2008/07/15

Americophilia

From an article by Ian Buruma for the NYRB

There is such a thing as Americophilia. It does not have the rich pedigree of Anglophilia or Francophilia, or even Germanophilia. In fact, it is not always recognized as a bona fide philia at all. But it exists. It existed in Europe during the Jazz Age, and in Europe, Japan, and pretty much everywhere during the 1950s. Even the Vietnam War didn't really kill it, for the center of protest was still in America. Americans had the best lines, and tunes, against the war. It still exists, although it is in danger of going the way of Germanophilia, into the fog of nostalgia, the land of what might have been.

I have always been an Americophile, or at least from the moment, at a very early age, when I received a postcard of the Empire State Building from my father, who was on a business trip to New York. The US, then, was an exotic place, where everything seemed bigger, glitzier, richer, more exciting. Americophilia, in my generation, was nurtured by the sexy allure of popular music. Even the names of the most provincial American cities—Memphis, Tennessee; Flagstaff, Arizona—were turned into desirable fetishes through the lyrics of rock-and-roll.

The sexiness of American pop culture was not such a trivial thing. For it had the ring of freedom, of a country with endless possibilities, where you could do things that would make the lace curtains of old Europe twitch. Much of this was a myth, of course, as the Beatles, Americophiles themselves, found out when they outraged Middle America as soon as they landed on The Ed Sullivan Show. American conservatism, like everything else American, runs into extremes. But it was a potent myth, with some substance. What was beautiful was the idea of America, where man was free to pursue happiness in any way he liked, as long as it was lawful (or, perhaps, even when it was not).

Anybody, in theory, and often in practice, could reinvent him- or herself as an American in a way that was impossible to imagine anywhere else. The fact that many Americans, especially if they lacked the advantage of a pale skin, came nowhere near to fulfilling the American Dream did not destroy the beauty of the idea. It still held out hope to millions who were poor or persecuted, or just restless, that in America it might still be possible to find a better way of life.

Europeans such as myself, born in the aftermath of World War II, also grew up with another, related myth, which had a great deal of substance: liberation from Nazi occupation to the beat of Glenn Miller, the sweet odor of Lucky Strikes, and the broad smiles of guys from Memphis or Kansas City. As this summer's anniversary celebrations of the Allied landings in 1944 demonstrated, even the French never forgot that blessing.

It was with this fizzing cocktail of images, then, of swinging GIs, rock-and-roll, constitutional liberty, and the Empire State Building, that I first landed in the US with a spring in my step in the summer of 1970. In time the rosy hue of my Americophilia would fade a little. I soon noticed the bleaker sides of American life; American friends were often the first to point them out. And yet I retained something of that Kennedy Airport spring in my step, as though always in anticipation of adventures that could happen only here, in this vast land of promise.

Good Job!