By Umair Haque
Take a hard look at America right about now. What do you see?
Here’s what I see. A dystopia.
Riots across the country. Cities on fire. A hundred thousand dead and counting. A President who alternates between negligence, irresponsibility, incitement, and indifference. A political class that’s paralyzed. An intellectual class that failed at it’s first job — to predict and prevent any of it. A people who are now poor, desperate, and afraid. A pervasive feeling of hopelessness, powerlessness, rage, and pessimism.
The rest of the world sees a society which has plunged shockingly into a dystopian abyss.
Two weeks ago, when I walked into my little dog park: “Umair, have you seen this?” Ben the grizzled London copper handed me his phone.
Everyone crowded around. Claudine, the French consultant, Wolfgang, the German accountant, Helen, the CEO.
I recoiled in horror. I felt sick to my stomach. It was the video of Ahmaud Arbery being shot in cold blood for…jogging.
“My God,” cried Wolfgang.
“Sweet Lord in heaven,” muttered Helen.
“Mon dieu,” said Claudine.
We all looked at each other, numb. What words could be spoken? We’d just watched a man…die…be murdered…for nothing.
“What the hell is wrong with Americans?” asked Wolfgang. There was a kind of desperation in his voice.
“Mate,” replied Ben, “can you explain this to us?”
But what could I say?
A week after that, I walked into the dog park. “Umair! Look at this.” I shuddered. What was it today.
Ben handed me his phone. It was Amy Cooper, calling the cops on Christian Cooper, for bird-watching.
Everyone was laughing, in shock, in bewilderment, in horror.
“But why does she keep…keep saying…’African-American man’?” Asked Wolfgang.
“Ah, you know why,” replied Claudine. “She is afraid just because he is black.”
Ben shook his head. And the question came again, this time from Helen.
“What the hell is wrong with Americans?”
I looked at her just as helplessly as before.
A few days after that, I strolled into the dog park. Everyone was gathered together, hushed. “Has he seen it yet?” Someone asked.
Ben handed me his phone. “Be careful,” he said. “This one’s especially hard to watch.”
It was the video of George Floyd, being choked to death, a knee on his throat.
I gagged. A kind of terrible anger surged through me. And then I felt nothing but sorrow.
“What…can the police just do this in America?” Asked Wolfgang.
“Of course…of course not — “ I tried to say.
“But they do,” interjected Claudine, firmly.
“Mate,” said Ben. “I’m a cop. And do you know what’d happen to any of us here for that?
We’d be done.” As in, sent to prison. For life. Swiftly. No questions asked.
“I don’t — it’s just that — “ I fumbled for words, to try to make sense of this horror.
But there were none.
And then the question came again.
“What the hell is wrong with Americans?”
This morning, I walked into the dog park.
There was Eamon, the Irish architect. “Have you seen it?” He asked me. Ben handed me his phone.
Video after video of cities burning, of protests sweeping the country, of people erupting.
“It’s a good thing they’re protesting, finally,” said Claudine. The French protest everything, from baguettes to pensions.
“But look at the state of the country now!” Ben was aghast. “They’re setting their own cities on fire.”
“Will it change anything?” Asked Wolfgang, darkly.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“America,” said Helen, “is a dystopia now.”
“But wasn’t it always? Wolfgang remarked. “For blacks, for Native Americans, maybe for women, for a lot of people.”
Eamon said: “In Ireland, we’ve had plenty of strife. But we’re managing to learn to care about each other. Americans just don’t — just don’t — “
“Care.” Ben finished his sentence. “They’re just thick.”
“You have to understand something about Americans,” I said. “They’ve been exploited so long that they don’t know any other way. The poor white exploited the black. The middle class white exploited the poor white and the black. The rich white exploited them all. It’s a society which became — “
“Conditioned to dehumanization?” Claudine asked. It was a very French way of putting it. A very accurate one, too.
“Correct,” I said, struggling for words. “You see, America’s had a stunning, massive collapse in trust, as it grew poor. People stopped trusting their institutions. Their government. Each other. And without trust a society can’t take collective action together. For example, to give each other healthcare, retirement, or even safety. That only leaves one avenue: rage, riots, protests.”
“Riots erupt when politics fails,” said Eamon. “We Irish know the story well. American politics have completely failed people, haven’t they?”
Ben nodded. “They have. Look, we have this idiot Boris in charge of this country. But we still manage to have a functioning NHS — barely — and so on. Those things keep us knitted together, still. America never had any of that.”
“But why not,” asked Claudine, frowning.
“How can a society ever have public goods — things meant for all — if it’s a segregated state, an apartheid state?”
“But come on, that was long ago, wasn’t it?” Helen asked.
“Just until a few years before I was born,” I said, “A thing called ‘interracial marriage’ was still illegal in Virginia, where I grew up. It wasn’t long ago. I’m almost old enough to remember it.”
“My God,” said Wolfgang. They were all stunned to learn this.
“So would they have put you in jail — or K?” Ben joked, referring to my painfully white wife.
I laughed. “See the point. When a society is divided into the human and the non-human, one obvious consequence is that it can never have public goods. That’s why America never developed the things all of you take for granted — healthcare, retirement, education, dignity, income, as basic human rights, things everyone has.”
“And safety is a public good, too,” remarked Eamon, thinking of Ireland, perhaps. “Black men can be shot and killed for no reason because safety itself, the integrity of the human body, is one of the public goods America never developed.” Yes, conversations at my dog park really do get this nerdy. I like it.
“Exactly,” I said, sadly. “America is a dystopia. You are all right. What the world fails to understand, though, is how that dystopia was a product of many things. Of racism and hate. Of the lack of public goods it caused. Of the descent into poverty that lack of public goods itself then caused.”
“What do you mean by that last part?” asked Wolfgang, frowning.
“Well, think about Germany. You don’t have to pay astronomical prices for healthcare. For education. For retirement.”
“Of course we don’t,” he said, indignantly. “These are basic human rights!”
“That’s the point. They never were in America. And because they weren’t, now Americans have to pay enormous prices for them. Having a kid costs $50k. Having an operation costs $150k. Educating a child costs more than a house. The result is that Americans are now poor.”
“See!”, said Ben. “I told you. Thick.”
“Ah,” Claudine said, “You mean that because of racism, they never thought of human rights for all, so they never built the kinds of systems we have in Europe, and now they are poor, because nobody has affordable healthcare, retirement, and so on?”
“Exactly,” I said.
“But why don’t think they of these things as basic human — “ she asked, still baffled.
“Because they’re racist,” said Woflgang. “That’s the point he’s trying to make. Racism is like a — like a curse. Americans never developed what we have in Europe because they thought black people and brown people didn’t deserve healthcare and retirement or even safety. The result is that now a whole society doesn’t have those things affordably, and everyone is poor.”
“That”, said Helen, the CEO, “is how a business would collapse, too. Underinvestment. If I didn’t invest, what would I have to earn with tomorrow? If I didn’t provide basic things for all my employees, like training or safety or pensions, what kind of company would I build? A very fragile one.”
“Right,” said Eamon. “You need to invest to stay and grow wealthy. We’re learning that in Ireland the hard way. Americans didn’t get it, he’s saying, because they were too racist.”
“I told you.” Said Ben, shaking his head. “Thick!”
“Come on, it’s more than that,” said Wolfgang.
“It’s not,” retorted Ben. “Americans are thick. Racism and bigotry cost them a working society. Isn’t racism just a kind of ignorance.”
Wolfgang muttered. Claudine clapped. Ben had won the exchange.
“You guys keep asking me,” I said., “What the hell is wrong with Americans? The answer is simple, but it’s also complicated. Americans never saw each other as human beings. Just commodities — or maybe slaves. How could a functioning society ever result from that?
America’s original sin doomed it to collapse in the end. A society that dehumanizes itself will never develop human rights, public goods, a functioning social contract. Everyone will be left poor in the end. Desperation and fear will prevail as the vicious cycle of poverty takes hold — even for the chosen people.”
“And we know what happens in that case,” said Wolfgang, darkly. “Fascism. You are telling us the story of Weimar Germany. People grew poor, they grew desperate, and a demagogue came along, who blamed all their problems on a scapegoat.”
“Thick,” said Ben. Everyone laughed. We needed the relief.
“That’s the story I’m telling,” I nodded. “America today is something very much like Weimar Germany then. The hated scapegoats aren’t Jews — aren’t just Jews, I guess. But the blacks who get killed for no reason. Many Americans think they should still be slaves, basically. But what they don’t understand is — “
“A society of slaves and masters can’t be one of equals,” said Ben.
“Wow, Ben,” said Claudine, admiring his suddenly elegant turn of phrase.
They all laughed.
We’d become friends as we stood here day after day, beside each other, on this tiny patch of green in the great and ancient city of poets, kings, and revolutionaries. And now evening was falling. Was it time to go home, and have dinner? Or was there more yet to know, say, learn, from each other?
The dogs ran in great circles around us, their tongues wagging from their smiling mouths in delight. It was spring again.
And I remembered how I’d never felt, even once, this strange, beautiful, humble sense of fellowship, of equality, of freedom, of grace, of gentleness, that happened in my little dog park, in the America we now watched implode. America was a country that had never understood what friendship was. Nobody much wanted to know, understand, better, improve, care, dream, imagine, change. Friendship. In the deep and true and simplest of all sense that it existed even here, in this tiny patch of green, between strangers, who’d become companions, somehow. Was it any surprise, then, that the world now watched America now descending into mass death, chaos, fire, and lunacy, with bewilderment, astonishment, and horror?
Nobody much grieved for America. But they did want to understand it. So they’d never, ever make the same mistakes.
*Umair Haque first published this article in Medium on 30 May