Sunday, May 30, 2004

A champion with tarnished armour

Ever since I was a boy, I've admired America. Initially from stories in books, on TV, in the movies that were where we learned about places we'd not yet been and people we'd not yet seen. And where it wasn't easy to get to then, travel not being as easy and cheap as it is today.

I finally got there for the first time, for three weeks in 1976. To Groton in Massachusetts. And up around New Hampshire for a week of that.

Beautiful places. Lovely people. People who were friendly simply because that was what they were. People who invited us to their homes simply because that was what they did. People who had a relatively short history to look back on, but who cherished their built heritage as if it was a thousand years old, and their local environment as it it was on the point of extinction.

In autumn 1980, I went on a 17-day tour, minding a group of five Irish couples, to LA, San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York. The adventures and enjoyments and the odd tribulations of that excursion are other stories, some written, others the base for some of my fiction. They also helped build further my appreciation for the core of what it was to be American.

The following summer I brought my young family for three months to New England, during which time I started my first novel, spent some wonderful times in every one of the local states with my wife and then three children, and then came home to a new career in radio news.

Since then I've been to America many times, both working and on vacation. Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Florida, New Jersey, New York. Always enjoying the extraordinary variety of landscape and lifestyle that America offers, the unstinting friendliness of the many of its people I met, and the innovation of idea and thought that made it a powerhouse in the world.

Sure, I've always known it isn't a perfect place, or its people perfect either. Nowhere is, and none of us are. But I liked America and its people, and still do.

There's a thing about living in a place like Ireland. We're small, but our outlook has always been further than either our own country or the European Continent, in part because we don't make enough local news to drown out the world stuff. Also, we've tended to travel a lot, often looking for work and a life that wasn't always possible in Ireland before the recent times of the Celtic Tigerr. And a lot of places took us in, notably America.

That's part of the affinity, too. We feel part of the country, because so many Irish were able to make their homes and their lives there, when they couldn't do so at home.

But today I'm very concerned for the future of the America I know. Not because of the threats from terrorism, because that is something the world has to worry about, not just Americans. Rather, I'm worried about a threat from within that seems to me to be much more serious.

Here in Ireland, and in much of Europe, many of us fear that all the good things that are basic American are being cast aside by its leadership, on an agenda of their own. That is certainly my own view. I think the great and varied peoples that are America have been hijacked by an administration that doesn't reflect them or their real aspirations.

I think the atrocity that was 9/11 has also been hijacked by the same people, and used as an excuse for rampant adventurism which is killing both Americans and other people for no good reasons. Greed and exploitation are never good reasons. Revenge even less.

And what really saddens me is that, for now anyway, I have lost interest in ever going to America again, because I'm uncomfortable with the behaviour of a country that is supposed to lead in pursuit of the ideals of democracy and fair play laid down by its founding fathers. Instead of the champion it once was perceived to be by the world, America is rapidly getting a reputation as the world's bully boy.

Which is a shame, not least because I have a son living there. As do many friends of mine too. And also because I still feel an enormous affection for the ordinary American people and their inate good qualities, qualities which I believe they still have.

One of the things the TV in the corner of my living room gives me is access to a wide variety of news channels: Irish, British, European, Chinese, Indian, Middle East ... and CNN and Fox.

Watching particularly those last two depresses me, because from my perspective it seems their journalists and presenters haven't a bull's notion of what's really happening on this side of the world.

I have some competence in this view, given that I've been a journalist for 27 years, during which time I have also taught the craft. Not as a war correspondent, sure. But there are war correspondents and 'war correspondents' and I can usually recognise the real ones.

President George W Bush is visiting our country at the end of next month, staying overnight in one of our expensive old castle hotels. Under the security arrangements currently in preparation, the people living in the towns around where this castle is will actually need to have passes to enter and leave their home places for two days.

That never happened before with all the previous American Presidents who visited here, and who mostly were welcomed with open arms and interest.

It is just, in a very small way, one of the things that America is doing to small people these days. Like the requirement that, if I want to fly to the US now, all the details which the airline has about me, including credit cards and even dietary requirements, must be given to the US Homeland Security people. That was bullied out of the European airlines by America, under threat of refusing landing to any which didn't comply. It is interesting that an equivalent thing was not demanded of US airlines flying to Europe?

The Homeland Security people won't find much of interest in my credit cards. Maybe they'd like to pay them off some month, and then perhaps I wouldn't mind the intrusion?

I don't in any way want to seem patronising, but I believe America is looking into the abyss. Its leaders seem to want to jump in, dragging all of its people with them.

I hope there are still enough people there who care enough to not let that happen. Because I care enough for what I still believe is the REAL America and its people, their generosity and their enthusiasm, to wish that it doesn't all disappear in the short time of a single administration.

And I would dearly love to WANT to go back there again.

1 comment:

Kate said...

This will sound trite compared to the way you write, but here goes.

I'm from the US, California to be exact and I feel the same way you do about it. We've lost something in the past few years. Our freedom, our creativitly, our innocence? I don't know, but it's hard to live here now. It's not the same place it was when I was younger. Maybe we can recapture some of what we've lost when we vote our now president out of office, but maybe it's gone forever.

Anyway, I hope that doesn't stop you from visiting again. We're still nice people, just scared now. And we love Irish accents.