Saturday, January 8, 2011

America and Americans

I am always flattered when when people from other countries point out what they like about mine. Spanish friends, for example, have told me that (Arizona notwithstanding) they were pleasantly surprised by how much more assistance was extended to immigrants in the U.S. than in Spain. Upon reflection, I've decided their reaction probably says more about Eastern Massachusetts than it does about the U.S. in general. So I was intrigued when Andrew Sullivan posted a clip he called "America From the Outside," in which Craig Ferguson and Stephen Fry discussed what they liked about the U.S.:

One of the characteristics they both seem to admire is American optimism, the sense of unlimited possibility. Optimism is admirable but I find its typical American embodiment impossible to separate from a particularly unappealing naiveté. Fry notes how the phrase "only in America" always denotes something big, bold and new. I associate the phrase "only in America" with the notion of unlimited social mobility: "Only in America could a poor boy from a farm become a millionaire."

Fry finds "beguiling" the theory that attributes this sense of possibility to immigration: "[people] came here by choice. They wanted to leave Europe. Mostly Europe. And come here to start a new life. The gene pool is people who said this isn't good enough....American is a gene pool of people saying, 'let's risk it.'...It's a tempting way of looking at it."

That's not quite how I would describe the millions of Irish peasants who fled starvation or Jews who escaped pogroms. Nor how I would describe my own maternal ancestors who were transported from Ulster to Maryland in the 1680s to lessen crowding in Irish jails.*

I don't mean to discount the courage of the millions of voluntary immigrants to this country, nor the hard work of the many people who have come from poor beginnings to achieve outstanding material success. But the opposite side of this simplistic coin of optimism and mobility is the sense that if your life is anything less than what you would like, if you're poor or unhappy or have trouble paying your bills, it's all your fault. The ways in which our society is inherently unjust, the fact that certain people have the deck stacked against them from day one, isn't allowed to be part of the narrative.

There's no ugliness or pointless pain in American history, it's all Progress. Thus when the new Republican members of the House read the Constitution out loud, they somehow managed to do it without reading any references to slavery. A Mexican-American studies class at a Tucson high school has been declared illegal by the Arizona State Department of Education for addressing discrimination against Hispanic Americans. The editor of a new edition of Huckleberry Finn deleted all instances of the word "nigger."

These are a symptoms of a cultural blindness that has truly poisonous effects. It locks most Americans into a sense of tribal self-righteousness. We can never really be wrong. We can be the second-biggest culprit in leading the world toward global catastrophe, we can lock up millions of black men and make it nearly impossible for them to resume normal lives after they've "paid their debt to society," we can make hundreds of people disappear into torture chambers, but everything's all right in America.

The Americans Sarah Palin patronizingly called "Joe Six-Packs" understand they're getting poorer, that they're lives are getting worse, but the American Story doesn't allow them to understand the nature of their problems. Instead it provides scapegoats, such as welfare queens and over-paid union employees. Their tax dollars are being siphoned away to buy deadbeats health insurance and pamper criminals (in a telling moment during the Alabama episode of Stephen Fry in America, he remarked that Alabama was not a place where he would want to be "poor or in trouble with the law." When Fry himself was seventeen, he was convicted of credit card fraud. Yet he was given a second chance and allowed to take the entrance exams for Cambridge. I find it easier to imagine that happening in the UK than in the Land of Opportunity).
This land of optimism is seething with resentment that occasionally erupts into violence. Today Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head in Tucson. She was one of the many members of Congress who received threatening calls for supporting the Affordable Care Act.

Her assailant has been described as a white man in his twenties: just the sort of American, so the Story goes, who should have been pursuing opportunities with optimism and that can-do spirit.

*Don't feel too bad for my relatives: they quickly realized there was a really good life to be had in the Colonies if you were willing to enslave people.

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