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October 9, 2005 - The End of America? A Conversation

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Our Man in London is Mike McCahill. Note: Mike McCahill was born in Warwickshire, England in 1978. He currently works as a film critic for The Scotsman, The Sunday Telegraph and the BBC, while trying to string together novels, screenplays and travel guides for places he's never actually been to. Mike divides his time between the Midlands and London, where professional duty requires he spend at least the first part of every week sitting in small dark rooms. With a couple of exceptions, he is open to offers.

Over the last few weeks, I've been trying to offer an Englishman's view of all things English. This week, by way of a change, an Englishman's view of America. A couple of days ago, a friend of mine, the journalist and travel writer Mark Avery, suggested in the middle of an unrelated conversation that we may be witnessing America's final days as a superpower.


This was a bold statement to make, especially in the middle of what was an informal chat about nothing in particular. Still, if anyone was qualified to give such an objective view of America's current turmoils, it was Mark, who studied in Indiana and has, for personal and professional reasons, spent extensive travel time in the States. So I followed him up on it.


The following is a transcript of a conversation we had earlier today [Friday 7 October 2005], presented in the spirit of illumination - an attempt to show how America might be perceived by the rest of the world (or by Mark and me, as representatives of the rest of the world) - rather than as an exercise in transatlantic gloating. (Besides, you still make better hamburgers than we do.)


Mike McCahill: So, earlier in the week, you said to me that we're witnessing "the end of America as we know it". How so?


Mark Avery: The obvious example is the Bush administration's shoddy response to the New Orleans disaster, but this is just the latest manifestation [of the U.S.'s problems]. A country that witnesses an average of 40,000 murders a year really shouldn't be dictating to other governments. Cleveland, a city about the size of Nottingham in the U.K., has had 900 homicides during the last decade. Nottingham has had 14 murders this year and yet the media there talk about a wave of gun crime. Jeez!


MM: I want to talk about New Orleans a bit, because it seems to me to have crystallised some of the discontent people outside the U.S. have with the U.S.: the huge gap between rich and poor, the lack of immediate aid for the city's poorest. It was a terrible thing to have happen, but it has a powerful symbolic value.


MA: I've never been to New Orleans, but what happened there could happen anywhere. I think some Americans think New Orleans is a special case, but it's not. Every city I've been to in the US is divided - almost along Apartheid lines. The racial divide is all-pervasive. In the universities, the black students sit in one corner of the dinner hall, the Hispanics in another, the Asians in another etc, etc. Everyone talks about the melting pot idea as a positive thing, and it is to a certain degree, but you still can't just bracket people from different cultures together and automatically expect everything to be hunky dory.


MM: The race thing is interesting, because America has always made such great claims about being a rainbow country, accepting all colours and creeds - and yet, as in London following the recent bombings, when rips and tears emerge in the social fabric, the whole idea of unity can seem fragile indeed.


MA: The very fabric of American society is divided along racial lines anyway. The fact that nobody calls themselves "American" says it all. You are "African-American", "Irish-American", "Italian-American", etc.


MM: Right, you're defined by your race. That's a historical thing, I guess: there are no "pure" Americans, only people who came to America from elsewhere. We should talk about Iraq. (Or Iran and Iraq, which seems to be the way matters are heading.) What does the situation out there tell us about American thinking?


MA: Bush has been talking about a Muslim empire stretching from Spain to Indonesia. I think he and his cohorts seriously see themselves as modern-day Crusaders. I also understand that Bush is desperate to go into Iran. That's your World War III, right there. Oil plays a part, but I think the neo-Con Crusader mindset is the real driving force behind all this. History shows that secularism is the way forward. Something as arbitrary and as personal as religion should have no place in democratic government. Which country is the most secular in the world? Switzerland. Which country is widely regarded as having the most sound democracy in the world? Switzerland.


MM: It's the old English situation of keeping Church and State separate. Instead, Bush has been talking to the press today about how God told him to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. Which is one way of justifying it, I suppose, referring every one of your decisions to a higher power. God trumps the Supreme Court every time. Taking this back to ideas of "empire", what were you saying the other day about the end of the British Empire?


MA: I believe the U.S. probably peaked during the 1950s and has had another resurgence because of the internet boom. All great empires - and the U.S. is a cultural and commercial empire - come to an end. If you want a parallel, the U.S. is currently at about the same stage as Britain was during Dickens' and Conrad's day. The collapse of the British Empire coincided with a shift towards a more insular way of thinking, and concentrating on domestic problems. Hence we lost India, but gained the National Health Service, lost British West Africa, but cleared our slums, etc.


MM: But surely the U.S.'s current problems stem from too great an interest in other countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, cultural colonisation, etc.)? Or is it the problem that they're going into other countries with that very insular mindset, that the leaders claim to be looking out for others, but doing this solely for themselves?


MA: Your answers lie in your questions. All of the above! At least the British empire-builders didn't try to hide their motives [behind political spin]. We went in to Africa to "civilise" the natives. 


MM: The other major problem in America, as I see it, is an oppositional Left that's entirely divided. (It's rather like the Right over here: utterly disorganised.) Whereas the Right have all manner of things to unite them - commitments to God, money, the Flag, whatever - the Left, because it's so diverse and all-encompassing really doesn't have that unity. The most striking example of this for me came at the Oscars this year, when Chris Rock made a good-natured joke about Tim Robbins' activism, then Sean Penn came on and took a (much less good-natured) swipe at Chris Rock. All three are ostensibly on the same political side, but there's this desperate desire amongst the American Left to be seen as holier-than-thou, or perhaps better: hipper-than-thou, even more liberal and worthy than the next man. You don't get that on the American Right, seemingly. You either believe in God, or you don't.


MA: The Left has no real flag to rally round. In the mainstream American media, there is no equivalent to the British Guardian, no Channel 4, no BBC.


MM: And just as there's no division of Church and State in the States at present, there's nothing to stop corporate interests buying into the media.


MA: Exactly. You and I might gripe about Channel 4 from time to time, but their news coverage is simply unparalleled.


MM: I agree with you about Channel 4 news, which maintains a high level of independence. Whenever I watch American news on cable, I feel they're trying to sell me something. Even "The Daily Show", which I do think is a pretty good example of the best contemporary American journalism, sometimes adopts a very odd tone. I'm sure they'd say they don't have any particular political position, but for a show which spends so much time lambasting Bush for his moral and social failings, they occasionally sneer at the Left (at last week's Washington anti-War protestors, for example) in ways that I find rather disconcerting.


MA: Those protestors are an easy target though, especially the mothers of soldiers.


MM: They are an easy target - because the Left is so weak and exposed - which is why I'm surprised "The Daily Show" would pick on them.


MA: Actually, going back to Iraq: the war has shown another interesting side to the American psyche. How, as a nation, it likes doing things the easy way, and doesn't really know how to handle defeat. As soon as the body bags start coming home, there is an instant collective desire to retreat. The British psyche is the exact opposite. Look at the Falklands - the body count was high for what was essentially a minor skirmish, but Margaret Thatcher used that as far more of a rallying point, to emphasise how murderous the Argentines were. The popular press of the time lapped it up.


MM: Yes, I suppose we're used to defeat, and knuckling down to get on with things (as in the Blitz). America has had its own way for a long while, and sometimes has problems accepting such setbacks. The difference in reactions after September 11th and July 7th said a lot, I think. Not much wailing or gnashing of teeth here, just a need to get back to normality. Admittedly, the numbers of casualties were incomparable.


MA: Even if the July bombings had killed 10,000, I suspect there's something about the British psyche that would have sat around saying "mustn't grumble, at least we're winning the cricket."


MM: So, let's try and say something positive about our American chums, to finish off. We have American friends and colleagues after all, so they're not all bad. (I'm sure they'll be delighted to hear this.) But where can America go now, aside from Iran? You were saying something in our earlier conversation about the country's unrivalled "soft power base", its universities and research labs.


MA: For a start, America rules the internet.


MM: Yes, but can a bunch of sci-fi freaks, pornography lovers and lone bloggers really bring about a revolution?


MA: Nope. But at least Bill Gates and his pals are not in the lap of the Neo-Cons.


MM: They're of the Right, but not that far Right. Right?


MA: Socially liberal, financially conservative. Can't argue with that.


MM: Very New Labour. I guess the understanding is that a nation founded on capitalism will never go entirely socialist, but that there are more and less acceptable forms of capitalism.


MA: There is nothing essentially wrong with capitalism. Look at the alternatives! [I think he means "poverty" rather than "socialism", though the two are often linked.] Those capitalists in charge of America just need to be a whole load more socially responsible. They have no need to be quite so selfish. What America needs, every now and again, is to take a long hard look at itself through other people's eyes.


MM: Which seems a good note to end on. Thank you very much.



Mike McCahill

October 7, 2005.



Copyright 2005 – Mike McCahill

Email the author at mikemccahill@fastmail.fm






Editor's Note: British spelling and punctuation retained here.





Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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