America, Land of Freedom(s)

Happy 4th of July.

Today is the 4th of July, and I am for the moment still in America, (although I fly out today), so I thought it would be a good moment to jot down some notes about the good old USA. 

Many people, and in particular Americans, like to say that the U.S. is the “land of freedom”, and in many ways, that is exactly right. But what kind of freedom? There are so many contrasting freedoms in America; sometimes they are so contrasting that they do not get along very well. 

Politically, it is said that the country is divided between Republicans and Democrats, but that’s not exactly true. It is divided between two different ways of seeing and understanding the world, and even the word “freedom”. 

Both camps talk constantly about freedom. But Democrats, or progressives, see it as basically sexual and social freedom. Freedom to identify as any gender you want. Freedom to have sex with whomever you want, and to abort the child if you or your partner get pregnant afterwards. Freedom to dress and behave as you want. 

For Republicans or conservatives (it’s not really the same thing, but let that slide) “freedom” is better defined as the lack of state interference on property and on life. That’s why guns are so important to this group — something that Europeans do not seem to understand. In America, guns are a metonymy for freedom. Freedom from state tyranny (it is stated in the Constitution that citizens should be able to form an “armed militia” to resist any government encroachment on their rights), but, more practically, freedom to protect yourself from crime and violence without depending on the police or the state. 

America is a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious country, and all those groups do not always get along. Violence is in the American DNA, and part and parcel of its colonial and multi-cultural origins. 

America is also a very unequal country. It offers incredible opportunities, and it is, still, very prosperous. But that prosperity lives side by side with uttermost misery and poverty. This is also related to “freedom” in a way. In America, and this is increasingly more so, you are on your own. The country offers opportunities for advancement, but if you fail, tough luck. You’re just a loser and you deserve what’s coming to you. 

You can be very rich, or you can have a comfortable middle-class life, but you can also become a homeless derelict living inside your car — that is, if you have the luck to still have a car.   

In America, wonderful cities and amazing views can live side by side with awful public services. Public transportation in particular. This is also something that Europeans do not understand. But in America, everything is about the individual, and, by extension, about the car. The car is for current Americans what the horse was to cowboys. I remember reading once about an American teenager who had killed himself because, after an accident, his parents forbade him to drive the family car. The boy took a gun — that other symbol of American freedom — and shot himself in the face. “Without a car, I have no social life, I am a loser, I am no one”, he wrote in his suicide note. 

Everything is centred in the car, even long-distance travel. American airlines are probably among the worst in the world in terms of service. Their train service is pretty bad too, at least when comparing it to Europe or Asia (although there are a few routes in the East Coast that are not completely terrible). And buses… Buses in the U.S. are the worst. For inter-city service, there’s Greyhound, which is perhaps the closest to Hell that you can find on this Earth. A few years ago, a young man was decapitated inside a Greyhound bus. That’s the level of Greyhound for you. If you want to travel around the US, my advice is to rent a car. 

Many say that America is right now in decadence, and in a lot of ways this is true. Looking back, its heyday was probably in the 1950s: a country coming from victory in the Second Word War and with the Great Depression having become only a distant memory. It was still a 90% White European country, and it didn’t have such a large population as today. 

A few decades later, massive immigration, several stupid wars, demented plans of social engineering and the offshoring of manufacturing to China have completely changed the country, making it a shadow of what it once was. 

And yet… America is still very prosperous and very beautiful in some of its parts (the parts are better than the whole), and, more importantly, it still captures the imagination of the world. American culture is everywhere. It seems almost as if, the more the country slides into decadence and corruption, and, at least domestically, disappointment grows among its population, the more its dream-like culture spreads abroad. Hollywood still dominates worldwide cinematography, and, all over the world, T-shirts with American slogans or brands are sold and worn everywhere, from Germany to Vietnam. 

In this recent travel to the U.S., I spent a few days in New York City, but mostly I spent the time in the countryside. And, let me tell you, it is like being in two different worlds. I think that to fully understand America, you need to go to the countryside, to its small villages, to its farms. That’s where the “real America” lives, and, if there is any hope that the United States will survive into the future, and that it will ride out into the sunset after the many catastrophes that are probably coming, you also have to look at the countryside. 

Never mind New York, L.A., Chicago. America is still a cowboy country at heart.