The Greatest Country in the World

Added on Sunday 16 Sep 2012

Photo: Denver to Vegas.  “There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world ... we lead the world in only three categories:

Number of incarcerated citizens per capita.

Number of adults who believe angels are real.

And defence spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined.

... The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.

America is not the greatest country in the world any more.


(The Newsroom, HBO, 2012)

But it could be, but it won’t happen unless we all do a serious reality check, and perhaps get a bit angry. So here, for my sins and my perdition, are my observations and my prescription:

A girl in Chicago who’d worked for the Board of Trade and blown the whistle because of all the corruption she’d seen. The bureaucrats lining their pockets and killing their country. They’d fired her for it and she ended up living on welfare in a tent city near San Francisco for three months. The sense of community was the greatest she’d ever known.

A voluntary officer helping the homeless in Las Vegas who reminded me that the town had been in the top three US cities for unemployment for the last three years or so. Unemployment was 18%, it was not improving and there seemed no end to the recession. And the other 82% and the national debt? What about reining in their spending?

“People are petulant,” he said. They like their perks and their toys, and they just don’t want to give them up.”

Kids further up Fremont Street in Vegas, lurking around Starbucks and panhandling strangers for dimes because they had to. Because they were working below the minimum wage. Because they had no medical plan, no security and no future. Because they had no belief left in the American Dream and an unprintable reaction when I asked them how they felt about Obama.

This is the first American generation who will be worse off than their parents, and they’re angry, but they’re not mad as hell enough to do anything about it and that’s the problem.

A guy from Lone Pine on the bus to L.A., wondering why he bothered to pull a man out of a burning car, because the man spent the next twenty-five years trying to sue him. Wondering what kind of country seems content to let him spend twenty to thirty thousand dollars a year controlling his diabetes. This year, next year and every year. A guy who served in Iraq and saw a bunker stuffed with all the armaments America had given Saddam in other days, and who, as we pulled out of Mojave, literally wondered why, “we couldn’t all just get along.”

Now maybe you who read this think I’m writing with rancour in my soul.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and given the bubbling soufflé of corruption in a eurozone gorging itself on mountains of cash and a Britain with no jobs, no future for most and a similar mountain of debt, I’m going the way of some commentators and wondering why we don’t just look west and link up more firmly with America once more.

Perhaps I am viewing this special relationship through rose-tinted glasses, but as the bus homed in on Los Angeles, the splendidly ridiculous thought occurred to me that Britain and America have far more in common than in separation, a far stronger special relationship regarding joint intelligence and co-operation than perhaps we fully appreciate and a joint heritage quite a bit closer than we quite comprehend.

In historical terms, the Mayflower did not depart Plymouth so terribly long ago (6th September 1620) and America did not declare herself independent until 4th July 1776.

Thomas Jefferson himself, principal signatory of the Declaration of Independence, even stated that:

“Believe me, dear Sir: there is not in the British Empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do. But, by the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament propose; and in this, I think I speak the sentiments of America.”

(29th November, 1775)

He didn’t like the British Parliament.

Neither do we!

But nowhere in his statement do I see a dislike for the British people, and I’d like to think that holds true today.

A ninety-year-old Chinese statement recently said of Europe that it has to recognise it is in a deep hole and will take years to climb out of it. That it has to stop moving money between different accounts and trade and sell real commodities. Grain and wheat and corn and so on.

We pursue the culture of youth too avidly and ignore the wisdoms of age too readily. This is the clearest statement of hard common sense I have ever heard, from a man one-third the age of America itself and living proof that the past is alive and closer than you think.

And I am just that little bit less willing to tie myself to a squabbling group of cobbled together nation-states with wildly different languages, cultures and attitudes than I am to hitch my wagon to a single superpower which may or may not be in eclipse.

The United Kingdom, United States and European Union are all in deep holes and will all need a clear and icy sense of purpose to dig ourselves out of them. In my opinion, I do not think the EU will have enough cohesive will to do so. I think America might have enough can-do pragmatism to manage it, and of course that’s where my heart and soul is anyway.

I’ve quoted Steinbeck quite some times in the last few years, and noted he was partisan in his support for the migrant workers in The Grapes of Wrath.

I, too, am partisan in my support, and for the most illogical of reasons, but at least I know it.

Sitting in the Greyhound terminal in Denver (ably staffed by no staff…) and contemplating the rock wall before me, I saw another day and another time. That other younger man, coming the other way near a quarter of a century ago; and though I had passed through the door into summer once again I realised this journey would be the last.

Not the last trip or trek for sure, but the last time I’d go out as a backpacker. I’d pushed body and soul again and come through well, but truth to tell I’d had my day, and seeing that mountain wall let me make my peace with times past and with today.

Unlike Jody’s grandfather in Steinbeck's Red Pony, I’ll not stay locked in the past with the Piutes and the plates, never able to move beyond that first trek, setting myself up for a fall. I’d retraced my steps like a dancer chasing shadow, and now I knew I’d not quite seen it all.

So I’ll look out west and link up with America if I may, but there’s one thing I must say:

Nothing can ever touch the way it was that day.

A sidewalk, Sunset in L.A.

A girl with dancer’s grace, moving easily on her way.

Always remembered, dear Miss Landau. I was there that day.