February 27, 2024
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: I don’t understand Americans. Maybe I never did.

America has been part of my life for almost as long as I have had a life. Through my childhood, Uncle Sam was the distant puppeteer whose strings moved my imagination.

The USA was the land of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Ford cars and Hoover vacuum cleaners.

As I grew a little older, it was, I learned, the land that saved us from Nazi domination and, through the generosity of its Marshall aid plan, lifted Europe from the devastation of World War Two and set us on the road to prosperity.

As I grew a little wiser, I began to have some concerns about my favourite uncle. I didn’t like the way Sam threw his weight around the world and, on the domestic front, I  began to realise that, in the country that fought a a civil war to abolish slavery, racism was still alive and flourishing.

But there was always so much to balance against the faults. For this was the land of John and Robert Kennedy, of Martin Luther King and James Baldwin. The land of my favourite musicians: Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

Like just about everyone in Ireland, I had uncles and aunties in America. When I was a child they sent me birthday cards, and sometimes dollars, and Christmas presents, the likes of which no-one here had seen: a little toy bird that whistled when filled with water and a model Santa who winked and laughed if you pulled his beard.

Sometimes these relatives came home on ‘vacation’, full of strange tales from the land of milk and money.

Since I had uncles and aunts in the States it was inevitable that, as the generations rolled, I would have cousins there. In a sign of the changing times, I got to visit them and to view parts of  the kaleidoscope that makes up their amazing country, from the international buzz of New York, through the sophistication of southern California to the breathtaking beauty of West Virginia.

Uncle Sam was still behaving badly now and then. I didn’t like his actions in Vietnam and the Middle East or how he treated Cuba. But there was still so much to love. This was the land of Bob Dylan and Nina Simone, of Maya Angelou and Muhammad Ali, of Kermit the Frog and Bart Simpson.

Uncle Sam could be a problem sometimes, but I knew that, for all his faults, he was mostly on the side of the angels. If there had to be a world superpower, I was glad it was the USA.

But in 2016 Uncle Sam changed. The smiling guy in the Stars and Stripes waistcoat was replaced by a large orange-coloured man with a strange hairstyle. He disrespected women and boasted of grabbing them by the pussy. He mocked the disabled. He didn’t like Mexicans or Muslims and instead of building bridges he wanted to build walls. He boasted and bragged – and, above all, lied. Indeed he seemed not to know the difference between truth and lies, to have no moral compass at all.

He said he would make an already great country great again. In fact he has diminished it in the eyes of the world, rejecting the evidence of climate change, dismissing the knowledge of scientists, cosying up to dictators and decrying his country’s democratic allies.

In 2016 Americans elected this man. As I write, it is unclear whether or not they have re-elected him. Either way, many millions of them thought this untruthful, unfaithful, unpleasant, self-possessed and irrational man a better person to lead them than Joe Biden, an experienced  politician and a decent man, of whom the worst that can be said is that he’s a little dull.

Uncle Sam has turned from kind uncle to evil uncle and many, maybe most, of the American voters have no problem with that.

I don’t think I understand Americans.  And it occurs to me that, despite their country being such a part of my life, maybe I never did.

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