Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he also serves as vice-dean, undergraduate, in the Faculty of Arts and Science.
“'I thought the American of thirty years ago was a better type,'” observes a character in Robert Stone’s 1981 novel, A Flag for Sunrise. This line has been rolling around in my head for a while now, as, like many, I spend a great deal of time trying to make sense of the seemingly endless and expanding turmoil in the United States. Using Mr. Stone’s math summons memories from the year 1990 of the Hubble telescope launch; of president George H.W. Bush meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev to finalize terms for the end of the Cold War and also his making an internationalist case against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait; of members of the 2 Live Crew being arrested and then cleared of obscenity charges for singing songs live from their album As Nasty As They Want To Be. Seen from here and now, that selectively remembered America, and its sense of promise amid problems at home and abroad, seems far clearer and simpler.
For many these days, however, 30 years doesn’t afford nearly enough distance to take a more positive view of the American situation – in fact, we tend to go back exactly 244 years. The soundtrack to Hamilton, and more recently the filmed version of its stage production, has become an addictive antidote to current American toxicities. Of course, this wasn’t Lin-Manuel Miranda’s intention in creating such a brilliantly brash and vibrant hip hop musical about the 1776 revolutionary founding of the United States and its early years as a democracy.
This is, however, its current effect, and I think that’s especially the case in Canada. The appeal of Hamilton, north of the border in 2020, represents the most telling current version of a long-standing Canadian co-dependence on reflexive anti-Americanism and the willing consumption of many things American. I have lost count of the times, from late spring through summer and now into the fall, where I’ve been in conversation with colleagues, friends and neighbours about the depressing, confusing, death- and wildfire-filled mess south of us – usually with more than a few self-congratulatory snickers and eyerolls – with the Hamilton soundtrack playing in the background, or while the children are dance-watching it on Disney+ (again) and arguing over who should go to the front door to pick up today’s deliveries from Amazon (again). Having it both ways like this makes us a little more like Americans than we might think, at least in their open, casual defiance of singular thinking about themselves and their nation, as Walt Whitman sang for everyone else in Leaves of Grass: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.”
From its beginnings, as Hamilton makes clear, the U.S. has been a nation whose citizens can’t agree about what it is and what it’s supposed to be, and likewise about who they are, have been, ought to be and someday will be. They argue about it all and always have. These arguments take place in the halls of power and on city streets, in family homes and on foreign soil. The shuddering fascination outsiders have with how Americans try and try and try to name and resolve their differences owes a great deal to the unflagging energy and massive scale of their efforts, both as Mr. Miranda and his players evoke these and, whenever we press pause on the soundtrack, as we discover with most every breaking-news item about contemporary American life and politics and, more recently, the President’s COVID-19 symptoms and prognosis. The results of those discoveries reliably confirm our best and worst expectations about the U.S. and its people, in an endless cycle that can encourage despair, denial and escapism over and against a reckoning with the manifold, unrivalled perils and promise of the present.
These days, alas, while we listen and watch, more and more Americans point to the same events and describe them in exactly opposite terms, creating a sense of a grinding, sterile stalemate. It’s clear that from the White House down, COVID-19 has taken hold in and of the U.S. at levels unmatched in other major, industrialized nations, and likewise that arguments about what this means and what should be done about it take place at a pitch and reach unlike any other place in the world. At the same time, U.S. researchers, companies and institutions are collectively capable of identifying ways to stop the spread of the pandemic with unrivalled resources – in and for a country where more citizens than elsewhere are suspicious of authority and expertise, and also for people beyond its borders who increasingly see only the United States’ vices in place of its virtues. Relatedly, racism, policing and protest destabilize public and personal life on a daily basis: The realities of each have deep, overlapping genealogies in American life while together, these have long demonstrated the need for greater justice, order and freedom; the outraged, the skeptical and the indifferent can each point to overwhelming evidence in support of why things have never been worse than they are right now; or that things have always been this way if you really think about it; or that compared with earlier periods – whether the 1960s or 1860s or 1776 or 1619 – things are much better than they used to be.
Whether convinced or exhausted by the arguments for each, isn’t it just easier to watch and listen to a multiracial group of bold and exuberant performers sing and dance their way through long-ago conflicts? Beyond the many cerebral and aesthetic enjoyments Hamilton affords, I think it’s become too much of an escapist fantasy for us. The America that made Hamilton possible is far more straightforwardly welcome than the America that Alexander Hamilton and his allies and rivals and enemies set in motion.
It’s easier to settle into its bass-thumping drama instead of decisively making sense of present-day, real-life equivalents of politically saturated and violent, even lethal public divisions. Of course, we could replace hip hop musical-therapy with the sober seriousness of real-time books about present-day America, which are in abundance. Immediately what comes to mind are Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy; Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy; Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism; and, just in time for the fall electoral campaign, Carlos Lozada’s What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era, and 600 pages from the Atlantic’s spectrum-wide roster of contributors, gathered together as The American Crisis: What Went Wrong. How We Recover.
Obviously, these doomsday titles (or doomsday + can-do-spirit) have much to do with interrogating the Trump presidency, diagnosing its many causes and effects, and emphasizing the high stakes of the coming election. Reading them informs and adjusts our current thinking, if any signal insights aren’t already crowded out by the greater noisiness and dramatic changeability of the daily American scene, which, at base, has everything to do with the corrosive interplay of cultural and electoral politics.
Whether there’s a re-election, a defeat, or the possibility of a delayed and disputed result – masked or otherwise, from a debate stage or from a hospital bed, the President takes regular shots at the integrity of the vote itself – two things are certain. First, the current antagonisms and downward trajectories in the U.S. that we all encounter in books and on screens aren’t going away, only, at most, their most prominent generator (maybe). Second, for the foreseeable future, and leaving aside both worry-inducing books and worry-easing soundtracks, the most reliable and taken-for-granted corrective for outsider thinking about the U.S. – dating back to the 19th-century travels of the French theorist of democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville – is just not possible. Because of the pandemic-inspired border closings, we can’t visit and see for ourselves.
Whether for school, work, fun or family life – and usually, it’s a combination of these – I have travelled to the U.S. several times a year, every year since the late 1990s. I was last there, on a trip to New York, in February (leaving aside a false-positive geo-tracking notice I received from the Government of Canada, ordering me to quarantine because of recent U.S. travel, following a recent trip to Pelee Island). I obviously don’t know when I’ll be back. As a result, I have lost out on something that millions of Canadians and people from around the world have long taken for granted: the immediately felt experience of having whatever form our latest set of hopes and worries about the U.S. confirmed, denied, refined, replaced.
In place, we have private memories; one comes immediately to mind, especially in the early fall. In the weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, living as a South Asian graduate student in a closely knit, working-class white neighbourhood of Boston, I encountered glares and slurs, but also local Americans willing to beat each other up for insulting their book-reading buddy from the dog park. I’m not trying to be romantic here in suggesting that there’s always a few kind American types in every ugly American situation, and also a few ugly American types in every good American place. Rather, I’m convinced that this is the case, and that anyone who has ever visited the U.S. can point to similar such kinds of personally witnessed and experienced evidence, positive and negative, and often together.
This doubleness is not surprising. The U.S. and its 300 million people represent the widest possible spectrum available anywhere in the modern world, of religious, racial, economic and geographic markers of difference. And this chaotic heterogeneity finds fissile unity in national ideas and ideals that are themselves perpetually scrutinized, debated and attacked, by Americans as much as outsiders – these days, I’d say, far more so by Americans themselves, whether about COVID-19 or elections or the Supreme Court, never mind, looking ahead, all three at once.
When you can’t visit, it’s easy and understandable to look into the past – whether 19 or 30 years, or across three centuries – in hopes of finding sources of better feeling and possibility. The greater challenge for those of us who continue to listen to and watch American life very closely, is to accept that things down there are always getting better, and getting worse. Contradiction is the state of the nation.
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