9. The American Carnival
“… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses”
- Juvenal, Satire X
"...migrate from Greece and Ionia,
Cross out please those immensely overpaid accounts,
That matter of Troy and Achilles' wrath, and Aeneas', Odysseus' wanderings,
Placard "Removed" and "To Let' on the rocks of your snowy Parnassus, ...
The same on the walls of your German, French and Spanish castles, and Italian collections
For you know a better, fresher, busier sphere, a wide, untried domain awaits, demands you."
- Walt Whitman, Song of the Exposition
I have no idea what it means to be the ‘Greatest Country on Earth.’ I know that I’ve written that about America before, and having lived in only three countries (the other two for not very long), I have no real expertise on the subject, so I very much regret writing that. But I do know what excitement is, and I feel pretty safe in saying that even if America is not the best country on Earth, it’s certainly the most exciting. It should never cease to amaze how wrongly we Americans do many things, but we provide easily the best bread and circus show in the world.
The older I get, the dimmer grow my fantasies of living some kind of obscenely cultured life of daily concerts, theater, galleries, and symposia with the learned of the European continent which would turn George Steiner green with envy. The Europe of my imagination, indeed the Europe of most educated Americans’ imagination, ceased to exist a century ago when the lamps went out all over that continent, and we have not seen them lit again. But what those lamps illuminated was nothing but the European bread and circus show - perhaps still the greatest show the Earth has ever known. The working class was foundering in terrible factory conditions, the rural population starved terribly, but it was a non-stop party for the educated of Europe with ever new delights. The world was an endless place of discovery; new foods, new books, new music and art, new science. Life for an educated European was an endless profusion of new things to talk about.
But the pleasures innate to Europe have not changed much for a hundred years. In its place, Europe has become ever more Americanized. The Marshall Plan was not only a second chance for Europe, it was a second chance for America as well to get right all those things which wise American statesmen learned about proper governance over the course of 175 years. As a result of The Marshall Plan’s generosity, Europe was able to grow the kind of social safety net which America still desperately needs, and most Western European countries possess systems of government which are far more functional than America’s endless gridlock. If the EU ever succeeds (and the last few years proved that it clearly hasn’t yet...), it will have officially beaten America at its own game. Europe doesn’t need lamps, they have solar power.
But if the EU is a better place to live than America, then it has correspondingly less need for a great bread and circus show. European entertainment is certainly very good, and
I should know because I’m an endless consumer of much of it. The BBC gave us wonderful comedians like John Cleese and the Python crew, Ricky Gervais, Rowan Atkinson, and Fry & Laurie - all comedians influenced by the work of American forerunners - and endless wonderful documentaries about past European achievements; British theater gave us the more intelligent theater of Stoppard and Frayn and Bennett and David Hare and Peter Shaffer, as often as not about old subjects from European history; I adore lots of postwar European movies by Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Fassbinder, Polanski, Almodovar, Rohmer, Kieslowski and many others - usually either based on historical European subjects or heavily influenced by the work of American directors; I love cabaret Chaussoniers like Jacques Brel, Edith Piaff, Charles Aznavour, and Ute Lemper, who learned much of their craft by listening to American jazz crooners; like the rest of the world I love lots of British bands, most of whom would have not even thought to start a band if they hadn’t heard records by American bands first….. It’s all wonderful stuff, but it is either grounded in the paradigms of Old Europe, or it borrows from the American model. Like the pre-WWII generations of American popular culture, it is almost impossible to speak of European popular culture without taking account of the models they borrowed from across the Ocean. Even the professional sports leagues of Europe are marketed on models they borrowed from America.
But the show in Europe simply can’t compare to the show in America. Life is very dull when you run little risk of failure, and for those of us too restless to ever know inner peace, we require simply a better, longer, more diverse show to take our minds off our all-too-real problems. America simply has a more diverse offering of entertainment - an endless twenty-four hour cycle of frivolity in which the brain is in constant stimulation and needn’t be troubled by anything too burdensome. Some of these diversions even have the added benefit of having an intelligence which even a European could admire!
The profusion of American offerings, both intelligent and not so, is almost literally infinite. The celebrity culture known so well to the rest of the world is only the surface layer of American entertainment. Unlike in Europe, the dream of a centralized, national media is something of a joke. PBS and NPR receive a small fraction of the funding which the BBC or Deutschlandradio get, and even if they received the same funding, dollar for pound/euro, they could not do nearly as good a job at promoting all the best in American entertainment, because there is so much more in America than there is in Europe. As a result, no truly great musician or writer or artist in America can or ever again will be promoted with the firepower which their equivalents in Europe can be marketed. But as a result, and nobody likes to hear this, the brutality of the competition makes American artists more hungry and battle-tested. They have more to say thanks to the struggles they underwent to make it. But even if that isn’t true, it remains startlingly clear that there are far more great entertainers and artists working in America than in any one European country - because America is not a country, it is its own continent. Every scene, however small, has its stars; every consumer, however ignorant, has his favorites whom no one she knows has yet heard. No matter what your aesthetic taste, no matter what the shade of your political leanings, no matter how high or low your level of intelligence, there will be an astoundingly large number of people across the country who share your ethos and cater to it.
But there is no way to experience the extraordinary depth and diversity of this carnival without living here. No one would know how to cue you into everything which happens. You could never assimilate even a sliver of it if you didn’t. The dreams of Old Europe are merely dreams. But every damn city in America has its own small version of Old Vienna and and Old Paris and all the attendant cities of the fin de siecle. The music, the art, the writing, may be completely unrecognizable from its European forerunners, but as America streams headlong into second half of middle-age, it's finally carved out a distinct identity of its own - with each city having its own distinct and utterly individual identity-within-the-identity. No two communities, no two scenes in a single community, could ever be mistaken for one another. THIS is the American Carnival. It goes twenty-four hours a day, it has more stations than any carnival the world has ever seen, it contains endless other people to talk with about everything you just saw with, and it’s not going to close any time soon.
10. This IS The American Century!
Welcome to the American Century. What did you expect it to be?
The twentieth century was not The American Century, it was The American Comedy. It began in 1914 with the assassination of Franz-Ferdinand, and ended in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. It had the happiest possible ending: The Soviet Union fell, America was the unquestioned world superpower, prosperous beyond the dreams of any country in world history, and America learned precisely the wrong lessons from their victory. We are now an an overstretched neo-imperial power, which believes it can tax minimally and spend maximally without being called to account for its debts. We believed that Reagan’s military bluster is what caused the downfall of the Soviet Union, when it was Harry Truman’s slow, patient policy of containment which brought it down over a period of forty years. It was a comedy because it left the country of perfect fools at the top of food chain, and like all fools, we now stand ready to get our comeuppance.
It is only in the twenty-first century that America bestrides the world like a colossus. Every country, every politically and intellectually active person, can be measured by one question before every other: What do you think of America? The story of the twenty-first century is how other countries accomodated the overwhelming influence of America on world policy and culture.
In the eyes of the world, America now stands for a caricature of what it is. To the eyes of foreigners who only have experience dealing with America’s spoiled privileged class and the hicks they see on TV, America is an imperial oligarchy which deliberately keeps its citizens dumb. Well... there’s no sense in denying that America is precisely that, but it’s also so much more. The majority of us Americans don’t deserve the fall which is coming to us. But fortunately, we may not be alive to see it happen. It very well might be a problem for when our grandchildren are old and grey. For the meantime, most Americans live in mountains of debt which don’t have to be paid, and privileges they haven’t earned. But that could all end tomorrow, in which the world will be plunged into chaos, in which case The Twenty-First Century will be defined as The American-Made Disaster. But it’s more likely to be a gradual fall, in which other countries have vested interests in keeping this fat middle-aged country propped up and barely alive for another hundred years, their economies growing in relation to America until these countries feel no need to prop up their ‘parent’ any longer, at which point there could be an Oedipal war in which America is soundly defeated, now merely a de-facto colony of a greater world power the way Europe in so many ways still is to America.
Welcome to The American Century! Did you expect it to be fun?
Welcome to The American Century! Did you expect it to be fun?