I reflect with amusement on my days as an Ugly American, though I’m not sure others found it funny at the time.
I left the country about three decades ago to roam the world, and wherever I trod lectures on exceptionalism soon followed. America had it figured out, I would explain; America is the stage. The rest of the world is either a museum (Europe) or a mess (most of the rest), and they’d all do well to learn whatever we might teach.
For a brief time, after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, America was the sole superpower to boot: it seemed democracy and capitalism had won, and these attached to America first and foremost.
Part of my theory of exceptionalism was based on morality, no less. Moldovans, Dominicans and Israelis would stare into their drink as I explained that while all countries acted in accordance with their interests, America alone required that such action also be the right thing to do.
In retrospect I cannot explain why I thought such things about a place that elects and politicizes judges and cops, allows gerrymandering and voter suppression to retain minority rule, leads the developed world in incarcerations and inequality, and links healthcare to employment in a system dependent on insurance companies whose model is evasion.
But the greatest ridiculousness is guns.
On the very day I arrived for a visit last week, two shooters, clearly targeting minorities, killed 22 people in El Paso and nine in Dayton. Since then this is almost all people talk about; gun reform is the only thing debated on TV.
These debates have always been dispiriting because there is a sense of futility about them: the Republicans will block any reform, not to mention real gun control. They oppose background checks and banning assault rifles. That’s right: They believe there is a reason for citizens to buy rapid-fire, magazine-fed automatic weapons intended for the military.
The Republicans insist on this despite a majority that wants reform because of a minority (represented by National Rifle Association) for whom gun rights are a determining voting issue. In America, where almost half the citizens do not vote and elections teeter on a razor’s edge, a minority so committed is influential.
So the critical question becomes whether the majority doesn’t make guns the main issue as well, punishing the Republicans. In trying to prevent this the gun lobby has leveraged Americans’ remarkable sanctification of the U.S. Constitution, including the poorly-worded and punctuation-challenged Second Amendment. Existing in several confusing versions, it does appear to promise not to “infringe” on the right to “keep and bear arms” – but also says this applies to a “well-regulated militia.” The debate on what the revered “Founders” actually meant will never be resolved. Meanwhile people are being mowed down in the streets, and kids are trained to “duck and cover” in the schools.
We may be at a turning point. All this is happening during a presidential primary season, and the Democrats, genuinely desperate to avoid the unthinkable prospect of a Donald Trump reelection, have seized on the gun issue with uncharacteristic clarity of mind.
Remember: this is the party that actually rolled over when the Republicans refused to even hold hearings for President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, and ran out the clock for almost a year until Obama left office, an outrage that had never been done or even conceived of before. Like a true sap, Obama then neglected to simply appoint Garland during the Senate recess – as he could legally have done in his last days in office.
So it may be meaningful that the Democratic aspirants are gracious no more. They are linking President Trump directly to the shootings, on account of his poisonous rhetoric against illegal immigrants. And Elizabeth Warren threatens executive action to bypass Congress on gun reform and aims to reduce gun deaths by 80% with dispatch. It may not all be realistic – but good for her.
Trump senses the impatience too, and is mumbling something now about mild background checks. He initially had stuck to the NRA line that the neverending shootings are not a guns issue but a mental health issue. That suggests that Americans are the craziest people in the world. Maybe there is a simpler explanation: America has about 120 guns per 100 people compared to less than 3 in Britain – about 40 times more (Israel, by the way, has about 7). America’s gun death rate of over 12 annually per 100,000 is about 50 times more than in Britain. The two societies reflect as about equally as crazy – and the difference is clearly the guns.
How did it all get so absurd?
I apportion much of the blame to Ross Perot. The cuckoo billionaire split the Republican vote in 1992, handing an election George Bush the Elder should never have lost to a yahoo (and Rhodes scholar) from Arkansas, a place whose very name appears misspelled. Bill Clinton was a fine president, but the Republicans could not come to grips with the injustice, essentially lost their minds, and to this day remain crazed with unbridled lust for power.
(As a bonus, they are the only serious force on earth denying global warming as a human-caused phenomenon, agitating against action to stop broiling the planet and pretending there is a genuine scientific debate, which there is not.)
There is another view, to be sure.
I have a friend in Cairo, where I spent much of the past decade, and he supports Trump. He is a serious professional from the American Midwest who floats about the sweltering Great Ashtray in a suit and tie at all times, neatly folded handkerchief peeking out of his breast pocket. You would consider him extraordinarily civil, until politics comes up. Then this dapper fellow sounds like Trump’s “American carnage” inauguration address on steroids — and he was doing it years before.
My friend’s view is that America had become a mediocre place where bridges collapse, highways fall apart and students can’t read because it lost sight of excellence, swapped meritocracy for social justice, and obsesses with things like trans-gender bathrooms. You can quibble with his view of what’s gone wrong, and I did: he thinks part of the problem is a welfare state that encourages sloth, whereas I think inequality is at emergency levels. We diagnose differently but see similar symptoms.
Visiting New York, I see them all around. I have been approached by more beggars in the streets and seen more homeless people sleeping on rags in one week that in the entire rest of 2019, which I have spent mostly in Tel Aviv and London (some of this, to be fair, seems to connect to progressive New York Mayor Bill de Blasio).
I was underwhelmed by London when I visited as a kid from suburban America, about 40 years ago. Rain splattered dusty buildings and sputtering little cars. Black-and-white TVs flickered sadly in store windows, prices scrawled on cardboard, attesting to inflation. I was glad to return to color TV and baseball games on AM radio.
I lived in a very different London a few years ago. Sure, there is poverty, but vast stretches of the place gleamed. Well-dressed dandies roared with post-Thatcher, pre-Brexit confidence. Bentleys and Jaguars glided like chariots through congestion charge-diluted streets. Vast stretches of the city offer glorious buildings, the vestiges of empire, untouched by graffiti. One senses colonial thievery has played a role, but this has been forgiven; so it goes when the civilizing mission is carried out by characters out of Somerset Maugham, in the style of a Peter O’Toole.
It is simply nicer than New York today. There is no escaping the conclusion.
While almost everyone I meet in New York bemoans the indignities of Trump, they ignore what I suspect is the main reason for it: America, though it invented Apple and Google and boasts Harvard and Stanford, appears to be regressing to many of its people (while some economic data looks good of late, almost half of Americans couldn’t scrape together $400). This is making people angry, and angry people do stupid things. It preceded Trump, and begat him.
My Ugly American phase was well-intentioned but stupid. I’m more of the Quiet American now, and may remain an expat for a while.