Still haunted by guns and slavery

The outsider 1 - America idolises itself above all. That is why a country that has so many strengths

I find individual Americans I meet, almost without exception, to be warm, generous and hospitable people. That makes it all the more puzzling why this country acts and even feels differently en masse: I have always felt, somehow, that there is something of a sheep mentality here that ends up contrasting the individual with the collective whole.

That makes it difficult, I have to say, to be a foreigner living in America who does not blindly assume all its values and attitudes. It is almost a requirement for American citizenship or permanent residency to do so. The typical American, as Trollope pointed out in his underrated North America, is remarkably thin-skinned - which he or she shows "either by extreme displeasure when anything is said disrespectful of his country, or by the strong eulogy with which he is accustomed to speak of his own institutions". With American popular culture swamping Britain, much the same protestations and eulogies can now be heard from the pro-American fantasists who live in Britain.

I say "fantasists" because few of the wildly pro-American crowd in Britain have lived in the US on a long-term basis and thus been immersed in American culture and its ways. More often than not, journalists who are in the US for a limited time reflect back to Britain the misperceptions Britons have about America - with the odd one merely trying to make readers chuckle over their cornflakes with tales of those silly Americans and their zany ways. "This country is a far more complicated place than the illuminati across the Atlantic understand," Jonathan Yardley, the distinguished book critic of the Washington Post, wrote the other day. There are few serious analyses of what America is about - and, certainly until recently, coverage of the United States was invariably patronising or unthinkingly laudatory.

The casual commentator on American life, for example, often feels the tremendous zest of the ultimate capitalist society. That zest is usually invigorating for the visitor, but there are less glamorous sides to America that they hear little or nothing about. The country has a huge underclass that rarely has a voice. Most visitors are covered by health insurance, for example, but last year there were 43.6 million Americans who weren't - including 11.6 per cent of children. As many as 67.6 per cent of Hispanic immigrants were not covered. This turns the health and well-being of so many millions of Americans into a fearsome lottery; the majority of the 43.6 million postpone going to a doctor, sometimes to the point of death, and their best hope of medical treatment is to go to the casualty department of a hospital and hope they will be treated there. Prescriptions are absurdly expensive, often costing hundreds of dollars for a month's supply of routine pills (some people are now turning illegally to Canada for medicine). Many prescriptions therefore simply go unfilled, and disease proliferates.

Although the US considers itself to be the world champion of civil rights for its citizens, Britons tend to have one right that Americans lack: the right to stay alive.

The former Washington mayor Marion Barry has said that his would be a relatively crime-free city - if it wasn't for the murder rate. It is 1.3 per 100,000 in Britain and 9.3 per 100,000 in the US. In the most recent statistics available, 32,436 gunshot deaths a year were recorded in the US, compared with, say, 19 in Japan. There are 192 million privately owned guns in the US, and 39 per cent of US households have guns. That dangerous gun culture is so often glorified in Hollywood, where the tough-guy heroes - those whom many young people want to emulate - frequently try to resolve their frustrations with guns.

Again, it is often assumed that affluence is the norm in American life. The truth is more complicated. Real wages have gone down for Americans in the past three decades. They peaked in 1973 and then began a steady decline; according to the Economic Policy Institute, they have not returned to their level of 30 years ago. As a result, more people have to work more hours, and lead lives that are stressed, with meals rushed and life a blur. They enjoy nothing like the holidays of their European counterparts: two weeks' holiday per year is good, three weeks' exceptional - one reason why Americans are so gung-ho when they have the brief holidays they are allotted.

The unsavoury past, too, is often omnipresent in American life. I believe slavery to be the single worst and most abiding legacy of US history, even including the lethality of the gun laws. America revels in its self-acquired reputation as a welcomer of all immigrants, of (in the words on the Statue of Liberty) the tired and poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free. But it has meanwhile failed, dismally, to put its own house in order. Visitors to Washington who find it a pleasant, leafy city have not been to the north-east, where most of the ghettoised blacks of the city live. Indeed, it is hard to describe the alienation of young black men in the US - largely caused by the effect of the fracture of black family life during slavery.

"African American" is now the widespread euphemism for black, and is applied to people as varied as Nelson Mandela and Colin Powell. I once heard Mandela gently explain to a radio interviewer who referred to him as African American that the American part of the expression did not apply to him; Powell, like many blacks who have succeeded in the US, can thank his Caribbean roots and basic British-style education. Native Americans, too - made the derisory foe in more than 3,000 Hollywood films between 1930 and 1990 - are still the forgotten Americans, condemned largely to live on bleak reservations if they have not managed the jump to mainstream life.

I would far rather be a young black in Britain than in the US: one in three black men aged between 20 and 29 is currently imprisoned, on parole or on probation. Black men are seven times more likely to be in prison than whites, the majority for non-violent offences. There are more black men in prison than in universities - and the Americans, with close to two million in prison, are (along with the Russians) the biggest incarcerators in the world. The main cause of death among young black men in jail is Aids. Put simply, the outlook for most young black Americans is hopeless; there are around 35 million blacks in the US, but Hispanics have overtaken them - both in numbers and in not having the legacies of the past to contend with.

But if I sound anti-American, I am not. I am merely being realistic about the institutionalised problems that make the US less of an Elysium for long-term British visitors and for immigrants clamouring to come here than many at first believe. More money can certainly be made than in other countries, but not by most young blacks, and only at a price. From my perspective, the more benign capitalism of western Europe - or Canada or Australia, for that matter - offers a better and more balanced way of life than the United States.

These are just some of the reasons why I do not idolise America, an idolisation of the kind that is required of US citizens or permanent residents to fit fully into American society; it is why I retain my British citizenship. A western diplomat (not British) described America privately as a "cruel and sentimental" country, one that is pleased to put people to death but will wallow in sentimental self-regard at any excuse.

It is hard for the expatriate who has not succumbed to everything American to hear the continual invocations to God to bless the USA, as though it is a uniquely blessed country in God's eyes, or to wallow in a militaristic national anthem ("And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air") that confirms Americans' self-belief in their country as a godly predestined land of the free and home of the brave. As Trollope said in 1862: "Americans are self-idolaters."

Two years ago, President Bush put into words a tenet that Trollope found in the American people - an insistent belief that "you're either with us or against us". It is perfectly possible to be opposed to some major American policies but still be with America. I am an unusual creature among British commentators from the US: a firm supporter of capitalism, but not always of the American brand of it.

I believe Trollope was right to believe that Americans tend to be thin-skinned where their policies and institutions are concerned - that they find it difficult to comprehend criticism from outside without becoming aggressive (the attitude towards France being a recent example). To the mass of Americans, America is the only place, and the rest of the first world - let alone the second and third worlds - is good only for occasional visiting. But that view comes from ignorance rather than malice. The individuals are so different from the whole - a contradiction that, some day, a commentator will explain. In the meantime, I shall keep trying to do so.

Andrew Stephen is the New Statesman's US editor