Christopher Bigsby - Trying to Understand America




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Nov 21, 2018
by Salzburg Global Seminar
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Christopher Bigsby - Trying to Understand America

Delivering the inaugural Ron Clifton Lecture in American Studies, Christopher Bigsby discusses trying to understand America's ever-evolving cultural landscape Christopher Bigsby delivers the inaugural Ron Clifton Lecture in American Studies at Salzburg Global Seminar

Christopher Bigsby is a professor of American studies and director of the Arthur Miller Institute for American Studies at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, UK. He has published more than 50 books, principally on American culture, literature and theater, a biography of Arthur Miller, eight novels, plus as a study of Holocaust literature. Bigsby is a member of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association Advisory Board and has attended many SSASA symposia as a faculty member or participant.

Below is a video and full transcript of the inaugural Ron Clifton lecture on American Studies, delivered by Bigbsy during the 16th SSASA symposium - Understanding America in the 21st Century – Culture and Politics.


The English philosopher John Locke once wrote, "in the beginning, the whole world was America," a tabula rasa. The poet John Donne compared it to his mistress’s body which he explored, calling her his "new found land," his America. It was a place awaiting its own invention, innocence eager for experience. What would it become? What has it become? In 2000, three Supreme Court Justices, in a minority report, offered the opinion that nude dancing was protected by the First Amendment. At the beginning of the American story, Increase Mather would have spun in his pulpit having fulminated against mixed dancing, which he called promiscuous dancing, of a kind in which many of you will have engaged. Since another word for mixed dancing was gynocandrical, you can see why the Puritans were against it. What to make of the contradictions of a country which would expand from sea to shining sea. Arthur Miller once told me, "the thing is that Americans are all crazy, but the good thing is that they are all crazy in different ways and at different times." So how to understand it?

As I am sure you all know, Aeschylus was killed when a falling tortoise hit his head. It’s fair to say it must have been something of a surprise let alone difficult to understand, but scarcely more so than the election of Donald Trump, a man who refers to himself in the third person, a habit he shares with Smeagol in The Lord of the Rings, Richard Nixon and Elmo the red monster in The Muppets. Who understood and predicted his victory? Not the New York Times, which on election morning gave Hillary Clinton a 91 percent chance of becoming president, the Huffington Post preferring 98 percent, the Princeton Election Consortium [stating] 99 percent. They should have listened to him. After all, as he had explained in the campaign, "I will be the greatest president that God ever created," "the most successful person ever to run for the presidency." Did he not tell us that he was "a very stable genius," and would, in the words of the note he dictated to his physician, be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency, with extraordinary physical strength and stamina? He could, he explained, "be the most presidential person ever." "My IQ," he remarked, "is one of the highest… I’m intelligent. Some people would say I am very, very, very intelligent." There as he explained, "probably in the history of this country, probably in the history of the world … never been anything like what happened in November of ’16." On that last note, perhaps he was right. What were we thinking?

Those of us in this room – academics, journalists, those involved in government – are expected to understand the world we inhabit, to have our fingers on the pulse of the body politic. If we were doctors, though, I wouldn’t give much hope for the patient. We, or many of us, are in American Studies. Did we so understand America that we saw this coming despite the fact that there are almost as many PhDs in this room as there were signers of the Declaration of Independence? Hillary Clinton’s book is called What Happened? ITN’s political editor in Britain, Robert Peston, called his [book] What the Fuck. In the words of a Bjork song, "This wasn’t supposed to happen." The financial crisis of 2008 was anticipated by no one, and the resultant austerity which metastasized around the world delegitimized government and arguably gave birth to the populism that would lead towards Brexit and Trump. Did we understand it was coming? Do we understand where it’s going? We are confronted with a classical aporia, stunned by the contradictions of a system which seemingly is no longer a system.

In truth, we would have been better off with Nancy Reagan’s astrologer, Joan Quigley, who determined when the alignment of the stars would favor a meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev, or Paul the Octopus who predicted each of the seven 2010 World Cup matches that the German team played, including the third-place play-off with Uruguay. Happily, for us, octopuses only have a life expectancy of three to five years, so we still have the edge over cephalopods. Incidentally, they enrolled another octopus for this year’s World Cup. It accurately predicted the winners of all Japan’s group stage games, but we now live in a different world. Its owner killed it and sold it for seafood.

Philip Roth, some seven years ago, before the current president was in office, remarked, "I know nothing about America today. I see it on television, but I don’t live there any longer." And he was a writer who once seemed to understand the American psyche, its ego, and its id. Today, many Americans feel strangers in a strange land, and the rest of us look on in bewilderment. We share less than we think, understand less than we imagine. And how do you understand a country which only has one math, is the only country in the world which in writing the date places the month before the day and which measures ingredients in cups rather than pounds or kilograms? One recipe called for three cups of cucumber. How do you understand a country in which towns in the Midwest have two signs outside them? One gives the population, the other the height above sea level. Is there a connection between the two things? The sea hasn’t been in Kansas for millennia or, if you are a creationist, since Thursday. What should I have made of the American student I met who told me she was majoring in mortuary science and who when I asked why she had chosen that major said that she wanted to meet people? Why do Americans give standing ovations in theaters and in the State of the Union address where they bob up and down like grade schoolers on a trampoline?

And what is it with the flag? In my country, almost no one can tell if our flag is flying upside down and, in truth, could care less. In America it has its own website and since 1942 has had its own official code following a joint resolution of Congress. There are 38 rules governing when and where it can be flown and how it can be used.

"Understanding America" is the title of a Frank Zappa album – one song being It Can’t Happen Here. Sinclair Lewis’s novel of that same name was about a man elected President who promised to return America to greatness, who ran on a policy of speaking for the common man, attacking the elite and punishing Mexico, so obviously not relevant to our concerns.

And how do you understand a country of 326 million people, with four million more every year? An American is born every 14 seconds. By the end of this hour there will be 257 more Americans, 63 of them African-American or Hispanic, and we don’t get to choose who they will be. In 2017, 45 million were born outside the country, the highest for 108 years, not including an estimated 11 million illegals. How do we understand a country in which at least 350 different languages are spoken in American homes, in which there are 310 religions and denominations and 567 Indian tribes? There are 272 neighborhoods in Los Angeles, each distinct. New York City recognizes 31 different gender identities. Today, the hottest ticket in town is to Hamilton, a musical about an immigrant revolutionary, written by a man who is mostly Puerto Rican, performed by a multi-ethnic, multi-racial cast, in a musical form developed by African-Americans, which had its first try out in front of a president whose father was African. And we think we understand America?

Crevecoeur asked, "What is this new man: the American?" It is a question which never ceases to be asked. There are more books on American identity than that of any other nation not least because the clock of history is constantly reset. Innocence is regained. A gypsy woman in a Tennessee Williams play has her virginity restored with every full moon. A slogan of Ronald Reagan’s election campaign was "it’s always morning in America." In his inaugural address, President Clinton declared that it is up to every generation of Americans to say what America is. America is always starting again, with every full moon, every morning or every generation. Just when we think we understand it, it changes.

And what would Lynndie England, an evangelical who grew up in a trailer park in West Virginia and worked in a chicken processing plant, have to say to Daniel Akaka, she joining the army and torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, he a school teacher from Hawaii, of Chinese and Hawaiian descent, who went on to be a Democratic Senator and vote against the Iraq war? It was Henry David Thoreau who, on the establishment of a telegraph line between Texas and Maine, observed that they might not have anything important to communicate to each other. Red states, blue states, gay, straight, poor, rich, those with access to some of the world’s finest health care and those with access to none, those on Martha’s Vineyard and those picking grapes in the vineyards of the Napa Valley, what is it they share? Those living in Manhattan may have more in common with those in London or Berlin than with those in Manhattan and Kansas, and I have lived in Manhattan and Kansas. Those on welfare in America hear only 28 percent of the words heard by those who are not. In other words, they occupy an alternative linguistic country, deaf to 72 percent of what fills the air in their own country. Much the same, though, is surely true of those in a deeply polarized America, who tune out what they prefer not to hear, fail to understand what their compatriots believe or declare, who listen to, watch, those news outlets and social media channels which confirm their own convictions like some feedback loop, an Escher drawing, in the same way that Amazon offers you what it thinks you already buy. Beyond that, as ever in an immigrant society, there is the tension between the centrifugal impulse of identity politics and the centripetal pull of a national consciousness.

We all stand somewhere, see the world through different eyes yet believe we see the same thing, undistorted. In Moby Dick, a gold doubloon with a curious design is nailed to the mast. As the whale men come forward to look at it, a black cabin boy declines the verb to see: "I see, you see, he sees." The white whale itself is what others project upon it and no facts or statistics, such as Melville assembles at the beginning of the book, lead to an understanding of its true being, an image of an America which perhaps we try in vain to harpoon, to pin down, as if the assembling of facts implies understanding just as an autopsy may reveal the cause of death but not the truth of a life.

In The White Album, Joan Didion remarks that "We live entirely … by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience."

For Roland Barthes, a city is like a text. So, surely, is a country. The question is how legible is it. And is it truly a single text? Or are we, indeed, imposing a single narrative line on disparate images? The English novelist B.S. Johnson published a book, unbound, in 27 sections which could be read in any order. For him, "Writers can extract a story from life only by strict, close selection, and this must mean falsification. Telling stories is telling lies." Is this any less true of trying to tell the story of a country, particularly, perhaps, of America, a book with multiple plots, teeming with characters and which, perhaps like any country, tells lies about itself to itself? The American dream has three components, each one problematic, beginning with the definite article.

Incidentally, what is that dream? Is it Benjamin Franklin’s early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise, Horatio Alger Jr’s stories of luck and pluck, Frank Sinatra singing "The House I Live In," Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Norman Rockwell’s picture, on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, of a family gathered around a Christmas tree or in a convertible, hair streaming in the wind, smiling, always smiling? Is it a teenage young boy on a bicycle throwing newspapers on neat front lawns and dreaming of going to the state university and maybe marrying a cheerleader and coming back to a town where cars are parked aslant along Main Street in front of stores which bear the name of those who founded them and whose families still own them, going to the white steepled church on a Sunday because they know that God walks with them, people whose eyes can focus 20 miles away across the cornfields knowing that somewhere there are cities where people sell their souls and speak of them, with an edge of contempt, as living in fly-over states irrelevant to a country where the real dream is of moving up and becoming fluent in the language of money, money which can be transmuted into power and then back into money? Is it the story of the Lehman brothers, immigrants who made their money at first in the South buying cotton produced by slaves, and then moved north where they, or the company theirs became, reached the zenith of success until, like Icarus, they flew too close to the sun, in the process destroying the dreams of so many, and not only in their own country?  

The Germans have an expression – luftschloss, a castle in the sky, a fantasy, a pipe dream, a phrase which echoes through Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, a play as close to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as America has produced being inimical to a national Panglossian view of the future. There is a reason two of the characters are called Jimmy Tomorrow and Harry Hope, hope being the last item in Pandora’s box, while Arthur Miller’s salesman Willy Loman, a true believer in the dream, goes to his death baffled as to why he has never made it but, then, as his neighbor, Charley, says, ‘’A salesman has got to dream … It comes with the territory." Perhaps that is equally true of the country. And of course, Charley’s son does make it precisely by hard work. But whose dream is it?

American school children stand in class, hands on their hearts, and pledge allegiance to one nation, under God, indivisible -- a phrase, incidentally, derived from post-revolutionary France (la Républic française une et indivisible) – even as Samuel Huntington, in a book significantly entitled Who Are We?,  famously insisted that there could be no Americano dream even though there were 55 million Hispanics in 2016 and that by 2060, it has been estimated, Spanish-speaking people will represent 28 percent of Americans, a projection which he sees as carrying the threat of  a reconquest of America. In fact, the Brookings Institute projects that America will become minority white in 2045. If 27 years seems a long way off, 27 years in the past only takes us to 1991, the time of George Bush and the Gulf War, when Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was accused of sexual molestation, and his nomination was in the balance. How things change. Is America, then, different in different languages?

Incidentally, the pledge of allegiance was the product of a man, Francis Bellamy, a socialist minister, who devised it in 1891 when he was alarmed by the fact that Jews, east Europeans and dark-skinned people from the Mediterranean area were, as he delicately put it, "pouring into our country," "dull-witted and fanatical immigrants" making America a "dumping ground." In other words, the America celebrated in the pledge of allegiance which he devised was essentially white and Christian, though the words "under God" would not be added until the 1950s, a time when the American motto changed from e Pluribus Unum, with its sense of inclusion, to "In God We Trust," a phrase which occurs in the American national anthem, with its celebration of the land of the free, whose lyrics were written by Francis Scott Key, a one-time slave owner who referred to black Americans as "an inferior race of people," and wanted to send them back to Africa. In Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, an African-American nurse insists of the anthem that nothing sounds less like freedom to him in a country represented by his patient who he describes as terminal, crazy and mean. That patient is Roy Cohn, the henchman of Joseph McCarthy and mentor to Donald Trump’s father. "Where’s my Roy Cohn?" asked President Trump when Jeff Sessions recused himself. In hell, I trust, is the answer.

In the context of this seminar, it is entirely possible that we will have difficulty in understanding America because I suspect, though I may be wrong, that nobody here would have sought to abolish Obamacare, end the Iran deal, withdraw from the Paris Agreement and the UN’s human rights council, regard Mexicans as rapists and murderers, justified the seizing of children from their immigrant mothers, attacked the International Criminal Court, currently concerned with possible crimes by American military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan but also conducting a preliminary enquiry into Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine, withdrawal thus benefitting both America and Russia. Yet 63 million Americans voted for Trump. If we are trying to understand America can we afford to condescend to 46 percent of the American electorate? We in the UK have the same problem with the 52 percent who voted for the ritual suicide which is Brexit. In both cases, we are tempted to point out that the less well educated voted for Trump and Brexit. The problem is that that is the nature of democracy and democracy can, from time to time, summon demons. I give you Russia, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Turkey. You will all have your own list which, for some, may include Austria. All these countries, America especially, are currently about the business not of inventing the future but re-inventing the past, making a better yesterday, that moment when they were once great, when everyone acknowledged their national supremacy and importance, and when individuals, now feeling marginalized by global capitalism and their own experience of economic and social exclusion, reach back to a time when they wish to believe things were other. But when was that time? When was America great? Surely not this century with 9/11 and financial collapse. Was it the good old times when racism was legal and homosexuality illegal? Was it the 1920s with prohibition and Al Capone, the 30s with the Depression, the 40s with WW2, the 50s with HUAC, the 60s with riots, assassinations, Vietnam, the me-decade of the 1970s, the decade of greed in the 1980s? Or was it further back with the robber barons, the Civil War or the heady days when the country came into existence, and a group of slave owners got together to write a constitution which spoke of freedom and equality?

How do we understand America? How does America understand itself? Is it through its institutions, its politics, its business people, its media, through the religions it embraces? Are these sources we trust? If so, there is currently a crisis of understanding. Every year the Edelman Trust Barometer is published. It looks at all those areas. Its conclusion this year is that “the United States is enduring an unprecedented crisis of trust." "Trust among the informed public in the U.S." its report declares, "imploded … making it now the lowest of the 28 countries surveyed, below Russia and South Africa." Overall, trust in institutions in the US has fallen 37 percent in the past year. In China, it has risen by 27 percent.

In common with 22 of those countries, the least trusted are the media (the US falls in the middle at 42 percent). 63 percent of people say they cannot distinguish good journalism from rumor or falsehoods. One in four Americans gets their news from social media. As you know, in the last presidential campaign a story on Facebook claiming that the Pope supported Donald Trump was viewed one million times. How many believed it? It is impossible to say. Not that credulity is novel. In his new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari observes that "When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion," and that, of course, is another mystery about America in which religions are invented on a regular basis, often being monetized. Even Joseph Smith tried to sell the copyright of The Book of Mormon. As to Scientology, currently worth some $1.75 billion, if that doesn’t defy understanding, nothing will. It’s an impossible mission.

Distrust almost certainly fuels populism, at least that is the conclusion drawn by Edelman. Its other conclusion is that distrust is now the default position. In 1964, 77 percent of Americans said that "most people can be trusted.” In 2016, only 31 percent of Americans believed that most people could be trusted. America’s national motto, as I recalled, is “In God We Trust.” Today, fewer than a third of Americans even trust one another, let alone God, decline in belief having itself declined, according to Pew, dropping to 18 percent for 18-29-year-olds. If you don’t trust other people that may impact on agreeing to common policies, or even on what the definition of an American might be. Cheating in school and university has increased. In 2015, between 75 percent and 98 percent of college students admitted that they had cheated in high school.

Meanwhile, university students can buy papers online, even specifying the GPA level. American banks used to include the word trust and fidelity in their corporate names. Lacking a sense of irony, some still do. Nor are they alone in that. Consider the Nobel Peace Prize for Henry Kissinger or, indeed, Barack Obama who would send drones to kill more than one American, leaving a legacy, and not only in that respect, for his successor as Charlie Savage points out in his disturbing book.

Meanwhile, distrust is spawned at the very top as America seems to be suffering from truth decay as Sean Spicer confirms three million non-existent fraudulent votes in the presidential election and Kellyanne Conway refers to alternative facts, by which falsehoods become truths and vice versa even as the Washington Post and the New York Times try to keep a tally of the President’s lies. Last month, apparently, it passed the 3,000 mark.

Beyond all this, quantum mechanics proposes that the thing we observe changes because we observe it. May that not also be true of we observers of America, journalists, and academics. We have our own biases. Perhaps we Europeans prefer a particular version of America in order to define ourselves against it. We look for its faults and declare ourselves innocent of them never, in truth, an innocent approach to understanding. When Alexis de Tocqueville planned his trip, it was America’s penal system he wanted to investigate. Bernard-Henri Lévy followed in his footsteps in the 21st century, exploring Riker’s Island once where New York’s garbage was dumped and now a place charged with despair and violence.

There are obviously certain things which leave the mind stunned, which surely defy understanding. When it comes to America the thing above all that non-Americans, and, it has to be said, many Americans, find impossible to understand is its acquiescence in gun violence as though it were an expression of a natural law. Hannah Arendt described violence as mute and with each regular school shooting language comes up short, beyond the rote declaration, by presidents, of thoughts and prayers neither of which have, or ever will, inhabit the moral vacuum which is a consequence of a Second Amendment whose conditional nature is seldom acknowledged. It reads, as you know, "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." In the 18th century, with no standing army, you needed a militia to fight the British. There were 13 state militias. The good news today is that the British are not coming while America has armed forces, including reserves, of over two million. Ah, but you need guns, members of the NRA declare, to fight your own government, that having gone so well in 1861 to 1865, or to resist the armies of the United Nations apparently ever ready to send troops to Nebraska. Incidentally, in 2008 the Supreme Court, on a five to four decision, removed the suggestion that the right to bear arms depended on the need for a militia, well-regulated or not. In December 2015, the US Senate voted down, by 54 to 45, an amendment which would have blocked terrorists from purchasing guns and ammunition. Six months later, in June 2016, a man on the FBI watch list for possible terrorist links, declared his allegiance to the leader of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, shortly before killing 49 people in a nightclub in Orlando. They are serious about the right to bear arms in America, and seemingly willing to pay the price, any price. So, the right to bear arms would seem to be part of the American dream.

The American dream? Whose dream? How many dead children will it take before something is done, knowing that those who might act are mute, wondering how much hard cash from pro-gun groups it will take to be re-elected so as, once again, not to act when children lie dead among a clutter of desks, computer screens with cursers winking, waiting for someone to begin a sentence which will never be started. Perhaps if all the children killed in school shootings would oblige by gathering together in one place and dying there, it would have a greater impact, though I doubt it.

A terrorist drives a truck into people in New York, eight people die. Three people are killed in the Boston Marathon bombing. These are rightly seen as attacks on the republic requiring several agencies to be answerable. A teenager shoots a handful of his friends, and the local paper is the only one still writing about it a month later because by then other local newspapers are sending reporters to other morgues. We’ve all heard of Columbine and Sandy Hook. Who remembers Red Lake Senior High in Minnesota, 10 dead, Chardon High School in Chardon Ohio, three dead, Maryville Pilchuck High School in Washington, five dead, or Aztec High School in New Mexico, three dead.  Perhaps we do remember Santa Fe High School - 10 dead - because that was only May of this year. And I’m not counting the multiple deaths on American campuses. Hannah Arendt was right. Violence is mute. In 2017, there were mass shootings on nine out of every 10 days, though definitions of mass shootings vary. The most recent were in Bakersfield, California, on the 12th of this month, six dead, and six days ago in Silver Spring, Maryland, three dead.

Switzerland has the third highest ratio of civilian firearms per 100 citizens, beaten only by the US and Yemen. Its last mass shooting was 17 years ago. Yet the curious fact is that only just under a third of Americans own guns while three percent own half of them. Stephen Paddock, who killed 58 people shooting from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas, owned 47. So is this a case of the tyranny of the minority or is freedom indivisible? Gun sales, though, are down. Earlier this year, Remington filed for bankruptcy while Smith and Wesson, whose CEO is British, a man who made his reputation selling bin liners, rebranded itself to de-emphasize its reliance on guns. It is now the American Outdoor Brands Corporation. Weapons used by both manufacturers were used in school shootings. Why are sales down, though? Because Donald Trump was elected. Sales were up when Obama was elected because the NRA said he would confiscate guns, as Trump said that Hillary Clinton would. With Trump, they have a friend in the White House. Incidentally, white Americans are one-third more likely to own guns than black Americans while Republicans are two-and-a-half times more likely to carry guns than Democrats. Currently, according to Gallop, 67 percent of Americans favor stricter gun controls, 92 percent favoring compulsory background checks for all gun sales. And what happens? By the end of the first week of this month, according to the Gun Violence Archive, there had been 247 mass shooting incidents in the United States this year. I confess I don’t understand it.

One problem in understanding America, if you come from my country, where you can never be more than 70 miles from the sea, is spatial. In fact, the UK as a whole would fit into the US 38 times, no doubt to the considerable benefit of the United States. Texas is roughly the same size as France and Switzerland combined, and there is, after all, a Paris, Texas. All 28 members of the EU, soon, alas, to be 27, occupy land less than half the size of the United States.

The poet Charles Olson, writing the word space in capital letters, said, “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here.” And it does. The distance from Washington to San Francisco is the same as that between Salzburg and Omsk. Key West to Maine is the same as Salzburg to Baghdad. New York to Honolulu is the same as Salzburg to Santo Domingo or, indeed, Chicago. And since space and time are related Americans don’t even occupy the same time as one another, unlike the Chinese who bizarrely do.   

That fact surely changes perception. It is, perhaps, one of the reasons a distant federal government is distrusted. The British distrust Brussels and it is only 220 miles from London. In America it explains the relative significance of city and state governments, the fact that people take the local newspaper rather than a national one, watch local television news with its presenters flashing their whitened implanted teeth while engaging in banter as artificial as their smiles. Today, (electronic versions aside), effectively only the New York Times is national, that and USA Today which is less a newspaper than a series of bar charts and weather forecasts, though many read stories of national significance on screens only inches across. Did I say stories? I think I mean headlines. Meanwhile, the New York Times, and surely to its great regret, can seem the principal opposition party in America, along with Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and John Oliver, presenters of late night television shows, those and the legal drama The Good Fight.

Another problem in trying to understand America is that its rhetoric and reality are prone to be at odds. In the World Press Freedom index the United States comes 45th out of 180 countries, one below Romania. In the Index of Economic Freedom, it comes 18th out of 170 countries, one better than Lithuania. According to the OECD, it comes 33rd in infant mortality, one better than Russia. It is 39th in life expectancy and 19th for GDP per capita. It ranks 14th in the most recent world happiness report, below Mexico and Austria. Austria? Fewer than a third of Americans describe themselves as very happy, but then they are not dedicated to being happy but pursuing happiness. Meanwhile, suicides in America rose by more than 30 percent in half the states between 1999 and 2016 and in some by up to 58 percent.

On the other hand, since the happiest country is apparently Switzerland, followed by Iceland, where it is dark and freezing for much of the time, I am not sure I believe any of this, but the US comes third in the World Health Organisation’s list of countries when it comes to depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug use, one place above Russia. In terms of social progress, surely the conviction at the heart of the American dream, it comes 18th out of 128 countries.

It would take 150 years, or five generations, for a child from a poor family in America to earn the national average. Could it be, then, that the American dream is the tooth fairy for adults? The chances of moving from the bottom to the top are greater in the UK than in America, and with justification, nobody speaks of a British dream. Chances of social mobility in Canada are almost twice as high as in the United States, and social mobility varies with race.

When it comes to income inequality, the US is worse than all but six of 38 countries. Oh, and when it comes to freedom, the US boasts more than half of the global prison population, though perhaps boasts is the wrong word. Together, China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United States carry out all known executions. And what race are they? It was Richard Pryor who said that "If you go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find – just us."  More than a third of those executed since 1976 were black.

Meanwhile, according to President Trump, "We’ve got the cleanest country in the planet right now. There’s nobody cleaner than us.” In fact, as The New York Times pointed out, the United States ranked 27th out of 180 countries in an environmental performance review. For all a tendency to hyperbole, though, only 29 percent of Americans believe that their country stands above all others, 56 percent acknowledging that it is one of the greatest, and they are not wrong. Every year the US and World Report publishes a list of the world’s best countries, using nine criteria. The United States comes eighth out of 80, which is not bad. The good news is that it comes one above France. The bad news is that it comes seven places below Canada. The UK is fourth.

And what of its attitude to history, which I also sometimes find difficult to understand? In Berlin, thanks to the work of the artist Guenther Demnig, victims of the Holocaust are commemorated by small brass bricks inscribed with their names. They are called Stolperstein, stumbling stones. History itself is a stumbling stone on a continent in which the past is inscribed in its very geography -- social and political. In Europe, history is not something you can wish away. The borders are marked in blood. They are where the fighting last stopped and where the fighting could begin again, and has in the former Yugoslavia, Georgia, and Ukraine, though wars today are less between national states than within them. Since 1989 only five percent of wars have been between states. But history weighs heavily, particularly in Europe where colonial powers now find those they once colonized crossing oceans and penetrating those borders, seeking the repayment of a historical debt.

When President Obama declared that "we need to look forward as opposed to looking backward" there was a particular context, but it was also a statement which reflected a more general American approach. As a character in Clifford Odets’s play Paradise Lost remarks, "We cancel our experience. This is an American habit." Nobody ever went to America to be what they were. They went to transcend the past, erase it, re-inventing themselves, self-made not only in constructing careers but constructing a self, an existential gesture in an existential country. They closed the door on the past as the golden door supposedly opened to them. Slowly, the past was shuffled off. Arguably, that is the price of assuming a new identity.

It was Gramsci who remarked that "History teaches, but has no pupils." That would seem to have a special relevance to what Gore Vidal called the United States of Amnesia. Of course, there is no shortage of historians, but I am talking about the mythos of a country. You might say that for the South the past has a present reality, as it does for the Irish, but in both cases, it is myth rather than history that is preferred, history as theme park concealing inconvenient truths. The figures on Mount Rushmore celebrating heroes of democracy were carved by a man, a child of Mormon polygamy, who was a former member of the Ku Klux Klan who had wished to celebrate the heroes of the Confederacy but when that proved impossible celebrated more acceptable heroes and did so on land stolen from the Indians on a mountain named for a white gold prospector. If it didn’t prefer myth to history, how could America celebrate as martyrs to freedom the slave traders and slaveholders seeking to extend America’s slave states, who died at the Alamo, Mexico having abolished slavery seven years earlier? America regards itself as anti-colonial despite its very settlement being imperial, its acquisition of Spanish possessions in the Spanish American war, it having annexed Hawaii, while today having 14 dependencies, 750 military installations in 130 countries.

Winston Churchill said that "Before looking forward, it is first necessary to look a long way back." Christopher Andrew, the historian of intelligence operations throughout the centuries, has said that "the things we understand least well about… other countries, we misunderstand because we’ve forgotten the roots of the present." When on September 12th, 2001 George W. Bush said that the war on terror would be a crusade he was seemingly oblivious to the incendiary history of the word, or perhaps Europeans and those in the Arab world deliberately put their own construction on the word.

Arthur Miller insisted that the past is "the seedbed of current reality and the way to possibly reaffirm cause and effect in an insane world," but the National Museum of African Americans wasn’t established until 2003, 140 years after the Emancipation Declaration and 54 years after the National Baseball Museum was inaugurated - baseball, incidentally, not being an American invention as you will know from reading Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. The National Museum of the American Indian had to wait until 2004, 128 years after the Battle of Little Bighorn and 106 years after the last Indian uprising at the Battle of Sugar Point. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which commemorates lynching, opened in Montgomery, Alabama, this year, though admittedly, and unbelievably, only 23 years after the last lynching, by the Ku Klux Klan, in Mobile, Alabama, of Michael Donald. The National Museum of Latinos is no more than a proposal. These are, perhaps, signs of a change but America is a country inclined to wipe the past clean, to see itself as a virgin land caught in the paradox of declaring itself a utopia while insisting on the centrality of progress, an interesting case of cognitive dissonance. The green light across the bay in The Great Gatsby is at once the green of an untouched land and a shimmering image of a future yet to be claimed.

What connects the Knickerbocker Trust building in New York, the Hippodrome, the Old Metropolitan Opera house, the Hotel Astor, the Ziegfeld Theater, the Lewsohn Stadium, the Singer Building, the Ritz-Carlton, the New York World Building, and so on and so on. They are all iconic buildings in New York which have been torn down. The list runs to 63 pages. Arthur Miller wrote a play which featured this idea of a cityscape constantly erased, and with it the memories, personal and social, that went with it, one narrative being overwritten by a series of others, what in painting is called pentimento, as it happens the title of a work by Lillian Hellman in which, almost certainly, she lied about the past creating a myth of her own life.

America is never stationary, never fixed, always Protean. That is the challenge to an understanding of it. It is always being terraformed as its inhabitants are shapeshifters, which is why American literature is full of those who change their names, from Cooper’s hero to Gatsby. And where immigrants did not change them themselves, immigration officials stood by to change them for them. And who, after all, is Gatsby but what he wishes to present himself as being in the land of the second chance. A president who resigned in ignominy could be born aloft at his funeral with a day of national mourning, presumably for its values. 50,000 people took 18hours to pass by Nixon’s coffin, just to make sure he was dead, I presume. President Clinton praised him for giving something back to the world, perhaps because he had stolen it in the first place.

A quarter of the US population are first or second generation immigrants. As the British novelist David Mitchell observed: "We live in fractured times, in times of competing narratives.” That is surely true of America. Perhaps the slogan of this seminar in which we try to understand America should be summed up by two lines of Whitman’s great poem, speaking of himself and surely his country: "I know I have the best of time and space, and was never measured and never will be measured." His obituary for himself could apply equally to the nation he celebrates, its meaning always provisional: "You will hardly know who I am or what I mean… Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you."

Cecelia Brady, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, says "you can dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for what we don’t understand. It can be understood … but only dimly and in flashes." She is talking about Hollywood but could be talking about America itself. We see it through a glass darkly depending on where we stand. It draws people today, as it ever has, not because it is fully knowable or even fully understandable but because it is possibility, a place constantly reinventing itself. If it is a novel the next page has yet to be written, and the one after that. They are attracted because it is the white whale onto which meaning can be projected by whoever chooses to see it as a last great hope. They see what they wish to see. I see, you see, he sees.

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This lecture was delivered during Understanding America in the 21st Century – Culture and Politics, part of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA) multi-year series. You can capture highlights on Twitter by following the hashtag #SSASA.