America the beautiful

BOSTON Harbour is black with unexpected Tea: behold a Pennsylvanian Congress gather; and ere long, on Bunker Hill, DEMOCRACY announcing, in rifle-volleys death-winged, under her Star Banner, to the tune of Yankee-doodle-doo, that she is born, and, whirlwind-like, will envelope the whole world!
Nanjing Night Net

THOMAS CARLYLE, 1837

I WALKED into a shop the other day in search of a hangover-consoling can of Coke. The Black Panadol, as it’s known where I come from. They had sold out. Suddenly, I was in a world without Coke. A scenario so unlikely and confronting it started an anthology of other doomsday scenarios flashing through my mind. The most obvious was, of course, a world with no America. No USA.

Imagine a world in which not only didn’t America exist, it had never existed. With her birthday looming I asked myself, as one does when a loved, but testing, child’s birthday arrives, ”What would we do without her?”

Imagine Columbus, having pitched the likelihood of a prodigious payday to Ferdinand and Isabella, had sailed out on La Pinta and a prayer and come back empty-handed. Or with just the skerrick that is Cuba and the few baubles of the Bahamas. ”Nothing beyond Cuba but waves, your Majesties.” Those monarchs would have cursed their luck at grubstaking such a dreamer, and demoted him to local piracies.

The task of imagining a world without America is, of course, too big. If the beating of a butterfly’s wing in Brazil can cause a typhoon in Taiwan, then what has America’s existence, her many moods, movements, manufacturings and militarisms wrought? You don’t need chaos theory to know the sound of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet helped free music from charts and melodrama. Or that Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit brought a stench to music that made opera’s tragedy comparatively bloodless. Easier just to list musical styles: jazz, Tin Pan Alley, blues, country, folk, rock, rap/hip hop, electronic …

And what books would the rest of the world have written without Twain and Hemingway et al writing theirs, and who would have read books anyway without the American imperative to put cheap consumer goods in the homes of the masses? These formless contemplations naturally lead to cinema and TV; the first would have had to grow up without its parental plethora of genius American Jews, and the second without the ocean of ad money that enabled it. Neither would have fleshed out the possibility of their art form as they have. Worth mentioning, too, that the first environmental movements began in America, birthed by Thoreau’s writings and the activism of John Muir. Yellowstone was the world’s first national park.

It’s like trying to imagine life without one of your senses, to go down the track of unimagining the culture, invention, and politics America has brought the world. Like trying to imagine a slower, less colourful, less just world. Picture the Beatles as a penniless, frustrated string quartet playing Greensleeves in a church hall, scowling with a nagging intuition that Hey Jude is out there, somewhere, beyond reach.

SHE was born of a tyrannous parent. Like a child of an alcoholic father, she vowed never to be that. And, eventually, she dedicated herself to the proposition that all men are created equal, and became a country more of the people, more by the people, and more for the people than had been seen before.

Would any of us, over these last centuries, have reached democracy without her? Is the French Revolution possible without the breath of freedom and finance from across the Atlantic? It had been millenniums since the imperfect democratic model of ancient Greece flickered out. And if a few small new states such as Australia had stepped bravely into universal suffrage, how long would they have lasted in the face of last century’s ideologies and despots?

The Nazis might have been defeated without America’s intervention, though it would have meant leaving the Soviets in charge of all Europe and led to an age of global communism. Communism would have been much slower to die, too, doubtless mutating into many hereditary despotisms like the one in North Korea. How many million lives would its death throes have cost? The Japanese would not have been defeated at all, and the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere would likely girdle the Pacific, bringing greater prosperity to Japan. The short question is; how many democracies would be extant today if America didn’t exist? The answer is, probably none.

All this is rankest guesswork. It’s enough to say that, given humanity’s predilection for falling into totalitarianism (whether by king or committee, politburo or priest) it seems astonishing that the greatest power on Earth this past century has been a democracy. And in answer to those who say this democracy has behaved like a despot, I would say it has simply behaved big.

She is criticised for her wars. She fights too many. But is that worse than fighting too few? To counterbalance Vietnam and Iraq there is Bosnia and Kuwait, to counterbalance Grenada the Cold War. To counterbalance her pacifism in the face of fascism before Pearl Harbour there is her resolution ever since. America is often said to be the world’s sheriff. It would be more accurate, I think, to call her one of the modern world’s parents. For she instinctively accepts a responsibility to attend to the soiled nappies and bloody tantrums of the smaller, less stable states around the globe.

It’s true that some of the impetus for armed adventure comes from within, as the tonic and validation for her vast military. But it is also true that she has something of the noble fool about her. And if she is sometimes charging windmills, she is as often the valiant knight Don Quixote imagined himself to be.

She is called out for racism. But more by herself than anyone else. And she is the only country to have fought a horrendously costly war with herself to end slavery. In America black slavery flourished, was denounced, and expunged. The bill was more than 600,000 white men. Before slavery flourished there it did so in many other parts of the world. It still does. From the Civil War to the civil rights movement there is constant proof she has an impulse for self-improvement that is, at the very least, damned rare.

Call it democracy, individualism or consumerism, but the notion that the world be available to all, that everyone deserves a car, a computer, a camera and happiness, this idea was born in America in defiance of the religious insistence that we suffer this world in silence for a reward in the next. Accompanying it is the sweet, hippyish notion that it’s acceptable, even laudable, to do your own thing. So then … a roast chicken in every oven and a different song for all. It’s not a recipe universally admired.

A company in America has just invented a vibrator that pulsates to music from an MP3 player, thus enabling a woman to sync her climax to the climax of her favourite song, enabling a lady to go gaga over a beloved aria, as it were. Think of the tiers of technology (all American) on which this mind-blowing idea is based. Think of the political climate that enabled the idea, and then, even more importantly, the social climate that enabled the pursuit of its manifestation. The philosophy that underwrites the invention of this ethereal baton is the often-underrated Pursuit of Happiness (even for a chick!!) insisted on in the Declaration of Independence.

Countries periodically decide the influence of America is counter to their interests and seek to jam her. To deny her existence and keep their citizens from being infected with her rank liberties. The Soviet Union cut herself off because America’s notes were too sweet for her citizens to resist. Cuba, Iran, North Korea, the People’s Republic of China have all likewise censored image and sound from this siren. Always an unintended admission that the life they’re offering isn’t as desirable as the life they might be offering. But the people of these countries invariably peek from under the totalitarian rug at freedom, at America, and the glimpse always weakens the totalitarians.

”Molti nemici, molto onore” is an old Fascist slogan. It means ”Many enemies, much honour”. I think America might borrow it. For as long as punitive theocracies and isolated dictatorships are calling her the Great Satan, we know she stands against the imprisoned past and for a free future. That she is all tomorrow’s parties.

PEOPLE today say gleefully, as though a comeuppance is deserved, that the Chinese century is coming, that the PRC is subsuming and engulfing the US. But to catch America industrially, she is having to become America, a constantly reinvigorated, reinvented, shape-shifting capitalism in which the individual is starting to make claims. She will need the same energising freedoms to infect her society if she is to match America in creating a modern culture. Are the Chinese going to tell us better stories than the Americans without being free to tell them as they wish? Can you name any song endorsed by a political party that is better than Voodoo Child? The moment I see a Chinese Elvis worthy of the name (and I don’t mean an Elvis impersonator, I mean a mighty exemplar of a powerful new music) I will know not that China has taken America, but that America has taken China.

America’s irreducible strength is that she has shaped her community using the template of the human ego. Her society allows for, even encourages, the aspirations and idiocies of everyman. And the best measure of her importance to the world is that for 100 years now, and likely for 100 more to come, a composer writing a song, a novelist mid-book, an app designer struggling with an algorithm, a dissident planning to seek asylum, or a dictator contemplating the annexation of a neighbour, must all ask themselves, ”What will America think of this?”

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that upon landing in America ”… for a transitory, enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate with his capacity for wonder”.

Too much history still stretches ahead of mankind to know if Fitzgerald was right about it being the last time. But he has not been proven wrong yet.

Happy Birthday, America.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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