A letter to America
You're the 21st-century Romans. Your admiring friends used to know you well:
land of the brave, home of the free. Now, as you obsess over the omens of
war, we wonder if you know yourself, muses MARGARET ATWOOD
Friday, March 28, 2003
Dear 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
You wrote some of my favourite 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 do better.
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
neighbours: 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
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 unsavoury 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
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 them.
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. This essay also appears in