By Atle Hetland
July 04, 2013
Today, on the 4th of July, America’s Independence Day, I will reflect on the country’s past, present and future, and its relations with my home country Norway and the rest of the world. Since independence from the UK of the 13 colonies in North America 1776, the USA has been an important country, being attractive and creating conflicting opinions worldwide. It became a rescue for poverty-stricken immigrants and religious dissidents from all over Europe, but its behaviour towards indigenous Americans and African slaves was problematic, to say the least. Finally, in the 1960s, America gave equal civil rights to all its citizens. But its blind support for capitalism, without proper welfare and safety nets for those who stumble and fall, is today more outdated than ever. America’s capitalism may lead to the creation of wealth, but even that is questionable, and its wasteful consumption of natural resources from home and abroad is unsustainable.
America is a great land too - in many ways - and I don’t only say that because it is the 4th of July today. At the same time, it is a fragile land, or so I felt when I lived in Washington DC for some years a couple of decades ago. Americans are split between religiosity and materialism, between inward-looking daily lives and an outward-looking and imperialist state and between traditional values and ruthlessness exploitation. There are many kind and gentle people in America, but few have any political analysis and understanding of how they are ruled, and they don’t seem to care or want to know. But they believe that their land is the greatest democracy the world has ever seen.
America is a land where everything is possible, or at least, many things. Nobody is as admired more than a self-made millionaire. Yet, it is a land with little social conscience and proper fundament. The vast land is relatively well organised and run. But there is something loose and crude about it. It has principles, too, with moral and democratic values, which will play a role in the world long after the country has declined and China has taken over as the leading economic power, with other Asian countries, Russia, etc. Kind Americans will always be found - maybe to the surprise of those who have only seen them abroad in military or other bossy roles. Growing up in Norway in the 1950s and 60s, I remember we saw America in a special rosy light; it was the land of our dreams - real and imaginary.
On the official level, the ties between Norway and America were close, partly because the ‘big land’ and the ‘little land’ were both founding members of the West’s defence alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Norway, being on the flank of northern Europe with a 200 kilometre border with Russia, or the Soviet Union, as it was then, was an important NATO country. It was common knowledge, too, that the Soviet Union had fought along the allied forces against Nazi Germany, which had occupied Norway for five years. It helped free the two northernmost counties of Norway. Although Norwegians were very America-friendly, we were also positive about the Russian people, seeing them as kind and friendly. We certainly followed the Russian space programme, and we competed with the Russians in winter sports. Norwegians, even those who were pro-US, were very sensitive to Americans telling them what they should do. I remember my father, and ordinary pro-American Norwegian, always got very irritated every time that happened.
This was at the height of height of the Cold War, and America’s propaganda was much ‘louder’ than that of the East Block, using all kinds of semi-real arguments and lies. In the end, the Soviet Union collapsed, mainly for economic reasons than for the ideological foundations it was built on. There was a need for political, democratic changes, but so there were, and are, in America, too. When I was a teenager, I remember that Sweden, Norway’s neighbour which not a NATO member, criticised American policies is quite severely, such as the terrible Vietnam War and other Asia issues, and the imperialist relations with Latin America and Africa. We were also against America’s blockade of Cuba and we wondered what challenge Cube could be to its powerful neighbour. We were against the American multinationals as an extension of the country’s imperialism.
But we loved America in spite of all the shortcomings, and maybe we were so brainwashed that we thought that the ‘policeman of the world’ had the right to use power ‘when needed’, because we were told that it was to the best of those who ’behaved badly’. We believed that America wanted everyone to become rich, which we thought was the greatest of all individual human rights. We would be owners of cars, refrigerators, TV sets, transistor radios and all kinds of consumer goods. We would be able to go to college and university, and travel to countries we had hardly heard the names of, and, indeed, to America.
We thought all great fun, new inventions and products came from America, and that the Japanese only made copies. American politicians even smile in photographs, unlike the stiff and self-important old European men. American chewing gum was status! The packets were different and fashionable. The jeans came, too, under the name of Texas trousers. We played American music; Jim Reeves, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and all the great country and Western artists - of nuisance to those who rather thought we should hum a hymn or a local folk song. Women became modern and independent, taking jobs along with men, and some of them smoked cigarettes, wore lipstick and had short dresses with tight belts, even trousers. They travelled and took jobs in other towns than where they had grown up.
They married away from the neighbourhood and some divorced, but the latter was considered wrong. Men also became ‘Americanised’. We went to see Western movies and we dreamt of riding happily into the sunset with the woman we loved, as the Marlboro man did - or even better, drive a red Ford Mustang, with Brylcreem styled hair.Alas, America was never quite like we thought. In South Asia, we have learnt that. Just yesterday, there was another drone attack in Pakistan against all international laws. Pakistan has paid a high price for its good relations with the US, especially related to the war on terror. Also, Afghanistan’s fate is a sad example of American policies. Yet, America, the way it is, is with us all. Now, we need to carve out realistic, working relations with the land - the only superpower, which will still be there for some time come. But the relations must be more equal. Maybe then, we will not only talk about the ‘America we loved’ in past tense, but also in a positive future tense?
Atle Hetland is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.