Thursday 20 November 2008

Let’s love the American people - they deserve it!

Barack Obama cartoon
I love Americans! Americans are great! Yes, that’s what I said, and no, I haven’t been flown by the CIA to Singapore via Hamburg and on to Riyadh, Shannon and all points west to Guantanamo Bay. They didn’t bundle me into a gaudy orange jump-suit and torture me by playing endless video loops of Arsenal beating Chelsea.
It’s just that now, almost two weeks on, with the shock of what happened in the States finally sinking in, I am filled with admiration of and respect for the American people.
Over here in Europe we all love to write the entire US population off as ignorant rednecks with imperialist ambitions. We have all nodded, knowingly and smugly, when a story told of somebody acting foolishly, brashly and inevitably loudly, ends with
“Well, he was a Yank, wasn’t he?”
Writing off 300 million people as blind idiots is beyond crass. Sure, there are scumbags in America, but they come in as many varieties as skin types; as many guises as Galwegians and Guatemalans.
My sincere hope is that one of those scumbags doesn’t assassinate another young and charismatic American president. Beyond that, time will tell how much President Obama will have to compromise and change before he fits into the mould of World Leader.
But my excitement is less about the first black president and more concerned with the millions of people who voted for him.
Despite the culture, comfort and confidence we garner from our millennia of European history, there is no nation on our own continent close to electing a black leader. There is still much wrong with the way the US deals with its black population, leaving them to languish in vast urban project estates, the victims of economic apartheid, but also there are the black middle classes, and black people at the pinnacle of both sides of the political paradigm, with Colin Powell and Barack Obama offering the ethnic masses a chance to turn to their children and say, look, you too can aim for the top of the heap.
I’ll admit that when sat in one of our quaint tiny pubs or cute little restaurants, Americans invariably sound loud, but consider the economics of space. Over there everything is bigger: simply and straightforwardly larger in every way possible. When standing on American soil I sense in my gut a feeling of almost overwhelming immensity, (the country, stupid, not my belly!) and my European eyes feel like they have been transported to Alice’s Wonderland. The milk cartons are huge; the fruit and veg are vast (and sadly, tasteless); the fridges are small cathedrals and the countryside goes on forever; well, 3, 000 miles, but you get the point. If our national mindset ran all the way from Ireland to Istanbul, and we all had infinitely more space, we might well talk a bit louder too.
Judging people for the actions of their leaders is plain dumb. I am not Margaret Thatcher, any more than you are Bertie Ahern or the American people were guilty of being George Bush.
We in Ireland know well what it feels like to be offered an inadequate and pathetic choice of electoral candidates. Here we choose between one party’s crooked sensibilities allied to personal charm, and the other’s ineffectual lethargic honesty.
So we cannot blame Americans for their politicians, but we must congratulate them when they make brave and fantastic choices at elections.
The only downside of the entire election was Obama’s choice of slogan:
“Yes we can!” served only to make me think of Bob the Builder. ‘Can we fix it? Yes we can!’ says the little fella with the yellow hard hat. Obviously Americans don’t know the show, but when Joe the Plumber suddenly appeared on the scene alongside Alaska Barbie and Acton Man McCain with Almost Working Body Parts, the whole thing was in danger of becoming a puppet parody of that wonderful puppet parody, Team America.
Not so much: “America - Fuck yeh!”
as: “Can We Fix it? You betcha, wink wink.”
Instead of looking after each other, Americans prefer to believe they can make it on their own, as their recent ancestors did in the making of their vast nation. They believe that if you can feed, house and educate your children yourselves, why should you pay taxes to any government to help others? Even though it’s intrinsically selfish, this frontier spirit can be adapted and shaped to inspire young men like Barack Obama to think ‘they can’, and then the powerful and wonderful collective American belief in the individual allows him to be elected president.
Americans are warm, generous and intelligent people, who more than any other live in the society that defines the modern world. They and their leaders have now shown themselves to be collectively brave and open-minded, infinitely more so than their European counterparts, who shelter in the bureaucratic backrooms of Brussels, hammering out and imposing international treaties that nobody wants or voted for.
Much as I love Americans, their society’s lack of a social safety net scared me to death. After four years of living in the USA, three of which I had neither doctor nor dentist available, I was more fearful than I have ever been.
The frontier spirit that spawned the dream, the culture of the individual, is driven in no small way by a deep-seated fear of failure. The reason Americans crave success and admire celebrity with such fervour is that the alternative is instant, unthinkable and cataclysmic. One month whilst living over there I couldn’t make the rent, and had I not made an excruciatingly hand-wringingly embarrassing begging call to my parents for financial aid, we would have been homeless, on the streets, pushing our shopping carts around in the park.
While America clearly still has a long way to go, it’s high time we appreciated Americans as the inspiring and courageous people they truly are.

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