America: I

Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?

Jack Kerouac, On The Road

There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning… And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply PREVAIL. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…  So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

The reader will have to excuse a little time travel, or at the very least time-compression, on the part of the author, as he posts from the past gradually catching up with reality.  This, of course, means I will have to accelerate my writing if I wish to remain there and not get overtaken…

February 2009

It is time to begin.

An essay on the USA?  A travelogue?  An exploration of the rebuilding exercise, the resuscitation of the American Dream.  A diary, a prophecy, a statement of intent.  The writings of an outsider with a curious but single-minded fascination.  Another young man rattling round inside the great, mysterious, mystical America of his mind, determined to chase a few myths and discover a few more in the process.

At the end of the tunnel lies America; specifically, New York City, a couple of small Midwest college towns and anywhere between that triumvirate I choose to get out and take in the view.  The tunnel itself is the final semester of my degree, made infinitely easier today by the decision to ditch Gottlob Frege in favour of a course on Aesthetics; the last bastion of the tweed-jacketed brigade had a good go at thrusting German philosophy of mathematics at us, but as arts students must, we fled back to the relative safety of art, seeking that very relativity.

Back to America, to the land of promise, the unending promise of renewal, rebirth, renaissance of love, life, optimism and the shred of possibility that maybe, just maybe, that wave isn’t receding forever.

So what is this?  A search for meaning, primarily.  What does America mean now, to the American and the outsider?  Why is it a personal marker of hope for me, and does that make me unusual?

The wholesale import of American pop culture and, more specifically, the never-ending Transatlantic back-and-forth of influence on rock and roll.  From (positively) 4th Street[1], Washington Square or Sullivan Street[2], you can plot a path of American places across my record collection, stopping off at Woodstock[3], (Via) Chicago[4] and Omaha[5] before reaching the West Coast, the ladies of Laurel Canyon, Sunset Boulevard and its Canadians-in-exile.

One more appeal to fame and good writing, If I may.[6] On the subject of writing about politics:

It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another.

George Orwell, Why I Write

This isn’t meant to be a political piece, but now is one of those moments when all right-minded people (and by that I mean all those who aren’t in denial about the obvious need to redistribute wealth in the direction of the less fortunate) are optimistic about the future of the world.  Yes, a Democrat is in the White House, carefully trying to squeeze as much intelligent legislation through Congress before the Conservative alliance get off their sun loungers and ram another eight years of destructive politics down the throat of the free world.

Right, now I’ve alienated a chunk of my audience (see ya, I won’t miss you, honest), I’ll get on to making the point I wanted to make, namely that there’s something of an upswing in popular opinion of the US in Europe at the moment.  A quarter of a million Berliners (and if you’re not thinking about cake right now, you really need to go and read about the last great hope America had (more on him later), then take a trip to Berlin, drink coffee and eat said cake, be mildly disappointed by it but console yourself with its historical value and the fact that you’re now in Berlin) turned out to greet Barack Obama while he was only a candidate.  London schoolchildren and Queen Elizabeth II alike were enamoured by Michelle at the G20 summit.

But the greatest statement is that there are enough Americans who are now prepared to elect a man whose middle name is Hussein, who was born in Hawaii and grew up in Indonesia, and who is of mixed race.  I choose not to believe that all of them did it out of desperation.

That said, the mood of celebration that swept my friends, fellow students mostly, is remarkably lacking in context.  My generation is one that doesn’t know how unpleasant Richard Nixon was; it takes refraction through Hollywood’s prism to remind us that David Frost was once not a tedious breakfast television personality but, however briefly, a razor-sharp investigative journalist.  It doesn’t really even know all that much about Ronald Reagan.  If there is a reason why we rejoice at the election of a democrat, and Obama in particular it is because the past is divided into two for us; Clinton, which meant saxophones, Fleetwood Mac and wondering why anyone cared about whether or not he had had sexual relations with that woman, and Bush Jr., which meant years of wishing he were in any other job in the world so that we could laugh at his, ahem, unique turn of phrase without that nagging doubt in the back of our collective mind about his ability to run the place.  And that was before he told us that God spoke to him.  I cannot have been alone in having a poster of “Bushisms” on the wall of my classroom at school.  It is troubling when the most powerful man in the world becomes an object of ridicule.  Electing Not-Bush, then, was seen as a triumph for America.  Was there more to it than that?  For some, perhaps.

God, of course, is another stumbling block for the young Englishman abroad.  The Church of England is a wonderful thing, and a thing I have some kind of affiliation with.  Its’ ability to discuss quite openly the idea that there isn’t really a god in any meaningful sense makes for an interesting organisation that can be admired from afar without any real commitment to it, let alone one of those pesky supreme beings.  America, on the other hand, is a land where God is still something real, tangible in everyday life and unquestionable for vast numbers in the expanses between the Jewish/agnostic stronghold of New York and the all-welcoming arms of the West Coast.  Oh, and the Baha’i temple in Wilmette, IL (what exactly are the chances of attending a school that not only introduces you to the work of a Baha’i scholar but also to a girl who lives just up the Metra from their largest house of worship?  More on that later, possibly.).

Lots of questions, precious few answers.  Sometime in October, all, being well, I’ll step off a plane at JFK and start looking for a few.


[1] Dylan

[2] Duritz

[3] Mitchell

[4] Tweedy

[5] Duritz again

[6] It will be a while yet before I can get out of the habit of seeking quotes (and indeed the habit of footnoting) to back up my points; such is the nature of stepping off the academic hamster-wheel.

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