Published on
the Sunday Herald/UK

A letter to America: You Cannot be Serious

Ian Bell

Dear America, Before you say it, I know: presumptuous. No one can speak to a multitude or to a nation, even if your presidential candidates entertain the fantasy. The United States is too big, too diverse, to allow that sort of intimacy. Is it even, from sea to shining sea, a single nation? Does New Hampshire speak much, or clearly, to New Mexico?

So many cultures, races, nuances. Too many variations from the modern media homogeneity norm, or even, dare I say it, from your cherished self-image. You are still, as Europeans too easily forget, a free association of states, each of them proud, each distinct. Some once styled themselves sovereign; most are jealous still of their remaining rights. That can't be easy.

You disagree among yourselves, too, over what America is and what that means. Even at this distance, we pick up the chatter. We glimpse a few of your tensions. Even your "culture wars" have become a cliché in our discourse. We miss the important details, but as often as not we get it. After all, we pay more attention to you than you ever do to us.

Sorry. Did that sound antipathetic, as in "anti-American"? Let's deal with that. I've said a few things down the years. It is likely that I will say a few more. You have a reserve currency, extraordinary military strength, and an unsurpassed cultural reach: people notice. If they have any sense, they also notice that America is no sort of monolith. But when things are done, by a democracy and in a people's name, we call that "America".

The irony is, in any case, that you are not beset on all sides. A great many foreign people spend a great deal of time defending your actions. Sometimes, for my money, the very depth of their loyalty is suspicious. Yours is not their country. I'm more of the Bush-didn't-win-Florida school, but I do not hold every last American responsible for the consequences of a convenient (for some) Supreme Court decision. That would be like blaming me for Tony Blair. (And no, I did not vote for Trusted Ally Number One. I like to think I saw the Blessed Cheesemaker coming).

But you still think the world is against you? Try thinking, if you can, as a Russian thinks. Their country, right or wrong. Their patriotic dead. Their great lost empire, their exceptionalism, their certainty that dark and alien others always wish them ill. So how does a Russian view the world when tiny Georgia fires rockets "pre-emptively" on tinier South Ossetia and finds America taking the side of the rocketman "in freedom's name"? Let's just say that our Russian fails to share your perspective.

Or how about a Palestinian? The world cries injustice, historic, enduring, and a continuing justification for resistance, none of it pretty. You talk peace, but you say Israel - now where did this phrase come from? - right or wrong. Do the moral calculus. Stinking anti-Semites who would wipe Israel from the map do not justify every action Israel takes. But that is not, as the world hears it, the word from America.

This is not, historically speaking, a big deal. The American Century may well be at an end, with only the debts - unfeasibly big debts - to be settled. The Chinese, the Arabs, the Europeans, even the Russians hold your IOUs. When the money runs out, aircraft carriers are window dressing. Besides, no-one in the British islands is in a position to talk. Our empire was far more reckless than yours has ever been, and we could not hold a blood-red candle to Spain, France, Germany, Holland or even little Belgium. No-one ever gave thanks for having the Russians or the Chinese in charge. These things come and go.

But you say - Kipling and Rhodes would have understood - that you are the last best hope for mankind. Speaker after speaker at the Republican convention, and more than a few at the Democrat equivalent, talked (boasted?) of the greatest nation in the world ever. No precedent. I refer you once more to British imperial history. I also suggest, though, that when such things are said sincerely, certain obligations follow. You enthuse over Sarah Palin instead.

Perhaps, like so many modern politico-media phenomena, that will pass. Over here, after all, we thought George W Bush was the most improbable thing your conservatism could contrive. Shows you what we know. A George Bush who was merely stupid and mendacious seemed the extreme edge of what the presidential process might produce when someone's vital interests were at stake. But what do we bystanders now understand? If polls are to be trusted (another story) Mr Bush is profoundly unpopular while Ms Palin, his spiritual kid sister, is homecoming queen. You can sense our puzzlement.

Our disgust is something that many of you no doubt take for granted. A book-banning, anti-abortion, creationist with scant consciousness, if any, of the outside world is not a brand that travels well. Ms Palin reportedly does not travel at all, save to cross fly over Canada. Her personal life is none of my concern. Her lipstick seems to suit her. But am I truly supposed to believe that she is suited for high office? That, surely, is the argument behind her impressive approval ratings.

But I forget. According to those around Mr John McCain, the official Republican general election candidate, your presidential contest is "not about the issues". Come again? Have you run out of things to talk about, America? I can see that Mr McCain might have a long list of things he would rather not discuss, most of them involving the incumbent with whom he shares a party. But does your polity truly intend to suspend all disbelief, all debate, all thought, because of a well-groomed moose-killer?

They tell me the other guy is struggling to cope with this new fact of political existence. That, I would have thought, was the sole point and purpose of Ms Palin's elevation to the ticket. When you cannot cope with another man's fluency, trust to slogans and big pictures and what cynical men call "perceptions".

Let's be clear about that, too. I am not one of those Europeans who succumb to the charisma of Mr Obama. I have watched Mr Blair work a room. Unfashionably, I thought the Democrats should have stuck with a deplorable Clinton. I also thought the Obama Berlin gig an absurdity. I do not trust anyone who answers "hope" and "change" to every hard question. And I have no belief in an "anti-war" candidate who proposes dusty death without end in Afghanistan.

Mr Obama remains - you know this bit - the first African-American to have a serious hope of becoming president. Yet what do we find? Merely journalists adjusting every too-close-to-call poll in their heads to accommodate their certain knowledge of race in American life. We Europeans, some of us, do not therefore form judgments. This continent invented industrialised racism, and persists with the habit of mind. But seriously: a black man talking seriously or a moose-killer forbidden to attempt coherent speech? And your choice is?

Too close to call. America, that is almost beyond words. I have neither a personal nor a partisan interest. Ms Palin and Mr Obama alike are foreign to me. Yet if Mr Bush has been a dangerous absurdity, what is the latest Republican president-but-one? Since I'm asking the questions, I'll answer.

Ms Palin is a symbol of deep American introversion, of the fact that you have ceased to take yourselves seriously and, more important, don't much care who knows it. Arguments over the relationship between the wider world and your choices have become irrelevant. You have detached yourself, finally, from the global community. This is isolationism as never before conceived. "American" in my life has been lingua franca, for better or ill. Now you talk to yourself.

And you talk, my friends, in the sort of gibberish that once you spurned. It's not about Ms Palin, as such. It is about the process that creates a candidate-grin manipulated to serve darkness, ignorance, fear, a war economy, and the flaunting of stupidity.

Nice going.

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