• 31 . 07 . 11
  • Arriving in the US, I find that Americans are far less cocky than they are made out to be, and that a nation purportedly built on hopes and dreams is slowly succumbing to fear, uncertainty and doubt.

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United States of Anxiety

I was last in the United States in the summer of 2002, when I travelled around the country using Amtrak. I met lots of people on the trains and in diners who were very keen to talk about world affairs, the US and its general superiority. I also had a fair few “remind” me that the US “saved our asses” in World War II. Although it was after 9/11 and people were still in a degree of shock after that horrendous attack, there was no doubt in their minds that the perpetrators would be caught, justice dispensed and the world would go back to something approaching normality. The promise of another quick and easily-won war burnished confidence. USA had been knocked, but remained on top. Though I’ve only been back a couple of days, that exorbitant self-belief which an uncharitable person might call arrogance seems to have evaporated. The national psyche seems to have undergone a large shift in the intervening years.

Though its citizens still never tire of calling USA The Greatest Country On Earth™ (I’ve heard it three times today already from the talking heads on network news), their day-to-day behaviour is a little more circumspect. From overheard conversations in Miami you can infer a higher degree of consternation about the future, less swagger and more worry. The former aura of invincibility has gone. It’s not yet like the UK, where we long ago came to terms with our diminished importance in the world, but the optimism and Top Of The World feeling seems tinged now with a growing realisation that the country has somehow lost its way.

Television advertising belies the change in the national mood. Where the adverts that I remember played to people’s hopes and dreams, now they appeal to fear, insecurity and mistrust. The abundance of law firms offering to sue anyone who slights you, the morass of drug adverts to cure all kinds of ailments that you may or may not have, the never-ending hatchet jobs delivered by both political parties on their opponents – these dominate the airwaves and create an atmosphere of negativity. I’m sure they were always there, but now they really drown out the few positive messages.

Politicians follow suit in the news, casting aspersions rather than laying out policy. There is open warfare in Congress, where bills are presented with a view to tying the opposing party in knots, rather than actually solving any problems. The collegiality of the Senate has gone, replaced by barely disguised rancour. Its raison d’être seems to be obstructionism. You only have to look at the ongoing debt ceiling debate for a torrent of spin, counter-spin, posturing and outright lies that illustrate how dysfunctional Washington has become. As an unabashed liberal democrat, it would be easy to point out the irrational and evidence-free talking points of the Tea Party or the self-evident defence by the Republican party at large of those millionaires who don’t need defending, but the truth is the Democrats must also shoulder blame for failing to get their message across, make the most of the powerful position they were in and deliver effective government.

Negativity doesn’t suit USA well. There’s something troubling about seeing a nation paralysed with fear, uncertainty and doubt, like watching an ageing sportsman whose touch has deserted him. It’s faintly embarrassing. While many would claim a dose of humble pie would be good for America, I disagree. Certainly, I’d be a lot happier if it got out of the business of nation building, but the American Dream is a powerful and valuable symbol for the world. The chance, however illusory, that you can be somebody with enough hard work is a positive message. Secretly hoping for the demise of a superpower in return for a small measure of schadenfreude is distasteful and self-defeating. The world won’t be better off with a less powerful democratic ally.

On a positive note, once you turn off the TV, Miami Beach has been sunny and relaxing. The Tradewinds Apartment where we are staying is beautifully appointed, clean and reasonably priced. Service in all locations has been as impeccable as I remember, with friendly smiles and attention to detail. We had phenomenal steak at STK and a good bottle of Californian wine to go with it, and it’s nice to be in a place again where we can casually chat to people, rather than standing like a lemon saying only Please, Thank You and Yes in pidgin Spanish.

As we begin a four week drive down from Denver to LA, it’s going to be interesting to see what people in different states think. Perhaps there’s more positivity in the west.

One response to “United States of Anxiety”

  1. Ben says:

    I still struggle to get my head around the overwhelming focus on the self and short term gratification that seems to ooze out of so many parts of the culture.  Individuals seem capable of great acts of generosity and community but that always seems to be an added extra on top of a general short term self satisfaction.

    You’ve visited a lot of my favourite national parks though… awesome aren’t they?   DId you manage to do Angel’s Landing?

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