Last month we visited New York, where our son is studying this year, and made a return trip to Boston, where 18 years ago we lived for a couple of months when I too had the chance to study in the US. Apart from the temperature (which at one time reached minus 22), it was a very enjoyable trip. It made me think again, however, about America, its current position in the world and the influence it has in shaping modern western culture.
I have always liked America more when I have visited and lived there than I do back home where I have always been resentful of its hegemony and the undue control it has appeared to have over increasingly large domains of our own lives and thinking. That difference of view is fuelled by an appreciation of how more diverse the real America is than the pastiche of the country we see through Hollywood, of how beautiful its landscapes are and of how engaging many of its inhabitants are.
That contrast between the real county and our of image of that country is probably true for many other places but it is inevitably more marked for America because we are so exposed to images and messages from that country in our media and in other aspects of daily life. We have absorbed vast amounts of American idiom into our language, we have adopted American festivals (or at least American ways of celebrating our own festivals), and we eat cookies and muffins, drink American drinks and even have started importing America’s idiosyncratic sporting traditions.
And yet, despite this, when we go there it can still feel strange. Despite the amount of American media we consume, Winston Churchill’s dictum “Two countries divided by a common language” still remains true. So we caught a train on “track 3”, we took our coats to the “coatroom”, we travelled on the “subway”. Nothing incomprehensible but clear signs that, despite much familiarity, America is still a different place.
As you walk around New York, visit the Met and other wonderful Museums, admire the skyline (there is still nowhere else on earth for the density and style of its high rise buildings) it is not difficult to be impressed by America. Nor is it hard to be impressed by the sense of self-reliance of its inhabitants and the belief that each person holds their own destiny in their own hands. It is not hard to be impressed by the role which charity plays in American life and the commitment which many Americans (rich and poor) are prepared to make, in the absence of state support, to ensure the success of communal activities. And while it is not possible to overgeneralise about any nation, this is, on the whole a friendly and welcoming country.
There are, of course, things to be less impressed about America. More than on previous trips I was very visibly struck by the run down nature of much American public infrastructure. Compared to London and many other British cities, public facilities in the US such as trains, stations, airports look much shabbier , a hall mark of years of underinvestment, not, I suppose, because that investment can’t be afforded but because the deep distrust of Government makes it the wrong thing to do.
Then there are the things about America which someone from a liberal European background such as mine finds impossible to understand. How a country can suffer a level of gun inflicted violence on the scale which has been the case in the US and not find in itself the collective will to introduce a measure of gun control? How a country as rich as America cannot introduce a measure of universal access to healthcare? I can remember for the 3 months we lived in the US having only basic health insurance and imagining, for the one and only time in my life, what it would be like if I or my family needed major healthcare and how we would pay for it.
As the current Presidential election campaign demonstrates, America is in a major period of flux, its position as the leading power of the world challenged by the emergence of China and India as leading economic powers and by the nature (post 9/11) of external threats which are not in its power to control as it has controlled other events in the past. Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America great again” appears to chime with a fear in many sections of American society that America may no longer be the self-assured and prosperous country it once was. That is probably true of many places, Europe included, but there is something about the immediate past in America which makes that angst all the more stark.
So where do we go for the future? America, even if in decline, will remain a major shaper of the world we live in and our relationship with it will be crucial. There is much to learn from America and the American experience but we also must be aware of and proud of our differences and confident in values and institutions such as the BBC and the NHS which do not find favour in all parts of American thinking. Our relationship with America is also an important part of our relationship with Europe. Strong relationships with both are in our interests.
The American story was the dominant narrative of the second half of the 20thcentury. We are all realising we need something different to navigate the complexity and challenges of the 21st.