For countless generations, America has represented a place of hope and opportunity. Jennifer Morris describes her disappointment with the turn that US politics has taken but recognizes that the decline in basic freedoms is not new. This piece was previously published on Medium.
“A people that elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims, but accomplices.”George Orwell
It’s November, and that means that it’s time to admit that I’ve spent most of 2020 sulking. Sulking, interspersed with short-lived bursts of optimism and energy…but mostly sulking. About my stalled career. About lockdown. About that fact that I’m 41 and still haven’t quite figured out what I’m supposed to do with my life. About the fact that I’m 41. About the 15kgs I’ve managed to put on over the last two years, in spite of being on some form of diet or another since forever. About how rubbish I am at sticking to diets. About the existential dread that comes with having peaked early and never having quite lived up to all that early potential, at least in my own mind. About the state of the world at large, and my inability to change any of it. About South Africa. About everywhere else too.
You know. The usual.
This week, the sulking has reached a new peak. I’ve been bloody miserable for days. Grinch-style miserable, with lashings of Bella-Swan-Played-by-Kristen-Stewart. Seriously, I’m about one Trump-tweet away from sitting on the pavement in my pyjamas to hurl rocks at pigeons. I’m deep into Grumpy-Middle-Aged-Lady territory, and it has everything to do with the US Election, Donald Trump and a horrible realisation that it’s time for another divorce. Only this time, I’m keeping my hubby (It’s cool, Babe. We’re good), and serving paper on at least three decades of fascination with the American Experiment.
Waking up from the American Dream
To be clear, I’ve never been a raving fan of American culture. My colonial British upbringing would never allow it. I have, however, had an almost lifelong interest in how American values and culture influence the rest of the world, and a deep respect for the fresh, uninhibited passion for science, innovation and the pursuit of knowledge that defined much of the 20th century and led to some of our greatest achievements as a species.
I’m by no means alone in this – writers, intellectuals and academics from all over the world have chosen to make America their home specifically because, until recently at least, this spirt of pioneering curiosity still imbued the longest-standing democracy on earth with a special aura of freedom and optimism. The very antithesis of stuffy old England, so comfortable resting on her laurels that she’s barely noticed the dearth of any kind of new thinking for over half a century.
Christopher Hitchens, that most sage and erudite commentator on humanities more enduring foibles, put it best when he called Britain ““Weimar without the sex”, and chose to spend the last two thirds of his life in the comparatively unfettered environment of US intellectual society. Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Zadie Smith and Stephen Fry are just some of the great writers and thinkers of the last half-century who opted to do the same, joining such luminaries as Sam Harris, Massa Gessen, Bill Gates, Daniel Dennet and Martha Nussbaum as contributors to the US’s academic pedigree. Such ideas, from a nation of idealist, free to express themselves. That has been the cornerstone of my admiration for America, notwithstanding my aversion to the crassness of her citizens.
No other country in the modern era has influenced global culture quite as comprehensively as the United States has over the last 100 years. Love them or loath them, it cannot be denied that the American way of life, and of thinking, has coloured everything from governance to cuisine in countries on every continent.
Globalisation, foreign policy imperialism and the mass production and distribution of US media has seen to that. Even Windsor Castle has a Macdonalds now (I wish I was kidding – check it out), and the Coca Cola sign is as ubiquitous in the sprawling townships and shantytowns of Africa and Asia as it is in Times Square. As a brand, the US itself is the most prolific of the last century, and the rest of us have been lovin’ it for a long time.
No longer the land of the free or the home of the rave
No more. The last four years offer definitive, final proof that everything we believed about the United States of America is a lie. If we’d been paying attention we probably would have woken up a little sooner, but the reprieve offered by the affable, well-spoken, kinda-hot black guy with his gorgeous wife and middle-of-the-line rhetoric lulled us into complacent hopefulness that the Dubya years were an aberration.
They were not. If anything, the tumult, disorder, nastiness and divisiveness on full, unrelenting, daily display since America decided their best hopes lay between a perennially untrustworthy, cynical, scandal-laden ex Secretary of State with a dodgy husband, and a perennially untrustworthy, bankrupt, misogynistic reality TV star with a dodgy Russian friend, are simply the fruit of seeds sown long ago. The America we see before us now is the America that has been there for a while, and we can no longer pretend otherwise.
The Land of the Free is, in reality, a place where children can be legally separated from their parents and confined in cages for weeks and months due to draconian, inhumane border control measures. Its also holds the record for the highest number of incarcerations per capita, home to 25% of the entire world’s prison population. As a black citizen, you are five times more likely to be jailed than your white fellows, in a country where institutionalised racism has been on such overt display over the last decade, I’ve lost count of the protests and posters of dead, unarmed black Americans murdered by overzealous and institutionally-protected officers of the ‘law’.
In the Home of the Brave, white-supremacy is seeing a resurgence. Bigots of the ilk that gave us the Oklahoma mass murder in 1995 feel perfectly free and safe to shout their slogans of hate in the street whilst waving flags emblazoned with the face of the draft-dodger who runs the country. Flags, and guns. Don’t forget the guns. The loaded semi-automatic rifles in the hands of teenagers perfectly at liberty to wave them about at a parade on the weekend, before returning to school on Monday to recite their Pledge of Allegiance, sing the National Anthem and learn how to properly hide in bathroom stalls during Active Shooter drills, because America averages one school shooting a week.
Worse still (if that’s possible), the war on intellectualism and ideas that started in 2001 with ascension of George W Bush has reached an apparent zenith. It is no longer possible, in the country where the very First Amendment to their constitution enshrined the rights of people to express their ideas without fear of prosecution, to have a meaningful, constructive debate or conversation about anything at all.
The unspoken law of binary arguments (if you’re not 100% for something, you must be 100% against it) holds sway now, and with that any hope of expounding on new ideas or teasing out the details of meaningful opinion dies. The penalty for saying the ‘wrong’ thing, or being accused of thinking the wrong way, is so high now that only the most radical spokespeople posit an opinion. So perishes the middle-ground, and all hope of compromise between conflicting ideals. Polarisation is the order of the day.
I could blame Twitter for this, but the real culprit lies in the successful dumbing down of American society, epitomised by their leader’s response to the greatest global threat since the Second World War – the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, seventy-one million people voted for the guy who publicly stated that the best way to slow the number of coronavirus infections is to stop testing. This week, they demonstrated in their multitudes to have the vote count stopped while they were ahead, except in places where they aren’t ahead yet, where counting should continue until they are. SEVENTY-ONE MILLION.
To put that in perspective: 216 out of the 235 countries of the world have populations less than 70 million.
No longer the land of hope and glory or a nation pursuing liberty and justice for all, America’s contribution to the Zeitgeist over the last decade has been fake news, alternative facts, cancel culture, Newspeak, Doublethink and the re-endorsement of Fascism. This deep into an Orwellian nightmare, the rest of the world can no longer afford to keep her on her pedestal.
And while it may be true that a further 75 million Americans voted for the kindly grandfather with the blue eyes and (almost) spotless record (no dictator-friends, no paid-off prostitutes thus far and only a few unproven sexual misconduct rumours), it couldn’t be clearer that the United States of America is a country divided, and deeply dysfunctional.
For me, it’s all over. It has to be. Like an emotionally battered woman sitting on the edge of her bed after the latest bruising row with the obnoxious jerk she married, a dawning realisation of just how over it is, is manifest, and overdue. Long overdue. It may be hard to remember the first red flag in this relationship, but it’s impossible to ignore the last one. It’s time to break up with America.
“Oh, you want reasons, Jack?”, she yells as she throws things into a suitcase and furiously schedules an Uber (I’m warming to the metaphor). “I’ll give you reasons!”
I’ll give you 71 million reasons.