Wherefore art thou, America?
The United States’s travel ban makes us all poorer
It’s what I’ve come to call the Misplaced Ford Mustang Rule. To drive a Ford Mustang, one of America’s most iconic so-called muscle cars, on its home ground is a joy. I once owned one of the least muscley Mustang models, but it was still such a cerulean blue beauty and morale-boosting thrill to drive along the I-35 highway through Texas’s state capital city of Austin with Radiohead issuing forth through the permanently wound-down windows into the hot Texan air, that I have never forgiven myself for selling it — an insane move, up there with the UK giving away Hong Kong, driven by expediency’s sake. But transplant a Ford Mustang to the roads of the UK — it just doesn’t work.
I remember seeing a Ford Mustang drive past me in the UK. My initial excitement quickly evaporated. It just looked a bit weird on the narrow country lane, a bit off. It typically happens with other American commodities taken out of their native US context. You’ve got to experience it with American soil under your feet for it to hit the mark.
Which is one of the reasons why I’m so perturbed that I seem to be the only person noticing that President Donald Trump still has not lifted the travel restrictions to the US that he imposed in March on the UK and most European countries.
The UK is unravelling in the face of Covid-19 hysteria and terrible leadership
America remains in border-shut, no-international-flights-permitted isolation to almost the entire world. It’s an incredible state of affairs that no one and no media seems to be talking about or to deem a worthy enough topic to engage with. It’s a worrying indication of how on both sides of the Atlantic we are becoming increasingly caught up in our own Covid-19 travails, with the blinkers becoming soldered on, obscuring all else that we used to hold important and necessary, thereby feeding an isolationist mindset rooted in the belief that all that matters is the problem as it directly affects me and my kin and to hell with the rest of you (an attitude which the UK Government is doing a stellar demonstration of with its own batch of broad-brush travel bans and quarantining rules).
The macro level consequences of the US ringfencing itself, especially for the UK and Europe, range from further degradation of US global leadership and involvement to the loss of cultural, educational and economic exchange. At the same time, there’s something happening on the more personal level, as I experienced while hiking the Camino del Norte through northern Spain — including a bout of the pox (not the expected one) — when I didn’t meet a single American.
American-born identity politics, victimhood and grievance movements are in full export mode
When I did my first glorious Camino, it teemed with bouncy Americans among the multitude of nationalities tramping toward the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, deemed the resting place of the apostle Saint James. Hence, while this time round I’ve been reminded of how friendly and good fun are the likes of Germans and Dutch, I felt the absence of not encountering that unique vitality, vigour and can-do spirit that so often attends Americans. Such encounters remind non-Americans of the nation’s proactive and spirited virtues, the likes of which the UK could always do with more — especially “with the UK circling the toilet bowl in the name of public health,” in the words of the American writer Lionel Shriver. Living in the UK, Shriver, like many of us, is increasingly aghast at how the UK is unravelling in the face of Covid-19 hysteria and terrible leadership from the government.
In my more ruminative mystical moments, having seen too well what such leadership bequeathed in Iraq and Afghanistan, I can’t help wonder if the current situation is some sort of cosmic justice in teaching us the damage that bad leadership can do to our own land.
The other problem is that, in the absence of face to face engagements with Americans, all we have been left with to ruminate on is what’s been called its colonising progressive ideology and the coverage of that by mainstream and social media. American-born identity politics, victimhood and grievance movements are in full export mode, stirring up in-fighting, cancel culture and civic disintegration wherever they land, and of which we have had ample evidence in the UK.
In short, we are being exposed to America’s darker more hysterical side without the leavening factor of its most uplifting aspect: its rank and file citizenry. It is those spirited yet down-to-earth, common-sense embracing souls who ultimately constitute what America is — not Donald Trump or social-media activists or its media.
The particular quality that is its citizenry was amply demonstrated during the recent Democratic National Convention that due to Covid-19 was done entirely remotely. While the celebrity video cameos and recorded platitudes came in for some criticism, there was a wonderful 45-minute-or-so segment in which each of the 50 states showcased their unique geography and demographic diversity as local delegates formally nominated Joe Biden as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee.
The genuine enthusiasm, lack of pretence and often simple sweetness on show from the delegates and other ordinary Americans gathered around them waving flags or holding up placards — or in Rhode Island’s case, a chef holding a dinner plate plugging the state’s fine calamari reserves — reminded this viewer of many of the things that made him succumb to America’s ribald promises while secluded at an all-boys monastic boarding school in a dank Yorkshire valley, and then drew him there after he left the British Army in 2010 to find refuge, like many before, in his case from the memories of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Don’t be deceived by the media gatekeepers and Twitter blowhards; the range of opinions and ideas across a population of 328 million people with a penchant for individualism and libertarian spirit is, not surprisingly, hugely varied and nuanced. That means you can get an American who voted (and will vote again) for Donald Trump and who is still a good, well rounded person. You can decry them all you want, and they may decide their votes on a single hot button issue such as abortion, but I can’t see how either of those factors prove they are at fault.
That’s another problem with not encountering real flesh and blood Americans: the perpetuation of today’s growing political absolutism and propaganda, mostly usually in the form nowadays that if you vote for Trump you are thereby wrong or a bigot or a misguided, if not unhinged person. It’s simply not as straightforward as that — nothing ever is. Some of the best people I have had the privilege to come to know in America support Trump, and for sound reasons; just as how some of the other best people I know in America would do anything but vote for Trump, and for sound reasons. I’m not going to hold those choices against either side, and neither should you.
Americans tend to embrace the advice from the Book of Revelations that admonishes the lukewarm approach: “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”
America isn’t going lukewarm anytime soon — though I’m not as sure about the UK. Far too many of us Brits remain lukewarm and acquiescent in the face of a bombastic minority appropriating the words of Revelation in the worst way possible that thereby scolds both them and anyone in close proximity.
Carl Jung had some notable thoughts on the mess that modern societies have got themselves into that don’t seem any less relevant since he wrote his 1962 autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
Let’s get America open and make that bond between the US and the UK great again
“The Christian nations have come to a sorry pass; their Christianity slumbers and has neglected to develop its myth further in the course of the centuries,” wrote the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who is credited with founding analytical psychology, of which America is no stranger, with its willingness to embrace personal therapy and explorations of the human psyche (a tendency of which Brits have always tended to poke fun at, whilst never fully engaging with our own neuroses). Similarly, the point Jung makes has particular relevance for modern America with its relatively high-level of religiosity throughout society compared to the largely secular likes of the UK. “Our myth has become mute, and gives no answers,” he writes. “The fault lies not in it as it is set down in the Scriptures, but solely in us, who have not developed it further, who, rather, have suppressed any such attempts.”
Jung goes on to explain that as a “result of the political situation and the frightful, not to say diabolic, triumphs of science, we are shaken by secret shudders and dark foreboding; but we know no way out, and very few persons indeed draw the conclusion that this time the issue is the long-since-forgotten soul of man [his italics].”
The Covid-19 experience for rich, developed nations has arguably given further weight to Jung’s observation by shining a light on this metaphysical conundrum, though whether we have the capacity to learn from it and do anything about it remains to be seen; such matters don’t tend to be easy or quick to resolve.
In the meantime and at the more everyday prosaic level—which Jung embraced and engaged in just as readily—we in the UK have a vested interest in the US opening back up (I’d venture the US has a vested interest too, even if they don’t realise it as they wrestle with Covid-19 smashing up against a US national election smashing up against entrenched polarisation and racial and socio-economic tensions). Despite the problematic quality for many people of the adjective that Donald Trump embraces during his campaigning, America indeed remains a great nation with great people. The interchange and cooperation between our two countries and populations has been hugely valuable for both across the decades, even centuries, and the negation of that possibility gets worse the longer it continues.
So, Mr President, let’s get America open and make that bond between the US and the UK great again. Then we might all try turning to better dealing with some of those important points raised by Mr Jung.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe