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
By MARGARET ATWOOD
UPDATED AT 4:25 PM EST Friday, Mar. 28, 2003 - The Globe and Mail
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 fun.
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
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
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 49th parallel.
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
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
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
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 well.
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 yourselves.
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
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
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 The Nation.
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