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A joyful sorrow

Ed Vulliamy writes: The Germans, infamously, have a word for joy in the pain of others – Schadenfreude ‑ but do they have a word for the opposite: pain in the joy of others?

I think we all watched that gale-force fortnight of events in Washington DC ‑ the turn of America’s page ‑ with our own, strong emotions. Some of them shared with others, friends, like minds; others deeply personal and private. 

I speak of course for those of us who identify with that half of America (and a little more, thank God) glad to see the back of Donald Trump. We reacted with both rational and irrational sentiment to the rollercoaster, from riotous rabble to inauguration. From petulant, puerile sore loser whipping up the mob to Joe Biden’s elegant speech and Kamala Harris making history. From the desecration of the Capitol to Lady Gaga’s anthem and Amanda Gorman’s poem – whereby a young star is born. From Rudy Giuliani’s “trial by combat” to Bruce Springsteen’s and Tom Hanks’s tribute to a “land of hope and dreams”. We felt tears of rage moisten our eyes, then tears of relief – even tears of joy and cautious hope.

Amanda Gorman

We beyond America have feelings about – and harbour affinities to – that country that are applicable to no other. For most of us, they are due to immersion, early in life, in jazz, blues, movies, rock, folk and the folklore of Americana. We allow America to define itself in a way we’d tolerate in no other country – “the French dream”, let alone “the British dream” – it just doesn’t quite work in the same way. If Springsteen were to sing that way about Holland or Spain it would sound crazy.

For my part, I watched it all, glued to CNN all day every day and night. As someone who once made a solo trip to Chicago aged sixteen, looking for my generation’s promised land, blues records and opposition to war in Vietnam. Who then visited America countless times before and after serving as US correspondent for The Observer of London for the best part of nine years, living in DC, New York and briefly Tucson, Arizona, working in every contiguous state, especially California and Texas, along the Mexican border.

I was honoured to have my role as correspondent played by Rhys Ifans in Gavin Hood’s recent film Official Secrets, with Keira Knightley in the lead role. I write as someone who has made lifelong friends in and with America and forged an inevitably equivocal stake in its “hopes and dreams”, proudly when writing about its musicians and good citizens, or driving through its heart-stopping landscape; tested when reporting on the original sin of genocide of indigenous Americans or covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003 onwards.

To my generation, reared on Billie Holiday and John Coltrane, then coming of age through Jack Kerouac, Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead … the dice were rolled and the bond sealed, irrevocably, in our pubescence.

But to those of us who are not American, the inauguration was someone else’s joy, and that made it a complicated emotion. This varied, depending on where and who you are. For Jewry worldwide, there is a genuine, rather than contrived “special relationship” forged since the Russian pogroms more than a century ago, entrenched by the Holocaust. Eastern Europeans watched a handover of power in the country they feel urged their liberation from Communism. Two groups of European citizens, Irish and Italian (Springsteen’s heritage, as it happens) rightly claim rapport like no others to a “land of hopes and dreams” and to recent events, for reasons of mass emigration, and impact on modern America. And Ireland can enjoy a singular connection to President Biden, with the roots in Co Mayo he overtly cherishes and his citation of Seamus Heaney’s rhyming of hope and history.

But for most us, this joy, this moment, these feelings are not ours; it is their time, for all our identification with it. It has, objectively, little to do with us beyond America’s impact on all our lives, cultural, or imperial. And here come the complexities, equivocations – and, for a British Americaphile like me, shame, and pain.

America can outrage us like no other country: for that original sin against the native population, for slavery and apartheid in the South, for Vietnam, Cambodia, dirty wars in Central America, Iraq, and the economic empire of a bully. And at home: it still baffles me, even after the attack on the Capitol, how the Oklahoma bomb I reported in depth is like a black hole in America’s radar and memory. Who did it and why? Even now, with the far right rampant, the 168 Americans blown to bits in Oklahoma, many of them children, by American “patriot”’ in the name of America … barely get a mention. If there is one fear for America over the next four years, it is: think Timothy McVeigh.

On the other side of the coin, America is admirable, like no other country. There’s all that jazz, and more. Perhaps weirdly, my memories of New York after al-Qaida’s attacks of September 11th, 2001 are as replete with dignified tribute, solidarity and compassion as they are with the carnage wrought at, and the trauma of reporting from, Ground Zero.

And also this: America has an opposition, a dissident energy, like no other country. One could cite examples ad nauseam: Geronimo and Crazy Horse, Rosa Parks and Dr King … #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Many on the European (also Asian, African and Latin American) left are snobbish and superior about American opposition; they think it does not count simply because it is American, tends to fly the American flag as ardently as its opponents ‑ interestingly, and significantly, not least because of the civil war and the abolition of slavery. In a way that is different from radical, liberal let alone socialist opposition in other countries, dissent in America claims what it sees as the soul of the nation, and thereby the flag, with values it pitches against others on the right currently calling themselves “patriots”. Opposition in America is also “patriotic” in its way. The European left is suspicious of American opposition precisely because of its greatest strength and asset throughout the generations: it is not shackled by the dogma of Marxism. The cogency, durability and beauty of opposition in America lie in the fact that it is primarily moral, not ideological. In America, you object and protest because something is wrong. Because you are a woman, an African-American, gay, Hispanic, a federal judge, a priest … whatever … a citizen. Because you are an indigenous Native: there is the sorest, deepest wound in America: its first nations are bottom of the heap. There’s no equivalent to the solidarity with Black Lives Matter and little conscience or awareness of contemporary Indian tribulation and resilience.

But the appointment by Biden and Harris of Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo woman, as Secretary of the Interior is an inspired gesture in the direction of epic, historic reckoning: a Native American woman has federal authority over indigenous and protected land for the first time in the country’s history. (This figures in, and echoes, a cultural current of the time: there’s Native revival in Tommy Orange’s book There There and a host of others; around the Standing Rock protest camp, the admission by California governor Gavin Newsom that what happened in the state was genocide and establishment of a commission to make recommendations.)

Kamala Harris’ appointment is likewise epic, and rides on the slipstream of victory in Georgia for two senators – Black and Jewish; the beginning of the end of attempts to disenfranchise African-Americans stretching back to the freed slaves’ winning of the right to vote under the 15th Amendment of 1870. And so: Jon Bon Jovi might well sing “Here Comes the Sun” (“... smiles returning to the faces / Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here”). Ant Clemons and Justin Timberlake “Better Days” and the Black Pumas “Colors”. A Broadway star cast gave the best video-gig of the pandemic era: “Let the Sunshine In” from Hair. Unlike their peers in most other countries – markedly the slothful, silent British during Brexit ‑ America’s stars are not afraid to sing their hearts.

So: there I was choking tears of something like reluctant hope, all day long, and long into the night, with CNN, cheddar goldfish, Budweiser, Cheerios and Swiss Miss hot chocolate. Let me confess: I have two different Biden-Harris T-shirt designs, an “I’m Speaking” Kamala T-shirt, and a Biden-Harris face-mask. My inauguration cap and hoodie are on the way. My car has Obama Biden 2008 and Biden Harris 2020 stickers on the back. It’s pathetic, sad, risible, ridiculous, desperate. WHY?

Because I am an entrapped cosmopolitan Brit, cut off from Europe, who loves America. Because I know that I can never feel like this, like my American friends felt this week. During the abomination of Brexit, American friends contested: ‘We’ve got TRUMP! Far worse!’ Ah, I replied, Trump, like Covid-19, will pass one day, Brexit is forever.

I am the “subject” of a backward island monarchy which, far from reckoning with its original sins as is signified by Biden’s cabinet, is now immersed in a grotesque political and popular culture which celebrates the brutality of empire. While America looks forward, Britain looks back. While America demonstrates its singularity, Britain revels in its mediocrity. While the Americans have Amy Gorman and Bruce Springsteen at the hinge between governments, Britain has the atrophied rituals of “Black Rod” and “the Queen’s Speech” by an offensively absurd monarch. While America returns to, and embraces, the democratic world, my country sinks into a sewer of isolation. While America breathes again, here there is only toxic asphyxiation.

So: wearing my Biden Harris T-shirt in soggy, grey London, slumped pitifully over CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, New Yorker, New York Review of Books and the rest, the hangover sets in. I’ll never know that joy –Britain will never know that joy ‑ other than vicariously.

Self-pity is the most unforgivable and unattractive of traits, but as Washington’s week comes to an end, and the Biden Harris administration gets to work, one realises: America’s hopes and dreams are a wonder in which to partake, but only serve to ram home, cruelly, the extent of Britain’s own despair and nightmare.

Photograph: Amanda Gorman: “rebuild, reconcile and recover”

27/1/2021