Being as I’m Canadian and all, why on Earth do I care so much about every aspect of U.S. politics and policy? You might well ask. Sure, there are always repercussions up here when something goes awry down there, sometimes quite direct, as will be the case, for example, if Trump and his merry nationalist hooligans manage to tear up NAFTA. And yes, on foreign policy matters we all have to worry about what the Americans do – it matters very much to me and everybody else if Trump sets the Korean peninsula on fire, goads Iran into re-starting its nuclear program, undermines NATO, stands aside while Russia screws over the liberal democracies, or refuses to do anything about climate change. I mean, I just bought a place by the sea. It isn’t only lower Manhattan that’s going to be up to its chest in the frigging Atlantic Ocean.
That’s not it, though. Of course Trump’s stumbling, juvenile foreign policy gives me fits, but what really drives me to distraction are domestic issues that really have nothing to do with me, at least not directly. It’s not my health care that’s going to be ripped away; it’s not in Toronto that whack jobs use military weapons to slaughter school kids, congregants, and concert-goers; there aren’t more guns than people up here; we have our issues, but there’s not enough racial strife to amount to the root cause of a new civil war; it’s been a while since the local Bund sponsored a midnight march of wannabe Nazis, with or without tiki torches; and it’s not my government that colluded with a hostile foreign power to get elected, mainly so a tax cut for the already obscenely wealthy could be crammed down my throat. I haven’t crossed paths with a crowd of morons in pointy white hoods for ages – assuming we’ve still got ’em (they’re always under some rock somewhere, right?), they must know enough up here to keep it out of the public square. What passes for reviled liberalism south of the border, as if it’s a philosophy akin to something Stalin would have imposed, as if, say, a sales tax is the equivalent of forced collectivisation, is just mainstream, ho-hum, crowd-pleasing pabulum up here. There’s no Canadian cable “news” network serving as the propaganda arm of the party in power. I’m not beset by so-called Evangelicals, just a biscuit shy of the Taliban, who fight tirelessly to get my schools to teach creationism. My Supreme Court isn’t stacked with pitiless tight-lipped idealogues. Whatever I think of my Prime Minister, he doesn’t personally embarrass me – I’m not ashamed of my entire country every time he opens his pie hole.
Yet I sit up here grinding my teeth and gulping antacids, just as if all those things were ruining my life, instead of some poor slob’s in Crotchrot Kentucky. Some poor slob who probably voted for Trump anyway.
Am I afraid of the madness spreading across the border? A little, but not really (well, maybe a little bit more when it comes to Quebec). Not enough to account for my routine screaming at the news. Is it empathy? Nah. I have some measure of feeling for the plight of ordinary Americans, just on general principles, but if empathy was the motivation I’d be throwing my slippers at the TV whenever news of the Syrian civil war came on, not when The Donald tosses paper towels into the needy throng like a Roman emperor pitching bread at the mob. If it’s Nigerians being victimized by Boko Haram, well, that’s just awful, and pity those poor little kidnapped girls, but it’s always something over there, isn’t it? If it’s Puerto Ricans still sitting in the dark without water, well shit, man, I’m fixing to pop an aneurysm. It’s outrageous. They’re Americans.
You should have seen me when this guy snagged the Republican nomination for the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions:
I don’t despise this dummy just because he’s a witless bigot. It’s because he’s a witless bigot blighting America. It’s emotional. Now, there’s every rational reason to wish for a healthy and just American society. If the rot sets in at home they can’t be strong abroad, and we need them to be strong, as I’ve emphasized in this space before – smarter, but strong. But this isn’t rational. It’s hard-core gut-wrenching disappointment, anger, fear, and loathing, and it wells up without any analysis or sober thought.
Look, here I am today seething at the NRA and the 19th Century boobs who foisted their ill-drafted Second Amendment on all the target-rich generations to come, watching the news of another mass shooting, this time in a little town in Texas. The broadcasts were keen to point out that today’s was the deadliest mass shooting ever in America – in a church. The worst thus far in a church. There being other church massacres before it, you see. Of course it’s not first overall, silly, that prize was snagged just a couple of weeks ago in Vegas, but still, it’s a New League Record!
It’s at the point that they need sub-categories: mass killings of family members at one or more homes; mass killings at the workplace; at restaurants and fast-food outlets; at concerts, nightclubs, movie theatres and other entertainment venues; at schools (given their prevalence and importance, perhaps with separate sub-sub-categories for kindergarten to grade 6, high school, and university?); and a final list for those caught in exposed positions while they were just generally out and about. It could be like the Oscars. Biggest Mass Killing By a Teenager Using Only a Hand Gun.
Now, wait for it:
NRA Spokesman: This wouldn’t happen if more people were armed and could defend themselves.
Politician: This isn’t the time to politicize a tragedy.
Average Boob: Hey, it’s the Price of Freedom.
Freedom isn’t free, after all. Like they sang in Team America, no, there’s a hefty fuckin’ fee.
See? My reaction is visceral, personal, emanating straight from the brainstem.
I guess it’s hard not to think of them as family, even Cletus down there in Buttcrack Alabama. Having absorbed their mythology, watched their sports, read their literature, devoured their pop culture, and learned their history, it’s just not possible to watch them dispassionately from a remove. As a Canadian baby boomer, I was practically born into their rooting section. I was there with them when they landed on the Moon, I was actually there in front of the TV, looking at it live as the Apollo program met the impossible goal, set by their martyred President, to get there before the decade was out. Who but they could have taken the whole world for a ride like that, live on TV in 1969? I’ve watched them land rovers on Mars, and put a telescope in orbit, and build great bridges and highway systems, and invent just about everything, all my life. Growing up, I couldn’t have named many Canadian landmarks, but I knew all about the Golden Gate, the Hale Observatory, the Empire State, the Brooklyn Bridge, Route 66, the Hoover Dam, and hundreds more (so many of them in New York, a city grander and more vibrant than any other, we all knew). I knew it was Chuck Yeager who broke the sound barrier, Edison who invented the light bulb, Salk who gave us the polio vaccine, the Wright brothers who first flew, and Ford that built the Mustang. Coca-Cola came from Atlanta. Daytona Beach was in Florida, and so were the Everglades. The first atomic submarine was the USS Nautilus – I had a model. It was jets built by Boeing that were carrying ordinary people to faraway places, it was Motorola that built that marvel of the age, the transistor radio, and for that matter the transistor itself was cooked up in Bell labs, just like the Laser. Colour TV was gifted to us by RCA. Computers came from IBM.
It wasn’t just things, either, it was ideas, literature, art. We all knew the poetry of Frost, and Whitman; we thought of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as works of literature in their own right, and something sacred, We the People being the secular equivalent of In the beginning; we knew that the greatest ever speech was given by Lincoln when he delivered the Gettysburg Address, we all knew the opening line “four score and seven years ago”. Was there a better film than Citizen Kane? A better novel than The Great Gatsby? They invented Jazz, the Blues, and Rock ‘n Roll. Everywhere you looked, you saw their cultural influence.
There was principle, too, behind the power and resources. The Marshall Plan saved Europe. It was Boston that ran to the rescue when my home town literally exploded.
It was just part of the scenery, it was in the air. If something was amazing, it was American, and if something needed fixing, either an American would fix it or it just wouldn’t get fixed. They were everybody’s guardians and security blanket. It was going to be a ball, just watching what they’d do next. That’s really how I felt. That’s how I grew up.
With age and education came perspective, of course, but every past and present failure of the United States, even things as awful as slavery or the Viet Nam war, from the assassination of JFK to his brother Bobby and MLK, gunned down when I was only seven, even Watergate, the great shattering crisis of my formative years, all seemed to be out of character, aberrations they’d fix, obstacles they’d overcome, failures they’d correct as they raced along the infinite road forward. They fell down, but they’d get up. Look at the war they fought to end slavery – they atoned for their original sin in blood, oceans of their own blood. Civil rights were still a huge problem, but good people were fighting, and they’d keep trying. They’d do better. They’d hew ever more closely to the ideals under which they were founded. You just knew it.
So now I’m bitter and morose, feeling let down, almost betrayed, really. I may scoff these days at all that City on a Hill bullshit, yet down deep I still desperately want them to be that city. To imagine now that they never will be, to think of them in decline, feels like losing hope.
I so want that statue in New York harbour to go back to being more than the sick joke it’s become in the Age of Donald. The New Colossus was just one more thing you knew as a kid – Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. It was inspiring. Maybe they stumbled repeatedly, maybe they fell short, but who else ever dared to aim so high, while telling the world to hold them to it?
Even the most cynical snark-monster needs something to believe in, or at least to hope for. I want the hope back.