Despite my surname, I come from a family of recent Irish immigrants with long memories. I grew up hearing stories about 19th century anti-Irish prejudice in America, epitomized by “No Irish need apply” signs. I just heard an echo, in reverse, from a young Irish writer who wrote a column entitled, “Life In America Is Better.”
Writing about America from Las Vegas, of all places (probably the most soulless city on the continent), the young émigré jarringly proclaims: “Life in America is better. The people are happier, everything costs less and adventures abound.”
That pronouncement evokes old strains of Irish melancholia in me. The writer is a young man, and has to be cut a good deal of slack. However the issue goes much further than immigrant blindness and youthful blinkering. Some version of this false refrain is heard so often that one must raise one’s voice and say: Life in America is not better.
The straw that broke the back of the American spirit came with the Gulf War I. And that was the good war against Iraq! Gulf War II, under Bush the Second, was metaphysically meant to kill the human spirit. Has it succeeded? Not as long as there are a few people able to tell the truth, and some people willing to hear it.
What began in America in the early 1990’s has spread to Europe and the Western world, and perhaps beyond—a numbing of the heart, a stultifying of the mind, in short, a loss of the peoples’ soul in far-flung lands.
A few years after our glorious victory over Saddam Hussein (the first time), I met a woman from France whose work required her to divide her time between Europe and Silicon Valley, where I lived at the time. We got to talking about the effect America had on folks who move here permanently.
“One year,” she said cryptically. Asked to explain, said something I’ll never forget: “It takes one year for someone from a living land to lose their soul in America.”
The young Irishman reveals that the deadening that began in America nearly 25 years ago has spread to Europe, and specifically Ireland, with this maxim: “Starting a new life is the most surefire way to feel alive.”
There are many reasons to leave the land of one’s birth, and most of them have to do with opportunity. But one surefire reason not to leave is to feel alive. If one doesn’t have an inward life where one lives, I guarantee that you won’t find one in America.
Last night the great black hope for America, Barack Obama, gave his last-chance-for-a-legacy State of the Union speech. It was a coherent and convincing speech—if you listened to the words. But if you listened to his forced and phony tone, it became increasingly grating.
And when Obama ended by talking about a soldier devastatingly injured after serving ten tours (I repeat, ten tours) in Iraq and Afghanistan, the speech descended into rank sentimentality, encapsulating everything that’s wrong in America today. All the more so because it was so calculated to embody all that’s supposedly right.
Obama had just delivered a line that only half the Congress half-heartedly applauded: “America must move off a permanent war footing.” Then came the exploitative glorification of piteous service for discredited policies. Despite the universal ‘beautiful moment’ accolades in the mainstream media, it made the few Americans left with their hearts and consciences still intact wince. (Make no mistake, though Bush began the hell-made policies, they were continued by Obama.)
When a people lose their soul, only the strongest individuals inwardly survive and continue to grow. When most or all peoples perish, the human spirit is threatened with extinction. That is happening now. Whatever soul is, it can be lost in a person, a people, or a sentient species.
Even so, when something dies, something new can be born. But only if the death is fully acknowledged, mourned, and let go, whether it’s a loved one, one’s people, or one’s species.
Optimism is not to be found in doggedly staying on the sunny side. Nothing inspires more pessimism in the living than optimism in the walking dead. Facing and working through the darkness within and without with one’s eyes open and one’s heart growing is the true source of optimism, if it still applies.
To find opportunity is a good reason to leave one’s ‘homeland,’ but to find life is a better one. You won’t find it in America.
But it isn’t about America anymore, or even America’s deadening ‘culture’ spreading around the world. It’s about awakening ourselves as human beings in this flattened, darkening world. Yes we can, must and will create a culture of insight and compassion, wherever it first germinates.