I have been driving many hundreds of miles across America, interviewing Vietnam veterans for a book. Though I have been doing this sort of thing for 40 years, the fascination of the serendipity persists. I meet an extraordinary variety of people, way outside my usual social round. Some talk in modest bungalows, others in motels, one last week in a conspicuously wealthy gated community. Many rich Americans now live in such places — essentially their own country clubs, fortified by wired perimeters. The one that I visited covered 6,000 acres, with lots of lakes and a golf course. There is excellent food in the clubhouse, skeet ranges, riding stables and a small army of black staff. The notional population, mainly elderly, is around 400, though most inmates live there only a few months in the year, between vacations. Everybody appears wonderfully friendly, even at breakfast in the clubhouse. My host said that he likes living among his peer group: there are no great ego clashes, because all the residents enjoy the same sort of status and income level, which enabled us to sample Ch. Pétrus and Ch. Lafite over dinner. He asked if we have anything like his community in England. No, I said. I did not add that our friends like their own homes too much to confine themselves to an open prison, however lavishly padded the cells.
Civilised Americans wring their hands about the tone of the Republican election campaign. This seems derived overwhelmingly from social media and rant radio. We are witnessing the translation on to the hustings of the hysterical and abusive language in which most patrons of Twitter and Facebook, together with many Fox News commentators, address the world. Few internet conversationalists want to explore evidence or seek truth. Instead they unleash rival barrages of intemperate and usually false assertions, impervious to debate or compromise. The same process is poisoning university campuses, where students demand a right to be protected from exposure to unwelcome views and even unpalatable facts. It is less surprising that students are stupid, which they have always been, than that university authorities kowtow. Harvard has just announced that it is changing its law school’s crest because of an association with slave trading. Some of us would argue they should be far more disturbed about the moral implications of Harvard alumni’s links with bond trading. We are witnessing a retreat from rationality, of which the candidacies of Trump, Cruz and Rubio are manifestations. In 1968 Malcolm Muggeridge wrote from the US in his default mode of anguished despair: ‘There is so much information and so little knowledge.’ Half a century on, matters are much worse, as a significant element of the population seeks to reverse the age of enlightenment. If this movement is sustained, in academia as in politics, it seems hard to overstate the implications for American culture, and perhaps eventually for ours too.
There was panic in media circles when Jeff Bezos, megalomaniacal lord of Amazon, bought the Washington Post. In DC, however, I heard nothing but good things about the new regime. Thus far, at least, it has brought a big injection of investment, and no editorial interference. Morale at the paper is higher than it has been for years. These are still early days, but it would be great news if this great newspaper’s revival were to continue.
Apple’s refusal to assist the FBI in decrypting the iPhone data of a dead Muslim terrorist defies comprehension in the eyes of most British people. But Neil Sheehan, legendary New York Times reporter in Vietnam and many other places, told me at the weekend that he strongly supports Apple. So do many East Coast liberals. In Britain, a willingness persists to give government and the intelligence services the benefit of some doubt on security issues. This has been absent in the US since the Vietnam era, when the Johnson and Nixon administrations systematically abused the instruments of government to deceive the nation and undermine the anti-war movement. Plenty of Americans today consider Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency geek who exposed many secrets of government eavesdropping from the sanctuary of Moscow, a noble whistleblower rather than a traitor. This indulgent view is surely influenced by the fact that on their side of the Atlantic, the terrorist threat seems more remote than it does on ours.
On a brilliant spring day I passed by Gettysburg, most moving of American battlefields. I once lamented to the historian Eliot Cohen, author of Supreme Command, the difficulty of persuading immigrants to engage with our heritage. He responded: ‘When I take my students to Gettysburg and read them the Address, you would be surprised how often one can wring a tear from a Korean American or Cuban American.’ I believed him. His nation, more unashamedly sentimental than ours, does the stuff with immigrants much better. I remain doggedly optimistic about the United States, despite the obvious reasons for dismay. There is still so very much to admire, above all its boundless capacity for reinventing itself.
Visitors to the old Soviet Union made sour jokes about a nation in chains, none of which pulled properly. In America — and increasingly, alas, in Britain — the issue is washbasin plugs. I have used maybe 20 of the clumsy, stupid mechanical variety in the past ten days, scarcely one of which contained water efficiently. I love new technology, but why in God’s name must we suffer leaking basins and baths, when boring old rubber plugs were infallible?
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Max Hastings is a former editor of the Daily Telegraph and author, most recently, of The Secret War.
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