22 Aug 2020

The Unraveling of America: Wade Davis

From Saturday Morning, 9:45 am on 22 August 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the reputation of the United States and may signal the end of the American era, argues Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis.

Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty Photo: Public Domain

In his recent Rolling Stone essay The Unraveling of America the writer, photographer and professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia says the failure to protect US citizens from the pandemic has "reduced to tatters the illusion of American exceptionalism".

Pandemics have always transformed societies, Wade says, and in 1966 a flu pandemic killed 100,000 Americans. 

Wade Davis

Wade Davis Photo: Supplied / Adam Dillon

"The difference here ... is that the epidemic has revealed the illusion of exceptionalism and suddenly Americans found themselves with 2,000 people dying every day ... literally living in a failed state ruled by a dysfunctional government."

Davis cited an Irish Times commentary saying many emotions had been expressed about the United States over the years, good and bad, but never, until now, pity. "As I argue in the piece, as front-line workers in the US urgently awaited emergency shipments of fundamental gear from China, in a sense the hinge of history opened to the Asian century."

Though denouncing Donald Trump as "a grotesque caricature of a strong man with the backbone of a bully", he says the US president is not the cause of any decline but a symptom of the descent.

The sheer economic dominance of the United States after WWII, when it had 6 percent of the global population but was controlling half the world's economy, and which led to the middle class, has crumbled - "and that is a world Trump was exploiting".

"But the issue isn't President Trump," Davis says. "It's that Americans have lost all sense of society, all sense of internal community.

"The very fact that 62 million Americans chose to prioritise their own indignations and their own sense of anger by electing an individual whose only possible credential for the job was his willingness to validate their hatred and validate their anger, and target their enemies, real or imagined, is a sign of descent to which the country has fallen."

It is not a matter of being nostalgic for 1950s, which was no golden era for women, people of colour or gay people, and when elements of the economic prosperity were derived from racial discrimination and the treatment of women, he says.

But today, discrepancies in wealth are "almost grotesque" with the top 1 percent of Americans controlling $US30 trillion of assets while the bottom half have more debt than assets.

That inequality causes outrage and polarisation in a country which already lacks a sense of the collective, he says.

"If I go to get my groceries anywhere in Auckland or Wellington or Christchurch I may not feel identical to the checkout person but I will have a sense of being a member of a greater community. 

"In the States that doesn't really exist. There tends to be an economic, racial, educational class divide that is impossible to bridge."

Canada fared better in the pandemic because its medical system is geared to the collective and not the individual or to private investors "who view every hospital bed as a rental property", he says. For every 44 people who died in Massachusetts, there was one death in the similar-sized Canadian region of British Columbia.

"It's not that Canada is some perfect place, quite to the contrary, but the key thing is that we performed well in the crisis because we do have a social contract. That's why New Zealand performed well.

"We do have bonds of community, we have trust for each other and in our institutions."

The US, which once led the world in medical and scientific technology, was suddenly ruled by a "buffoon of a president who is advocating the use of disinfectants for a pandemic".

"But the reality is Trump is a symptom of a divide, and unless that divide can be bridged I think it is a sign of internal decadence that sadly may presage the end of the American era.

"And if that end does come, as it does to all dominant powers, it will not be a time to gloat, it won't be a time to celebrate. American ideals have inspired millions and the industrial build-up of the United States during the second world war, together with the blood of Russian soldiers, literally saved civilisation."

*Wade Davis was was Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society from 2000 to 2013 and has authored 22 books, including The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985), One River (1996), and Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, the Conquest of Everest (2011). His most recent book Magdalena, explores his travels on the Colombian river. His Rolling Stone essay has has more than 10 million social media views.