The New Statesman Essay - A nation that believes it speaks for the world
The US Presidency - What lies behind American arrogance? An ideology that proclaims the cou
America is an imperial power unlike any other in history. Its military, economic and technological pre-eminence is unprecedented in its planetary reach. No corner of the globe is unaffected by the outpourings of its mass culture. Everything America does now has global consequences.
Yet, unlike previous imperial powers, the US does not have a physical empire. It rules by proxy while remaining sufficient unto itself. It has vital national interests everywhere, but is untouched by eventualities anywhere. It is involved everywhere, but is ultimately unanswerable, unaccountable and unconcerned about the consequences to anyone except US citizens. The political logic of American engagement is simple: the rest of the world is not worth one American body bag.
Like a black hole, the US sucks in most of the energy of the planet. Americans consume more than half the world's goods and services; they spend more than $17bn annually on pet food alone, $4bn more than is needed to provide basic health and nutrition for the world's entire human population; and $8bn annually on cosmetics, $2bn more than is needed to provide basic education worldwide.
All this is sustained by the ideology of Americana, a distillation from the general flow of ordinary American life, history, experiences and ideas. As a global ideology, Americana is a successor to westernisation. The purpose of westernisation, the dominant theme of the second half of the 20th century, was to transform the world into the image of the west. But whereas westernisation was like a bacterium that could be fought with the antibodies of tradition, Americana is like a virus that has no cure. It attacks the immune system not just of the US itself, but all the rest of us.
The ideology of Americana has three simple and completely simplistic tenets. The first is the notion that America is the world, so the world had better shape up and be more like America. This dumb certitude manifests itself in everything that America does. America's approach to corporations, markets, drugs, patents and accounting, its notion of freedom, democracy and justice - all must become the world's standard. Every American takes it as a self-evident truth that the American way of life is the best devised in the history of humanity; that America, in Abraham Lincoln's phrase, is "the last, best hope of earth".
But there is another level on which America is the world. As the Statue of Liberty proclaims: "Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free". It is a nation created as a refuge for all the world, a nation made up of immigrants. What immigrants know is that wherever their parents or grandparents came from was nasty, brutish and tyrannical - that's why they made their way to America. So the rest of the world is, by definition, flawed, unable to compare with America and, fundamentally, not worth knowing. This belief is in no way dented by the histories of liberated slaves, conquered Mexicans and slaughtered Native American nations.
Cinema was central to the development of Americana. It was the mass popular entertainment at the crucial demographic moment. The new immigrants were educated in ideological history by watching movies. The result was a multifaceted people, but hardly a multicultural nation. The founding notion of American civil society, e pluribus unum, says it all. The one that has emerged from the many is a homogenised unit based on blind conformity.
The second canon of Americana reduces all histories, of all the peoples in the world, to American history. As the home of popular culture, America has become the world's storyteller. We have long been familiar with the necessity of historic personalities being portrayed by American actors. However, in recent times, the movies have taken a quantum leap. The stories that America tells itself and the rest of the world locate and relocate all narratives within America or Americana. This is not just the law of the box office; it is genuine and deep ideological correctness. To be worth telling, and therefore worth knowing, stories must be rooted in American experience. So, in the recently released film U-571, we discover that the capture of the Enigma code machine, which played an important part in thwarting Hitler, was actually the work of Americans. No doubt we shall soon discover that it was the Americans who escaped from Colditz.
Americana not only distorts everyone else's history; it dismantles its own. In The Patriot, for example, the genocide of the Native Americans and the enslavement of the African Americans is written off and the battles rearranged to British disadvantage. These are not isolated examples, but the product of a deliberate exercise in the manipulation of history.
Films such as The Patriot regurgitate the third basic precept of Americana: the total innocence and righteousness of America. White Americans, we are to understand, are simple people struggling to make a good life by taming the wild frontier - whatever or wherever it may be. Simple innocence, the theme of innumerable Hollywood westerns, as well as the literary oeuvre of Henry James, is the basis for the Americans' devout belief in their own essential goodness. This belief was there from the country's inception.
America was the first settler colony, established against and through the denial of the country's original inhabitants. The first sustained settlement from which America derives was Jamestown in Virginia, recently mythologised by Disney in its animated anti-classic Pocahontas. These settlers wrote of themselves as biblical Israelites claiming a promised land, building "the city on the hill", the beacon to the world. They saw themselves not as occupiers and colonisers, but as virtuous communities fighting against all odds. Or, as the American historian Richard Slotkin neatly expressed it in the title of his book, the ideology of innocence is the accepted version of Regeneration Through Violence. A John Wayne or Shane does what a man's got to do - which includes genocidal violence and ecological destruction - on behalf of innocence, to protect the poor, honest and humble settlers. When the nasty work is done, the lone hero figure rides off into the sunset, leaving the tamed and safe land to be administered by the simple, homespun, righteous ethic of the settlers.
Innocence, the assurance of rightness no matter what, is the bedrock of American foreign policy. Just as the destruction and appalling treatment of the land's original inhabitants, as well as slavery and segregation, are subsumed in the ethos of innocence, so the unparalleled suffering that American imperial might has inflicted on the unfortunate of the earth has been absorbed in the presumption of its planetary moral superiority. In addition to Vietnam, there is hardly a Latin American state that has not, in the name of democracy and freedom, been subjected to violence and barbarism. From Argentina and Chile to Panama and Nicaragua, from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to Haiti and Grenada, the history of US intervention is drenched in blood.
The three precepts of Americana - presumptions of innocence and self-righteousness; that the only relevant history is American history; and America is the world - subtly reinforce each other and work to short-circuit and confound any possibility of reasoned questioning. The entry fee for engagement in America is eulogy, the basic rhetorical form of all public discourse in American life. Americans are hypersensitive to criticism. All criticism is jealousy, springing from a failure to understand the US's special perfection and particular mission. Questioning is proof of a desire to undermine the entire edifice, a traitorous act or hostile assault, the ultimate unAmerican activity.
When all debate must operate within the narrow parameters of the received ideology of Americana, the reduction of debate to the level of the functionally and historically illiterate becomes a virtue. As we saw in the presidential race, candidates for office must cast themselves in the stereotypes warranted and made venerable by ideology. So George W Bush earnestly told the Republican convention that he is none other than a pioneer, having set off for Midland, Texas, to tame the wilderness and make it gush oil. In response, Al Gore told the Democratic convention that he is just a simple farm boy from Tennessee. While Bush had no problems casting off the whiff of elitist privilege in his upbringing, especially an education at Yale, Gore had to work much harder to live down being a Harvard graduate. Being too knowledgeable is a distinct electoral liability. The ideology demands simple innocence, and the simple is to be taken literally.
So we have the ideology of Americana as the guarantor of an ever more perfect Union, a land of innocence, justice and liberty, where opportunities are open to all and where all can pursue the great American dream of happiness through material abundance. But, like all ideologies, Americana is an inversion of the truth.
Consider the American democracy we are being asked to accept as the ideal model for the world. As the presidential fiasco showed so clearly, it is a democracy where the winner need not be the one who gets the most votes. Given that only half the population ever cast their votes in any election, the actual electoral victory belongs to those who cannot be bothered to participate in the democratic process. In the freest country on the planet, democratic political campaigns are a ghastly joke. Powerful lobbies, such as the gunslingers, have bought everyone who is anyone in politics. You need around $20m to get yourself in the House of Representatives or the Senate, $3bn to get into the White House. The ideal candidate is a cipher, or a brain-dead actor, or at least someone who can be a master of ceremonies at the Oscars. The handlers write the script, build the drama, concoct the spin, and then run the White House. Public debate is all drama and revelations of past misconduct.
Despite its homogeneity, the Union is anything but united. America is deeply divided on the lines of race, religion, ethnicity and gender. To display its innocence and righteousness, one group must constantly be at loggerheads with another. The result, as Pete Hamill wrote in a famous essay in Esquire, is a society in permanent, teeming, nerve-fraying conflict: blacks against whites, straights against gays, gays against priests, priests against abor- tionists, blacks against Jews, Orthodox Jews against reformers, Jews against Arabs, sun people against ice people, citizens against immigrants, Latinos against Koreans, people who work against those who don't, urban folks against suburban and rural dwellers, bad guys against everyone, cops against bad guys, lawyers against cops. Republicans now denounce Democrats as inherently different kinds of people, out of touch with the values (and not just the electoral votes) of the heartland. Everyone is fighting to lay undisputed title to the core values of Americana, the American dream, and to insist that only they are its true inheritors, interpreters or arbiters.
The more tightly Americans cling to the sustaining myths of their Union, the more self-absorbed, inward-looking and isolationist they become. The only answer to American problems is to wrap oneself ever more firmly in the folds of the flag. This is the predicament we all face. As Americana is more narrowly cast at home, it is broadened and broadcast as the inevitable and only possible global dispensation. An alienated, insular and fragmented America terrorises us all.
- Franklin D Roosevelt, in 1937, was the first president to be inaugurated on the 20 January date, a change made by the 20th Amendment to the constitution.
- In 1961, John F Kennedy's inauguration was the first time that a poet, Robert Frost, participated in the official ceremonies at the Capitol. And, as the first Catholic to be elected president, Kennedy was the first to use a Catholic (Douay) version of the Bible for his oath.
- In 1977, after his inauguration, Jimmy Carter was the first president to walk all the way from the Capitol to the White House with his family after the ceremony. Provision was specially made for the handicapped to watch the parade.
- John Tyler, in 1841, was the first vice-president to be sworn in as president, due to the death of the incumbent.
- In 1923, Calvin Coolidge took the oath of office at his inauguration from his father, a Vermont justice of the peace.
More from New Statesman
- Online writers:
- Steven Baxter
- Rowenna Davis
- David Allen Green
- Mehdi Hasan
- Nelson Jones
- Gavin Kelly
- Helen Lewis
- Laurie Penny
- The V Spot
- Alex Hern
- Martha Gill
- Alan White
- Samira Shackle
- Alex Andreou
- Nicky Woolf in America
- Bim Adewunmi
- Kate Mossman on pop
- Ryan Gilbey on Film
- Martin Robbins
- Rafael Behr
- Eleanor Margolis