In my late teens, I would go to the disco in the centre of town with my mates.
One night, the word went round: there were some American girls in. And there were. Three, as I recall, from near New York. They weren’t any prettier than the locals but that’s not how we saw them. They were wondrous, exotic creatures – far more sophisticated than anything we were used to, way ahead in style. For three days we pursued them, trying to persuade them to hang out with us. Alas, our obsession was not requited, and they returned home. This was in the north of England, in an isolated town, where any foreign interloper was rare. But that wasn’t the point. We would not have behaved the same if they’d been French, Italian or Spanish. The Americans were automatically elevated, we deferred to them as having greater knowledge and experience – not of politics or world affairs, but fashion, film, music, cars, shopping. We craved to be American. The truth, as Peter Conrad’s marvellous How the World Was Won explains, is that we virtually already were. He quotes Lars von Trier, the Danish movie director. Von Trier made films set in the US, in Washington State, Colorado and Alabama, but he resolutely refused to enter the US. In 2005, though, he admitted his protest was a waste of time. “Sixty per cent of the things I have experienced in my life are American,” which led this determined anti-American to conclude regretfully: “I am American.”
In another tale, in a work sparkling with arresting vignettes – a testament to forensic research – Conrad relates how, towards the end of his life, Steve Jobs took his family to Turkey on holiday. The Apple founder hired a guide in Istanbul who explained to him the rites of the Turkish bath and extolled the virtues of Turkish coffee. Jobs snapped. “So fucking what?” he said under his breath. He commented that kids in Turkey drank what every kid in the world drinks, wore clothes that could have been bought at the Gap, and used cell phones. “They were like kids everywhere,” Jobs concluded. What he meant, of course, was they were like his children, raised in California. This prompts Conrad to pose the question: “Is globalism actually the universalisation of the US?” Conrad tells how, after 1945, America did come to dominate, serving a dual role, where one complements the other: of protector and entertainer. In a world ravaged by war, the US was untouched. Its desire to help rebuild Europe was driven by the fact that America grew on the back of Europeans fleeing for a better life, and by a determination to keep communism at bay. Always, with Americans there is unshakeable self-belief. While we Brits indulge in reminiscence and self-deprecation, they display a crusading zeal, which is built on a very simple thesis: they love their country, they really do, and they want others to share it.
In Fred Zimmerman’s The Search, a bunch of feral refugee children arrive in Nuremberg. A relief worker instructs translators to tell them they will be “taken to some place where they’ll be very happy”. In case there is any doubt as to where this paradise might be, along comes Montgomery Clift who befriends one of the children and takes him back to his lodgings (something he would not do nowadays, presumably). “He may be a little wild now, but he’ll tame down,” says Clift. The implication is that once he is Americanised the boy will be civilised. The boy is too traumatised to speak, so Clift teaches him what he needs: “Everybody knows what OK means. Even in England they understand English – well sorta.”
When my elder children were small we employed a male au pair from Hungary, called Tony. He was dressed from head to foot in Levi-Strauss. It was all he wore – not just Levi jeans but shirts, shoes, socks, belt, even underwear (his pants which poked out of the top of his denims were in the pattern of the Stars and Stripes). On his first shopping trip he asked where the nearest Levi shop was. I gently said there were other labels and he might like to try them? “No, you don’t understand. We were banned from wearing Levi’s. For me to wear Levi’s feels like freedom.”
Conrad also describes to chilling effect how this was the land of the free, created by explorers and business pioneers, but it also slipped into the paranoia of McCarthysim and the CIA. The authorities did not miss a trick. After Norman Mailer launched a stinging critique of America and the moon landings, saying the astronauts were heading for a land that was just as empty and “spiritually anaemic” as the one they were leaving behind, they were coached to emphasise on the return leg how much they were looking forward to the “comforts of home”. But for all its success at selling itself, the US never managed to take charge – captivation with things American, was not the same as being conquered by America. Arguably, US agencies did try to go further – certainly there were occasions when they definitely attempted to impose their will, notably in Vietnam.
Their defence is that they truly saw themselves as on the side of right, that they alone were trying to shore up democratic, capitalist values. Nothing could make up for the collective shock and hurt then when it was revealed the lengths some would go to inflict pain upon America. Part of the trauma of 9/11 was the realisation for many Americans that they really were hated. They could not fathom it. In his 2006 novel Terrorist, John Updike relates how a Muslim fanatic is on his way to bomb Manhattan, when he has a dramatic change of heart as he passes a wholesome American family on the highway.
Even America’s friends were not entirely sympathetic. In France, Le Monde ran an editorial on 9/12, declaring, “We are all Americans!” Then in the same piece, switched to “We are all New Yorkers”. New York, with its international outlook, and high European immigrant quotient, was seen as the most un-American of American cities, and therefore foreigners could relate to it.
America is loved and loathed, universal but isolated, strong yet vulnerable. As Conrad says: “Before prematurely rejoicing, critics should ask themselves whether the Titan’s successor will be so keen to make us happy.”Reuse content