May 19, 2011
New York has a reputation of being liberal and even left-wing in some matters. Alongside conservative Wall Street, progressive New York University dominates the Manhattan scene. Some of the best liberal newspapers and reviews in the world are from New York. Personally I have to thank the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books for keeping me abreast about world issues so well when at home in Leiden.
Thus New York, as every other person will tell you, is not America. But as it is America for me, staying cooped up in Stuyvesant Town and surroundings, I venture as a European to see more similarities in “Americanity ” than differences between New York and the rest of the US. One of these similarities is a tendency to exaggeration bordering on hysteria.
It has always struck Europeans and the world that Americans appreciate bigness. Indeed New York with its skyscrapers succeeded in attracting the attention of some technical students from the desert with a grudge about that, and thus saw the twin towers tumble. I am not a good judge, being European, but at the time I underestimated the impact on the American soul. I thought a thorough international enquiry would track down the surviving perpetrators, drag them before some court of law and shame them. The sensible thing for Americans would have been to tell their friend, the King of the country of origin of the terrorist pack, to stop fuelling hatred for America with petrodollars. It was clear in the reaction of the Saudi ambassador that he expected some retaliation of this kind and he quickly moved some exposed families out of the way, that is, out of America.
But for America good is not good enough. The ambassador had not reckoned with the brittleness of the American ego, its need of absolute security, its tendency to impose peace by guns. Instead of a specific remedy America chose global war and a broadband extinction of terrorism. The old box was opened and out came a witch-hunt, one of the oldest American delusions since Salem. The wisdom of the Greeks told however that at the bottom of the box of Pandora, which never should be opened, lies hope.
Hope comes in the form of Obama. Here is an intelligent professor who had not bought the lies about Iraq, and who opposed the war of Bush. Here is a democratic politician who really believes in American ideals. Here is a man who knows the world by experience and can calm things down outside. Notwithstanding his dangerous name and his blackness he astounded the world and comforted the Americans by becoming President of the United States, the impossible job. And then disillusion set in as quickly as hope had risen.
I had expected the liberals of New York, or the few I met, to be patient. They had just escaped from the terrible danger of having another foolish president. Another fool in the White House would have increased international lawlessness and the power of the military-industrial complex. McCain and the Palin woman would have unleashed the worst instincts of America, the corruption of capitalism and the hypocrisy of religious thinking. He would not only have increased the insecurity of America but would have led it to its final financial ruin. All this did not happen because of the election of Obama. Any liberal democrat should have sighed in relief and waited with patience for other good things to come.
Not so my liberal friends. They expressed impatience. Why did it take so long to close Guantanamo? Why did he not make gay emancipation in the army an issue at once, repeating the mistake of Bill Clinton? Why was his strategy so deliberate and his attitude so aloof? Why did he want to heal instead of fight? It then dawns on you that in its expectations America is not only impatient, but slightly unhinged. It not only wants a quick fix but salvation. And if salvation, which to old civilizations is suspect, does not come at once American anguish strikes back. There is no modern country where the glimmer of hope is accompanied by such furies of paranoia and hysteria as in America.
I do not know whom to say it to, so I say it to myself: a patient in the grip of anxiety does not need a hysterical psychiatrist. The patient needs a calm, thoughtful, deliberate cure. This the doctor in the White House can give .
Deep down Americans want to trust their doctor, but they also are deeply distrustful. Will he fail, like they themselves, to understand the issues? Will he fail to act? In a democracy the collective looms large, and the individual feels small, as Tocqueville observed about America. They imagine a doctor like themselves, with easy solutions and acting rashly, not an uncommonly tranquil being like Obama. Ban the drugs, smite the Arabs.
My prediction is that Obama will succeed, if he gets time. The healing process needs at least two treatments, two terms, to get under way. Capitalism has to be remedied, militarism reigned in. The witchdoctors and quacks have to be chased from public discourse. It is slowly sinking in that this is his brief.