After 15 years of living and working in the United States, a Die Welt correspondent says good-bye, not only to his adopted country but also to the pre-9/11 grandeur the U.S. once enjoyed.
America was good and generous to me. It gifted me with the birth of a third daughter, four presidential elections and a weight gain of 17.6 pounds because there were often no alternatives to driving. It divested me of an addiction to nicotine, Eurocentrism, and the notion that, post-9/11, the country could continue to be as relaxed and confident as ever.
There is a lot of resistance to the forces of change. When I first came to America, just two weeks after the Columbine school massacre that left 13 dead, the nation was in shock. When I left, the killing sprees at Virginia Tech and Newton had somehow demonstrated that the right to own weapons was more important than the right of young Americans to life. Shock had become routine.
In May 1999, I came to a country that at heart was brimming with self-assurance and bearishness. Monica Lewinsky and a sex-addicted president whose perjury nearly cost him his job and honor were the worst scandal going. Now Republicans and Democrats are engaged in an implacable fratricidal war and respect for Congress is at its lowest ebb in 25 years. Meanwhile, Americans consider themselves besieged by hordes of refugee children in Texas and world jihadism everywhere.
The only thing friends of all political stripes could agree on by the time I left last month was the notion that America had changed for the worse after 9/11. Once so welcoming, it has become hard. A century of security under Pax Americana has weakened, the irreplaceable superpower has shrunk and is now tending towards a new faintheartedness. Seeing America like that hurts.
This is not just the subjective view of a non-American. In late June, President Barack Obama's approval ratings fell to a new low. A clear majority of the electorate believed that Obama wasn't leading and couldn't "get the job done." But the president's ratings were great compared to the public's contempt for Congress. Only 7% of Americans said they still had "a lot" or "quite a lot" of trust in Congress. A U.S. president has never been so crippled so soon after a brilliant reelection.
Fifteen years and a month after I came to America, my bank, SunTrust, informed me that my creditworthiness was better than 79% of users.
The letter went on to say that loans at reasonable rates and other investments were now possible with SunTrust, even encouraged. That was a historic day because the absence of a "credit history" — respectability in the creation and servicing of debt — made my first year in the U.S. difficult.
Anybody with money abroad and who paid for things in cash, like me, was suspected of dealing drugs, although since 2001 international terrorism has provided a further avenue for suspicion. It was only thanks to a Social Security number that I was able to open a bank account.
Offers for credit cards came in about a year, after I went pretty heavily into debt buying a car and had proven myself a responsible consumer by regularly paying my installments. In a country with an economy that is 70% dependent on private consumption, only people with debt are considered trustworthy.
But mine was not the sort of profile beloved by credit card companies. I was something of a party pooper in that I paid all my bills and taxes promptly and in full, and only had one credit card. These qualities marked me as weird, stupid and un-American.
When I arrived, renting a home was considered dimwitted, but by the time I left last month, the burst real estate bubble and the 2008 crisis had emancipated tenants from their second-class status. In this era of low job security, the trend now is for young Americans to go back to the city — and rent an apartment.
The march of arrogant intellectuals
Travel in the United States is always worth it. It is an arrogant myth perpetrated by intellectuals on the two coasts that the middle of the country, the south, the Rockies, and the north are filled with yokels and rednecks. Electoral maps may show that Americans on the East Coast and West Coast are more liberal, that others are more conservative and religious, but that says little about the people.
Only a fool can maintain that there aren't any open-minded, warm-hearted people in Texas, Mississippi or Iowa. Every country has the prejudices it deserves, but they needn't be blindly accepted. Political polarization may divide families, isolate co-workers, and relegate America in many respects to second-class status, but it hasn't harmed traditional pioneer hospitality.
I met such selfless, courageous people when I traveled to Houston and New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I discovered pioneer spirit in the fracking rush in North Dakota, where men with MIT doctorates were earning $200,000 a year driving trucks. I met decent soldiers and members of the forces who disagreed with Guantanamo Bay, altruistic activists working with refugees in San Diego, liberal teachers and rodeo riders in Kansas, dignified and feisty families of 9/11 victims.
I have seen Asian Americans blossom from a forgotten minority to a much-courted class. Latinos, a neglected population at the end of the century who were ignored by clueless politicians and politically powerful groups, are today America's largest and fastest-growing minority. The U.S. is becoming ever more diverse and would be hard-pressed to function without Latino votes and church affiliations.
Gay men and women have increasingly come out, and same-sex marriage is recognized in many states. The trend is irreversible. Yet all this laudable progress on the path of freedom and equality came about not with the politicians, but despite them.
Travel across America and you'll understand why the country and its people are an island unto themselves. It's a gigantic island, and the rest of us are the ocean.
Rise of the fundamentalist right
It has been written many times, perhaps because it's true, that Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and even George W. Bush would be rejected by the Republican Party today. They were too ready to compromise, had too much of a social conscience ("compassionate conservatism"). And despite all its piety and intractability on the abortion issue, they didn't regard poverty as the fault of the poor.
The Democrats pay far too much attention to what their major donors on Wall Street want, to powerful lawyer groups and certain unions that are against any sort of reform. Obama, a former civil rights activist, teacher of constitutional law and a well-tempered centrist by persuasion, has failed in the face of parties that deal with each other as a mere matter of form. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives has voted something like 50 times to try and destroy the health care reform bill known as Obamacare. With no consequences so far, apart from their almost total refusal to do their legislative jobs.
That's the America that shakes your faith. Politicians who are proud to have finally hammered through in their states the right to carry guns into churches and schools. Politicians who use national chauvinism to stall dealing seriously with the country’s countless structural problems.
With the support of relevant experts, Obama has been saying for years that America's students are falling behind international standards. Airports are outdated, the streets are full of pot holes, bridges go dangerously neglected.
If you've ever seen the dangling gas and electrical lines that connect American homes, even in wealthy areas, you'll know what I'm talking about. Since the Industrial Revolution, third-world and and first-world living standards have co-existed in the United States. After 50 years of exploiting the infrastructure and decades of Republican refusal to raise taxes, third-world standards are growing.
America's great virtues — readiness to lead, solidarity in times of need, its spirit — are being pressed by a powerful surveillance and security apparatus. Since its inception post-9/11, the Department of Homeland Security portfolio has become the largest after the Pentagon. Well-founded vigilance degenerates into paranoia whenever national security is allegedly threatened.
We said our good-byes to friends and neighbors by throwing a garden party. It was harder than we thought it would be. There were no speeches, just many good wishes and wonderful conversations. The Germans stayed for a long time, the Americans left early. This is a hard-working country, hours are long, which makes weekend time all the more precious.
With it all, nobody tapped into the pathos of leave-taking as beautifully as the man from Sprint, my cell phone provider. When I called to pay my last bill, he said, "We hate having to let you go. Enjoy your time in Germany. You have a great future ahead of you." I never found out his name. American grandezza.