In “Look Homeward, Americans” Carson McCullers speaks of a nostalgia that is a character trait of the American people—a nostalgia for the familiar that is accompanied by a desire for the foreign and strange. She speaks of this trait as something the American poets of old embodied, a longing and a restlessness exhibited by men like Hart Crane and Walt Whitman. She wrote this a year before America entered World War II, and ends with thoughts that absolutely stopped me in my tracks, for in a few lines she expressed the feeling I have been dealing with, unconsciously and otherwise, for nearly two decades:
the world of these poets, and of all of us who lived before this debacle, has been ruthlessly amputated from the world of today. Frontiers, both of the earth and of the spirit, were open to them and have since been closed to us. America is now isolated in a way that we never before could have foreseen. . . . America feels now the shock of transition. . . . We must make a new declaration of independence, a spiritual rather than a political one this time.
These words are as timely now as they were then. America, in its way, has always been a unique and isolated country, an experiment that has gone and done wrong on many occasions and made a number of Frankenstein monsters at home and abroad. Before World War I and throughout most of it, we were isolationist and believed we should not interfere in the politics and domestic affairs of other countries (at least outside the sphere of influence of our own backyard, so to speak). This is certainly a strong, thoughtful perspective, but not always a tenable one, and those who espouse it as the only path do not understand the interdependence of nations on one another, primarily because of trade, and also because of alliances made in the ruins of wars that have shaken the global order of times past. Our entrance into World War II happened because we were attacked, which plunged us into a war we until that time seemed determined again not to engage in. In the debris of this war we rose as one of two superpowers, and the champion of freedom and democracy.
For McCullers, the war created a sense of isolation and loneliness in the American, for whom many parts of the world were cut off because of this catastrophe. In this way, she wished for Americans to look toward home for peace, for spiritual renewal, at a time when the country was only beginning a slow recovery from the Great Depression.
America was isolated at this time because it had not entered the war, and yet, as I see it, its isolation continued afterward because it began to direct the international order, having to pick up the pieces after the war left Europe and parts of Asia in ruin. With this reality and the British Empire extinguished, power accrued to America and caused an asymmetry in the global order. For many this has ultimately been a terrible thing, for no one country should direct the world order; many speak of spheres of influence or of creating as strong and positive a balance of power among the many countries of the world as possible. America’s ability to take the helm was a consequence of it surviving the war relatively intact and being able to foster growth at home because the stars were aligned, if you will, in its favor. What surprises me is that many do not understand that throughout history global power has almost always landed at some point in the hands of one country and/or empire, and so an asymmetry is inevitable in how the international order is structured and directed, and who profits from it. What is important, and has yet to be understood, is that it is what the country or empire does with that power that matters. From what I can see, all superpowers have so far failed in figuring out how best to handle their power and use it for the benefit of the many rather than the few brokers seated at the tiny ring of power.
Carson McCullers’s words struck such a deep chord in me because just as the world of midcentury America was amputated from the one before thanks to the war, the America of yesterday is even more amputated and removed from the America of today. And I feel this quite strongly, as do many, as one witnesses the rise of a president and an administration that has been fertilizing and watering the corrosive, strangling weeds of ignorance, fear, anger, and hate in a large segment of the population and remains silent, and ultimately complicit through this silence, in response to the increasing violence against “the other” that has taken root across the country over the past few years.
But for me the America of yesterday died the morning of September 11, 2001. The neoconservative extremists at the top of our government at the time lied to the American people so that they could attempt the impossible and bring democracy to the Middle East, the professed cover for the more accurate long-term goal of taking more oil and building another consumer base for capitalism’s greedy and powerful to own more tools of production and pull the levers of “democratic” governments elsewhere. Going into Afghanistan was understandable, though in the long run it too has changed nothing and only made matters worse as well.
9/11 occurred just when I was entering the workforce hoping for permanent full-time employment, having received my master’s degree in literature just months before. For me this event robbed not only me but all ordinary Americans of a future, of a continued period of relative peace and prosperity. The fear, terror, and chaos of that day morphed into two wars with no true lasting end in sight and truth be told the neoconservatives and capitalist vampires prefer it this way, then Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, leaving her wrecked, and then the Great Recession caused by the greed of Wall Street and the too-big-to-fail banking system brought the first decade of the twenty-first century to a disastrous end. And this is poised to happen again, thanks to the Republicans who continue to retain control of Congress destroying any true possibility of financial freedom and stability for the average American by continuing to give too much power to the banks and Wall Streeters as well as national and multinational corporations whose only concern is increased wealth and influence to game and rig the system in their favor and maintain dominance of it and the government that appears to rule and run the country but does not. And there is too much to say about how dramatically America has changed since Obama became president.
The changing face of America (and you must read that phrase on multiple levels, as it is intended) that began with 9/11 has caused a trauma not seen before in my lifetime and fills many on both sides of the divide over this with fear, anger, and hate, on the one side reactionary and grounded in an ideal that cannot be made real (for such is the fate of all utopian dreams), and on the other entrenched in ignorance and a desire for what once was and can no longer be. For the foundation, the core, of all life is change, and in that change is periods of bloom and decay, death and rebirth. Hence my feeling that the time is out of joint and that the old America is near death, with limbs detached and head cut off, leaving a profusely bleeding torso convulsing in spasms, unable to let its former self go in peace. As Carson McCullers wrote over seventy years ago, it is once again time for America to look within but with this difference—without giving up its commitment to defending its allies and its place in the international order. America must forge a new progressive movement toward revolutionary freedom and equality that reignites the spirit that inspired us as a nation once before to stand united in the face of adversity both domestic and global, thereby changing the future through present action that seeks to pull together rather than tear apart.