By Christian Livermore
‘Let me tell you the truth. The truth is what is. And what should be is a fantasy, a terrible, terrible lie that someone gave the people long ago.’
– Lenny Bruce
Simon and Garfunkel stood beneath a pale spotlight on the darkened stage of the David Letterman show. It was a YouTube video of a 2003 performance, posted by a friend on Facebook. The pair were about to embark on their reunion tour, and were making the publicity rounds. The plaintive strains of Simon’s guitar began, and they sang the first lines of ‘America.’ Without warning, I burst into tears. Desperate weeping that felt like I was dying. And on the line ‘All come to look for America….’ I realized why. I’ve been looking for America all my life, but it’s not there anymore. I’m not sure it ever was.
This was in 2011, long before Bernie Sanders used the song in a campaign ad for his presidential run, and before Donald Trump became president. After I had pulled myself together I left my room and walked down the carpeted hallway of my university residence hall to the kitchen, looking for conversation. I shared the flat with three Europeans: an international relations major from the Netherlands, and business majors from Germany and Belarus. Sometimes we gathered in the kitchen for an impromptu breakfast or dinner. When we first met, after they’d heard my American accent, they seemed tentative, hesitant. Once they learned my politics were to the left like theirs, they blurted out the question that had obviously been nagging at them: We really like America, and we’re friends of the Americans, but what is going on over there?
‘I have no idea’, I told them. ‘I wish I knew’.
It is a question I had asked myself for years, and now, from the remove of the United Kingdom, I could see with European eyes what I had always felt with my American heart. America was supposed to mean something. At the founding, we declared that meaning, those values to which we were committing ourselves as a nation: equality, freedom, justice, domestic tranquillity and ensuring the general welfare of our people. But, truth be told, money has always been more important to us. It has become so important that we have stopped asking the questions essential to a good society, indeed to the American ideal, as Tony Judt said in Ill Fares the Land: ‘For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world?’
How did we come to be this way? We had such high hopes for ourselves, such lofty principles to which we committed the nation. But a clue to our priorities can be found in the Constitution, in which we asserted that a slave only counted as three-fifths of a human being. Excluding mention of slavery as an abomination in the Declaration of Independence was another clue. That willingness to suspend our commitment to liberty when money was involved was a declaration of our true values. In the last 100 years at least, money has certainly become the rubric by which we direct our lives, our pursuits and our goals, the means by which we reckon success, even human value. Somehow, somewhere, we went desperately off course. We are sick at heart, and I don’t know quite how it happened or how it can be fixed.
What happened to my America?
‘Kathy, I’m lost’, I said, though I knew she was sleeping. ‘I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why’…
I left my hometown in Connecticut in 1987 and moved to New York City, principally to attend university but also, I realize now, in search of America, the one I had read about in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence and Leaves of Grass.
I found some of it in the city. I found, generally speaking, a commitment to equality and the welfare of the people. New Yorkers believed in paying their fair share, gave money to homeless people, and were happy to contribute taxes for free lunches and milk for low-income children. But I also found a restlessness, a sense of transience to the friendships. People sat at dinner half-listening to their dinner companions, looking over their heads to see if something better might be on offer at another table. New Yorkers placed a premium on beauty, and seemed dedicated to the pursuit of money and all the things it could buy. These were priorities I did not share and could not understand, and once again I felt like an outsider. My then-boyfriend asked another friend to help us carry a couch he’d just bought up the stairs of our flat. She told him to call Man With a Van.
The good friends I did make found themselves equally disillusioned with the city, and struck out west for Los Angeles, their own search, I suppose, for America. They urged me to join them, but I thought, if I’m looking for America, the last place I’ll find it is in L.A.
After the terrorist attacks of 11 September the drumbeat for war began, and the United States invaded Afghanistan. Most New Yorkers I knew were against it. We thought there had been enough killing, and we couldn’t see how carpet-bombing Afghanistan would help capture Osama Bin Laden. We also reckoned it had more to do with the pipeline a consortium of American oil companies wanted to run through Afghanistan than it did with Osama Bin Laden.
Surely this is one of the things that has eroded my America: the proliferation of foreign wars. President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of this in his farewell address. He spoke of the growing power of the military-industrial complex, and the pursuit of profit that would lead the industrial sector to foment military action in order to sell weapons and make money. ‘The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government,’ he said. ‘We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist’.
As Eisenhower warned, money that could be spent on public services is instead poured into the military. Hank Van Den Berg, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, estimated in The Nebraska Report, May/June 2011 that total annual military-related expenditures top $1.2 trillion and the interest on the federal debt spent on military activity is nearly $200 billion per year. That’s taxpayer money that could be spent on education, job creation and a national health care programme. Instead it is going to service this debt and finance these wars, while school budgets are cut, jobs are outsourced to countries with lower wages, and Americans are made redundant with little or no safety net and no health insurance, while the directors of weapons manufacturers pocket the profits.
The religious right are fond of quoting scripture, but here’s one passage they tend to forget. ‘For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows’, 1 Timothy 6.10.
Money has become the central pursuit of American life. Americans are bombarded with advertisements in their homes, on street signs, on passing buses, at toll booths, even in schools. There is a kind of frenzy of buying in American life. Money has become more important than education. It’s become so important that we’re willing to charge students hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a university education, and we make them borrow that money at interest rates of 6 percent to 8 percent. This is tying up disposable income in student loan repayment that could otherwise be put back into the economy through consumer spending. My student loan debt is $306,000. My monthly payment for my undergraduate debt was $481. Now that I have a PhD, once my loans come out of the grace period extended to recent graduates, my monthly payment will be more than $1,000 a month.
Many Americans are in the same straits. While wages began to stagnate in the early 1970s, cost of living has continued to rise. People make up the difference with credit. Americans have been paying with credit since at least the 1800s, but it really took off in the mid 1960s, after the first general use credit card — BankAmericard, which later became Visa — was franchised nationally. Debt began to skyrocket almost immediately. Average household debt was $27,600 in 1962 (adjusted for inflation), according to Federal Reserve Board data. In 2004, it was $79,100. One in seven Americans is being pursued by a debt collector.
Money has become more important than nutrition. Study after study wrings its hands over the obesity epidemic. The main culprit is identified as fast food, and while it is true that Americans consume vast quantities of it, the studies omit one of the big reasons for this. As cost of living has gone up while wages have stagnated and health insurance coverage has shrunk, Americans have to work more and more hours just to run in place financially. By the end of the day they are exhausted, and a swing past the drive-through window of McDonald’s is a much more tolerable option to going home and cooking.
What most studies also don’t say is that one of the reasons American may be so overweight is that they are too poor to buy healthy food. A 2006-2007 study by the University of Washington’s Center for Obesity Research found that a 2,000-calorie diet of high-energy, low-nutrition junk food costs $3.52 a day, while eating nutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables and high-protein foods costs $36.32 a day.
‘Healthier foods cost more and are consumed by more affluent people who are thin,’ said Adam Drewnowski, the study’s co-author. ‘Energy-dense foods cost less and are consumed by poor people who are more likely to be obese.’
I can confirm from experience that this is true. I grew up in a family on Food Stamps. We ate government cheese that came dyed orange in rectangular blocks. We ate government peanut butter loaded with sugar. The only vegetables we ate were canned because we couldn’t afford fresh, or even frozen. I did not eat a fresh vegetable until I was 16. It was broccoli, and I ate it raw with bleu cheese dressing alone on my first night in my own flat. It was, without exaggeration, life-changing.
Other research has shown that obesity, diabetes mortality and calorie consumption are associated with income inequality in developed countries, and that increased nutritional problems may be a consequence of the psychosocial impact of living in a more hierarchical society.
Money has become more important than health care. In 2001, some 52 million Americans lacked health insurance, up from 38 million in 2001. I wrote a story for the Times Herald-Record in New York about a man called Andrew Pacini. He had advanced pancreatic cancer and couldn’t get treatment because he was laid off when he became so sick he could no longer work. He lost the health insurance he’d had through his job. Medicaid then wouldn’t cover the treatment because he’d worked the previous year, which is how income is means-tested for benefit, and therefore he did not qualify. He died.
Obamacare improved the situation dramatically, but under Donald Trump Republicans have already made in-roads to reducing coverage. The Trump administration cut outreach and education funding for the program by 90 percent in August 2017, and shortened the sign-up period, so even if people do know they are eligible for Obamacare they may miss the chance to register for it. In September 2017, Congress let a program expire that provided healthcare for 9 million low-income children.
‘Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike. They’ve all come to look for America’.
I moved to Savannah, Ga. on the last day of 2001, still looking for America. I had warm memories of the South from childhood, visiting our people during summers in Virginia, days running with cousins through the grass in their vast back yard, everyone brown and dopey from the sun, catching fireflies at dusk.
I found some of America there, too. Southerners were gregarious and interested in you and what you were doing, and charitable to a fault when a neighbour had a crisis. I saw flyers tacked up in Waffle House for fish fries and Poker Run fundraisers for locals in need – a toddler who needed a heart transplant, a woman battling cancer.
I had to walk home from work one night because I had a flat tire and no auto club insurance. When I got to work the next morning, the mayor was kneeling before my car changing the tire. As he worked and we chatted, the mayor pro tem drove up and got out to help.
I encountered the famous Southern eccentricity (the kind that prompted Julia Sugarbaker to say on Designing Women, ‘This is the South, and we’re proud of our crazy people. We don’t hide them in the attic. We bring ‘em right down to the living room and show ‘em off.’)
I heard about a woman who used to have a pet alligator but he got out of the car at church.
I met a man named Reds Helmey, a retired Marine paratrooper who on 11 January 1969 hijacked a plane to Cuba to assassinate Fidel Castro. He spent three months in a Cuban prison and then returned to the U.S. for trial. After a week-long proceeding, the jury acquitted him after 15 minutes of deliberation. He was reinstated in the Marines at his full rank and later given an honourable discharge. Strangely, we became friends. ‘Bill Clinton, that’s my president; he’s a pretty good guy,’ he said to me one night at dinner. ‘But don’t tell Maxine (his wife). She’d kill me.’
But I also met people who were in favour of the war in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq, even though their young sons and husbands were deploying in disproportionate numbers.
I met a man who tried to preach to me. I told him I was agnostic. He asked me, ‘If you don’t believe in God, how do you keep from killing people?’
I saw Confederate battle flags displayed in the windows of pickup trucks, often above a rifle or shotgun. I saw a bumper sticker that said: ‘Union 1, Confederacy 0. Halftime’.
I watched a Vietnam veteran named Max Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in the war, lose his U.S. Senate re-election bid to Republican Saxby Chambliss. When I met Cleland for an interview just before the election, I watched his aides lift him from his unassuming Honda into a wheelchair, and I offered my left hand because he had no right hand to shake. Cleland lost the election a week later after Chambliss ran TV ads calling him a traitor for his Senate votes against homeland security legislation.
And I saw a people who, collectively, in their politics, were shockingly unwilling to help thy neighbour.
This is a difference that Divine Magnetic Lands author Timothy O’Grady noticed when he moved to Ireland in 1973. ‘I found something else that I’d seen little of in America,’ he said, ‘the idea that chaos and helplessness are never far away from anyone, that they just take you as a strong wind takes a tree, and that their victims are to be commiserated with rather than scorned’.
Americans do not want to think they can’t take care of their families. It is easier to believe that if somebody is poor it’s their own fault than to admit that the American Dream is not working. Americans do not like bad news. As for their own struggles, there is always a president, a city council, an immigrant to blame.
Can part of this lack of empathy be traced to the Calvinist roots of much of our religion? The idea of the ‘elect’, saved or not from birth, no matter what you do, so that good works don’t matter? Can that idea have permeated our sense of society and made us feel we have no responsibility to help one another?
In the presidential election of 2000, George W. Bush carried a certain Great Plains county by a majority of more than 80 percent. Thomas Frank calls the movement that propelled Bush and other right-wing conservatives into elected office the Great Backlash. It is based on the ability of conservative candidates to change the political debate from one of economic and social issues to one of ‘moral’ issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Frank posits that the Christian conservative arguments have been able to capture the imagination of so many people because they were first articulated at a time when many people were smarting from the loss of the war in Vietnam and resentful about the protest movement.
He could be right. It coincides with a serious drop in union membership and the beginning of the stagnation of wages in 1973. Perhaps this is when working people began seeing themselves in common cause with the elite. Whereas working class Americans used to see themselves as persecuted by the rich, they began to think of themselves as a different interest group – the morally upright – and imagined their values under attack by liberals and their immoral ideas. They severed their union ties, and the freefall began.
Many people are also still labouring under the delusion that if you work hard, you will become rich. This is for the most part untrue, but they believe it. Perhaps they don’t want to raise taxes on the rich because they think one day they might be rich and will have to pay those taxes themselves. But more than that, I think, they want to identify with the rich, or rather, they want the rich to identify with them. We idolize wealth in America; it is our national pastime and our religion. Wealth is good, so under our ideology, the wealthy are good. We want them to like us, to accept us, because we want to be like them.
If Frank is correct, fundamentalism plays a large part in conservatives’ success co-opting the votes of workers against their own interests. To understand this, I think, we must look back to before the founding. Religious refugees arrived in the American colonies from England, from the Netherlands, from Germany and other places to practice their religions without the persecution they faced in their homelands. To avoid that persecution, they enshrined religious tolerance in law. As a result, with a few shocking exceptions, religious pluralism was allowed to develop essentially unchecked.
In one obvious sense, this is a good thing. But the downside to this was that these new Americans quickly forgot the consequences of religious fervour. With no institutional memory of the Thirty Years’ War and countless other religious conflicts, a certain percentage of the population grew more and more extremist, until the evangelical movement began and flourished. We are dealing with the consequences of it today.
Maybe this is why we are also so cavalier about starting wars.
‘The fact is, Americans are a wholly untried people,’ Walter Bagehot wrote in 1861. ‘They have never been tested by any great difficulty, any great danger, any great calamity…they have never been called upon for any sustained effort, any serious sacrifices, any prolonged endurance. They do not know, therefore, – nor do we – the possible reach of their virtues and their powers, nor the possible range of their vices and their weaknesses’.
This remains essentially true. Unlike Europe, we do not know as a people the suffering of war. We have not fought a war on our own soil since the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865, and even that war was fought almost exclusively in the South. With the two notable exceptions of Pearl Harbour and the terrorist attacks of 11 September, we have not experienced attacks on our own soil. Those events, while horrifying, were singular occurrences, and do not approximate the sustained, grinding violence of, for instance, the Thirty Years War or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
We have sent our men to fight on other continents, and when they came home we wanted them to forget what they saw and did there and move on. World War II veterans have a reputation for not talking about their war experiences. When I interviewed five veterans for a profile in the Savannah Morning News, I asked one of them why he had never spoken of the war before. As it turned out, it was because nobody ever asked.
‘It was like nobody was interested, really’, said Ed Abernathy, who was 19 when he and the 1st Marine Division landed at Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942. ‘I think they didn’t want to know, and they were afraid of what they would hear’.
Abernathy told me what his mother, his wife, his children did not want to know, that the only baths he got were in leech-infested waters; that he got scabies; that his skin peeled off in sheets; that his best friend was shot and killed right in front of him; that he had bayoneted Japanese soldiers and, sixty years later, in his dreams, he still saw their vacant eyes staring at him.
‘Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together. I’ve got some real estate here in my bag’.
As we have grown more religious, so have we also become more punitive. The U.S. prison and jail population has skyrocketed from about 380,000 people in 1975 to 2.2 million in 2007, according to Jason DeParle, ‘The American Prison Nightmare’. As of 2007, DeParle writes, seven Americans in every 1,000 were behind bars. That is about five times the historic norm and seven times higher than most of Western Europe.
We didn’t just get any religion, either. As O’Grady points out, the religious outlook that took hold is based largely on the Old Testament and the Book of Revelations, ‘and sees a world full of threats and temptation soon to be destroyed by a righteous God’. Perhaps we’re secretly appalled by our own greed and profligacy and are looking to be punished for it, saved from ourselves.
Perhaps the rise of Christian extremism is not so difficult to understand, coming as it did on the heels of the Vietnam War, the protest movement and the economic unrest that began with the oil crisis of the 1970s and grew worse under the deregulation and tax policies of the Reagan administration in the 1980s. The more worried we are about economic problems, the more likely we are to become overwrought over imagined or exaggerated social problems, according to Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the Church at the University of Oxford, in an interview I did with him while a journalist at the Times Herald-Record.
‘We are pattern-making animals and we are painfully conscious that we are not in charge of things, particularly our own deaths,’ he said. ‘So it gives us comfort to find meaning and pattern in apparently meaningless things. There was the silly fuss about the Millennium Bug in the late 1990s, and worries about successively communism, Al Qaeda, etc. are all part of the same thing’.
It has surely been destructive, not only domestically but internationally as well. One of the most fraught examples, and the one with some of the gravest consequences, is the influence evangelical opinion has had on the shaping of U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestinian conflict as evangelicals support Israel in an attempt to bring on Armageddon.
‘You said it’, said MacCulloch when I posed the above in a question to him. He sent me an article he’d written on the subject, ‘The end of days: a self-fulfilling prophecy’, which appeared in a number of European newspapers (but notably, he pointed out, not many U.S. papers):
‘This ideology makes it very difficult for countless Americans to hear the case of the people of Palestine…Donald Rumsfeld talked darkly of “old Europe”. If he wants to find the real old Europe, he should look to the American Midwest. Perhaps the UK, whose English, Scots and Ulster Protestantism was the fountainhead of so much of American culture and identity, may prove to be the vital intermediary between two worlds. We need some intermediary, before, in mutual misunderstanding and growing ill will, we all bring on our own version of the Last Days’.
‘All come to look for America…all come to look for America’.
In September 2011 I moved to Scotland – as in the case with my move to New York City, principally to study, but also probably looking for something I couldn’t find in America. Indeed, I found some of it. A lot of things that still exist in Great Britain – shops closed on Sunday mornings and on holidays – used to exist in the States but are long gone now. A friend of mine who moved to London from Savannah about ten years ago remarked shortly after arriving that Britain is like the States used to be in the 1970s. Britain certainly has its problems, and it is becoming alarmingly more like the States and will become even more so if the National Health Service ‘reforms’ being pushed by the present conservative government are enacted, but that is another discussion.
It makes me happy that I have found much of what I was looking for here, but it also makes me sad. It means that while America has been talking about providing for the welfare of the people, other countries have been quietly going about the task of doing it.
I am sad, too, because there is much that I love about America. A leisurely walk up Fifth Avenue towards the Met sets my heart racing, anticipating the beauty of the art and artefacts I will see in the museum and the people-watching I will enjoy in Central Park afterwards. A gentle breeze rustling Spanish moss amidst a canopy of live oaks in Savannah makes my heart ache with the beauty of it. The music –
Billie Holiday, Sonny Rollins, Champion Jack Dupree, Louis Prima – feels like the sins and joys of our people laid bare. We are boisterous and enthusiastic and, until recently, almost boundlessly optimistic.
Now, of course, we arrive, as we inevitably must, at Donald Trump. I was surprised that people were surprised he won. To me, his election was inevitable. It was the culmination of years of economic anxiety, plummeting standards of living and the dulling of critical thinking. And racism. God knows, racism.
I will leave the political commentary on his administration to other writers. What I am concerned with is this: how do we come back from this? As bad as it all is, what Trump and the Republican Congress have done, policies can be fixed. The Muslim travel ban can be overturned, the tax bill can be repealed, the Bears Ears National Monument can be restored. But how do we fix us? How do we re-knit the fabric of our social cohesion? Our fellow Americans are diminished in our eyes. How do regain some sense of common identity? How do we readmit them to the dinner table? How do we purge from our minds the images of neo-Nazis marching in Charleston? How do we forgive the 68 percent of white Alabamans who voted for an alleged child molester rather than a district attorney who prosecuted Ku Klux Klan members who murdered four African American children?
Because make no mistake, Trump coaxed these sentiments into the open, emboldened those who held them, but he did not create them. Indeed, he is the result of them. They are in our bones. In a network news segment on the white supremacist and neo-Nazi attacks in Charlottesville, two African American commentators, both Republicans, had to fight through tears to discuss the events. White people can never fully comprehend the pain people of colour feel because we are not subjected to the marginalisation, disenfranchisement, hostility and overt violence people of colour have to endure daily, hourly, minute-by-minute. But if we want to really change, we must, finally, acknowledge it. This is not a Southern problem, it is not a conservative problem; it is an American problem. It is not a modern problem; it is a foundational problem. Until we bow to it, grow humble before it, and figure out how to stop it, we will never be the America we claim to be.
The rest of the world, too, will now view us differently. Even should we undo all the things Trump has done, even if we elect a sane president in 2020, the world will not easily forget what we have done. They will look at us and think, you did it once. You might do it again. And they will be right. After Charlottesville and the sight of neo-Nazis marching on American streets, a British friend told me, ‘Let us do whatever it is we do when prayer seems called for.’ I am not religious, and so I find myself not knowing what to do. I call my senators and congressman, I sign petitions, I write. None of it changes anything. I do not know what to do next. I do not know what can be done. The ideas on which America were founded have never been fully realized, but there were times when we were on our way. Now, it seems as though we’ve strayed so far from the path, I don’t see how we can find our way back.
A year after I burst into tears on hearing ‘All Come to Look for America’, twenty children and six staff were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Now we will have gun control, friends said. I knew we wouldn’t. The power of the gun lobby would prevent it. And so it proved to be. Congress valued the campaign contributions of the NRA more than the lives of six- and seven-year-old children. ‘For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows’.
When I hear the song now, I feel something like sadness, a sense of hiraeth, a Welsh word that means, according to Samantha Kielar, a longing ‘for a home that you cannot return to, no longer exists, or maybe never was’. I’ve stopped looking for my America. The thought of that breaks my heart, but then again, I’m American. My heart was broken long ago.