AA. Gill talks to Mashaal Gauhar about his book highly acclaimed book, The Golden Door, Letters to America
In his in-depth study on American history, ideology and culture, A.A Gill reveals the genius of America. He pays tribute to the struggle, toil and ardour put in by the European migrants who came to America to eke out an existence for themselves. The migrants who built America were often the most keenly desperate and the marginalised, regarded as amply dispensable in their own countries. “The interesting thing is that America was built by people who were disenfranchised in Europe. The people who emigrated to America were not the richest, it was the poorest people who were starving or being attacked politically. They were the people that made America. It is a great story of human achievement,” says Gill.
He observes that these migrants implemented European ideals and aspirations in their new homeland which still resonate deeply today in American politics and culture. “You can make the case that, and it is my hypotheses, that America is really the last great invention of Europe.” Though these ideals emerged from Europe, a rigid hierarchical structure meant that these they could not be easily implemented in Europe, “European history comes out of the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages, goes into the Renaissance, invents all the things that make the modern world and then it stops. There was nowhere for the Enlightenment to go because Europe is very bound by its hierarchies, by its own history, by its vested interests, by its class systems and this new sense of a new world order, people think it, write about it, believe it and philosophise about it but they can’t do it in Europe,” explains Gill.
However, America was unencumbered by any such hierarchies and so European thoughts and ideas were easily applied, “There is this new country, there is this new open space and the Enlightenment goes to America and builds America – that’s an amazing story. I think it’s an incredibly moving story. It’s the story of how Europe made the beginning of America. You couldn’t say that now, America is properly international. The foundations of America are European and come from ideas in Europe that Europe didn’t have the energy, flexibility or will to use itself,” says Gill.
Gill started writing The Golden Door at a time when invective against the United States was at its sharpest, “I began writing this book at the beginning of the second Bush administration and the anti-American feeling in Europe was so strong and vehement. During dinner party conversations there were always unquestioned assumptions about America that were all pejorative: that they were crass, that they lacked irony, that they were coarse, that they had no culture, that they didn’t understand history, that they didn’t understand geography, that they didn’t have any food worth eating – it went on and on and on with these assumptions about America.”
Having spent a great deal of time in America, Gill’s experience of the country did not match with the prevailing reductive view of the country, “ I have been traveling back and forth to America since my early twenties. The first time I went to America I must have been nineteen or twenty. It so was just not the country that I knew. There are a lot of things that you can say are annoying about America but it certainly isn’t a stupid country, it doesn’t lack a sense of history, it has got an amazing sense of geography, it has an incredibly interesting culture on all sorts of levels, not just with fantastic writing, music and literature, but it has also invented movies as a culture, it has invented pop music as a culture, it is an incredibly vibrant, creative place. I wanted to say this is not how America is; this is not the America I know. I wanted to write a book which is what I feel about America: I love it, I think in many ways it is an example of how a modern nation needs to grow.”
He discusses how European attitudes to America alter according to economics, “Attitudes to America wax and wane. Like most attitudes to most things, in then end it comes down to economics: if people feel buoyant and hopeful they tend to feel quite benign about the world. When America is a big economic powerhouse sending out movies people want to see and clothes they want to wear, they like it.”
However, the current recessionary climate and global economic downturn has led to rage and anger, “But now it’s a very tough time. I think if I started writing this book now it would be quite different. I think we are living in Salem. There is a big witch trial sense in the world, a great censoriousness and a great pool of anger which doesn’t seem to have anywhere particular to go until there is a scandal and then the fury that is vented on that is out of all proportion. There is a lot of unused and unfocused anger which is mostly fear. You see it in fundamentalism and in America there is a lot of fundamental thinking not just religious but also economic. In Europe there were lots of economic riots, a lot of people who want to remake societies –it’s all very prescriptive, it’s full of blame, resentment and righteousness. Those are tough things for all of us to live with and America is naturally a focus for that.”
But what about the fact that the United States is largely viewed as a declining superpower? Gill believes that rather than being a declining superpower, the world order is changing rapidly, “I am not so sure that America is a declining superpower so much as the rest of the world is changing. The idea of a superpower comes out of the cold war. America was a superpower as a bookend to the other superpower which was Russia. So America has lost the thing it measured itself against, the thing it pushed against, it was like the resistance in the gym. China is obviously an economy that is rising, so rather than America declining, China is rising. Lots of countries are doing well whereas America seems to be growing less fast. America is still by far the biggest economy in the world and the biggest market in the world. The point is that America has an infrastructure – not just a physical infrastructure – but a social, political, judicial infrastructure, which is way ahead of most developing countries. We have got to stop measuring ascent and decline purely in manufacturing terms – it’s about all sorts of qualities of existence in life, possibilities and culture. America is way ahead.”