Readers Write In #322: Bye Bye Miss American Pie

Posted on January 11, 2021

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(by Madan Mohan)

Don McLean wrote the iconic American Pie as a lament addressed to the events at Altamont, where pandemonium broke out between fans and Hell’s Angels (private bodyguards of sorts) as Rolling Stones performed their set at a music festival and also as a general critique of what he saw as accelerating cultural decline in the US in those years. The song’s leitmotif is the line, “This will be the day that I died”.  Given that McLean is still alive, perhaps it’s time for a 2021 update for the song.

I’ve at one and the same time a strong connection to the United States and a (hopefully) healthy skepticism towards its exceptionalist rhetoric.  I have relatives over there, relatives who’ve been living there for decades now.  I have friends who moved over to the US and, via the internet, I have befriended Americans, including white people. But I am also the guy who, when my 11th standard classmate recounted the 9/11 news the day after with the appropriate tone of horror, offered an unsympathetic “Well, they shouldn’t have been messing around in the Middle East” riposte. I swear he thought I must be crazy.

Unsurprisingly, I heartily loathed George W Bush Jr and when a lecturer was sharp enough to question why Obama had been given the Peace Prize even before he had actually accomplished anything, I was one of the few in the classroom who approved with a chuckle. 

Was there a measure of schadenfreude I derived from watching the US trip heavily and fail miserably in living up to its lofty ideals and being patently unable to preach “Do as I do” to supposedly less civilized third world countries (like ours)?  Yes.

At the same time, as I got to know more and more Americans online, I found them to be also the harshest critics of their own land, the most likely among all nationalities to unsparingly take down their leaders for their follies without feeling compelled to sound ‘patriotic’.  That they did so in the face of a large contingent that regarded such criticism as ‘unAmerican’ and let them know this as loudly as possible made their candour even more admirable. If I know about the Civil War, Tulsa Massacre or Birth of a Nation, it is only because Americans told me all about it. 

I know that right now, many Americans are angrier than you could possibly imagine at Donald J Trump and the Republican Party. And they aren’t all liberals.  Even popular Quoran conservative Anthony Zarella has demanded that the twenty fifth amendment be invoked to remove Trump from office.  

But I wonder whether that will be enough now.

This has always been a peculiar dynamic in the United States.  Every time the United States lurched into unforgivable injustice, either to its own citizens (such as slavery) or to others (Vietnam, Iraq), a very vocal contingent rose up to protest these acts of injustice.  And they protested over and over until those in power had no choice but to take heed. The United States has produced many fraudsters like Bernie Madoff or Elizabeth Holmes but, equally too, brave whistleblowers who risked their meagre position and belongings for a greater cause.  The exceptionalists of the United States, then, have been the ones who have not been afraid to call out its bluff and demand that it at least attempt to live up to its high and mighty ideals. 

However, there was a line that had not been crossed before January 6, 2021.  On January 6, a mob of angry Trump supporters stormed Capitol Hill and ransacked its premises.  We now know that the Capitol police had inadequately manned the location in spite of receiving warnings from the FBI.  They also refused offers of help from the National Guard and the FBI.  I wonder why.  The charitable conclusion is that they were sucked into the same complacency that led many on the Right to insist that they would take a Biden victory well “unlike Clinton voters in 2016” even though the rest could clearly see this was not going to be the case. The bleaker possibility is that they shared the views and political affiliation of these crazed mobsters.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to entirely rule out the latter possibility. 

Which leads us to the inference that one side of the aisle now only reluctantly and grudgingly does its part in the democratic process.  That this side would rather attempt to take over Capitol Hill and threaten Congress into submission than accept the verdict delivered by a democratic electoral process. A process, by the way, that is already skewed towards the Right.  Even so.

When a major party (and, by implication, roughly half of the electorate) decides it will remain in hostile and even violent opposition to the other side no matter what and with no basis in reality or facts, it is difficult to see how this would work out.  One hopes that it would, somehow.  I certainly do.  

Where I have always regarded the American State with at least some suspicion and never been a full blooded Americophile in the way some of my acquaintances are, I have been an unabashed consumer of its cultural products.  I count many, many American musicians among my favourites and so too many American filmmakers (with my absolute favourite being Scorsese). While not all art is political, American art was shaped by this hopeful if not always jingoistic halo that enveloped the US.  What happens to all of that now? Is the innocence of this bright and shiny art going to look as hopelessly naive as America did to Don McLean back in 1971? 

Is it fitting that the products of American enterprise, the ‘genius’ of creative disruption, had led Bob Dylan to turn over his music masters and collect a sizable retirement fund just weeks before Jan 6, 2021?  Maybe.  This is an America that does not pay enough to Dylan to see merit in holding onto ownership of his musical creations.  It is also an America that is prepared to forgive Trump even after he has gone where perhaps many third world politicians wouldn’t have. Bye Bye Miss American Pie.  Fare Thee Well.