I wrote an essay to myself once, trying to figure America out. You know, the way de Tocqueville, Twain, Thoreau and a bunch of other writers whose surnames didn't begin with T did. And you know what kind of unites them? The fact that none of them could really define it. So what the hell was I trying to do? Well, I was flying to Montreal and I was bored, and listening to Bruce Springsteen (chalk him up on the list of American Commentators), and I had a notepad. Seemed to make sense at the time.
The problem with writing about America is repetition. Whatever you think about it, someone has written about it before. However, right now in the endless running battles between the Left and the Right, the great thinkers of our generation are so preoccupied with beating down each other that there seems to be a lack of people actually talking about the whole. The coin is spinning, and right now each side is so caught up arguing about which way it should fall that nobody's actually watching the thing as it rolls towards the edge of the table.
I'm not saying I am that commentator; the above metaphor alone should be cause for exclusion on the grounds of Prime Wankery. However, I love talking about America. I do a really rubbish Devil's Advocate bit; I defend America when talking to Americans, but with a cautionary note in my voice, and I explain why America is dumb to non-Americans, despite having a pretty extensive knowledge of why America is, in many ways, actually pretty awesome. So that nobody comes away with any changed opinions of the country, but have a story about a guy they know who went there and said this about that, which conveniently backs up exactly what they want to say. I'm a kind of sycophantic sociologist.
What I usually say about America is that it is in possession of the greatest potential of any country on this planet. In a purely scientific way; potential as stored, unused energy: the great power/great responsibility argument from Spiderman, or Peter Parker's Power Paradigm (go ahead, it's ok to hate me. Every sigh has a teeny carbon footprint; you can't get self-righteous). There have been plenty of outbursts of this potentiality in the last hundred years or so. Hiroshima' every Olympic Games since the 1930s, Orson Welles, the moon landings, Vietnam... ok, it's kind of hard to talk about America's place in the twentieth century and beyond without drawing attention to its baffling fondness for shitting all over ideologies it doesn't agree with, but there you go.
So you have this potential, which comes from two things: the circumstances of the nation's birth, and the self-mythologising that Americans seem better at than any other nationality.
It really was a great experiment, and the experiment is still going on. Founding a country on a set of principals, rather than on tribal, religious (whatever certain Americans would say) or other grounds which would base the country's foundings on exclusion of a particular group- the United States invited everyone who shared common ideas of positivity to join them. Then they got all arsey in the 1950s about immagants comin' over an' takin' their jobs and their women, but the principal is sound. OK, so it took until the 1960s to get a Catholic president, and that didn't go down too well, and a goddamn century and a half after saying "hey, you're alright!" to African Americans before one of them became POTUS (I love that acronym. It's kind of adorable), and they've still not had a woman C-in-C (it's getting hard to think up presidential synonyms) (and I pray to God [or at least put my faith in Darwinism] that Sarah Palin doesn't get there first). Perhaps E Pluribus Unum should be amended to have "...as long as Whitey goes first" after it. But I digress. It's too easy to slip into stereotypical observations about the apparently hypocritical division between the intentions and the reality of America.
And there's the kicker (I feel I should replace Shakespeareanisms like "aye, there's the rub" for nonsensical American sports-slang here). America is the the only country founded on intentions. The Declaration of Independence is the equivalent of a 17-year-old talking about when they move out of their parents' house: "I'm gonna have this really sweet pad with all my buddies where everyone can do what they want and we'll party all the time, man this is gonna be awesome." And then they end up paying the Mexicans next door to do all their cleaning, and they go across the street and steal a bunch of snacks from the Asian grocery store, and when they get wise, the Middle-Eastern place next door. Are you getting the satire here?
We get it, America. You're not like other countries. Everybody knows your name. But then, pretty much everybody knows Michael Jackson's name. You gotta do something that keeps you from degenerating into a circus freak suffering pre-mortem decomposition.
So America writes songs. And novels, and screenplays, and plays, and blogs, and op-ed pieces, and YouTube comments. The self-myth is something uniquely American. I don't know whether it grew out of insecurity; a young nation needing to prove itself (John Winthrop's City on a hill sermon on The Mayflower), boasting about its wide rivers, broad deserts, fertile plains, the whole gamut of frankly ostentatious landscapes. There's the immigrant element as well. However shitty your life in the Old Country was, nostalgia's a bitch, and so you sing songs of your homeland, and eventually that elegiac, lyrical style settles itself in the songs of the new country.
Take Bruce Springsteen (yes I bloody love him is there a problem with that? no? ok). New Jersey is comparable to Yorkshire- working class, proud of it, and proud of the hardworking spirit of its inhabitants. Somehow Springsteen can throw out references to places as stupidly-named as Mahwah and inject it with the romance of drudgery. We have the Arctic Monkeys singing about Rotherham, but the whole point of it is the utterly unattractive status of the post-industrial north of England. There are no ballads to Birmingham, no loving paeans to Liverpool, not in the modern canon anyway. Obviously The Beatles don't count because they were making it up as they went along.
The point is, America is extremely good at talking about itself unselfconsciously. That's the admirable side to patriotism, being so proud of the place you're from that you want to share it with the world. It's when you make the transition from sharing to imposing your values, ideologies and culture on other nationalities that patriotism becomes, as Wilde put it, "the virtue of the vicious".
I know very few un-patriotic Americans. I know those who rejected the Bush presidency, apologised for the behaviour of their military, hung their heads in shame at Michael Bay movies, but still defended their belief in America's, well, not superiority as such, just America's firm sense of itself. And in doing so won more respect than they would have done just pretending to be Canadian.
When you ask "what is America", the question is the answer. This was where I started my essay on that flight nearly four years ago. You don't ask "what is Norway?", or "what does it mean to be Portuguese?". You may as what is in those countries, or what it is like to live there, but America is the only country that exists philosophically as well as physically.
It's a state of mind.