Happy birthday America, and please pick up your act


Today, the United States of America is celebrating the 240th anniversary of the original Brexit. Despite some initial reasonable showing from the Remain campaign, the Leave folk did eventually manage to pull the biggest political upset of the 18th century and exit the British Empire, all over a not too dissimilar set of issues like sovereignty, accountability, representation and self-government.

So happy birthday, United States. Whenever I contemplate how buggered the politics are in Australia are at the moment, it is with some relief – but also sadness – that I remember they are just as buggered in America, and in Great Britain, and throughout much of Europe, not to mention the rest of the world, where political buggery is a norm rather than an exception. We, in the Anglosphere in particular, seem to be going through some challenging times of late. Let’s hope it’s just a phase and not a middle chapter in the “Decline and Fall”.

My America, the America of my foreign imagination, has always been a land of Reaganesque optimism, of bubbling energy, future perfect and sunny vistas. She might be 200, 220 or 240 years old, but she remains perpetually young – a quality that so annoys and jars the rest of the – old – world. But in 2016, America suddenly seems her age, as if life has finally caught up with her. The Presidential contest between the crazy grandfather and the corrupt grandmother epitomises this rage of age. But it is a symptom, not the cause, of the general malaise.

When I was growing up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain in the 1970s and 80s, America was the devil for my government and the promised land for my people. The Party would deride and ridicule the United States as a capitalist dystopia, an imperialist warmonger and a decadent freak show, but it was a losing fight. An overwhelming majority of the people being against the government, taking an opposing view to the official propaganda was a matter of course, even if for most part only in the relative safety of personal reflection and private life. But contrariness was only half the story; the other half was familiarity. The United States has been the main destination for millions of Polish migrants over the past two centuries. Chicago is the second largest Polish city in the world, behind Warsaw. My grandfather was born there in the second decade of the last century, and I’m far from unique; virtually everyone in Poland has always had some friends or relatives across the Atlantic.

In those dark and dreary days of the Cold War, we understood that America was not a paradise on Earth – being Catholic, Slav, and stuck between Germany and Russia tends to make you realistic, if not somewhat melancholy, about the realities of life – but it was hell of a lot better than the socialist Soviet alternative our rulers posited for us. There were opportunities there, freedom, and hard work rewarded for most part with a decent life, without having to queue to buy toilet paper. Sometime in the 1980s, the regime decided it would be a great idea to publicise the Dickensian plight of the homeless multitudes in New York and as part of the whole exercise organised a shipment of sleeping bags to support the victims of the brutish dog-eat-dog capitalist system. Days later a little ad appeared in the classifieds section of a major national daily: “Will exchange a large, two-bedroom apartment in central Warsaw for a sleeping bag in New York”. Heads no doubt rolled at the newspaper.

One of the great shocks when I came over as a teenager to Australia in literally the dying days of the Cold War was the culture shock of popular attitudes to our own societies and to the United States in particular as the pinnacle of the Western development and “the leader of the Free World”. Accustomed as I was to living in a society where probably 90 per cent of the population saw America as the good guys in the great moral and political struggle of the 20th century between democratic capitalism on the one hand and totalitarian communism on the other, I could not imagine that people living in the actual free world could possibly think otherwise. Over the subsequent quarter of a century, with the collapse of the Soviet alternative and the long unipolar moment, the anti-Americanism as political prejudice and trendy snobbery has only gotten worse. After all these years I’m still shocked by the eerie similarity in how so many Westerners see America and how we Easterners used to see the Soviet Union. It does make me think less of many of my fellow countrymen and women, as well as somewhat uncharitably wish there was a way they could actually experience first-hand what it is to live in the shadow of a real evil hegemon as opposed to one of their over-active imaginations and persecution manias.

I don’t idealise the United States. Humans are imperfect and fallible, and so is the work of their minds and hands. But the great free experiment that is America has got a lot of things right over its past few centuries of history, and, as importantly, its energy, capacity and imagination carry on the promise and the potential to keep getting more things right, for America and for the rest of the world. The trendy longing for a world where America is diminished and supplanted by others is both naïve and dangerous. The superpower alternatives are either undesirable (Russia, China) or utopian (European Union, the United Nations). That’s why I worry when America seems out of sorts and raked by crisis of confidence. The world where America is not America anymore is a more uncertain and perilous one.

So happy 240th, United States, and please pick up your act.