Letter to America
This is a difficult letter
to write, because I'm no longer sure who you are.
Some of you may be having
the same trouble. I thought I knew you: We'd become well acquainted
over the past 55 years. You were the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck comic
books I read in the late 1940s. You were the radio shows -- Jack Benny,
Our Miss Brooks. You were the music I sang and danced to: the Andrews
Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, the Platters, Elvis. You were a ton of fun.
You wrote some of my favorite
books. You created Huckleberry Finn, and Hawkeye, and Beth and Jo in
Little Women, courageous in their different ways. Later, you were my
beloved Thoreau, father of environmentalism, witness to individual conscience;
and Walt Whitman, singer of the great Republic; and Emily Dickinson,
keeper of the private soul. You were Hammett and Chandler, heroic walkers
of mean streets; even later, you were the amazing trio, Hemingway, Fitzgerald,
and Faulkner, who traced the dark labyrinths of your hidden heart. You
were Sinclair Lewis and Arthur Miller, who, with their own American
idealism, went after the sham in you, because they thought you could
You were Marlon Brando in
On The Waterfront, you were Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo, you were Lillian
Gish in Night of the Hunter. You stood up for freedom, honesty and justice;
you protected the innocent. I believed most of that. I think you did,
too. It seemed true at the time.
You put God on the money,
though, even then. You had a way of thinking that the things of Caesar
were the same as the things of God: that gave you self-confidence. You
have always wanted to be a city upon a hill, a light to all nations,
and for a while you were. Give me your tired, your poor, you sang, and
for a while you meant it.
We've always been close,
you and us. History, that old entangler, has twisted us together since
the early 17th century. Some of us used to be you; some of us want to
be you; some of you used to be us. You are not only our neighbors: In
many cases -- mine, for instance -- you are also our blood relations,
our colleagues, and our personal friends. But although we've had a ringside
seat, we've never understood you completely, up here north of the 49th
We're like Romanized Gauls
-- look like Romans, dress like Romans, but aren't Romans -- peering
over the wall at the real Romans. What are they doing? Why? What are
they doing now? Why is the haruspex eyeballing the sheep's liver? Why
is the soothsayer wholesaling the Bewares?
Perhaps that's been my difficulty
in writing you this letter: I'm not sure I know what's really going
on. Anyway, you have a huge posse of experienced entrail-sifters who
do nothing but analyze your every vein and lobe. What can I tell you
about yourself that you don't already know?
This might be the reason
for my hesitation: embarrassment, brought on by a becoming modesty.
But it is more likely to be embarrassment of another sort. When my grandmother
-- from a New England background -- was confronted with an unsavory
topic, she would change the subject and gaze out the window. And that
is my own inclination: Mind your own business.
But I'll take the plunge,
because your business is no longer merely your business. To paraphrase
Marley's Ghost, who figured it out too late, mankind is your business.
And vice versa: When the Jolly Green Giant goes on the rampage, many
lesser plants and animals get trampled underfoot. As for us, you're
our biggest trading partner: We know perfectly well that if you go down
the plug-hole, we're going with you. We have every reason to wish you
I won't go into the reasons
why I think your recent Iraqi adventures have been -- taking the long
view -- an ill-advised tactical error. By the time you read this, Baghdad
may or may not look like the craters of the Moon, and many more sheep
entrails will have been examined. Let's talk, then, not about what you're
doing to other people, but about what you're doing to yourselves.
You're gutting the Constitution.
Already your home can be entered without your knowledge or permission,
you can be snatched away and incarcerated without cause, your mail can
be spied on, your private records searched. Why isn't this a recipe
for widespread business theft, political intimidation, and fraud? I
know you've been told all this is for your own safety and protection,
but think about it for a minute. Anyway, when did you get so scared?
You didn't used to be easily frightened.
You're running up a record
level of debt. Keep spending at this rate and pretty soon you won't
be able to afford any big military adventures. Either that or you'll
go the way of the USSR: lots of tanks, but no air conditioning. That
will make folks very cross. They'll be even crosser when they can't
take a shower because your short-sighted bulldozing of environmental
protections has dirtied most of the water and dried up the rest. Then
things will get hot and dirty indeed.
You're torching the American
economy. How soon before the answer to that will be, not to produce
anything yourselves, but to grab stuff other people produce, at gunboat-diplomacy
prices? Is the world going to consist of a few megarich King Midases,
with the rest being serfs, both inside and outside your country? Will
the biggest business sector in the United States be the prison system?
Let's hope not.
If you proceed much further
down the slippery slope, people around the world will stop admiring
the good things about you. They'll decide that your city upon the hill
is a slum and your democracy is a sham, and therefore you have no business
trying to impose your sullied vision on them. They'll think you've abandoned
the rule of law. They'll think you've fouled your own nest.
The British used to have
a myth about King Arthur. He wasn't dead, but sleeping in a cave, it
was said; in the country's hour of greatest peril, he would return.
You, too, have great spirits of the past you may call upon: men and
women of courage, of conscience, of prescience. Summon them now, to
stand with you, to inspire you, to defend the best in you. You need
Margaret Atwood studied American
literature -- among other things -- at Radcliffe and Harvard in the
1960s. She is the author of 10 novels. Her 11th, Oryx and Crake, will
be published in May.
- from an essay by Margaret
Atwood in The Globe and Mail (Toronto)