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17 November 2003

From sea to shining sea

The outsider 2 - We mock their patriotism, but over there they believe that there's an America for e

By Marcus Warren

The drum rolls; the choir launches into “America the Beautiful”. “America, America, God shed His grace on thee,” they chorus. The final chord swells, but the music fades and the voice of John Wayne delivers a rasping monologue. Mercifully, he doesn’t sing.

“You ask me why I love her?” the Duke begins, his delivery betraying outrage and disbelief that anyone could pose so bizarre a question. A short pause and he continues: “Well, give me time and I’ll explain.”

Before I moved to the US, John Wayne’s schmaltzy sermon on America, Why I Love Her, a compilation of hack poems recited by the old ham over a medley of patriotic hits, moved me not to tears but laughter. How corny can it get, I wondered of the disc, recorded by the wheezing star at the end of the Vietnam war.

A year later, I am less sure of myself. No, I do not leap to attention with my hand on my heart when “The Star-Spangled Banner” strikes up at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. But the smile that Wayne’s homily inspires in me now is less condescending.

To answer the next question from Wayne’s poem, I have never seen a Kansas sunset or an Arizona rain and never drifted on a bayou down Louisiana way. But I am convinced that, with an open mind, everyone (you too) can learn to like – and perhaps even love – America.

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First, find your America. Just as I have yet to meet a Brit who has lived here a long time and is in a hurry to go back to Europe, old or new, I guarantee that there is a part of America somewhere which could be yours. It is just a question of looking. You can’t say that of many countries.

To dispel some misconceptions straight away: whatever the demagogues from left and right tell you, it is not necessary to sit through Bush 2004 fundraisers or pledge your donation to the Republicans’ campaign war chest to make your American dream a reality. Nor is one obliged to close one’s eyes to the country’s shortcomings: the dead ends of its inner-city wastelands, the failings of its health- care, de facto segregation, the smug self-satisfaction of its bible-bashers and the export of cultural schlock abroad.

No, despite all that, the place is roomy and diverse enough to accommodate us all, along with our fads and foibles. It also lives up to its stereotypes, but then one can caricature liberal lefties, too. For example, by both choice and accident of fate, here in the homeland of Mickey Mouse, I live in what could easily qualify as paradise for the chattering classes. Set on a hill with a park, convenient to the city centre, the area teems with bien-pensants liberals and boasts one of the best state schools for younger children in the region.

There are no waiting lists to get your kids accepted by the local state school. If you live here, they’re in, no questions asked.

But there’s a whole other world out there to be discovered, one that Americans themselves are forever on the move looking for. You can join in the search, too, and wherever it takes you, you can be almost certain that, if you like, you will be greeted as one of the locals or, if you prefer to keep to yourself, left alone. Either way, you’re very welcome, as they say.

The menu of choices is as long as the portions in the restaurants are large. Meanwhile, the restlessness which animates so much of America ensures that most of the options do get explored. Americans created this land out of nothing (having slaughtered the Indians). And they think little of re-creating it and their lives over and over again.

To start the quest for your own personal America, hire a car, settle down behind the wheel and drive. That is how my personal epiphany began, with the open road ahead under the hot Miami sun, a year ago. It helps to turn the radio up loud, too.

You may never reach a destination or find what you are looking for. You may finally decide that your goal is a state of mind rather than a place. But sit back and start living your own private road movie.

The rush of freedom will feel like few others you have experienced. What with cars, loud music, palm trees, freedom, mine was a male adolescent fantasy writ large, I admit. But I challenge anyone embarking on the journey to resist the seduction of the idea of America.

And the essence of that idea? Doing something “because you can”. Stuffing yourself silly with junk food? Way to go. The endless sprawl of strip malls in suburbia? Whatever you say, big guy. Run the wealthiest and best universities in the world? No problem. Keep the most productive and innovative economy known to history ticking over? Cool.

True, the same principle seems to in- form US foreign policy – invading Iraq “because we can”. To some it must look like low-down Yankee pragmatism. But it also reflects America’s boundless faith in itself and its potential.

Which brings me back to John Wayne, in my thoughts since last week when I stayed at the hotel on Sunset Boulevard where he kept a cow in his penthouse suite. Why? Because he could, presumably.

“You ask me why I love her?” he sums up at the end of the doggerel tribute to the eagle’s soar, the Michigan chill and the call of Niagara. “I’ve a million reasons why:/My beautiful America, beneath God’s wide, wide sky.” Then the choir joins in with its rousing chorus. All together now: “And crown thy good with brotherhood/From sea to shining sea!”

Marcus Warren is the Daily Telegraph‘s New York correspondent

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