From 1892 to 1895, Bohemian composer Antonín Dvořák stayed in New York. In 1893, he converted his first, overwhelming impressions of America into his ninth symphony, entitled “From the New World”.
A “new” world? Already by the 1890s, the U.S. had been around for almost 120 years.
In 2012, when I first paid a visit, it had existed for double that period, almost 240 years, and was in various ways present on the entire planet. But even then, for me as a German, it felt like a “new world”.
After 2012, I travelled to the U.S. three more times. I’ve visited major corners of the gigantic country, for business or tourism: the Northeast with Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.; the Old South with Atlanta, Nashville and New Orleans; Florida with Miami in the South and Orlando and Tallahassee in the North; Chicago at the Great Lakes; Austin in Texas; Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon; California with Los Angeles in the South and San Francisco in the North; and the Northwest with Portland and Seattle.
I left each place with fascination – and bewilderment. Today, I’d like to share both with you, as we are yet again gazing at America for a big election.
Everything is bigger in America, when compared to Europe: the territory, of course, but also the buildings, the roads, the cars, the drinks – simply everything. In Texas, they boast that their state is larger than France; and though you may think of Texans what you want, they are right when it comes to their size.
The continental U.S. alone stretches over four time zones, so that TV stations, when announcing a show, indicate both its hour and the time zone that the hour refers to. Distances in the U.S. are so long that every town has an airport, and flying feels as common as taking the bus in Europe. Or you drive, in America, in one of those cars that look like ships, on one of those highways that retain the same number for up to 3,000 miles (i.e. I-95).
On the road, you cross landscapes devoid of any human being, or covered by endless grainfields, or the skyscrapers of cities. In fact, Germany boasts of the “skyline” of Frankfurt’s financial district; but in the U.S., every mediocre agglomeration houses a bigger skyline.
Even American fridges are as tall as a man and include a water and ice dispenser in the front of the door. I once went into a tech market to see whether it offered smaller fridges as well. There were but a few, which also were comparatively expensive. That’s why even small households won’t do without a “monster” fridge.
From here, we could delve into the downsides of the “American way of life”, such as the lavish use of resources – I don’t want to know, for example, how much power it takes to freeze all those ice cubes that Americans shovel into their drinks. Furthermore, I could go on by stressing that people’s bellies too are bigger in the U.S. But I’m not writing these lines with any bad intent.
On the contrary, as a German, I won’t forget that it was the U.S. that defeated the Nazis, and thus blazed the trail for the democracy we enjoy today in Germany.
Germany in particular has received, at first against its will, priceless supplies from the “arsenal of democracy”, as referred to by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. A story that, by the way, is the ultimate proof that certain wars are not only just but necessary.
They who embrace unconditional pacifism thereby reveal that they would not mind if today the Nazis ruled our world. Alas, the higher the moral standards, the more one may fail to match them. That is America’s tragedy, and we know what misery may ensue, both in the country itself and across the world.
That being said, I still believe that the U.S. has, overall, brought more good than ill. Its Declaration of Independence (1776) famously entitles people to pursue their “happiness”. I’ve seen results of that pursuit, in the impressive comforts of life that America offers, thanks to both government and private business. Also little things such as ice cubes in drinks belong to that category.
What is more, every thinkable good may be purchased on the spot at affordable prices – yes, consider how much you pay for a smartphone and in how many ways it will serve you. Drinking water comes from free fountains that are still scarce in Europe. Service providers really care about customers. And even people who want to sell you nothing are so extremely friendly and easygoing – sometimes annoyingly so – that it must come from a profound satisfaction, and blight optimism.
As a greeting, everybody will ask you, “how you’re doing?”, though I know that they don’t expect an answer. When you ask a person, even a stranger, for help, you are not only welcome, but “more than welcome”. And while also younger people are addressed as “Ma’am” or “Sir” by strangers, even high-ranking dignitaries don’t mind if the “common folk“ call them by the first name.
Also, there’s something for the mind: the entertainment industry. It’s true that Hollywood and the like churn out garbage as well, but in the past hundred years, Americans have created more of the finest music and films than most of the rest of the world.
Those creations didn’t conquer the world because of some “hard” or “soft” coercion. Nobody forces Germans to listen, say, to American pop or jazz rather than German folk. They do it all the same, because the popular arts from the other side of the pond are quite honestly better than most other stuff. The creative minds from there know best what their output needs to appeal to various audiences – a central but often neglected, and even despised, element of high art.
But America’s most beneficial contribution to the lives of us all is technological progress.
How much more difficult would it be without those countless accomplishments that at this point wouldn’t exist as they do – at affordable prices – without America’s brains, whether they come originally from there or immigrated? Think of personal computers or the World Wide Web, mighty modern medicine, or the basic research in the natural sciences, for which so many Nobel prizes go yearly to the U.S.
How can we explain that such genius swarms in a certain country, in comparison to which other countries pale? I believe that freedom plays a crucial role. The wider the freedom in a place, the more competition there is, and competition is the mainspring of progress.
America, now, may have the widest freedom on Earth; “the land of the free” – that’s not just a humble wish of its national anthem. In America, all in all, people are free to do things that go further than what is licit elsewhere. A telling example is freedom of speech.
In the current race for the presidency, I have often wondered whether the people involved may insult each other to the extent we see without ever incurring libel actions against them. But indeed, they may, as freedom of speech is given such high rank by America’s laws.
Equally, Americans are free of things. That applies above all to the absence of history. We Europeans smile when in America we are proudly told by locals that the “oldest” church in their town dates from the 1860s. What a teenaged building in the face of Europe’s thousand-year-old cathedrals!
From a societal point of view, however, such venerable cathedrals mirror age-old hierarchies; the traditions of rule and bondage that are part of the essence of Europe. In the U.S., by contrast, the only “monarch” has been a lunatic, who in the 19th century, to the amusement of his “subjects”, named himself “Emperor” of the country.
On the other hand, money, or rather not having it, puts a serious constraint on American freedom; and, of course, having a skin colour that is discriminated against. So yes, even America bears its burdens of history. Racial resentment, a survivor of slavery; or the uncontrolled ownership of the deadliest guns, which goes back to the times when European settlers in the American wild had to defend themselves from hostile natives and predators.
Government wasn’t there, or if it was, it consisted of the British oppressors. Those circumstances then gave rise to the profound suspicion that Americans harbor about any government’s interference within people’s lives. As a result, guns are claimed as a right like children claim their toys, and the American government is debarred by citizens of its very own from adequately providing for all people in need, and also infrastructure. There’s no general health care, or high-speed train connections. There are power blackouts instead, and shocking homelessness.
I once booked a flight inside the U.S. with a local airline. On the site where you pay, they indicate that a certain share of the price is due to the “government’s cut” – as if the government was some band of robbers. Who, I’d ask the airline, has built all those roads that allows your passengers to drive to your airport? Or who runs the high schools where your pilots went?
But no, the administration shouldn’t charge taxes for that, especially not under a President called Barack Obama.
“He’s as bad as Hitler”, a Republican campaigner said to me once on a street in Georgia, in the run-up to the election of 2012. “You can see it in his eyes. I’ve been a teacher; I know what people’s eyes mean.”
To be honest, I wouldn’t want to live in the United States. Yet I admire its ideas, and how some of them have come true. And I value the splendid amenities that result from that. At the same time, I see, yet with sadness rather than scorn, America’s faults, and I earnestly hope they will be overcome.
Will the 45th president, whose name we will learn tonight, make a good contribution?