Friday, February 17, 2012

Almost American (the imperial heartland)

Visiting my son in Guatemala just after the second US invasion of Iraq, we met up with a young Canadian couple from Vancouver. The man didn’t sound Canadian (couldn’t pronounce “oat and aboat” properly), so I asked “Where before that?” The couple exchanged a doubtful look, then shrugged. “He’s from Texas”, she admitted. The presence of my obviously hippy son had eased me past the barrier of denial.

Thirty years before, I’d met plenty of pretend-Canadians with American accents – angry, betrayed and embarrassed over the invasion of Vietnam. Life is full of embarrassment for young idealists whose homeland is on a brutal imperial rampage. There is a wall in Washington memorialising the fifty thousand US patriot-invaders who died in Vietnam, but there is no memorial for the two million civilians they slaughtered.

I almost became an American myself, back in 1965. I filled in a form at the US Embassy in London, the clerk gave me a ticket, and I sat down in a crowd and waited to be called for an interview. Half an hour later, the Tannoy called for number 23; my number was 104. Huh. Time for Plan B. Around the corner at the Canadian Embassy I filled in another form, was interviewed immediately, and a month later was living in Toronto – reunited with Linda and learning all about curling and ice-hockey.

We were both on our way back to Australia, as soon as we could afford the tickets or until we got a better offer in someplace warm. In those days, Canadian snowbirds used to fly down to Florida and pay agencies to have their cars driven down. Newly married, we packed one of those cars with everything we owned and headed south to look for jobs in the Bahamas. There in Nassau, we all watched American TV, ate American food and learned about baseball and gridiron football. Our employers fleeced American tourists and helped rich people dodge American taxes. (No of course we didn’t fleece tourists. Just joking!) It was a good life, almost American.

We do the same things today in Cayman, pretty much. Many of our children go to US colleges, and come back only slightly changed. Americans work in our watersports operations, our hotels and restaurants, and our construction industry. Not in our banks, though, for fear of moles. We are an offshore tax-haven, after all. The CIA has its agents here, but MI6 (Britain’s equivalent) keeps them out of the banks. We’re a British colony, as Bahamas was in the ‘60s.

Wives go on shopping trips to Florida, husbands on non-shopping trips to Las Vegas. We all fly through the US to points north, east, south and west. Miami is our favourite transit point, despite the sour welcome extended to foreigners by immigration officials on the way in, and the intimidation by TSA perverts on the way out.

I guess the American Dream is still alive, but it is looking increasingly fuzzy at the moment. Can the imperial heartland really be turning into the Oceania depicted in George Orwell’s “1984”, or into the German Reich of the 1930s, or into someplace equally frightening? The “1984” entry in Wikipedia shows too many similarities for comfort. Perpetual war is being used to justify the Empire’s pretend-paranoia which in turn justifies domestic oppression. In his book, Orwell called that oppression Big Brother, and it is closing in fast on America. History reports that the Germans were caught by surprise, too, when domestic oppression snuck up on them.

In 1965, I preferred America over Canada. With a bit more patience I might have become an American. Now, I am wary of even changing planes in Miami or Newark on our way to and from Europe. I prefer the family to fly via Toronto instead. Oh, the irony!