On a visit to Boston some 15 years ago, I asked a taxi driver where he was from, surmising that the hint of foreignness in his accent meant that it wasn’t Massachusetts.
‘America,’ he beamed with undisguised delight.
But a few minutes into our chat, it turned out he was actually born in Marrakesh. Perhaps he’d come to America as the child of immigrant parents?
‘No, no,’ he said casually, ‘I arrived two months ago … two months and three days, to be exact.’
I was not surprised on reaching my destination and thanking him as I got out of the cab when he responded with that signature token of near universal American willingness to keep a customer happy: ‘You’re welcome.’
That you could become – choose to be, and be accepted as – an American in two months and three days (or much less, conceivably) says a lot about what ‘America’ means; its allure, its potence, not just as a marketplace of goods but of ideas, and its essential character.
Has Donald Trump changed that? I doubt it.
However, if Trump’s more intemperate gestures (not to mention his wildly scurrilous and unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud) have tested the patriotic bonhomie that wells from Americans’ sense of the generous and hospitable character of the Union, I have found my credulity stretched to breaking point by the now habitual description of the United States as a deeply divided society.
I half suspect this is self-reproaching, and might reflect what is a valuable, often overlooked but also tormenting truth about America: its horror of being anything less than a wholesome unit, like a family, happy, healthy and hospitable, and admired for its virtues.
I imagine nothing less was true of my Boston taxi driver’s pride in his acquired identity.
Romance of Americanness
Yet, today we are persuaded that the romance of Americanness – captured in the unofficial national motto of 1782, E pluribus unum (one out of many) – is a soured dream. As one writer put it in recent days, all we have now is a ‘deeply divided nation’s fractured sense of the common good’.
Really? I am not convinced.
Is it really conceivable that in the vivid blocks of blue and red that define the seeming ideological dividedness of the American electorate on the maps we have all seen this week, there is proof of a looming and unavoidable ‘cultural war’ that has transfixed so many minds, in America and beyond?
It is perhaps not surprising for a country that has never had to defend itself in war against an invader that a difference of opinion about a flag, a statue, the meaning of skin colour, a law on the health of women, free speech, or the right of a man to marry a man should seem like a war.
It is not. It is an argument.
That there is a ‘cultural war’ just means people have different ideas – about guns, women, homosexuals, abortion, BLM, free speech, paying to see the doctor or immigration. Which is not to suggest that these are trivial questions. They are all, in their way, factors of what we think of as civilised life.
Far more fundamental
What is overlooked, however, is far more fundamental: the agency of individuals whose freedom to decide any question is determined ultimately by their independence, their stake in society as the reward of their will, sweat or talent.
Freedom, of course, is never invulnerable. In America today, it could be said to be threatened both by the Left and by the Right – and, perverse as it may seem, it is fitting that both see themselves as its defenders.
In fact, the actual guarantee of the freedom from which their argument draws breath is the one thing on which, broadly speaking, Americans, Republican and Democrat, concur: economic freedom.
In its self-obsessed way – for all its sway in the world, the United States remains, and can afford to be, remarkably insular and self-absorbed. America is no stranger to episodes of lunacy. The madness of McCarthyism has its echo in the radical egotism of the moral crusaders of today, for whom ideological witch-hunting and punitive racialism make every bit as much sense, and are equivalently maniacal.
And what could one possibly say about Donald Trump’s spiritual adviser, Paula White? Holy Moses.
Yet, for all the bluster, bombast and buffoonery that have projected the sense of a sometimes mean, rather mindless and often mercurial Trump White House, the essential American proposition has remained steady. (If you want to see a self-respecting democrat and leader at work, watch George Bush’s concession speech of 1992.)
Freedom to act
The clamorous voice of America is the voice not just of the freedom to think, but of the freedom to act. And there is no ‘war’ over that, whatever the avowed anti-capitalist sentiments of the fringe may be. In America itself, I suspect, it is taken for granted.
Along with what Bush in his concession speech referred to as ‘the majesty of the democratic system’ (Trump’s disparagement notwithstanding), there is also, in a word, the free market. And, when it comes down to it, there appears to be little to distinguish between the continent’s arch rivals when it comes to key market measures.
Economic indices describe a seamless trajectory from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. That tells you something – and not simply about the leaders.
Americans may not see it – or BLM, or baying Trumpists – but the bedrock unanimity of the USA is unmistakable. I, for one, don’t seriously think it’s up for revision.
I can’t help thinking that even capitalism’s fiercest opponents – perhaps even the benighted devotees of BLM – may concede that while capitalism is not faultless, it is not trapped in stasis, either. It survives (it actually thrives) by contending with and adjusting to difficulty (which mainly comes from within), and is flexible enough to do so more effectively than any other system. Its power is vested in the choices and impulses of millions who have the freedom to decide what’s good for them.
I suspect that that assured American taxi driver I met on my visit to Boston more than a decade ago knew as much. And I think the same is true for the vast majority in the mighty Union who went to the polls this month.
What is on display
This is really what is on display in the ‘deeply divided’ vision of so many commentators – and in that electoral map that seemed this week to project political sentiment as a disposition of forces on a front line of imminent combat.
I was reminded this week that, when Trump gained the White House in 2016, my son, then nine, was visibly disappointed that I discounted the risk. This was a man, Jack informed me in a tone of probing censure, who ‘won’t let any Muslims live in America, and he’ll build a wall around Canada’.
I wrote at the time that, if I cheered inwardly at my son’s budding humanity, I didn’t believe for a minute that Trump would do either, and mainly because ‘(it’s) not the presidents who make America, but America that makes the presidents’.
Too often, I suggested, America was ‘misjudged as a homogenous quantity … for which single-phrase epithets – the freest society, the most violent, the richest, the most screwed up, the cleverest, the dumbest – are thought to suffice’.
This was surely the ‘unearned fate of a nation that could probably be described as the most influential force in the world, from commerce to language, technology to leisure, and every facet of popular “culture” from slang, morality, race and fashion to food, workplace ethics and child-rearing’.
Chiefly, though, it was ‘a domestic polity, and one that most of us always misunderstand. Or, put another way, what we misunderstand is likely the scale and force of its ordinary people, the bulk of its citizens who are not movie stars, celebrities, rap musicians or eastern seaboard intellectuals’.
In 2016, they voted for Trump. In 2020, well, the vote finds the nation ‘divided’, we are told.
A place like America
Thinking back to my visit to Boston, I feel certain that nobody ups-sticks in Marrakesh to start in a new life in a place like America, and call himself ‘American’ after just two months and three days, without knowing in his bones it was a good thing to do.
And, looking at what has not changed in the intervening years, it will take more than a bruising electoral contest – or a ‘cultural war’ – to persuade me that America’s pre-eminence as the global go-to society of freedom and enterprise is in any doubt.
In a way, its fractiousness in 2020 is the proof.
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