Tomorrow is the 4th of July, America’s Independence Day, commemorating the thirteen states breaking away from the Kingdom of Great Britain, (as it was called in 1776). I would like to offer my congratulations!
I want us all to appreciate the good and right things they do and believe in. And I would like us to acknowledge the inspiration and support that America has, so many times, given to other lands and people. At its best, America is indeed the promised land; cherishing freedoms, equality and opportunities for all, in a vast land with abundance of God’s and nature’s gifts – as so many poor and oppressed European immigrants experienced when they reached the ‘new world’ a few hundred years ago (notwithstanding the deep injustice that was done to the indigenous people of America and the Africans who were brought to the land against their own will, until slavery was eventually abolished in 1865).
We should appreciate the good without glossing over the bad; the many mistakes America has made and still makes at home and abroad. This article will also be about the latter. And it will be about the land I remember when I grew up, at the time of relative innocence, in the 1950’s and 1960’s; the height of America as the leader of the ‘free world’ and Western capitalism.
Such a great number of “fun modernity” has been imported from America; the fashion and behaviors that the world loved to imitate; American chewing gum in flat packets, Marlboro cigarettes, Texas trousers (now called jeans), automobiles, the idea of the modern woman. There was jazz and blues, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Sidney Pointier and John Wayne. Everyone could become what they wanted through commitment and hard work, which was always part of the ‘American dream’.
Women joined the workforce and were respected on their own, not only through the husband’s standing in society. Ordinary factory workers in Detroit and elsewhere were proud of their jobs, and their children moved on to the middle class. In the early 1960s, the civil rights movement managed to convince Congress to legislate equal rights for people of all races, at least on paper.
This was the time of the glamorous Kennedys in politics and the White House. It was before the assassination of the President, his brother and Martin Luther King Jr., and before the Vietnam War. After the Korean War, tragedies and miscalculated policies tarnished the land and in many ways changed the world – and we lost some of our dreams.
It was also the time of the Cold War when America and the West became more and more righteous and arrogant. America almost ‘ruled the world’ through propaganda and nasty interference in other countries’ affairs, especially in Latin-America and Asia, and the newly independent states in Africa. They managed to make us fear the competing economic and social systems of socialism and communism, and indeed the Soviet Union, even in my home country, Norway, where we should have known better.
I still remember that one of my teachers in the early 1970’s, Johan Galtung, a renowned peace professor, said about America and the Americans that they have high moral standards at home and as individuals, but the opposite in foreign affairs. Yet, he could not help feeling flattered when the then secretary of state Henry Kissinger borrowed a concept the professor said he had coined.
And then, I ask myself: what went wrong with America? What happened to all the good things in the America we loved, and still love?
Americans have behaved like children in a candy shop, where they could take as much as they wanted, not realizing that the next day, they would have more than an upset stomach. I feel sorry for today’s America, the land of ‘milk and honey’, where people and indeed their leaders became obese, overconfident, drunk in their own power, ignorant about the world, and believers in simplistic ‘how to do’ science.
When the Beatles first came to America in 1964, it changed the country; well, it certainly changed the band’s popularity and fortune. Fifty years hence, Ringo Starr, one of the two of the quartet who is still alive, said: “We loved the idea of being in America.” As so much else with America, it had to do with how the land and the people are portrayed and how we see them. What we see and believe may be true or false, and our interpretation may be right or wrong. Americans are masters of propaganda, at home and abroad.
Just take today’s ‘war on terror’, and take the way the world’s economic system almost collapsed a few years ago, caused by American bankers and financiers having lived as if what they wrote in their dream annual reports had anything to do with reality. They, too, were like children in a candy shop, not knowing when to stop. Somehow, politicians all over the world let them play the game for quite a while. Yes, there is something immature and reckless about the land.
But America is still the land of opportunities, as it was when the first immigrants landed, having left the feudal and religious oppression of Europe, with inadequate education and health services, terrible working and housing conditions in emerging industrialisation, high population growth and limited land reforms. Europe was underdeveloped, not entirely different from many developing countries today. Europe could export some of its poverty and excess population to America. Today, no such ‘empty’ territories exist; to be foreign workers, as many Pakistanis are, only gives temporary relief.
Do I see any hope for recovery of the America we loved. No, not really, and other countries and continents have begun taking part of its place. Somebody recently said about China that it was not cause to worry that it was on the rise, but that he would be worried when China, too, eventually declined. Maybe that is something to reflect on with regards to the state of America.
Yet, America will still be in the lead as long as you and I live, morally and ideologically, even economically, although cut down to size. But it will remain the world’s police and military ruler, sitting in Colorado or in Washington, deciding on the lives and deaths of people in North Waziristan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and in an endless list of other villages, towns and lands. They seem to want to control not only what people do, but also what we think and believe. That wasn’t the America we loved – or was it that all along, and we just didn’t see it?

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.

atlehetland@yahoo.com