Capitol reflection
COVID-19 memorial lights surround the Reflecting Pool with the Washington Monument and the US Capitol in the background after the Celebrating America concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington Image Credit: AP

Sorry to put it to you this way, but the unblemished, naked truth is that nowadays the only time Americans, as a collectivity, share the same cultural rituals is on Super Bowl Sunday, the National Football League (NFL) game played every year on the first Sunday of February.

As in previous games since 1967, the game last Sunday, Super Bowl LV (55), pitting Tampa Bay Buccanneers against Kansas City Chiefs, was watched on television by well over a million people, whose whoops and hurrahs, from coast to coast, all moved in sync. By Monday, however, that communal sense of reference was replaced by rancour, the sentiment that today defines the national mood and the public discourse in America.

In his 1920 surrealistic poem, “The Second Coming”, William Butler Yeats, Nobel Prize winner and pillar of the Irish literary establishment, wrote that there come times when “The falcon cannot hear the falconer/ Things fall apart, the Centre cannot hold”. Yeats of course was talking about Europe, but he may as well have been talking about the identity crisis and enervating ennui that currently afflict the United States.

Recent by Fawaz Turki

“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America”, thundered Barack Obama, then senator from Illinois, in his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusets, on the night of July 27, 2004. “There is not a Black America and a White America, a Latino American and an Asian America, there is the United States of America”.

What the future president of United States was calling for was — the lyric élan of his rhetoric notwithstanding — an illusory America, namely an America as good as its promise. However, diverse anarchic compulsions in the body politic have in the interim chipped away at that promise, rendering it a frail ghost of its old self.

In the new century, this United States, sadly, is a nation wracked by social, political and racial strife, while, simultaneously, it grapples with a deadly pandemic, an economic downturn and mob violence.

In short, there is a progressive deterioration of what Carl Jung called at one time “the heroic ideal”, which, since 1776, has been the driving force of the American Republic’s national character.-- deterioration at and to the core of that ideal.

Get this: The strife between red and blue Americans, White and Black Americans, ethnic and waspish Americans, and working class and upper class Americans is real. It runs deep.

And consider that: According to the highly respected Pew Research Center in Washington, a month before the 2020 presidential election, roughly eight in ten registered Republican and Democratic voters said their differences with the other side were about “core American values”, and roughly nine-in-ten worried that a victory by the other side would lead to “lasting harm” to the country.

Another alarming survey, released by the Dialogue Project, found that only 25 per cent of Americans these days conversed or socialised with fellow-Americans who had different political views from theirs.

Fighting for soul of America

Shades of modern-day Hatfields and McCoys engaged in a bloody fight over the lost Eden envisioned by the Founding Fathers 245 years ago, wouldn’t you say?

No wonder then that in their campaigns, Donald Trump and Joe Biden referred to the 2020 presidential election as a fight for the “soul” of America.

And a fight it is, between the nationalist right, who fear that “the American way of life” is being wrested from them and who want to “fight like hell” to reclaim it — even where propelled by the herd instinct, what Scottish poet and social critic Charles McKay called in 1841 “the madness of crowds” — and a progressive left obsessed with “identity politics”, the tendency of minorities in society to accentuate their ethnic backgrounds and to form exclusive alliances, in the bargain moving away from the mainstream of broad-based politics, a paradigm first popularised in 1977 by a black collective seeking to “authenticate” the Black experience — but now covers experiences by other marginalised minorities — thus preventing it from being vulnerable to “cultural imperialism”. Only in America, folks!

“I can’t breathe”, groaned George Floyd while his neck lay under the knee of a police officer for eight, long minutes before he departed this life. Perhaps, teleologically, in Floyd’s howl there was echo of the choked psyche of American society as a whole, a society whose public debate has grown more toxic, more fractured and more rancorous, and whose members have shown little willingness to reach out across differences.

In his inaugural address, President Biden told these Americans: “Today, let us start afresh ... “. All well and good. But before America can start afresh, America must heal. And trust me on this one, the healing process, at whose terminus America will reassume its grandeur and resurrect its heroic ideal, will be, given the facts on the ground, unendurably slow.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile