We'll soon be at July 4, always celebrated as American Independence Day, but I wonder if there will be more protests against the United States than celebrations?
When did we fall out of love with America? When did so many attitudes change from seeing it as the "land of the free and the home of the brave" to what Iranian fundamentalists have termed "the Great Satan". America is now vilified as a nest of racism, sexism (the reaction being the #MeToo movement) and the product of slavery. Its president, Donald Trump, is abhorred and ridiculed in equal measure and its police forces compared to Nazis - God be with the days when the American cop was a benign Irishman in a friendly neighbourhood movie.
After the killing of George Floyd, a cultural revolution erupted around the world protesting against America's treatment of its black population. From Kinsale to Düsseldorf, people took to the streets to proclaim that "Black Lives Matter", often carrying images of George Floyd, a new American martyr. In Galway, the monument to Christopher Columbus was daubed for the crime of 'founding' America at all.
Yes, some of the global anger has been directed against a wider imperialism, but American race relations are the trigger. Gone With the Wind, that southern saga of Scarlett O'Hara and her "loyal" slaves, has been withdrawn from HBO Max, and I'd wager won't be seen again in the public realm. Will Casablanca suffer the same fate? In that, Ingrid Bergman refers to the pianist, Sam, as "boy", a patronising word for adult black men in the 1940s. A lot of old movies could well be for the chop, often depicting black people in menial positions, or as comical minstrels. Films which cast white people in black or mixed-race roles are already deplored. Ava Gardner played a mixed-race woman in the classic Showboat, a part denied, at the time, to Lena Horne. Ironically, the story had a strong liberal message - but not liberal enough to cast a black performer.
The America of the past, which we loved so innocently, has gone. This was the land which welcomed, rescued and brought success to poor Irish immigrants - and to so many other immigrants too. It was the land of glamour, excitement, success, optimism and opportunity. This was often expressed in its popular music and the entertainment industry. As my old colleague Herbie Kretzmer once remarked to me - he went on to write the lyrics of Les Misérables - "Look at American entertainment in the 20th century: about six Jewish immigrant composers wrote the American dream in popular music."
Indeed so: Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Sammy Cahn, Lennie Hayton, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein were all born to European Jewish immigrants, and they provided the world with a stunning universal songbook which celebrated the American way of life: from White Christmas to Oklahoma!, from 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' to Singin' in the Rain. Significantly, most of these musical geniuses changed their names so as to be American: Irving Berlin was born Israel Beilin; Cahn, Samuel Cohen; Gershwin, Jacob Gershowitz.
The first time I visited New York, back in 1967, it was like stepping into that fabled image of America that we had grown up with - the movies, the music, a society that seemed so open and exhilarating, where everything seemed possible. Yes, the Civil Rights movement was on the march, and everyone I encountered supported it. But even that seemed part of American aspirationalism - it showed America was a place where systems could be challenged, and people could change. The protests against the Vietnam War, although often ferocious, demonstrated that America was an open society where there could be honest debate about bad things happening in a faraway country. Extremes, yes, but everything in America was bigger, more magnified and more extreme, than it was in Europe. But America was still great.
But somewhere along the line, it all grew sour. The Left has always been critical of brash American capitalism, and in general, modern values have grown more left-wing. Even the capitalists are now supporting Black Lives Matter (maybe to sell more stuff) and castigating America for never having addressed the inheritance of slavery. The American "melting-pot" seems a more divided society than ever.
What's sad is the way in which the retrospective images of America have now been spoiled for us. There are too many guns in the US, and too many trigger-happy users: but didn't we see a thousand classic Hollywood movies where the gun was the essence of the plot? The most popular author in mid-20th century Ireland was Zane Grey, his "cowboys and injuns" tales lapped up innocently.
When we watch Doris Day and Rock Hudson larking around in rom-coms, we now ask - where are the black people in their glossy world? (And how about the hypocrisy that kept Rock's gay identity secret?) Where are the Algonquin people at the Algonquin table? Behind the soothing tones of jazz is the suffering of the "negro spiritual" and the lynching of the "boy" who steps out of line. Yes, we've lost the American dream.