Howbsbawm on the USA

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Jul 1 07:14:17 MDT 2003

Chronicle of Higher Education, July 4, 2003

Only in America

Looking back on 40 years of visiting and living in the United States, I
think I learned as much about the country in the first summer I spent
there as in the course of the next decades. With one exception: To know
New York, or even Manhattan, one has to live there. For how long? I did
so for four months every year between 1984 and 1997, but even though my
wife, Marlene, joined me for the whole semester only three times, it was
quite enough for both of us to feel like natives rather than visitors. I
have spent a lot of time in the U.S.A. teaching, reading in its
marvelous libraries, writing, or having a good time, or all together in
the Getty Center in its days in Santa Monica, but what I learned from
personal acquaintance with America was acquired in the course of a few
weeks and months. Were I a de Tocqueville, that would have been quite
enough. After all, his Democracy in America, the best book ever written
about the U.S.A., was based on a journey of not more than nine months.
Alas, I am not de Tocqueville, nor is my interest in the U.S.A. the same
as his.

If written today, de Tocqueville's book would certainly be attacked as
anti-American, since much of what he said about the U.S.A. was critical.
Ever since it was founded, the U.S.A. has been a subject of attraction
and fascination for the rest of the world, but also of detraction and
disapproval. However, it is only since the start of the cold war that
people's attitude to the U.S.A. has been judged essentially in terms of
approval or disapproval, and not only by the sort of inhabitants who are
also likely to seek out "un-American" behavior in their own fellow
citizens, but also internationally. It substituted the question "Are you
with the U.S.A.?" for the question "What do you think of the U.S.A.?"
What is more, no other country expects or asks such a question about
itself. Since America, having won the cold war against the U.S.S.R.,
implausibly decided on September 11, 2001, that the cause of freedom was
again engaged in another life-and-death struggle against another evil,
but this time spectacularly ill-defined enemy, any skeptical remarks
about the United States and its policy are, once again, likely to meet
with outrage.



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