen to and write down what they tell me. •
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