The Idea of America
On American character and possibility, still.
By Jan Morris
“Whisper of how I’m yearning,” sang George M. Cohan in one of the great American songs of nostalgia, “to mingle with the old-time throng...” Well, I am yearning too, not for the gang at Forty-Second Street, exactly, but for the America that Cohan was indirectly hymning — for the Idea of America, with a capital I, which once made the United States not just the most potent of all the nations, but genuinely the most liked.
Perhaps, with the new President already champing at the bit, we are about to witness its rebirth. As a foreigner I am immune to the rivalries or seductions of American party politics, but I have loved the old place for sixty years, and I simply pray for an American leader to give us back its baraka, as the Arabs say — nothing to do with religion, or economics, or power, or even ideology, but the gift of being at once blessed and blessing.
Of course nobody can claim that the old dreams of America were ever perfectly fulfilled. They often let us down. They were betrayed by the national reputations for crime, corruption, racism, and rampant materialism. Not all the Presidents, God knows, were ikons of virtue or even of glamour, and the benevolent Uncle Sam of the old cartoonists was more often interpreted, around the world, as a fat moron in horn-rimmed spectacles, chewing a cigar. Nobody’s perfect, still less any republic.
But I think it is true that only in our time has the American Idea lost its baraka. A generation or two ago most of us, wherever we lived, loved the generous self-satisfaction of the Idea, if not in the general, at least in the particular. The GI was not then a sort of goggled monster in padded armour, but a cheerful fellow chatting up the girls and distributing candy not as a matter of policy, but out of plain goodwill — everyone’s friendly guy next door. To millions of radio listeners around the world the Voice of America was a voice of decency, and one could watch the lachrymose patriotic rituals of America — the hand on heart, the misty salute to the flag — with more affection than irony.
For myself, I responded to them all too sentimentally. Like Walt Whitman before me, I heard America sing! I rel-ished the hackneyed old lyrics — Mine eyes have seen the glory, Thy word our law, Thy paths are chosen way, Oe’r the land of the free and the home of the brave, God bless America, land that I love... Most of the words were flaccid, many of the tunes were vulgar, but as I heard them I saw always in my mind’s eye, as Whitman did, all the glorious space, grandeur and opportunity that was America, Manhattan to LA — sea, in fact, to shining sea.
In those days we did not think of American evangelists as prophets of political extremism — they seemed more akin to the homely convictions of plantation or village chapel than to the machinations of neo-cons. We bridled rather at the American assumption that the U.S. of A. had been the only true victor of the second World War, but most of us did not very deeply resent the happy swagger of the legend, and danced gratefully enough to the American rhythms of the time. We thought it all seemed essentially innocent.
Innocent! Dear God! Half a century later, and nobody thinks that now. Far from being the most beloved country on earth, today the USA is the most thoroughly detested.
The rot really began, in my own view, with Abraham Lincoln, one of the most admirable men who ever lived. He it was who saw in the American glory the duty of a mission. America, he declared, was the last best hope of earth. The pursuit of happiness was not its national vocation, but the example of democracy. The more like America the world became, the better the world would be. No statesman was ever more sincere or kindly in his beliefs, but poor old Abe would be horrified to see how his interpretation of destiny has gone sour.
For the missionary instinct, which impelled the Americans into so many noble policies, was to be perverted by power. Pace Lincoln, America was not necessarily the last best hope of mankind, and the knowledge that America has possessed unchallengable powers of interference has distorted its attitude to the world, and cruelly damaged its image in return. Isolation-ism was not a very estimable stance, but interfereism is not much more attractive. In humanity’s eye the swagger has become bombast, the cocky GI a bully.
But there is a difference between image and idea. One is a projection, the other an absolute. Public relations people, tabloid newspapers, spin doctors, and entertainers can all fiddle with the image of America, but the idea of it remains constant — overlaid, perhaps, dormant, even forgotten, but always there. Everyone who visits America feels it — every tourist returns to tell her neighbors how nice the Americans are, how different from their reputation. And what they are all sensing, half-hidden behind the image, is the presence of the Idea, with a capital I.
When I first went to the United States, in the 1950s, I impertinently remarked to an archetypal guru, Supreme Court Chief Justice Felix Frankfurter, that what with Senator Joe McCarthy, and southern segregation, and civic corruption everywhere, I was not much impressed by the condition of America.
Be patient, said the sage. America is like a pendulum, swinging from good to bad, from bad to good, and before long it will swing again.
He was right, and with luck perhaps the pendulum is ready to reverse once more. Whatever we may think in our moments of despair, America is still a marvellous and lovable country, whose patriotism can still be touching: try restraining a tear when you listen to Irving Berlin’s setting of the words on the Statue of Liberty — the ultimate American text, with music by the emblematic American immigrant. The Great Republic is great still, full still of decent clever people, trying to be good. Even now it is as free as can be expected, and its democracy is fundamentally honest and robust. It laughs at itself, criticizes itself, dislikes itself, just as much as we all do.
So may this President release the Idea from its occlusion. All the ingredients are still there, after all, among the Americans — the kindness, the imagination, the merriment, the will, the talent, the energy, the damn orneriness, the plain goodness — all there waiting to burst out once more and bring us back our America, blessed and blessing too.
Jan Morris is the author of many books, among them the travel masterpieces Venice and Sydney.