The London Telegraph ran a preview of an interview that Christopher Hitchens gave for In Confidence, which will air tonight on Sky Arts. Apparently, his romance with the United States is officially over. However, like all too many romances, it may have been based on unrealistic premises. Here is the key Hitchens quote from the Telegraph piece:
The great thing about the United States and the historically magnetic effect it has had on a lot of people like me is its generosity, to put it simply. Broadness of mind, curiosity, willingness to accept strangers, allowing them to become citizens really quite easily, assimilate to their arrival.
Really? I was reminded of a stunt that the Philadelphia Bulletin pulled back when I was still in secondary school. They ran an article whose headline asked if Philadelphia was still the “City of Brotherly Love.” They sent a reporter into the center of town without a wallet, instructing him to go up to total strangers and ask for help. The results were upliftingly positive … until the letters appeared in the following issue. The primary theme among those criticizing the success of the reporter in getting help involved one simple question: “What if he were black?” I submit that the same question be put to Hitchens’ above assumptions about our “American character.”
The quote in my title comes from another quote in the Telegraph piece:
There is a tremendously cramped feeling now, a mean spirited feeling, that was very much to be detected in the last election cycle. People talking in what I would once I suppose described as Dennis Thatcherite terms, you know, curmudgeonly, but rather less amusing than him. The country is filling up with riff-raff, the country is going to the dogs, the President doesn’t seem to be sixteen anas to the rupee, he might even be a Kenyan. Petty, spiteful stuff of that kind and coming from some quite senior people. It hardly even deserves the name of cynicism or pessimism, it’s just sour and nasty and boring.
Did it even occur to Hitchens that any mean spirits might be traced back to questions of race associated with recent electoral results; or did he feel too polite (or too high-valued) to consider this as a hypothesis?
This is not to suggest that any flaws in Hitchens’ idealized American character can be attributed entirely to race. Rather, America has a historical tradition of being less receptive to any “other” than Hitchens’ wants to believe. The whole idea of the Turner thesis about the frontier was that, if you were an “alienated other,” you could go past the frontier and stake out turf of your own.
That thesis no longer holds. Now we have to live with each other. Guess what? We are not doing a very good job of it, and this is most evident in the consequences of our outrageous distribution of wealth (which include the increase in mean-spirited politics). Why should Hitchens expect any higher values from our current culture?