American Journeys by Don Watson (2008) 326 p.

America holds a fascinating sway for Australians – for foreigners in general, certainly, but more so for an English-speaking nation with little history and a feeble culture. I grew up watching the Simpsons, eating at McDonalds, reading Calvin and Hobbes, going to see Hollywood blockbusters and playing Grand Theft Auto. For me, names like “California” and “New York” are on par with “Narnia” and “Oz,” equally fantastic and unreachable.

And yet there is a vehement anti-American streak running through Australian society; perhaps a kneejerk reaction against our children being bred as quasi-Americans, or a way to compensate for our own inferiority complex, or simply the fact that most of the world, by and large, dislikes America. This creates a paradox, one which Australian journalist Don Watson tasked himself with exploring:

On The United States of America my senses swing like a door with no latch. They are moved by fierce gusts and imperceptible zephyrs. Love and loathing come and go in about the same proportion. But then, one rages about one’s own siblings from time to time, and one’s own country: it is not rational, in the main. Yet there had been a time when anti-Americanism took on a gleam of reason. As earnest student radicals in the late 1960s, we saw the thread that joined the vicious white mobs of the South to the very foundations of the republic – because we learned that such founders of American democracy as Washington and Jefferson took slaves. We learned what we took to be the real truth about the Indian Wars, the Mexican Wars and the Monroe Doctrine, and it persuaded us that Vietnam was part of a pattern which, when you looked at it hard, revealed IMPERIALISM.

But just as we were thinking it was in the “nature’ of America to be brutal, racist and imperialistic, a paradox appeared. The Freedom Marchers had been American. Martin Luther King was American. Sidney Perelmen was American. Mark Twain was American. Portnoy was American. Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, William Appleman Williams, Herbert Marcuse and Robert Crumb were all American. Our jeans were American. The most articulate critics of America – the most articulate people on earth, and the most liberal – were American. The America of my most avid anti-American phase was the America of my first rational adult heroes. The paradox, greatly modified though it is, animates me still.

America itself is a paradox. It is a country responsible for the lion’s share of the great technological and scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century, yet a country where evolution is widely disbelieved and the vast majority of the population is religious. It is a country that, in spite of its Christian values, executes convicts by the truckload and craves a war every twenty years or so. It is a country full of people who call for “smaller government” while supporting the erosion of civil liberties. None of this is this a new phenomenon; the phrase “all men are born equal” was coined by slaveowners.

It is on this paradox that Watson bases his book, part travelogue and part social commentary. His journey took place in 2005 and 2006, beginning in Katrina-devastated New Orleans and spanning a very respectable chunk of the country, crossing back and forth almost as much as Jack Kerouac in On The Road. There are several recurring themes – race relations, the plight of America’s underclass, the pervasive influence of Christianity, the political polarity. Watson is a fine writer and an intelligent scholar, and while American Journeys can be tedious at times, one is never short of food for thought.

For a book supposedly about the Great American Paradox, however – which would mean both the good and the bad – American Journeys paints a very bleak picture. Black Americans continue to occupy a low socio-economic rung. The prison-industrial complex leaves penitentiaries overflowing with inmates. Violence seems ingrained in the history and the culture. There is no universal healthcare, the state values the rights of employers over employees, and the minimum wage is appallingly low – many people live day-to-day, dollar-to-dollar, teetering above the poverty line. The political sphere is rife with slander, pettiness, and unebelievable ignorance.

Watson mentions only two arguments in favour of America. The first (and minor) one is the kindness and friendliness of its individual citizens, which I’ll come back to in a moment. The second – a major theme which he bases his entire conclusion around – is American freedom.

Freedom is such an old chestnut of American rhetoric that it does not impress outsiders as perhaps it should. The more the president speaks of it, the less meaning it registers… And yet, when one travels in America, the chestnut sheds at least some of its shell. You come to see that, to Americans, freedom means something that we incurable collectivists do not quite understand; and that they know freedom in ways that we do not. Freedom is the country’s sacred state. Freedom is what must be protected. All over, they will tell you what is wrong with America, but freedom is the one thing they think right. And whatever the insults to my social democratic senses, that is what I find irresistable about the place – the almost guilty, adolescent feeling that in this place a person can do what he wants. He can grow absurdly rich; he can hunt a mountain lion; he can harbour the most fantastic ideas; he can shoot someone. He can commune with God and nature, buy anything he wants, pay anyone for any service and at any fee. He can be a social outcast or even a prisoner and yet, being American, believe that he is free.

If I am American, I am as free as a person can be. If I am free, I can do – or dream of doing – all the things it is in my nature to do or to dream; no other place on Earth need interest me. So long as I am guaranteed this freedom, I will forgive the things my country does that are not in my nature or my dreams. I will be “spared all the care of thinking about them.” This is, of course, unless my country or some other place threatens freedom.

This comes completely out of the left field in the afterword, as though Watson suddenly realised he’d written a comprehensive tome detailing every one of America’s flaws and felt compelled to balance it out somehow. It feels quite hollow when he has been told numerous times throughout the book, by taxi drivers and barmen and retirees and countless others, that America is a unique stronghold of freedom – and which he counters every time with the plain and simple fact that dozens of other countries are equally free. More free, perhaps, given the current American penchant for trading in civil liberties for security.

The lasting impression I got from the book (one which I mostly already held) was that America is, among Western countries, an extremely dysfunctional nation. A fascinating place, yes, when held at arm’s length and viewed through the lens of movies and video games, and a place which I already have plans to visit. But not a place where I would like to permanently live, or raise a family. Not a healthy society.

I probably shouldn’t cast judgement on a country I’ve never been to, only experienced (a lot, mind you) through popular culture. But I’ll do it anyway. I think that, under my personal definition of “great,” America is far from being the greatest nation on earth. I think it is nonetheless the most interesting nation on Earth, by a long shot. I think it’s important to separate people from their governments; I’ve met many Americans in my time, and found, as Watson did, that they’re quite friendly and likeable. I have nothing but disdain for Australians (invariably, Australians who’ve never actually met an American) who accuse American citizens of being arrogant and rude and stupid – without a shred of self-awareness. It’s one thing to criticise the sweeping history of the American nation/government’s brutality; quite another thing to generalise 300 million people.

I think that while America has many flaws, there are plenty of great things about it… but that none of those great things are absent in the other nations of the Western world.

I think that while these other Western nations may not seem to have as many severe flaws as America does, that may just be because we are smaller and quieter and less populous. I think that Australia or Europe or Canada would be equally liable to sabre-rattling and imperialism, were any one of us the most powerful nation in the world.

I think that, while my beliefs about America may be naive or uninformed, at leas I’m fucking consistent and lucid with them, unlike Don Watson.

American Journeys makes a lot of interesting arguments about aspects of America, but ultimately fails to make any kind of cohesive statement on the country as a whole, other than the bizarrely uncharacteristic afterword that suggests Watson felt a book about America would be incomplete without a big stirring speech about trademarked American Freedom – a myth he has previously debunked. (A myth that is self-evidently debunked, for that matter.)

That’s okay, I suppose. America has been the defining cultural, political and economic juggernaut all over the world for nearly a century, and will remain so in the English-speaking world for a long time to come. You can’t wrap your head around it by taking a few train rides and writing a book, let alone by reading that book from your distant home in suburban Australia. I doubt I’ll ever understand a place as powerful, dynamic, intense and loud as America, but if my life goes to plan I’ll be arriving there sometime next year, and I’ll see things for myself.