Monday, April 9, 2018

Trump gives us a new reason to parade anti-Americanism as virtue

(First published in The Dominion Post, April 6.)
This column comes to you from America. Yes, that’s right, the America of Donald Trump.
The current occupant of the Oval Office has given us a whole lot of new reasons to make condescending jokes about America and Americans. But the America of Donald Trump is also the America of Abraham Lincoln, Emily Dickinson, Franklin D and Eleanor Roosevelt, John Steinbeck, Benjamin Franklin, Charlie Chaplin, Martin Luther King Jr, Francis Ford Coppola, Cesar Chavez, Ernest Hemingway, Rosa Parks, Bob Dylan, Frank Capra, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Meryl Streep, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ella Fitzgerald, Bruce Springsteen …

I could go on, but you get my drift.
New Zealanders are conflicted about America. It sometimes seems as if the people mentioned above, who are widely admired and even worshipped, come from a different country than the America we sneer at over dinner tables.

But of course they don’t. America comes as a package deal, the good and the bad all bundled up together.
It’s fashionable to regard the US as a country to be avoided. When I told a colleague that my wife and I were going to California for a few weeks, she mentioned that she had once lived in San Francisco for a year and loved it.

She thought Californians were a unique breed of Americans, “in a good way”.
Perhaps I misunderstood her, but she seemed to be saying that Californians were OK but other Americans might not be.

This would not be an uncommon view in New Zealand. Generally, among sophisticated metropolitan types, America is considered, at best, a place to fly over on the way to somewhere more civilised.
Even then, many people try to avoid it. Conventional wisdom has it that LA Airport is the worst airport in the world, although I’ve had far worse experiences in Heathrow and Sydney.

A few American cities are considered hip – San Francisco, for example. Portland, Austin and New York are considered fashionable too. It’s permissible in sophisticated circles to visit these places and say you love them.
Stockton, Amarillo, Duluth or Flint? Not so much. But while it might suit people to divide America into the good bits and the bad, it’s all the same country from sea to shining sea.

Where do we get this aversion to America? I can offer a few suggestions.
The Americans have done some bad things. They treated Native Americans appallingly, dispossessing them of their lands and putting them on reservations where they almost lost the will to live. 

America has propped up corrupt, totalitarian regimes from Asia to Latin America and was despised for what it did in the Vietnam War (although we should remember that it was the American people who eventually demanded US forces withdraw from that conflict).
America is also the home of the Ku Klux Klan – a country where until the 1930s, a black man could be hanged if a white woman didn’t like the way he looked at her.

It has a deeply flawed justice system and a gratuitously harsh and vindictive way of dealing with people accused of crime. Many states still administer capital punishment, often by grotesquely cruel methods, long after the civilised world abandoned it.
In addition to all this, distaste for American ways is almost embedded in our cultural DNA. New Zealanders inherited British reserve and are uncomfortable with America’s fervent, hand-on-heart nationalism. We balk at American exuberance and exhibitionism.

We were grateful to them when they were here during World War II but we also resented them. American soldiers had more money than our boys and wore much smarter uniforms. Our women couldn’t help but be attracted to them, which touched a very vulnerable spot in the national psyche.
But this same America is the source of much of our popular culture. The same people who despise Trump will queue for tickets to a Springsteen concert, use an iPhone, communicate with their friends using Facebook, wear Levi jeans, read the New Yorker, watch the latest Martin Scorsese film and admire the wit of American late-night TV talk shows.

And the Americans I’ve met over the past six weeks, as on past visits, have been unfailingly warm, friendly, open and almost embarrassingly courteous. They strike me as fundamentally decent people who want to do the right thing.
Can you admire America and despise it at the same time? Maybe, at a stretch, but I think we should admit that Trump has given us an excuse to parade a lot of blind anti-American bigotry as if it were some sort of virtue.


Graham Sharpe said...

Charlie Chaplain was English!

Karl du Fresne said...

Technically you're correct, Graham, but he left England when he was 19. I think I can get away with calling him an American, even if he was banished in the 1950s for supposed communist sympathies.

Brendan McNeill said...


I trust you are enjoying your visit to the USA. It sounds very much as if you are. I have traveled in the USA many times, both on business, and also as a visitor. It is a very diverse and often beautiful country. That said, I have not visited Flint, and only briefly passed through some of their other less liveable cities.

I agree with you about the American people. In general they are courteous, hospitable and friendly towards strangers in ways I have ceased to expect in large cities in other parts of the world. I remember my first flight to the USA on a Pan American jet to LA in 1980. I asked the hostess when we were due to arrive, and she replied "I don't know, but thank you for asking - I'll check and come back to you."

Thank you for asking?

It is fascinating how the foreign policy actions of their government are often so removed from the character and aspirations of their people.

Enjoy your stay!

Jigsaw said...

I have been comptemplating lately why people think it necessary to 'like' their politicians or for that matter anyone whose work they might admire.
There are musicians whose work I love and yet everything I read about them tells me that many of them were deeply flawed individuals and some of them were total bastards! Bastards they may have been but I still admire the music that they have created and like it not one fraction less. Why should a president who is unlikeable-especially to non-Americans necessaryily be a failure? A president who was personable and lieable but utterly useless...a success?
Living in Canada briefly and traveling in the States occasionally I have often been struck by the sheer size of the States and the way the news media struggles in so many ways not only to cover the news from other parts of the States but certainly doesn't often even begin to understand them. In Canada for a year I recall just two news items in all the media I took about New Zealand. Why would they be interested? Canadians themselves I found very intolerant of the those south of the border and they often had a feeling of superiority-ill founded in most cases.
A year in Canada