November 28, 2005
Understanding America

By David Warren

Part of my beat, for the last four-plus years (since “9/11”) has been trying to understand the Islamist fanatics, and in their background, what is going on among the Arabs and Muslims. Another part of it has been trying to understand the Americans, who were attacked, and are still responding; and the West, which they lead. I am not an American. I was never an anti-American, and have always sneered at anti-Americanism, which I find extremely vulgar. But the U.S. has always been outside me: I can even love that country, without wanting to become an American myself. (I was quite satisfied with the English Canadian identity that our Liberal governments have been taking away.)

For a Canadian to write about the United States, from mostly across the border, is not as easy as might first appear. We are too close, and it is too big.

It must be hard for an American, too -- although he has the advantage of knowing himself a part, and therefore observing inwardly. But to try to reconcile, into a single view, a country that contains Houston, New Orleans, San Francisco, Nashville, Washington, Los Angeles, and New York City, before we even go for a walk in the country, is beyond the usual boundaries of human comprehension. We simplify by noting they have only one President.

David Ignatius, a journalist I much respect, wrote perhaps the most disturbing piece for the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. He is a man who has spent more than half his adult life as a foreign correspondent; and as an editor of the International Herald Tribune in Paris, he has been uniquely placed at the psychic junction between Europe and America. Amazingly, he went on about Abu Ghraib, as if it were the pivot of some American loss of innocence. He recalled nostalgically how Europeans and others once joined Americans abroad at Thanksgiving, and revelled in everything USA, out of a genuine admiration and even aspiration to partake in a banquet laid with much more than turkey.

Freedom, for instance. I know what that can mean when I remember a Chinese girl I once courted, who tried to explain the word to me. She said, “Freedom is walking down Main Street in a Midwestern American town, wearing jeans and eating an ice cream cone, and nobody thinks you are a prostitute.” This is not quite what Mr Ignatius was saying, but I do think it is what the world has envied.

He, for his part, does not hold the Bush administration responsible for everything that’s gone wrong. But he thinks they have made America’s image much worse, abroad, and he is seriously ticked-off by Dick Cheney’s “jeremiads against terrorism”. He says, “We must stop behaving as if we are in a permanent state of war.” He concludes, “We need to put America's riches back on the table and share them with the world, humbly and gratefully.” It is seldom I’ve seen so wise a journalist write such rubbish.

For as he should recall, from living in Europe, the pace of change has been faster over there. Likewise, east through Asia. The U.S. has been responding to transformations of character in many foreign countries, to disintegrating cultures, and to real threats, of which Islamist fanaticism has been primary. And the present curious Stateside atmosphere of nervous breakdown, about which I wrote last Saturday in this space, is an American response to both the external transformations, and what I’d call the spread of the “European disease” through America itself.

This is another simplification, of course, but I think closer to the mark. For in the red-state American heartland (perhaps that should be pluralized), they are still eating turkey, and walking with ice cream cones, and incidentally going to church on Sundays. This is American exceptionalism, to be sure, but what is most exceptional about it is its continuity. The exception to the exceptionalism is the new, European, attitude of despair that is gripping the half-educated urban masses -- and the America they think is being lost, is an America that thankfully never existed.

We need calm; we need recovery. (We, in Canada, even more than they, to the south.) And by recovery I mean, in the main, return to respective cultural roots. My most general sense remains, that it’s the world that is going to hell, and America that is the last tenuous bastion of sanity. The spirit of anti-Americanism that is abroad, is part of the disease. It is not a cure for anything.

Copyright 2005 Ottawa Citizen

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