My Country ‘Tis of Thee: Election Blues and Patriots’ Angst
America’s gone AWOL- a Native Son’s lament from exile.
Nine months after I was born, JFK was assassinated in Dallas. I have no memory of my own of that, but I clearly remember my father weeping openly when both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. also fell to cowards’ bullets. Check Point Charlie. Apollo 11 and Armstrong’s footsteps on the moon. Che Guevara, Christ-like in his death pose. The Newark Riots. The Tlatelolco massacre. The Black Power Salutes in the Mexico City Olympic stadium. Bloodied students standing before the Russian tanks in Prague. Ho Chi Minh. The Tet offensive. A VC suspect summarily executed by pistol shot to the head in the streets of Saigon, The Yom Kippur War, American POW’s coming home, The Olympic siege in Munich. Nixon in China, Watergate, Franco’s death – they are all iconic images from my childhood, epic page turnings of a tumultuous age in both American and global history, seared in memory.
I am, of course, a baby boomer, a few months shy of being a half a century old. I am a lifelong journalist, a foreign correspondent, war reporter and world traveller. I am an American. As I started to grow up and develop a political and civic consciousness, my modern awareness of the Presidency, the meaning of the White House in our national life, and its impact on the world began with Nixon. But a sense of heritage of America’s political tradition, indeed the larger story of America from its very inception, had been inculcated in me at an even earlier age.
Mine is a family that traces its origins on the North American continent to the 1640s. Throughout the evolution of America my family has consistently helped to write the story of the nation, notably as citizen-soldiers, diplomats, educators, politicians, intellectuals, in a host of fields across the spectrum of human endeavour. From architecture, to psychology, to aviation, we are present, making our contribution in shaping the narrative of our country. Through the peculiarities of upbringing, class, geography and the inherent mobility of so many American families across generations, mine is a clan that is at once rooted in New England, the Deep South and the American West. I couldn’t feel more American in this respect. My American tribe wore both blue and grey during the Civil War, just as in political life we have been both Democrats and Republicans. From the Revolution itself, through abolition, to the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, two World Wars, McCarthyism, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam and beyond, in the great debates and crises our nation has faced, our voices spoke out. We were neither silent nor passive.
I was taught that it was a great privilege to be an American and that to live in a representative democracy was not merely a gift, but an active and reciprocal contract, a responsibility, a duty – just as JFK once implored us to be. Much of my family tradition has been in public service and I always understood that I had to do my bit too; I’ve tried my best to do that as a journalist. That we answered the call in all of America’s wars I am sure influenced me directly to witness Iraq and Afghanistan, at least as a correspondent. As there are Afghans and Iraqis I will never forget, so too there are GIs that remain dear to me, men and women. There are too many I met that I found were living rough on the street when I came back. They didn’t have the luxury to debate foreign policy. They just had to go.
I am unabashedly a patriot, but I was also taught that righteous dissent was the core of that love of country, not blind obedience. And while they are not exclusively American virtues, I have been informed from an early age that courage, honour, fairness, liberty, justice and upholding the truth were sacrosanct cornerstones of the American ideal. Though we sprang from privilege, I was also weaned on egalitarian values, the very core of anything like distinct American democratic belief, if such a thing ever existed. My late uncle often quoted an adage of my grandfather’s: “Belong to an aristocracy, not of wealth and privilege, but of the spirit.” It has guided me since I first heard it as a teenager.
But I look at America now from afar, as I find myself in temporary exile, and I cannot in all honesty state that I fully recognise the country I grew up in. Let me clarify that my love of country is not so blinkered that I fail to recognise that an upstart, rebellious republic matured into the world’s most powerful and often ferociously rapacious empire. I do not whitewash the American apartheid (and I can’t because my family once owned slaves). I do not overlook the genocide of our Native American population, the outright theft of half of Mexico’s landmass (especially when my direct ancestor Nicholas P. Trist drafted the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ceded half of Mexico to the US). I cannot turn away from a bloody imperialist legacy stretching from Cuba and Haiti to Vietnam and Iraq, nor a legacy of toppling other governments from Guatemala and Chile to Iran and Indonesia, and a disastrous foreign policy in the Middle East from 1945 to the present day.
Rather I want to still consider America as work in progress. I celebrate the United States that spawned the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence; the America of Paine, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, the America that saved the day in two World Wars; and the America that in its less than three hundred years of existence, especially in the last century, arguably contributed positively – and disproportionately to its numbers – to more human advancement in a short span of time than any other civilisation or culture, at virtually any juncture in history. From the United Nations to jazz and rock ‘n roll, to space travel, to medicine, literature, art in all its forms, science and so many concepts of human liberation and empowerment (including, ironically enough, fundamental modern precepts of human rights and the foundation of international law), this creative genius of America, a genius owed to America’s unparallelled diversity still leaves me in awe. This is the America I love and it is nothing less than greatness I behold.
And as America goes to vote, while I make no bones about casting my vote firmly for Barack Obama, I do so with a tired sigh rather than an enthusiastic hurrah. I don’t even want to say “Mitt Romney” and even less so “Tea Party.” That in turn prompts me to remember the intractable mess left by Bush Jr., which still feels like a hit and run car crash on the nation and the planet, for which nobody was prosecuted somehow.
My country is more sharply divided than at any other moment since the Civil War. It is clear both our political and economic system is deeply corrupt and in dire need of reform. The very notion of American socio-economic justice is sorely lacking in tangible practice. Corporate power, in all of its profound abuse and arrogance, has been revealed. It is an even more pernicious and all-powerful beast, trampling on the will of the majority, than we even dared suspect. Wall Street has been called into account and it has answered with a swinging nightstick and tear gas. Bipartisanship has virtually vanished from the halls of Congress. There does not seem to exist any longer the concept of a loyal opposition working towards the common good. Political and moral credibility is the triumph of spin over substance, telegenic good looks over gravitas, and clever, simplistic sound bites over cogent thought and genuine debate. Money calls the elections, not the will of the people. The once great temple of American journalism is a weak, emasculated ghost, or a jingoistic carnival barker – at least on the air waves. Anyway, Americans don’t read newspapers anymore, not many of them do, anyway. In fact, vast swathes of the population seem to have entirely stopped thinking and surrendered their cogitative functions to fear-mongering demagogues (who, not incidentally, are also on six figure corporate salaries).
All those things we supposedly were on our way to overcoming – homophobia, racism, sexism – seem as virulent as ever. The hope of a more equitable health care system has zealots frothing at the mouth over something they decry as creeping Marxism. It is so irrational it barely warrants a response. And – how else to put it? -there is hatred in the air, hatred of the other America we do not perceive as speaking for us, a clear sense of us and them, not one people, one nation, not e pluribus unum as it so hopefully states on our coinage. We are a house divided, with the most bloody-minded among us calling for violence. And for all the growing legions of the unemployed, the poor and homeless, we remain the wealthiest country on earth. And yet – staggeringly – nearly one in five American children face hunger. Will we qualify as the First World for much longer? You want to see the Third World, go to Detroit.
But it doesn’t end there. Perhaps what sickens the heart the most is how we have morphed into uber-militarised, uber-security state – Fortress America. The draconian, de facto police state that George W. Bush’s administration codified into law (while doing almost nothing to actually secure our nation, beyond embarking on a kamikaze hayride to Iraq), a series of sedition, counter-terrorism and national security statutes that all but do away with the Constitutional freedoms, civil and human rights, the very things that define us as free American citizens, are not only still in the books, they’ve been strengthened under the Obama White House. Americans can be spied upon, arrested, tortured, held incommunicado, without trial or representation, indefinitely, indeed even killed without any explanation or recourse. It is now legal to do these things. So do we even live in America any longer? And if we justify these measures to ensure our democratic freedoms, isn’t it too late? Why did we invade Iraq – which according to the British medical journal the Lancet is a conflict that has now caused well over a million dead – and abandon Afghanistan where the true enemy lay, an act which we will soon reprise in the closing act in South Asia. But if we are short-sighted in the Hindu Kush, our ongoing inept response to the Arab Uprising, which we do not remotely comprehend and seem powerless to help steer towards democratic results, is as clear an indicator as any of a foreign policy that one British pundit labelled “autistic.” Perhaps we’ve been in bed with Arab dictatorships for so long, we don’t know how to contend with democracy. Hillary Clinton would like to be Metternich, Kissinger, Churchill and Hamarskjold all rolled into one, but she will not be remembered in history as one of the great diplomats of our age. She’s out of key, and that makes perfect sense, because our global compass bearing is also spinning wildly.
I long for a nation that is brave, wise, strong and even-handed to its own people, its allies and the world: a force for good. I dream of an America that is again a gifted and inspired visionary, an innovator. But for the moment all I see is an ailing and crumbling empire in a slow state of decline, unable to shed either its hubris or its obsolete perspectives, failing utterly to keep step with history. I wish it weren’t so. I am an American, a proud American and I am waiting for my country – that I love so much – to show up again.