America

As a teenager, Larry Clark and Grand Theft Auto sparked my curiosity about the star-spangled capitalist metropole of Apollo and Hollywood, the king-pin of the post-war west. I developed a vague impression, accumulated from these and other haphazard encounters with mass media, of the entanglement of power, money, and violence that prevailed in the self-proclaimed Land of the Free; closed my eyes, and saw a dream of subtly interwoven images: the immense, glistening towers of its skyline, the hunky-dory Texans who lived for rodeos and gasoline, emceeing Bronx teens, imperialism in the Middle East. American history is taught in higher education through weightier concepts: rivalrous mercantilist empires, borderlands, the puritan ethic, the language of civic republicanism and rights, the Enlightenment and the problem of virtue in a commercial republic, slavery, the developing categories of scientific racism, manifest destiny, civil war, reconstruction, prohibition, the political economy of coal, immigration, segregation, Brown v. Board, and oil wars. Then there’s Wall Street, strip malls, Ellen DeGeneres, Silicon Valley, Kanye West, and Donald Trump. Everything else too. America is the infinite accumulation of a porous yet confined spatial domain, of a baffling array of distributed processes, networks, and structures of authority, control, exchange, and co-operation, and their various institutional expressions of fiscal-military, geo-spatial, techno-imperial, and discursive power, as they have developed through antagonising forces – in a dialectical process over time. It is baffling. And yet it is necessary for the thinking individual to reconcile their formative impressions with what they learn and experience over their adult life. I hope it conveys more humility than hubris to say that I am still working out how to work out America.

I can only speak sensibly to a small chunk of America, in a way which I hope exemplifies this point. Like all members of mass societies, I encounter an experiential dissonance between everyday life and my conception of its ordering environment. I am very aware that it makes no sense to say I lived in America, so much as the campus of Stanford University, which lies adjacent to Palo Alto, a town south-east of San Francisco in the Bay Area’s wealthy peninsula, in the western portion of Silicon Valley. It sprawls and shimmers with manufactured foliage and corporate profligacy, like a country club. The campus started out as a 8,000 acre farm stead belonging to the Gilded Age railway tycoon and California governor Leland Stanford. What’s called a bookstore here is in fact a retail outlet for athletics merchandise. It holds within it an exurb of world-class sports facilities, including a colossal football stadium and an Olympic pool. Students everywhere at ease clad head to toe in voguish activewear zoom around on electric scooters and skateboards. The first time I visited, it was to attend ‘Immersion Weekend’ as a finalist for the first year of Stanford’s Knight Hennessy Scholars programme, a $400 million project which aims to develop ‘a community of future global leaders to address complex challenges through collaboration and innovation’. It was my first time in the US, but I had little time to adjust to the sense that I was living in a parallel reality. The weekend was a flashy crash course in the newfangled techniques of self-optimisation germane to the West Coast. It included an improvisational session to enhance agility, resilience, and connection, as well as a plenary lecture on leadership by example with Condoleezza Rice. They had kombucha on tap. Nervous, insufficiently enthused, and jet-lagged during my interview, and definitely unsuitable for the programme, my application was rejected, like the other humanities student chosen as a finalist.

Fortunately I had an offer for a funded PhD place in the History Department, which had its own admissions weekend months later. I was lucky enough to be hosted by some older graduate students in the nearby suburbs of Redwood City, who were housesitting an enviable hillside property for a professor, with a balcony overlooking the bay and a citrus garden that grew kumquats and lemons. They kindly invited me along with them to a winery in Napa County, and patiently explained the intricacies of the life I could expect in September. On the first weekend after the move, one of the older graduate students who’d put me up in Redwood City invited me to go with him to the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco. I didn’t know what it was when I agreed to go, but discovered in the car that it was the world’s largest event for the BDSM and leather fetish community. We were among a sizeable minority of curious tourists paying $10 for the privilege of the voyeur. The shock soon wore off: seeing people dressed only in jockstraps, harnesses, and thongs comes to seem normal surprisingly quickly. Limits were nevertheless discovered. While queuing for a portable toilet, we were accosted by a man who told us we didn’t need to wait – there was another option around the corner. We gullibly followed him a few yards to find a naked woman gargling piss in an inflatable pool. Which is to say, getting more familiar with one segment of this radically pluralist society intrigued and challenged me in ways I hadn’t expected. The Bay Area is obviously nothing like the wheat fields and cow parsley of my suburban upbringing in South Cambridgeshire. But a lot of people find cacti and redwoods exotic here. Colleagues hail from Canada, France, Germany, Kenya, the Netherlands, and Lebanon. If they didn’t grow up on another continent, most people I encounter at least grew up on another side of this one.

My first few weeks were spent gawping at how otherworldly everything seemed. I bought a bike and rode out to the suburbs of Palo Alto, through endless streets of extravagantly proportioned mansions and scrupulously arranged flowerbeds, where, at least in the daytime, the only human beings to be seen were Mexican groundsmen. Northwards, I ended up discovering the Baylands preserve on my way to the surprisingly underwhelming Googleplex. Southwards, up the steep foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains to the paved ridge of the summit at Skyline Boulevard, I gawped at dramatic undulations of fertile terrain. Whenever it rains here, bone dry fields of dead, burnt-orange grass quickly spring up into plump and dewy greens. The soil of the Central Valley produces over half of the fruits, vegetables, and nuts grown in the US, and starts just an hour’s drive east. But most exciting were the trips up to the local metropolis, San Francisco. It’s a famously beautiful place, from Baker Beach and the hills of the Alamo Square or Twin Peaks, to the finely gilded Victorian houses and eucalyptus trees which line its streets. Every other gridiron street is a steep acclivity, now and then revealing preposterously angular vistas of the city and its surrounding bay. It’s equipped with everything from world-leading experimental art scenes to gourmet cannabis dispensaries, and less frequented neighbourhoods like Bernal Heights or Inner Sunset have their own lesbian bars and flea markets. There are few things more sublime on a blustery day than cycling over the Art Deco marvel of the Golden Gate Bridge, to abundance of the Marin headlands. Throughout their history, the city’s various neighbourhoods have provided havens for all kinds of communities – its bustling Chinatown dates back to the Gold Rush, while the eighteenth-century Mission Dolores is surrounded by what remains a vibrant centre for Latino culture and art.

The city is a proof of concept for the radical experiment in mixing and diversity that characterises the best of America. It rose from the biblical San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 to host the sumptuous Panama-Pacific International Exhibition just nine years later. It’s a melting pot: rich, open, beautiful, yet troubled to its core. Visitors easily spot Alcatraz Island in northerly vistas – the famed maximum security federal prison. For all its famed tolerance, California’s first openly gay official Harvey Milk was coldly assassinated here in 1978, shortly before the AIDS crisis. The Western Addition neighbourhood, like many, has suffered two bouts of ethnic cleansing: the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the exodus of African Americans through schemes of ‘urban renewal’ at the end of the century. Most recently, the rise of Big Tech in Silicon Valley, whose workers prefer the varied urban life of the city over the peninsula, has led to extortionate rent hikes. Many native San Franciscans, especially blue-collar workers and ethnic minorities, have been priced out of their homes. There are high rates of homelessness, drug dependence, and deprivation – all set against a scene of upmarket cafes, brunch venues, and glitzy international corporate headquarters. In the city’s Tenderloin district, shopping trolleys are stacked with soiled clothes, tents provide only a semblance of privacy, and the despondent smoke crack and meth in the open air. The Bay Area has profited from close integration within the global economy, but without regulation this has come at the cost of corroding the social fabric within.

The geological formations surrounding the San Andreas fault are some of the youngest on earth. It was a long time after the first members of our species roamed the plains of Northern Africa, that their descendants settled here. Evidence of human occupation in California still dates back 20,000 years. Native Americans who live here, such as the Ohlone, Ramaytush, Yokuts, and Muwekma, trace ancestry to long before the Spanish conquest. A professor teaching an environmental history class allowed me to join a field trip to Searsville Dam, an engineering project carried out by Chinese workers in the late nineteenth century. It lies just ten minutes away from campus. The Faculty Director of the surrounding Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve explained to us that members of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe had occupied the banks of the San Francisquito Creek for over 5,000 years. The history of European contact here, as across the Americas, is one of devastating loss: many indigenous people were forced to live and work in Francisacan missions established by Spanish colonists in the late eighteenth century, while many more thousands died over the course of the nineteenth century in what has since been termed the California Genocide. Efforts have long been made by Muwekma Ohlone leaders to preserve their cultures and the Chochenyo language. Spanish traders who believed California to be an island travelled along the seaboard while searching for gold and silver to export to Europe in the sixteenth century. But the antiquity of the region as a place of convergence was only impressed on me while driving up the legendary coast-hugging Highway One, past Drake’s Bay, where Sir Francis Drake is believed to have landed while circumnavigating the globe in 1579, to the fur trading settlement of Fort Ross, the southernmost extremity of the Russian empire in the early nineteenth century. The only surviving original structure is a wooden house built in 1812 for commander Alexander Rotchev.

The rise of Big Tech in Silicon Valley has almost doubled the Bay Area’s GDP in two decades, making the combined urban area richer on paper than Switzerland. That the prodigal homes and headquarters of the global mega-rich sit amid want and deprivation is testimony to the pathologies of America’s rugged individualism. That the opportunities here can be so vast, yet so unequally afforded, is an unambiguous affront to economic justice. Capital investment and innovation are like artificial fertilisers – they make huge remunerative returns, and appear generative, but they can deplete a more intricate ecology. With rents still rising, emigration to neighbouring states widespread, and extreme commuting now necessary for many service workers, the Bay Area, like much of America, is now well over the tipping point – its crisis is that of twenty-first-century capitalism and the collapse of the post-war global order. Part and parcel, the ongoing colonisation of Northern California for its rich natural resources has disrupted delicate ecologies and destroyed the habitats on which native species rely. Anthropogenic climate change, through erosion and rising sea levels, threaten marine life and coastal communities. In November 2018, extensive wildfires desolated the small town of Paradise in scenes which resembled the apocalyptic prophecy of Daniel, as thick clouds of toxic smoke polluted the entire region for several days. The crystal-clear water pumped to Bay Area faucets by a 165-mile aqueduct from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in the Sierra is threatened by drought and warm temperatures reducing the snowpack. It is not just this susceptibility to climate change, but the exceptional beauty and variety of the natural landscape here, that must account for eco-awareness among many Californians. I haven’t visited Yosemite, but brief encounters with redwoods and rock-pools were enough to inspire both wonder and grief.

This radical plurality of people, ideas, and environments – this meeting of power with vulnerability – makes the Bay Area a remarkable place to interrogate urgent questions, which require latitude of thought and conceptual scope. It is a risk that seeking to view human society in its enormous depths and complexity, while retaining some degree of epistemic humility, can feel demoralising, disempowering, or self-defeating. But the entangled power and powerlessness of human beings in relation to one another is always worth scrutinising. Living here has deepened my engagement with a more sensitive kind of humanism. Which leads me to see the danger in categories like America. That noun no longer stands only for hazy impressions accumulated from haphazard encounters with mass media. It has become a more tangible theatre of intersubjective performance, including my own. Yet that noun still asks, patiently but insistently – what to make of it.