A few weeks before the current television writers’ strike I was watching ‘The Late Show’. David Letterman was presenting his own version of the new tv series ‘America Has Talent’. The first guy he brought on displayed his own spectacular talent — kicking himself in the head thirty times within thirty seconds. He completed the task well within the time limit and with all the aplomb that could be expected of this form of entertainment. Letterman congratulated the man but then after he left said, “That is why the world hates us.” The second guy he brought on had a similarly unique talent that he must have spent hours and hours ‘perfecting’. As the drummer from the CBS band played a suspense-heightening roll on his snare, the young man fired a dart from a blowgun to trip a catapult propelling a marshmallow back in his direction, catching it in his mouth. Such an exacting manoeuvre took three tries before he got it right, first missing the catapult, then failing to catch the marshmallow, but finally completing it to the satisfaction of Letterman and the audience. Letterman remarked, “No, I’m sorry. That is why the world hates us.” The third man seemed to impress even Letterman — by drinking a glass of beer through his nose, sucking it up sip by delicious sip and then down his throat. Though some in the audience were audibly disgusted, Letterman praised this technique for its practical use: enabling you to smoke literally at the same time as enjoying a leisurely drink at the bar. But in another sense, according to Letterman, this feat trumped the others: “I have to apologize to the other two gentlemen: This is why the world hates us.”
From this superficially hilarious satire the obvious implication by Letterman is that Americans are for the most part absorbed in such trivialities: maybe the adult equivalent of playing with your peepee. And he could have added baseball, a national pastime raised to a spiritual observance but a competition largely irrelevant since cheating has been allowed to run rife for the past decade and a half; (American) football, a gladiatorial sport, the physical qualifications for which allow a tiny fraction of one percent of males to ascend to a similar pedestal in society, its attendant violence calling for layers of padding in a sometimes forlorn attempt to escape death; basketball, involving probably even more exacting physical disqualifiers for the general population, and believed to be a meaningful career for abnormally tall young men; and ice hockey, for which the childhood pastime of skating is ‘elevated’ by the additive of unprovoked aggression and other gang behavior to a religious experience observed for several months either side of the winter solstice. Americans are absorbed in these distractions every bit as much as Roman citizens were in gladiatorial circuses, orgies and freak shows through the decline of their empire.
This is not to say that New Zealanders and other nationalities don’t have their own crippling choice of tunnel vision in whiling away their days. They do. But, America being all-powerful and easily the dominant cultural influence around the world, living here in New Zealand as I have since 1960 I am frequently called on in casual conversation to defend the priorities of my original homeland, the United States. This used to be simple, I thought. I was only fourteen when the Sixties ended and America had always been the Good Guy as far as I knew, despite how some Vietnam War protesters had it. From the time I started university at seventeen and under the influence of my elder sisters I became a liberal (and, of course, a feminist), by my mid-twenties highly sceptical of how America functioned as a political unit in the world — diverging so far from the ideals of the Founding Fathers.
Under virtually continuous Republican administrations during my adult life — increasingly right-wing ones — it has been easy for scepticism to settle into deep disillusionment. The Clinton administration seemed in comparison an oasis of enlightenment in foreign relations, claiming to actually care about what the rest of the world wanted. Whether this was largely PR I’m not sure, but when the president visited New Zealand he was greeted like the second coming of Mahatma Gandhi: with almost the same moral authority, a comparable charisma quotient, and a lot handsomer to boot. Since then New Zealand has been downgraded from an ally to a ‘friend’ of the United States, mainly because not following Bush automatically into Iraq as Australia did under its conservative leader John Howard, recently voted out in a landslide.
Of course, a lot depends on whether you argue on a moral or on a historical basis:
“Yes, it was illegal, even immoral, for the United States to launch an unprovoked invasion against Iraq and remain as an occupying power — as it did against Hawaii, the Philippines, tried to do against North Vietnam. But, historically, look at the Roman Empire. Examined objectively, given America’s investment in naked power and as the one superpower in the world it has to be ruthless to maintain its power, or otherwise go backwards, relatively speaking”
… and this broad, philosophical argument trails off into intellectual abstractions and rationalisations. Standing back, it is seen this perspective is not objective at all but obtuse self-justification. I get the feeling a lot of Americans wouldn’t be content to think of their country as a historical parallel of the Roman Empire, despite the two societies’ many similarities in lifestyle, political priorities and reliance on military might to get their way.