As with any complex society, you can get pretty much whatever instant opinion on America that you like, simply by focusing on a few isolated samples. Here in the gracious Spanish-pueblo town of Santa Fe, with the sunlight gleaming off the snow piled up against the adobe walls, it is easy to believe that all is luxe, calme and volupte, dude. Everyone’s in native fabrics, every second building is a performance art cafe, and even the Greyhound station is a sort of hip hangout, with just-arrived steel guitarists chatting with runners-up in the Grizzly Adams lookalike competition.

It is not, you might guess, representative.

Meanwhile down the road, in Albuquerque, the day workers sleep rough in their dozens, hundreds, in the shadow of featureless concrete blocks, the shops are gone, and a one hour bus trip requires not merely a thorough bag search, but a full body pat-down by the representatives of the private security firm that run the transit station. The experience – passed from one secure area to another by means of sliding doors – is essentially modelled on prison management, one of the fastest growing industries in the US.

I would not seek to generalise either extreme experience to a general view of the US. Other commentators seem to be less inhibited, with the standard for assessing an overview of the United States going into a bar and talking to three people – as Planet Janet Albrechtsen did to determine that Obama’s support was race-based. Alternatively, you don’t have to talk to anyone at all. David Burchell, also of The Oz, went to an academic conference in Chicago, stopped off at a diner in Ohio, and concluded from that that all was well in the Union.

Planet’s blog article, not untypically, simply ignores the ample evidence that Obama’s support, while obviously solid among the US black population, also reaches well into white America – which is why he not only took states like Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming where a black person is either a tourist or lost, but also managed to carve out respectable white votes in the South – 25% in South Carolina, in a 3-horse race with one candidate (John Edwards) being a local son.

Planet suggested that race was the one thing Americans wouldn’t discuss because of political corre… sorry I drifted off mid-phrase. Excuse me? We seem to be talking about little else – to the exclusion of full discussion of the economy and Iraq. Planet was writing from Boston which – Republican governor Mitt Romney notwithstanding – is about the most liberal big capital in the nation.

Burchell’s argument is even weirder. As always this academic and former Australian Left Review editor – who has passed through successive stages of Gramsci Foucault etc like corn through a goose – berates the intellectuals for getting America wrong, and never getting out of the fleshpots of NY and LA.

One hesitates to suggest that one diner in Ohio does not middle America make, but it’s really just a fulcrum on which to pivot an Americophilia of a particular type common in Australia – a sort of populism by which the professional academic, writer, opinion-maker, etc puts self forward as a direct representative of the people. America, in this manoeuvre, is the cheerfully optimistic, forward-thrusting nation which scorns fashionable theory and modish pessimism.

Trouble is, that is news to many Americans. Sixty percent or so, by most polls, think the country is going in the wrong direction. That’s happened before – in the 1920s, the 1970s – but what is different today is that no-one has clear ideas about what should be done, no New Deal, Great Society or Reagan Revolution.

The more people you speak to, the more you come to feel that one dominant emotion is simple bewilderment. Why is the economy tanking, when the working week is getting longer not shorter? Why are we really in Iraq? Why can’t I get any health insurance? Where did the work go? Where did the neighbourhood go?

If Burchell found an intact Ohio town with a cheerful main street etc, then he hit a convenient bullseye, because Ohio – like Michigan, Illinois, southern Wisconsin – has been hit harder than most by the simultaneous disappearance of industry, and the undermining of the high street by out-of-town Walmarts etc.

It is in this sense that significant parts of American society have collapsed – not in some Mad Max sense of lawless chaos, but in a degree of disengagement that is beyond simple downturn. When you have no work, when most people you know don’t have work, when the work there is is shifts at the Waffle House, or the newly-built prison, when the main street is half-empty and the remaining shops are filled with dispirited discount stores, when the public transport to the city centre is three buses a day… that is a historic change, and the collapse of something. When purposive social networks – workplaces, neighbourhoods – disappear, so too do the social relationships they sustained, and there is no guarantee that new ones grow back to fill the void. People simply become more disconnected, more atomised, until a fundamental regrouping takes place – a stage which is some way off.

We’re unused to it, because it has never happened before on this scale. The north of England, the Hunter valley – they’ve all taken their hits. But nothing prepares you for the modern urban ruin of Detroit, the wilting cotton towns of the south, the placeless urbanwebs of the northeast. Of course there are areas of the US that are thriving. But what should be worrying is that much of the new sunbelt economy is based on services – entertainment in Vegas, retirement in Phoenix –

The striking thing is that this view, of a real social and culture disjuncture, of a breach, is shared by so many people across the spectrum, from conservatives like Pat Buchanan, through cautious social analysts like Robert Putnam, to Marxists like Mike Davis. The ideas about a solution may differ radically, but the division is not between left and right, it’s between realists and pollyannas.

For Australia’s Americophiles – most of them ex-leftists, dealing with internal muck through political projection – a bright shining America has as little to do with the real complex country, as did the USSR to the Communist dream decades ago. It is a way to short-circuit cultural critique, to surrender the idea that you can step back from a whole society and reflect on whether it hasn’t taken a very wrong turn somewhere back down the line. It is a way to forestall the idea that anything could ever be different, and it is especially a way of holding off the idea – pretty much in the ascendent now – that the state and the community have a big role to play in shaping the market, and not vice versa.

But with whole streets and suburbs of Cleveland (Ohio) now boarded up and foreclosed on, and “foreclosure camps” – basically shelters for former subprime holders who have nowhere else to go – springing up, it may be that Americans desert America before the Americophiles do. Let’s hope Burchell tipped the waitress in that Ohio diner handsomely – like many in the American service industry, she may well have been working for gratuities alone.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey