I’ve never before visited the USA. Like everybody else in the world, I’ve had it come to me. Its approach has been unstoppable, for good and for ill. For good first: the incredible achievement of American prose, which leaves British writing of the last century far behind. I am astounded by Faulkner, Bellow, Updike and Roth (when they’re good), Cheever, Scott Fitzgerald, and now Joshua Ferris. Formulaic Hollywood switches me off, but I can’t get enough Spike Lee or Martin Scorcese. I love Bob Dylan, Public Enemy and Miles Davis, just for starters. Jazz and particularly hip hop are American art forms which have travelled very well indeed. These two came originally from the black poor, and it’s the heterogeneity of America, and the possibility of marginalised genres and people being heard, which is so appealing. America is a continent-sized country of mixed-up Africans, Jews, Italians, Irish, Latinos, French, Wasps, and everyone else. It should be the most globally-minded and tolerant country in the world.
It isn’t of course. A narrow hyper-nationalism, the shaping of public discourse by corporations and lobbies, and a stupifying media and public education system have seen to that. Which brings us to the ill: America’s homogenising rage, which has ravaged first its own main streets (so Naomi Klein says in No Logo) and then the high streets of the world; its humourless TV gum; its advertising culture of false smiles and sugary platitudes; its racism, wars, military bases, aircraft carriers, support for dictators and apartheid regimes. These are the reasons why the US is known in some parts as the Great Satan, standing behind most of the little satans sitting on Asian and African thrones. In Muscat, Damascus, Shiraz and London I’ve met many people who have been made refugees by the USA.
America is the empire, admittedly in decline. In one sense, therefore, I haven’t needed to visit to know it. But last week I visited nevertheless, for a conference at Notre Dame University which I enjoyed very much.