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Friday 2 May 2003
Matthew Hoffman: Americans have feelings too
Matthew Hoffman is a New York liberal who has been living in London for 30 years. He is not the flag-waving type, nor a natural Bush supporter. But, in recent months, he's found himself at odds with British friends who can't understand why he now weeps at the sight of Old Glory
I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy
I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy
A Yankee Doodle do or die.
A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam
Born on the Fourth of July.
It all began on 11 September 2001. For 30 years I had been living an uncomplicated life in Britain as an immigrant American, not particularly nationalistic about either my home country or my adopted one. When people would ask me about my feelings towards living a life abroad, I would say that there wasn't much difference between central London and central Manhattan. They were both filled with the same kinds of people doing similar things; for that matter I often encountered the very same people in both cities. The areas I have been involved in – media, arts, universities – are, for the most part, cosmopolitan and international. Life in Leicester or Kansas City, I imagine, would be far more difficult to adjust to than the move from New York to London.
I was at work at The Independent when the first plane struck the World Trade Centre. We switched on all the televisions in the newsroom and I saw the second plane hit, as it happened. From that moment, I began to live in a separate world from my colleagues. They too were absorbed by the spectacle, but I was in shock. When one of them said to me: "I'm not used to thinking of Americans as victims", I felt a kind of violation. It translated to me as, "I'm not used to thinking of Americans as people." I began to get mad, and I stayed mad for weeks. I was angry at al-Qa'ida, I was angry at the Taliban, I was particularly angry at friends and colleagues who sought to justify or explain or diminish the attacks.
A few days later, as I cycled to work, I had a palpable vision of the terror, fear and pain in one of those lofty offices as the plane hit the building: the noise, the flames, the fear, the jumpers... At home, I watched, on American cable channels as the city and country begin to pull itself together. I wept at the stories of grief, and swelled with childlike pride at the choral singing of "America, the Beautiful" ("And crown thy good with brotherhood/ From sea to shining sea!"), which concluded the memorial services at the Pentagon and Yankee Stadium. I found I had not grown immune to the pieties and simplicities of instinctive patriotism.
At work I realised I was living in a world apart. When my colleagues speculated that September 11 would not really change America or the world, that it was just another terrorist outrage, different only in magnitude, I knew they were wrong: not by reason but by intuition. I grew up on innumerable war movies about Pearl Harbor: the psychic shock from the Japanese attack on the US Navy in Hawaii had driven the country through a four-year war and beyond: 11 September 2001 was our generation's 7 December 1941. "Our" now meant to me, we Americans, not we international cosmopolitans; I had become patriotic.
Tony Blair has been the mystery card: the only person in Britain, it sometimes appears, who shares America's changed perceptions. One rainy day in October 2001, I took the train from Victoria station to Brighton to spend the day at the Labour Party Conference. The morning session was under way when I arrived, a debate about the possibility of America going to war in Afghanistan if the Taliban did not expel Osama bin Laden and his organisation. I listened as Clare Short was applauded for opposing the idea of Britain joining America in any military action. There followed a lunchtime fringe meeting on the same subject, at which the Clinton-era State Department official James Rubin, frustrated after interventions from the floor about why it would be wrong for the US to fight the Taliban, just said flatly: "There's no point in arguing. The decision is already made. The war will happen."
The fringe meeting ended early so we that could take seats in the conference hall for the leader's speech. By this time I knew that the Labour party delegates were sullen, at best, about dealing with the consequences of September 11. Their conference had been hijacked by an urgent foreign-policy issue, while they had come to Brighton to talk about party politics and domestic policy. Tony Blair was facing a hostile audience when he rose to argue that Britain should join the Americans to rid the world of terrorism.
His rhetorical question – if the people who hijacked those planes "could have murdered not 7,000 but 70,000, does anyone doubt they would have done so and rejoiced in it?" – was met, like the rest of his speech, by a disconcerting silence; but I sat up with sudden interest. Of course, I thought, he gets it. The solitary applause he drew from the delegates came when he lamented the fact that in Britain no black person could rise to as high a position as those that have been occupied by Colin Powell (chief of the armed forces and now Secretary of State). Why, I wondered, do they only applaud when he puts his own country down? If I had ever been tempted to confuse the Democratic Party in America with the Labour Party in Britain, it ended then. Another degree of separation had occurred.
Back in the office, the disagreements – and the estrangement – continued. The Afghan war came and went; but while it lasted I began to notice that those who had opposed it from the first now believed it was going wrong at every point – winter would come soon and the food aid would not get through; if the allies fought during Ramadan, Muslims throughout the world would rally to support the Taliban and attack Western interests; the Afghan tribesmen had seen off the British in the 19th century and the Russians in the 20th, now America would find itself bogged down in a guerrilla war. The doubters seemed to me to glory in these gloomy prognoses: nervous nellies, I called them privately.
Again, I encountered that inability to see the American nation as vulnerable and human. A black South African journalist who was working with us said to me one day, while the bombing of the Taliban lines was occurring daily, that "Bush cares more about American lives than he cares about Afghan ones".
"But that's his job," I blurted out. "He took an oath of office to protect the United States." Surely no one would express surprise if the leader of any other country took it as his duty to protect his own people and troops, even at the expense of others. Politicians are not pacifists; nor are they saints. If they were, they would never win elections. But American leaders are somehow expected to be different, or so it now seems to me.
This touches on the most acute of my political dilemmas. I don't like George W Bush any more now than I did when he was running for office. He's not my sort of guy. I'm a centrist Democrat; he's a right-wing Republican. I'm a sceptical, agnostic Jew; he's an evangelical, born-again Christian. I believe in evolution; he believes in creationism... But we're both Americans. And now I've discovered that means quite a lot.
We both, no doubt, tear up when we see Old Glory flying over Arlington National Cemetery; we both, I detect, are in love with the American landscape and dazzled by the amazing variety of its people; most importantly, we both believe that the future of freedom in the world depends on American resolve and power. Remember, it was President John F Kennedy, a liberal Democrat, who declared in his inaugural address: "Let every nation know ... that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
The lead-up to the war in Iraq saw the patterns that preceded the war in Afghanistan repeated, but magnified. Again, when commentators expressed doubt that the US would go to war with Iraq, I knew that they were wrong. This wasn't a matter of psychic powers, it was just identification with the reasoning of the decision- makers. But this time, my most distressing insight was that somehow, for some reason, many of my friends feared American power more than they did that of its (and their) professed enemies.
I try to imagine what it must feel like not to have a vote in American elections; not to have a US passport tucked away in a drawer – which gives me the right to return there whenever I wish. When I perform this exercise, I can dimly see the US as a foreign land that by virtue of its very pre-eminence, irrespective of the uses it makes of its power, seems threatening. The fact that its President cares more about its citizens than those of other countries might be reasonable, but it is alienating none the less.
However, I cannot stay long in that state of detached, sympathetic understanding; for after all, I am American, and it is to that perspective I naturally, and invariably, return. When I see Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice standing by the President's side, I feel pride that the country has changed so positively since the days when Martin Luther King dreamt of a day when men and women would "not be judged by the colour of their skins but by the content of their character". And with a hint of disdain, I note the sniffy attitudes of far less integrated countries, both black and white, that presume to lecture the United States on the virtues of equality.
But how is it that a British prime minister seems to see these things as I do? The key may be in what Blair told the House of Commons in the decisive debate over whether Britain would send troops to Iraq. "September 11 has changed the psychology of America," he said. "It should have changed the psychology of the world."
I can only surmise that Blair differs from "the world" because years of working with Washington to patrol the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, to fight humanitarian wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, and even to deal with the IRA at home, have given him an experience of partnership denied to the rest of "the world". Is it this that has shaped his understanding of the meaning of September 11?
Looking back over what I have written, I see that I must appear an uncritical admirer of everything American. Why then don't I live there? Why did I oppose the Vietnam War when I was younger with such vehemence? The latter question seems simple to answer: I never believed the North Vietnamese threatened the United States. But perhaps my scepticism was based less on knowledge of geo-political realities than a habit of doubt of, and even contempt for, governmental authority left over from my youthful adherence to the civil rights movement. Have I, somewhere along the way, lost that corrosive scepticism?
As to Britain, well, I have lived here even longer than I did in the United States. I am a British citizen too. Maybe, one day, if London and Edinburgh undergo their own September 11, I will find that I have a visceral patriotism for this island nation too. I can think of worse self-discoveries.
Patriotism need not be bought at the cost of abandoning one's concern for the rest of the world. In fact, in the case of Blair, if not Bush, it plainly coexists with an almost missionary impulse to bring the benefits of peace, freedom and prosperity to benighted parts of the globe. He plainly sees it as the duty of Britain to lend its financial, diplomatic and martial support to righting the world's wrongs. That is part of his patriotism.
No doubt, the overtones of Gladstonian imperialism make the members of his own party nervous, particularly when many of them would much rather focus their attentions on the NHS and the train services, but I find it a necessary and inspiring vision. One that makes me proud to be both British and American.
The writer is deputy comment editor of 'The Independent'
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