America: This is a difficult letter to write, because I'm no longer
sure who you are.
Some of you
may be having the same trouble. I thought I knew you: We'd become
well acquainted over the past 55 years. You were the Mickey Mouse
and Donald Duck comic books I read in the late 1940s. You were the
radio shows -- Jack Benny, Our Miss Brooks. You were
the music I sang and danced to: the Andrews Sisters, Ella
Fitzgerald, the Platters, Elvis. You were a ton of fun.
some of my favourite books. You created Huckleberry Finn, and
Hawkeye, and Beth and Jo in Little Women, courageous in their
different ways. Later, you were my beloved Thoreau, father of
environmentalism, witness to individual conscience; and Walt
Whitman, singer of the great Republic; and Emily Dickinson, keeper
of the private soul. You were Hammett and Chandler, heroic walkers
of mean streets; even later, you were the amazing trio, Hemingway,
Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, who traced the dark labyrinths of your
hidden heart. You were Sinclair Lewis and Arthur Miller, who, with
their own American idealism, went after the sham in you, because
they thought you could do better.
Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront, you were Humphrey Bogart
in Key Largo, you were Lillian Gish in Night of the
Hunter. You stood up for freedom, honesty and justice; you
protected the innocent. I believed most of that. I think you did,
too. It seemed true at the time.
You put God
on the money, though, even then. You had a way of thinking that the
things of Caesar were the same as the things of God: that gave you
self-confidence. You have always wanted to be a city upon a hill, a
light to all nations, and for a while you were. Give me your tired,
your poor, you sang, and for a while you meant it.
always been close, you and us. History, that old entangler, has
twisted us together since the early 17th century. Some of us used to
be you; some of us want to be you; some of you used to be us. You
are not only our neighbours: In many cases -- mine, for instance --
you are also our blood relations, our colleagues, and our personal
friends. But although we've had a ringside seat, we've never
understood you completely, up here north of the 49th parallel.
Romanized Gauls -- look like Romans, dress like Romans, but aren't
Romans -- peering over the wall at the real Romans. What are they
doing? Why? What are they doing now? Why is the haruspex eyeballing
the sheep's liver? Why is the soothsayer wholesaling the Bewares?
that's been my difficulty in writing you this letter: I'm not sure I
know what's really going on. Anyway, you have a huge posse of
experienced entrail-sifters who do nothing but analyze your every
vein and lobe. What can I tell you about yourself that you don't
be the reason for my hesitation: embarrassment, brought on by a
becoming modesty. But it is more likely to be embarrassment of
another sort. When my grandmother -- from a New England background
-- was confronted with an unsavoury topic, she would change the
subject and gaze out the window. And that is my own inclination:
Mind your own business.
take the plunge, because your business is no longer merely your
business. To paraphrase Marley's Ghost, who figured it out too late,
mankind is your business. And vice versa: When the Jolly Green Giant
goes on the rampage, many lesser plants and animals get trampled
underfoot. As for us, you're our biggest trading partner: We know
perfectly well that if you go down the plug-hole, we're going with
you. We have every reason to wish you well.
I won't go
into the reasons why I think your recent Iraqi adventures have been
-- taking the long view -- an ill-advised tactical error. By the
time you read this, Baghdad may or may not look like the craters of
the Moon, and many more sheep entrails will have been examined.
Let's talk, then, not about what you're doing to other people, but
about what you'reoing to yourselves.
gutting the Constitution. Already your home can be entered without
your knowledge or permission, you can be snatched away and
incarcerated without cause, your mail can be spied on, your private
records searched. Why isn't this a recipe for widespread business
theft, political intimidation, and fraud? I know you've been told
all this is for your own safety and protection, but think about it
for a minute. Anyway, when did you get so scared? You didn't used to
be easily frightened.
running up a record level of debt. Keep spending at this rate and
pretty soon you won't be able to afford any big military adventures.
Either that or you'll go the way of the USSR: lots of tanks, but no
air conditioning. That will make folks very cross. They'll be even
crosser when they can't take a shower because your short-sighted
bulldozing of environmental protections has dirtied most of the
water and dried up the rest. Then things will get hot and dirty
torching the American economy. How soon before the answer to that
will be, not to produce anything yourselves, but to grab stuff other
people produce, at gunboat-diplomacy prices? Is the world going to
consist of a few megarich King Midases, with the rest being serfs,
both inside and outside your country? Will the biggest business
sector in the United States be the prison system? Let's hope not.
proceed much further down the slippery slope, people around the
world will stop admiring the good things about you. They'll decide
that your city upon the hill is a slum and your democracy is a sham,
and therefore you have no business trying to impose your sullied
vision on them. They'll think you've abandoned the rule of law.
They'll think you've fouled your own nest.
used to have a myth about King Arthur. He wasn't dead, but sleeping
in a cave, it was said; in the country's hour of greatest peril, he
would return. You, too, have great spirits of the past you may call
upon: men and women of courage, of conscience, of prescience. Summon
them now, to stand with you, to inspire you, to defend the best in
you. You need them.
Atwood studied American literature -- among other things -- at
Radcliffe and Harvard in the 1960s. She is the author of 10 novels.
Her 11th, Oryx and Crake, will be published in May. This essay also
appears in The Nation.
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