Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Journey through the US: 'untouchable subjects'

Through a Windshield Darkly
Canadian writers drive in search of the American identity
An empire rarely changes its mind simply because it fails. It is driven by a larger sense of its own destiny, no matter how stupid that is. -- John Ralston Saul
Excerpts from a review by Mark Frutkin, in the Literary Review of Canada (Dec. 2010):

Most Canadians will admit to considerable ambivalence in their feelings about America... In Breakfast at the Exit Cafe, an engaging travelogue by two of Canada's esteemed writers, we gain a front-seat view, literally through the windshield... Wayne Grady and Merilyn Simonds begin their journey in Vancouver, deciding to return to their home in eastern Ontario by driving their Toyota Echo through America in a 15,000 kilometre U, passing through 22 states, taking in much of the western and southern and some of the eastern United States...

Simonds and Grady point out that Americans manifest one distinct difference [from Canadians] -- many tend to remain blind to the rest of the world, which neatly dovetails with their belief that the U.S. is the centre of the universe, the only remaining great power, the world's saviour. Manifest destiny is still the guiding spirit of America. It is God's country, after all. Why would anyone ever want to live anywhere else? Isn't this, they insist, not only the greatest nation in the world, but (as I have heard it expressed) the greatest in the history of the world?...

A subtext, a dark undercurrent, informs their meetings with Americans. This is something anyone can notice travelling in the U.S., especially in the South. A hearty friendliness is apparent on the surface, and a genuine generosity tends to prevail. However, certain untouchable subjects must not be broached: religion, race, politics, sexuality. And one must never question the place of America in the world. Touch on these subjects and the smile dissolves. They are not up for rational discussion.

Near the end of the book and their journey, Grady writes: 'Partly, I still think what I thought before we made this trip, because those thoughts were based on the image America projects to the outside world: its overweening sense of its own rightness, its casual assumption that it can buy or sell whatever it wants, its ability to proceed as though everything were on the table, its refusal to learn from its own history... It is not anti-American to wish America had been better than it was, or to want it to be better than it is.'

In the early 20th century, Clemenceau also said: 'America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.' An exaggeration, of course, but one with a disturbing modicum of truth.