I spent twenty years of my life living and working in the US.
My wife is American. My kids were born in Detroit and Dallas (and my daughter currently works in non-profit health care in New York). My first visit was for a year when I was six years old – my father was one of the pioneers in developing American Studies programmes in British universities where, at the time, literature stopped in the nineteenth century. I first heard a Bob Dylan record sitting in a café in Berkeley in 1963. I spent a year at graduate school in the US during the turmoil of the late 1960s – US graduate programmes had more to offer than UK universities and, anyway, I loved the US. Later, I taught geology at two different US universities, working with (and learning from) terrific graduate students whose dedication led to their obtaining masters’ degrees while holding down jobs. I can only name a couple of states that I haven’t spent any time in. I have worked in five different US cities. To say that some of my best friends are American is correct, and this doesn’t include the countless people I admire and respect.
Whenever, in the early days, I returned to the UK, I found that I had to spend significant time defending the US against the knee-jerk Americophobia of the Brits – but I did so with sincerity and enthusiasm.
Today, however much I would want to, I just can’t do that anymore, and that saddens me – deeply. It’s no longer easy to recognise the country that, for decades and despite all its faults, I enjoyed and admired.
What the hell is happening to the US? Why do I find myself the victim of a masochistic obsession to constantly check the news, follow up on the latest outrageous events in the dominant half of the presidential campaign – and, more often than not, find myself shouting at my computer? In November 2008, there were, quite literally, tears in my eyes as I watched Obama’s victory speech. Today, there are again tears in my eyes – not, this time, of optimism, but rather of bewilderment, disbelief, and something close to horror.
When did the US become a country in which hatred dominates the news, and, of course, social media? When did the US become a country in which most of the so-called political debate, highjacked by the leaders of one deranged party, takes place in the gutter, with rhetoric and vocabulary at the level of a fourth-grader? When did the US become one of the world leaders in inequality? When did home eviction become big business? When did the US become a country that poisons the water of its citizens and yet no-one is accountable? When did the “land of the free,” whose greatness was founded on immigration and diversity, embrace the rhetoric of xenophobia?
Why do I see on social media posts of which Goebbels would have been proud?
When did a complete disregard for facts and evidence become a hallmark of so many American politicians? When did science - when the US has some of the world’s finest institutions - become something to denigrate? And when were humanity and engagement with the rest of the world dropped from the agenda of so many representatives of the home of democracy?
Now please don’t get me wrong. By my standards, the UK has little to be proud of when our government, declaring itself the home of “compassionate conservatism,” presides over rampant inequality, undermines our health system, callously penalises the disabled, spies on its citizens (sorry, “subjects”), attempts to muzzle our scientists through lobbying legislation, and refuses to take in desperate refugees. And yes, we have right-wing lunatics of our own.
No, I’m not claiming any moral high ground – indeed, I’m not sure where to find such a place. I simply can’t defend many of my country’s actions or the way in which our politics is evolving. But I find it impossible to explain or defend what’s going on the US today – and I am deeply saddened.
[I sincerely hope that I have not offended any of my American readers. I shall return to the arenaceous and the arid shortly.]