The great journalist Walter Lippmann famously defined the twentieth century as the ‘American Century’. In 2012 the twentieth century is history: We’ve been there, done that. Now, it seems, America is the Old Country. The idea of countries being ‘old’ or ‘new’ has been popularised in recent times by George W Bush’s Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who distinguished Old and New Europe (with the UK mercifully excluded), based on whether their promotion of Western values took an inward or outward turn – as judged by their willingness to support the US-led invasion of Iraq. However, I mean ‘old country’ in the nostalgic sense that immigrants to the US used to refer to Europe as the ‘old country’.
Although a New Yorker by birth, I have now spent two-thirds of my professional career in the UK. I return to the US 4-5 times per year, typically on business. For me the US seems culturally stuck in a late Cold War time warp – that is, forever 1970-1990. I should not be hearing the music of my youth whenever I turn on a random radio station – or three or four. The buildings are either 1930s art deco (remnants of New Deal public works projects) or 1970s anonymous skyscrapers. The city centres of the old industrial cities are Disneyfied, often to resemble some generic mid-20th century image that a child (such as myself) might have had of the place. Sometimes I even think that the prices have been frozen at the levels of my childhood. And perhaps most strikingly, the people still talk as if America is the greatest place in the world without a hint of doubt or irony.
There is something quite touching about all this, and I wish I could say that America’s endless capacity for self-affirmation genuinely inspired its citizens to do better. But as demonstrated by the intensity of the uphill battle that Barack Obama faced in his re-election campaign, self-affirmation is too often a mask for collective denial and a refusal to engage in the painful act of national self-redefinition. Here Americans most resemble its late 19th/early 20th century European immigrants who would rhapsodise about some mythical ‘old country’ to the disadvantage of their adopted homeland. Obama’s greatest long-term contribution to the American psyche may be to have started, often by personal example, the difficult conversation of what it means to be American, now that the world-historic spirit passes from its shores – and living in the past is not an option.
Categories: Rethinking The World