>What Happened To America?
>A Letter, A Lament
>Margaret Atwood studied American literature, among other things, at
>Radcliffe and Harvard in the 1960s. She is the author of 10 novels. Her
>11th, Oryx and Crake, will be published in May 2003.
>Editor's Note: This essay orginally appeared in the April 14, 2003 issue
>of The Nation, and is reprinted with permission of the author.
>This is a difficult letter to write, because I'm no longer sure who you
>Some of you may be having the same trouble. I thought I knew you: We'd
>become well acquainted over the past 55 years. You were the Mickey Mouse
>and Donald Duck comic books I read in the late 1940s. You were the radio
>shows -- Jack Benny, Our Miss Brooks. You were the music I sang and
>danced to: the Andrews Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, the Platters, Elvis. You
>were a ton of fun.
>You wrote some of my favourite books. You created Huckleberry Finn, and
>Hawkeye, and Beth and Jo in Little Women, courageous in their different
>ways. Later, you were my beloved Thoreau, father of environmentalism,
>witness to individual conscience; and Walt Whitman, singer of the great
>Republic; and Emily Dickinson, keeper of the private soul. You were
>Hammett and Chandler, heroic walkers of mean streets; even later, you
>were the amazing trio, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, who traced the
>dark labyrinths of your hidden heart. You were Sinclair Lewis and Arthur
>Miller, who, with their own American idealism, went after the sham in
>you, because they thought you could do better.
>You were Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront, you were Humphrey Bogart in
>Key Largo, you were Lillian Gish in Night of the Hunter. You stood up for
> freedom, honesty and justice; you protected the innocent. I believed
>most of that. I think you did, too. It seemed true at the time.
>You put God on the money, though, even then. You had a way of thinking
>that the things of Caesar were the same as the things of God: That gave
>you self-confidence. You have always wanted to be a city upon a hill, a
>light to all nations, and for a while you were. Give me your tired, your
>poor, you sang, and for a while you meant it.
>We've always been close, you and us. History, that old entangler, has
>twisted us together since the early 17th century. Some of us used to be
>you; some of us want to be you; some of you used to be us. You are not
>only our neighbours: In many cases -- mine, for instance -- you are also
>our blood relations, our colleagues and our personal friends. But
>although we've had a ringside seat, we've never understood you
>completely, up here north of the 49th parallel.
>We're like Romanized Gauls -- look like Romans, dress like Romans, but
>aren't Romans -- peering over the wall at the real Romans. What are they
>doing? Why? What are they doing now? Why is the haruspex eyeballing the
>sheep's liver? Why is the soothsayer wholesaling the Bewares?
>Perhaps that's been my difficulty in writing you this letter: I'm not
>sure I know what's really going on. Anyway, you have a huge posse of
>experienced entrail-sifters who do nothing but analyze your every vein
>and lobe. What can I tell you about yourself that you don't already know?
>This might be the reason for my hesitation: embarrassment, brought on by
>a becoming modesty. But it is more likely to be embarrassment of another
>sort. When my grandmother -- from a New England background -- was
>confronted with an unsavoury topic, she would change the subject and gaze
> out the window. And that is my own inclination: Mind your own business.
>But I'll take the plunge, because your business is no longer merely your
>business. To paraphrase Marley's Ghost, who figured it out too late,
>mankind is your business. And vice versa: When the Jolly Green Giant goes
> on the rampage, many lesser plants and animals get trampled underfoot.
>As for us, you're our biggest trading partner: We know perfectly well
>that if you go down the plug-hole, we're going with you. We have every
>reason to wish you well.
>I won't go into the reasons why I think your recent Iraqi adventures have
> been -- taking the long view -- an ill-advised tactical error. By the
>time you read this, Baghdad may or may not look like the craters of the
>Moon, and many more sheep entrails will have been examined. Let's talk,
>then, not about what you're doing to other people, but about what you're
>doing to yourselves.
>You're gutting the Constitution. Already your home can be entered without
> your knowledge or permission, you can be snatched away and incarcerated
>without cause, your mail can be spied on, your private records searched.
>Why isn't this a recipe for widespread business theft, political
>intimidation, and fraud? I know you've been told all this is for your own
> safety and protection, but think about it for a minute. Anyway, when did
> you get so scared? You didn't used to be easily frightened.
>You're running up a record level of debt. Keep spending at this rate and
>pretty soon you won't be able to afford any big military adventures.
>Either that or you'll go the way of the USSR: lots of tanks, but no air
>conditioning. That will make folks very cross. They'll be even crosser
>when they can't take a shower because your short-sighted bulldozing of
>environmental protections has dirtied most of the water and dried up the
>rest. Then things will get hot and dirty indeed.
>You're torching the American economy. How soon before the answer to that
>will be, not to produce anything yourselves, but to grab stuff other
>people produce, at gunboat-diplomacy prices? Is the world going to
>consist of a few megarich King Midases, with the rest being serfs, both
>inside and outside your country? Will the biggest business sector in the
>United States be the prison system? Let's hope not.
>If you proceed much further down the slippery slope, people around the
>world will stop admiring the good things about you. They'll decide that
>your city upon the hill is a slum and your democracy is a sham, and
>therefore you have no business trying to impose your sullied vision on
>them. They'll think you've abandoned the rule of law. They'll think
>you've fouled your own nest.
>The British used to have a myth about King Arthur. He wasn't dead, but
>sleeping in a cave, it was said; in the country's hour of greatest peril,
> he would return. You, too, have great spirits of the past you may call
>upon: men and women of courage, of conscience, of prescience. Summon them
> now, to stand with you, to inspire you, to defend the best in you. You
>Published: Apr 03 2003
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