That's me, the good-looking one
My visit was short -- just two days -- and my last night in town we put the kids to bed and went out for wine and oysters at a nearby bistro. I was to get up early the next morning to head for CDG to catch a flight to New York, but I was so drunk when I returned to my room that I neglected to set my alarm. Next morning I awoke (badly hung over) just 2 1/2 hours before my flight's departure. I packed everything up in 10 minutes -- discovering in the process that I had been surfing to a web site with current weather in Toronto the night before; I have no idea why -- and was checked out and in a taxi in 15. There were no lines for check-in, so I arrived at my gate in plenty of time. This was basically the last thing to go right travel-wise for the rest of my trip.
The image of the United States has been in free-fall for some years now. Once associated with liberty, democracy and freedom, the country has in a few short years come to be increasingly connected with torture, mass-murder, arrogance and ignorance. Like many, I've long blamed Bush and his cronies Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Ashcroft for the problem, but this visit has made it more clear to me that they are more symptom than cause of the underlying problems. The U.S. Congress deserves it's share of blame, as does the press, the schools, the military, industry, Wall Street, the legal system, the church, and a host of other institutions, but first and foremost it's now clear to me that it is the public at large, which has increasingly rejected thinking and reason in favour of a society built on fear and ideology, that deserves the bulk of the blame.
This state of affairs was not entirely unanticipated -- it's a big part of the reason I left the USA more than a decade ago -- but the speed of the decline, and the clear indications that the situation can be expected to continue to rapidly deteriorate are nonetheless breathtaking. I've known about the statistical indicators for some time -- the abyssmal levels of literacy, the third world levels of infant mortality, the shocking levels of greenhouse gas production, the incredible levels of incarceration -- but it was still stunning to witness the effects of this decline first-hand.
Osama bin Laden is presumably thrilled with this state of affairs. One thing that was consistent throughout my visit is that every failing, every weakness, every misfortune was routinely blamed on "9/11". The main purpose for my visit was to join a delegation from American Citizens Abroad, and to assist them in communicating with Senators and Representatives about citizeship, taxation, health care and other issues of concern to Americans living abroad. This effort involved a lot of running around on Capitol Hill, going from one meeting to another in the various House and Senate office buildings. Years ago, I had worked as a journalist in Washington and as a result knew those buildings and the maze of underground passageways that connect them quite well. Temperatures in Washington were near 40 degrees, with humidity at 100%, so knowing how to get from appointment to appointment without stepping outside was essential. Unfortunately, these passageways were now patrolled by security guards who explained that "since 9/11," visitors were no longer permitted to use the tunnels, so we were forced out into the heat. My suit was soon soaked through with sweat, but my colleague was in even worse shape. He had taken the train down from New York, and had no choice but to lug two heavy bags around all day because, Amtrak explained, they no longer had left luggage facilities "since 9/11". Even in London, where left luggage undergoes airport-style screening, they haven't taken such extreme measures.
Since we were meeting with elected representatives of the American people and the underpaid, inexperienced minions that comprise their staffs, these were far from the stupidest pronouncements we heard that day. In fact, nearly everyone we met with freely acknowledged that Congress was a seething nest of short-sighted, ignorant, incompetent know-nothings excepting, of course, their own office, which was burdened with the nearly impossible and completely thankless task of trying to get the morons who comprised the remainder of this institution to understand how important our issues were to the security and prosperity of the republic. Although I am usually quite partisan when it comes to politics, ACA's charter describes it as a "bi-partisan organisation," (like many Leftists, I had sometimes experienced "bi-curious" urges, and finally decided to act on them) so there really isn't an opposing viewpoint to our own on most of the issues we were advocating. As a good Leftist, I'm much more concerned about the social issues facing Americans abroad, such as those related to the transmission of citizenship, social security and medicare, but nonetheless broadly agree with my Republican colleagues on the tax issues they saw as more critical.
More than any of the numerous other manifestations of 21st-century America's unique blend of ignorance and arrogance I witnessed during my visit, the Capitol Hill experience provided the strongest indication that this is a society in free-fall. Many offices displayed boards showing the scale of the national debt (8,8 trillion and rising), but nobody seemed concerned about the growing trade deficit or the policies that inhibited American competitiveness and seriously threatens its prosperity and security. As one of my colleagues pointed out, the national debt is like a mortgage on your house, so it doesn't matter if you never pay it off, since you always have an asset to balance it against. The USA's budget deficit, at around 7% of GDP, is more or less in line with that of other industrialised countries. The trade deficit, on the other hand, is like credit-card debt, and it either gets re-paid directly in cash, or indirectly in the declining value of your currency. Not only is the USA racking up a record trade deficit (now approaching US$1 trillion/year), but the United States is in numerous other ways failing to capture any of the benefits of globalisation, whilst fully paying the costs. Everywhere else you go, you meet people learning a third or fourth language, raising kids with three passports, and maintaining homes on two continents. In the USA, Wyndam hotel's television advertising featured guests talking about why they chose the chain over others; one guest said it was "because I don't want to have to learn another language." Seriously -- indulging this kind of ignorance was actually touted as a benefit of this hotel chain. Whilst globally the number of managers working outside their home countries and the number of foreign tourists is establishing new records every year, both the number of Americans working outside the USA and the number of foreigners visitors to the USA are in free-fall. A society already noted for its insularity and ignorance is responding to the challenges of globalisation by burrowing deeper into its shell, apparently hoping the rest of the world will just go away and leave it alone. Unfortunately, that's exactly the result the USA is headed for -- as the deficit accelerates and the USA becomes less and less competitive, costs will rise, incomes will plummet, people will start demanding answers, and politicians will belatedly respond. But no one will likely do anything before it is too late. One of the few countervailing forces that is at least injecting some growth into this otherwise declining economy is the arrival of new immigrants, continuously providing the economy with fresh impetus. As such, one would imagine that Congress would do everything it could to encourage these new arrivals. Instead, on my last day in the USA, Congress defeated an immigration bill that would have created a guest worker programme and made it easier for those in the country to legalise their status. One gets the idea that if one of these legislators were drowning and you threw them a life-ring, they would try to beat themselves senseless with it.
We encountered many different kinds of ignorance during these visits, but if there were a single unifying thread, it's the apparent belief that this is still the 1950s, i.e., that the dollar is still the world's reserve currency, steel is still made in Bethlehem, cars are still made in Detroit, computers mean IBM and global trade is whatever the USA says it is. But, as I said at the beginning of this post, the roots of the problem go much deeper than Congress, to the people who actually put them in office. As an outsider, the things the American voter does appear bafflingly stupid -- voting for Bush, opposing foreign aid, supporting military adventures, discouraging immigration, etc. One of the many other manifestations of America's decline I experienced was its decaying airline industry. Once again, Congress has played its part by making it illegal for foreign investors to acquire US airlines. As one result, I missed my connecting flights on both my way in and my way out of the country (and am currently still waiting for the second of my two missing bags to show up). I fly very, very often, and cannot remember the last time I had a late or cancelled flight, or had a bag go missing. Yet on the one and only trip I take on an American-managed airline, all three things happen. The airline put me up at a horrible little hotel outside Boston, where I had nothing better to do than catch up on the news on television. I first tuned to CNN. Years ago, I learned that CNN actually makes two versions of its newscast -- one for its global audience, and another that produces simpler stories and avoids words with more than two syllables for its American viewers. CNN was showing an interview with Paris Hilton, who had just been released from jail and was discussing her "ordeal." No, Larry King isn't going to interview Khalid al-Masri about the 5 months he spent being tortured in the CIA's "Salt Pit" prison outside Khandahar on his next show, in case you were wondering. Al-Masri had dark skin and therefore deserved to be tortured. On CNN Headline News, the CNN sister station, I was able to learn in detail about some moron in Ohio or somewhere who had just murdered his pregnant girlfriend. The same story was being carried by Fox News and all the local stations. Nowhere did I find anything about the war in Iraq, genocide in Darfur, Iran's nuclear programme, the new British Prime Minister, the upcoming Bush-Putin summit, global warming, the EU constitutional crisis, the apparent wrongful conviction of the Lockerbie bombing suspect, Castro's birthday celebrations, the resistance to growing authoritarianism by U.S.-allied dictators by Supreme Court justices in Egypt and Pakistan, or any of numerous other meaningful stories that were being carried elsewhere. Here in Doha, I can choose between the international version of CNN in English, BBC World in English, Al-Jazeera in English or Arabic, France24 in English, French or Arabic, SkyNews in English, Deutsche Welle in English or German, EuroNews in English or French, RAI in Italian or TVE in Spanish. I don't think any of them were carrying the Paris Hilton story, and so it's little wonder Americans vote as if they are living in a different world than the rest of us.
Flying out of Washington, the TSA and I went into our familiar routine. They harass me, I object. They threaten me with arrest, I invite them to go ahead. They ask if I want to make my flight or not. I tell them I don't care one way or the other, and they finally let me go on my way. Turns out agents at this same airport managed to thwart a dangerous plot involving a toddler and a "sippy-cup" filled with water just a few weeks previously (this incident was no doubt at the top of the news cast). Clearly pumped after their successful show-down with Toddler-bin-Laden, who was probably concealing a poopy diaper (which are defined as a chemical weapon by the 2nd Geneva Convention) in addition to his Sippy-cup-of-Mass-Destruction, they made a point of detaining me past my scheduled departure time. But thanks to America's declining competitiveness, it made no difference -- my flight was 40 minutes late and I boarded no problem. Unfortunately, boarding meant pulling away from the gate and sitting on the tarmac for 90 minutes before we finally took off, which led to my missing my connection in Boston. There wasn't another flight until the same flight the next day, so I got to spend the night there.
Next day, I thought I might as well take the opportunity to do a little sight-seeing in Boston, a city I knew well but hadn't seen in some time. Although I had no choice but to wear the same clothes that day because everything else was in my checked bags, I still had my 10 kilo lap top bag with me. I tried to check it at the airport, but was told that -- Surprise! -- they no longer had left luggage facilities "since 9/11". So I spent the day lugging this horrible huge bag around with me all day, re-visiting familiar sights along Boston's famous "Freedom Trail," such as the Old North Church, from where American terrorists signalled the arrival of British troops to their co-conspirators, such as the famous terrorist Paul Revere, who then spread the information to other terror cells in the interior, so that leading terrorists like Samuel Adams could avoid capture, detention as "illegal combatants" and probable torture at the hands of the British. ("It's been like this ever since 7/4!")
Boston's Old North Church, scene of one of America's most successful terrorist conspiracies
One sight that wasn't familiar was the sight that wasn't there -- the I-93 overpass. This was a huge elevated highway that used to cut through the heart of Boston, separating out the North End from the rest of the city. In some ways I actually liked the old roadway -- you were elevated above the city as you passed through it, giving you a sense of intimacy and connection sort of like being on one of those rides at Disneyland. From the other perspective -- of seeing it looming above you as pedestrian, darkening the sky, spewing fumes and filling the air with an unending dull roar, it was however quite different. After years and years of work and incredibly huge amounts of money (and accusations of corruption, mis-management, incompetence, etc. etc. etc.), the formerly elevated highway has been sunk 10 meters below the surface, which is being covered with a park. Despite the fact that this project started around a decade ago, the finishing touches were still being applied -- trees, landscaping, benches and walkways were being installed as I passed over on my way to the North End. Big money, big effort, but I would say ultimately worth the end result.
Eventually, the wandering about with my laptop bag wore me out, so I headed back to Logan Airport, again went through my routine with the TSA ("we don't have to tolerate any complaints, sir"; "I know you don't, you can quit any time they get to be too much for you") and finally boarded my Paris flight and relaxed in my seat. The flight attendant offered us drinks; I asked for a beer. She asked for five dollars. I checked my wallet. Spent the last of my USD in Logan, offered to pay in Euros. "Sure," she said, "five Euros". I asked her why American Airlines was charging for drinks, as if it were a discount airline, yet charging full fare, as if it were a full-service airline, and then accepting money at a ridiculous exchange rate, to boot. "I know it's terrible," she said, "but ever since 9/11..."
1 July 2007