A Letter to America
Forgive me when I fail to encapsulate my feelings for you in a tweet or a three-minute video. I know that’s what you would probably prefer, because you must get any number of letters from friends, admirers, detractors and enemies. But I’m relying on your famed ability to get to the heart of the matter, no matter how long, torturous and clumsy the message.
I’m writing to you as a friend and admirer. You don’t know me, but we’ve had a relationship for many decades.
You’ve been in my life ever since The Lone Ranger, Rawhide and the Beverley Hillbillies first hit our tiny black-and-white TVs. And on the big screen, How the West Was Won showed us the broad sweep of your early history. Wide open spaces, triumph over adversity, right defeating wrong. So much classier, so much, well, bigger, than Hancock’s Half Hour, Z-Cars and Doctor Who.
You have always been big for me. Broad, optimistic, high as the sky. Even your dark moments were big. Cuba, when the lights nearly went out. Vietnam, when big turned out to be not enough.
But even before I first set foot on your shores, you dominated my life and gripped my imagination. Your enterprises were always big and so were your aspirations. The space program. Jumbo jets. Skyscrapers. Mount Rushmore. Aircraft carriers. Hydrogen bombs. Dams. Multi-lane highways. It was as if you were constantly striving to match the majesty of your natural landscape – the Rockies, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone – in your feats of engineering, construction and technological innovation.
No matter that we Europeans sniggered at your unsophisticated ways. Your absurd can-do attitude. Your vulgar materialism. Your liking for settling disputes with guns and bombs. Your crass, in-your-face sales methods. Your gullibility. Your unsubtle sense of humour. You didn’t get our decadent old continent at all, did you?
Yet for all our snobbish dismissals of your culture, or lack of it, we envied you – and how. And even though we objected to your bombers, your nukes and your cruise missiles, we felt safer under your protective shield. Our parents – and then, when we took time to think about it, we baby boomers – were grateful when your soldiers saved us from Hitler, your dollars helped rebuild Europe after the War, and your soldiers stood on the Rhine alongside ours.
As I grew up, I came to love your music. And hand-in-hand with the music, I embraced the counter-culture that we helped to create together. We might have thought that our music was superior to yours. But without your audiences, your adoration and your spending power, our acts would fared no better than Johnny Hallyday. And where did our musicians draw their inspiration from? It seems that for a few years, for young people at least, the Atlantic really did shrink to a pond. On our side, the Beatles, the Stones, Zeppelin and The Who. And on yours, Dylan, the Doors, the Byrds and the Dead.
Our cultures seemed to coalesce. Hendrix came from Seattle and made his reputation in London. Mancunian Graham Nash went to LA to join Crosby and Stills. We did the same drugs. We were all against the Vietnam war, and we all wanted to ban the bomb. Well, most of us.
Then, from the mid-seventies onwards, the idealism faded, and the common ground receded. On my side, the hippies became hip capitalists. Nobody epitomised the progression more than Richard Branson, whose Virgin brand started with a chain of pokey little record shops staffed by cool dudes with sandals, bells and Jesus beards. The shops reeked of incense and other aromas less legal. By the end of the decade, Branson was the owner of a flourishing record label, and dreaming of cola, financial products and a transatlantic airline all bearing the image of that dreamy hippie chick. He was always a businessman, of course. We just kidded ourselves otherwise for a while.
Meanwhile, you were inventing stadium rock. Big again. Rock entourages advancing with military precision from city to city, hard-nosed record companies and gangster managers in tow. Debauchery on an industrial scale. Baseball stadia filled with the adoring masses.
Your baby boomers who, at the end of the previous decade, flooded to Woodstock, started getting proper jobs, just like ours. In enclaves across the country, socially inadequate kids started acquiring their ten thousand hours of experience writing software programmes on mainframes using time cadged from academic institutions and corporations. Those with better social skills went into banking or real estate.
Those who didn’t have the education went to work in car factories and steelworks, or started their own small businesses – repair shops and hardware stores. Because in those days, despite the ups and downs in your economy, sometimes triggered by oil shocks and unsustainable booms, there were plenty of jobs, plenty of opportunities for those lucky enough not to end up in your rotting inner cities.
At the end of the decade, we watched aghast as a Hollywood actor of seemingly limited intelligence became your president. But when he proclaimed that it was “morning in America”, you believed him, and kissed goodbye to the painful seventies with a surge of optimism. You proceeded to get on with what you do best – creating businesses out of nothing, using technology to change the game. Microsoft and Apple were born. Intel and Motorola thrived. The Star Wars bluff brought the Soviet Union to its knees.
Back in Britain, we were preoccupied with shoring up the last vestiges of our colonial possessions. National pride restored following the Falklands campaign, our trenchant leader sold the family silver, presided over the decline of our industrial base, and by deregulating the banks opened the door for the greed and speculation that led to disaster two decades later. In both our countries, greed was good.
When the nineties opened you were top of the world – the only superpower left standing after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. You led us and a host of other willing participants in liberating Kuwait, once again showing us your technological prowess with your laser-guided bombs, cruise missiles and Patriots. Your corporates embraced the internet. Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon became household names. You started connecting the world, and spawned a host of dotcom millionaires. Everyone was a winner, including citizens of limited means whom the obliging banks helped on to the housing ladder with no-questions-asked mortgages.
We shared your enthusiasm for property. Our financial industry thrived. As your faithful ally, we basked in the reflected glory of your ascendancy. It was the economy, stupid, and for all the bumps in the road – civil wars and genocide – we both still ended the decade feeling that we were in a better place than when it started.
But we should have realised that not everybody in the world was happy with your supremacy. Russia’s humiliation coiled a spring of resentment. China began to emerge as an industrial power. And in dusty training camps, armed veterans of the Afghanistan struggle pointed the finger at you as the root cause of the Middle East’s pitiful status as your personal gas station, to be sucked dry of pride and resources.
9/11 changed everything. As you recoiled in surprise and outrage at the audacity of nineteen men armed with box-cutters, you lashed out. You took out the Taliban and degraded al-Qaeda. Then you took Iraq, and hunted down the leader who “tried to kill my Daddy”. You – and we – ended up with an unwinnable war in Afghanistan and a bloody power vacuum in Iraq, happily filled by the very people you thought you’d eliminated.
Just when you reckoned that your surge had finally beaten back Al-Qaeda in Iraq, two decades of greed and dubious banking practices came to a head with the sub-prime crisis. Suddenly your citizens found themselves sleeping in their cars in parking lots. Millions thrown out of work and on the streets.
At that point we both realised how skin-deep was the veneer of the prosperity we thought would never end. In the subsequent years we saw a tepid economic recovery, but the underlying poverty and hopelessness of the dispossessed became clear as never before. As the internet billionaires got richer, the average wage stagnated. In my country and yours, unemployment statistics masked the underlying reality that the next generation couldn’t rely on being better off than their parents. Yes, there were jobs to be had, but only provided you were prepared to accept the minimum wage.
And people got angry. None more so than your white population who found themselves outvoted and out-numbered by migrants from Asia and south of your border. In my country it was a similar story, except that our migrants came from Europe and our former colonies – and lately from those displaced by the battlegrounds of Afghanistan and the Middle East.
And now that anger and disappointment has come to a head, like a gigantic boil.
In my country, pressure from the resentful has led to a referendum in which we will be deciding whether to become an island again. To put up the barricades that will protect our sovereignty from encroachment across the channel.
And on your side, you have a presidential candidate who wants to build a wall across your southern border to stop people from entering because they’re rapists. Someone who wants to stop people from entering because they’re Muslims. A man whose battle cry is anger and resentment, who is defined not by what he is for but by what he is against, not by what he wants to start but by what he wants to stop.
Can it be that you want to be small again, after a century of being the biggest guy on the block? And does small mean that you will spend your treasure on a wall to seal your borders (because you know your neighbours won’t pay), yet inside those borders you will allow your bridges and roads to crumble, your dams to fracture and your lakes to dry up?
And will you leave your friends and allies to fend for themselves unless they’re prepared to pay the bill for their protection? What? Are you going to turn your military into a force of mercenaries? Are you proposing to run an international protection racket?
If those friends choose not to pay the bill that you think appropriate, and acquire their own nukes, carriers and Delta forces, do you seriously believe that you will be just as safe within your fortress? And when you erect your trade barriers, can you assume that your allies will continue to align with you when they have no good reason for doing so?
Will you really be safe in a world whose big guys don’t recognise borders? In a world more connected and interdependent than ever before? In a world bristling with unstable dictatorships brandishing nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, or with rivals ready to bring you down through cyber attacks that would dwarf the damage caused on 9/11?
I’ve visited so many of your cities and marvelled at their diversity. I’ve admired the energy and enterprise that led to their creation. Big in ambition, big in scale. The spirit of optimism so beautifully captured in Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. I love your celebration of success. I love the pride you have in your national parks and your great outdoors. These, not the mean streets, are what come to mind when I think of you.
Yes, I know you have a dark side, none darker than the civil war whose scenes were captured by Matthew Brady, and whose scars are still evident on the Virginia battlefields I have witnessed with my own eyes. A thousand movies and TV series show the violence, greed and corruption in your inner cities, your suburbs and your corporate citadels.
But I never thought you would let a cynical, sneering hypocrite stand so close to the footsteps of Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt.
And yes, I know you’ve had your fair share of demagogue politicians – your George Wallaces, Huey Longs and assorted post-bellum carpetbaggers. Not to mention the racists, religious rabble-rousers and lynch mobs – your Nathan Bedford Forrests, Klansmen and real-life Elmer Gantrys.
We’ve had a few – still do, as a matter of fact. But none of them, on your side or ours, has ever come within touching distance of the nuclear button. None of them have had the power of the social media at their disposal. And none of them have been able to harness so effectively the myth of the super-hero relentlessly propagated by an entertainment industry so bereft of artistic imagination.
None of them have had the power to destroy – through pride, vanity and a blinkered sense of national interest – so many of the positive aspects of our civilisation that you have helped to create.
Generous, decent and principled America, I’m begging you. Pull back from the brink. Don’t entrust this man with your future and ours. Through your abundant natural and human resources, your competitive spirit and yes, though the ideals implanted in your DNA by your founding fathers, you have become the world’s lodestar, its reference point.
You are the one nation that’s too big to fail. You may no longer want the responsibility that comes with your exalted position, and you may not have asked for it in the first place. But it’s yours, whether you like it or not.
I will never forget the moment when you truly stood for mankind. When, with the whole world watching, you stepped on to another world, and said “that’s one small step for a man….”.
And I was so proud of you when you elected a black president, just as I was proud of London more recently for choosing a Muslim mayor. Not because I’m black or Muslim, but because in great societies ethnicity and religion should be no bar to leadership.
Don’t let this small man who claims to speak in your name diminish you. Don’t turn in on yourself. Don’t become a black hole, a malevolent dwarf that sucks all of us into your orbit of decline, resentment and suspicion.
You may feel that the rest of the world is against you. You may not understand why. And yes, you’ve made your mistakes. Goodness knows, we all have. But you still have the power to do the right thing. To right wrongs. To keep the show on the road – yours and ours. You must surely realise that your power is not unlimited. That these days you need to exert a different kind of power. The power of persuasion and of example, rather than that which comes from the barrel of a gun.
You still have the power. So again, I’m begging you. Use it wisely. Stay big, but be a different kind of big. Now more than ever, we need you, and whether we know it or not, we would be bereft without you.
Please, America, pull back from the brink. You are so much bigger than Donald Trump.