That’s America to Me

I’m leaving this country as I found it: in a mess! I thought my being here for six months would be enough to change the course of catastrophe capitalism, but sadly not. As I depart, the omicron panic is cranking up and casting a long shadow. But without minimising the immediate impact of COVID, I still see it as symptomatic of the chronic malaise of the system, the evidence of which has been constant during my time here.

I’ll preface what follows by saying that, outside of the private realm, this has been the best experience of my life. The Fulbright Commission is a funny fish, but I’ll always be grateful to it for fulfilling (and paying for!) my dreams.

I’ve learned a huge amount since 21st June and had some brilliant times, with wonderful people. But within my overall view of system failure, there are several key conclusions.

First, American imperialism lives. That won’t be news to many, but it has taken living in a community of people who are here, because “they” were there, for me to more fully understand the dynamics of enduring colonialism. Aware of my ignorance, I’ve been reading Harvest of Empire by Juan Gonzalez[1].  The book, which is highly recommended as a primer, sets out the methodical way the US State has captured and cultivated Spanish-speaking nations throughout Central and Latin America and the Caribbean for the benefit of big US corporations.  The most graphic contemporary evidence of this is the brutalisation of those trying to escape the misery of their homelands, caused by US imperialism, by crossing the southern border.  But living in Allerton, where most people are Latino, has shown me something of the more mundane consequences of transnational exploitation.  This is by no means the most impoverished part of the country, or even this city.  But it’s a place where the sense of living on the edge is palpable. 

That feeling is intensified when I think about public housing.  Perhaps like the violence on the border, this is an “out of sight, out of mind” issue for many Americans.  But my time here has only deepened my long-held belief that there will be no escape from perennial housing failure without rethinking and significantly expanding the non-market rented sector, not just in the US, but everywhere.

One of the few frustrations with my trip has been not making more contacts with New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) tenants and their allies.  I have tried, but the fact that it’s not easy tells a bit of the story.  NYCHA exists almost in a separate realm, a marginalisation that has been a deliberate consequence of misguided policy for decades, but which assumes greater significance in the current context.  There are several different future scenarios for the city’s public housing, some of which I’ve written about here.  But six months has been enough to tell me that public housing is as fundamental a bedrock of the city as its rocky geology.  Last Monday, Marcia Fudge, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), came to Patterson Houses in the Bronx and declared a “new dawn” for public housing.  By their deeds shall we know them.     

Sadly, the gap between political deeds and words has become a chasm while I’ve been here and this morning, it may have become unbridgeable for the foreseeable future.  I woke to watch a clearly furious Bernie Sanders effectively throwing in the towel on the “human infrastructure” elements of Build Back Better, after the contemptable Joe Manchin said a final “no” this morning (significantly, he said it on Fox TV).  The naivety (or cynicism?) of some Democrats voting for the “roads and bridges” infrastructure package, thinking this would lead to Manchin and others supporting social welfare is staggering.  I share Sanders’ fury, but I also feel angry with the progressive left because this moment was coming and needed to be actively resisted outside the rarefied world of Washington DC politics. 

The Biden administration is now “punting” social reforms (an American football analogy meaning playing for time, while surrendering possession), but I fear this will have disastrous consequences in 2022 and beyond.  Yesterday, I was speaking to someone who was telling me that childcare for her young baby will cost $25,000 which, added to housing costs, will virtually wipe out her salary.  She has a reasonable income, pays a comparatively affordable rent and would be the first to acknowledge her situation is far better than many.  Biden and Build Back Better pledged to address childcare, housing and medical costs for working class Americans.  The failure to deliver, when there was wide popular support for the measures, will deepen disillusionment ahead of the midterm elections next November, when it is widely expected the Republicans will retake control of the legislative machine and render Biden a dead-duck President. 

Whether or not this presages the return of Trump remains to be seen.  He may find it difficult to be the establishment choice as more evidence emerges that he didn’t just cheer-on the 6th January insurrection, but actively engineered it.  But there are plenty of other reactionary bigots out there, ready to exploit desperation and anger.  Meanwhile, mainstream Democrats appear to have learned nothing from the past six years.  I recently heard a New York Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, arrogantly dismiss the people of West Virginia because they “don’t share our values”.  A quick look at Ms Gillibrand’s biog. (private school, lawyer, dyed in the wool Democratic political aristocracy) suggests she personifies the type of careerist politician working class America will easily reject at the polls, assuming they vote.  But amongst a myriad of other looming threats (ending of a woman’s right to choose, more permissive gun laws, inaction on climate change), there are numerous attempts by Republicans around the country to suppress voting rights.  So even those who do want to vote Democrat. may find it impossible.

There’s an argument that the US Constitution is deliberately designed to make sure not much changes and my time here has tended to confirm that.  Against the background of medical, economic and climate emergency, this is a clear and present danger to us all and nothing I write about the US should be interpreted as meaning I think things are much better in the UK or anywhere else.  But despite everything, I retain my belief in the spirit of America, albeit that that’s a slippery, contradictory, volatile substance.  The coming period may test it like never before.  The thing I find hardest about being here is seeing the everyday evidence of damaged and broken lives, with no improvement on the horizon.  However, there is still an important undercurrent of rebellion and resistance, that could be channelled towards a more equitable and sustainable future. 

An oddity of my last six months is how the film Strange Fruit has recurred.  As well as being a vital reminder of the country’s poisonous racism, it points towards its antidote.  I’ve met several people who connect the history shown in the film, to the present, including the rich tradition of solidarity and humanity that is part of America.  A few weeks ago, I was idly flicking through some sheet-music, not something I would normally do, when I came across “The House I Live In (That’s America to Me)” which features in Strange Fruit, sung by a young Frank Sinatra, who almost seems to embody the mixed character of this country.  The music was written by Earl Robinson – a frequent collaborator with Paul Robeson – the lyrics by Lewis Allan AKA Abel Meeropol, a Bronx hero if ever there was one.  The film explains how the song was exposed to the same kind of censorship as its principals, but some of the original words describe my abiding and most romantic, hopeful feelings for this place:

“The house I live in,

The friends that I have found,

The folks beyond the railroad

And the people all around,

The worker and the farmer,

The sailor on the sea,

The folk who built this country,

That’s America to me.

The house I live in,

My neighbours white and black,

The people who just came here,

Or from generations back,

The town hall and the soap box,

The torch of Liberty,

A home for all God’s children,

That’s America to me.” 

[1] “Harvest of Empire: A history of Latinos in America”, Juan Ganzalez (2011), Penguin Books.

1 comment

  1. A strong post, and one I pretty much agree with. Joe Manchin would not be the problem that he is had the American voters given the democrats a stronger majority than a fifty-fifty senate. The current situation makes clear that America is not a democracy. The senate gives outsize power to voters in smaller states, thus disenfranchising voters in larger states. Add in gerrymandering and voter suppression and it gets really challenging. The irony is that to accomplish things we need to elect more democrats, but the irony is that because we did not succeed with the bare minimum balance that we had, it is likely even fewer will be elected. Happy to see you ended with The House I Live In, written by a Bronxite. He presented an optimistic spin at a time that had its own challenges.


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