The Times They Are a Changin’
If ever a nation came to embody the positivity of the latter half of the twentieth century it is the USA. Few countries grew and prospered the way America managed to do. The nation’s coming of age saw a remarkable flowering not just in innovation and manufacturing, but a seeming realisation of the American Dream, a way of life largely free of the strictures and values of the Old World. Having apparently managed to slay the demon that was economic depression the US emerged triumphant from the Second World War convinced that it was divinely ordained to take its place as champion and arbiter of the ‘Free World’.
The confidence of 1950’s America manifested itself in the new consumerism that saw even the lowliest of citizens acquiring white goods and aspiring to car and television ownership. Chrome, steal and reinforced concrete became the very stuff of a bright shiny and thrusting nation, a land of freeways, drive-in cinemas, motels and skyscrapers. Scientific endeavour promised constant advancement from domestic appliances to outer-space. For an insight into this heady world one need only look at the figures that featured on the cover of Time Magazine, as well as the politicians and world statesmen, one finds captains of industry, inventors and scientists. These figures were often captured in a bold, sometimes surreal representational form by a Ukranian-born emigre called Boris Artzybasheff (1899 – 1965) The confidence of post-war America was portrayed in a manner that exuded dynamism, material advancement and self confidence. Artzybasheff’s artistry embodied a land eager to push boundaries with barely a glance back at the world that had gone before. His own penniless arrival in the New World from the turmoil and horrors of Revolutionary Russia was similar to the tale of countless thousands who had sought sanctuary and a better life across the Atlantic. His new home afforded him an opportunity to experience America’s twentieth century progress firsthand; he witnessed the country’s journey from the era of Prohibition and the Wall Street Crash, to that of the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the approach of the Second World War. World War Two allowed America to seize the moral high grown, a position it is sought to occupy ever since.
Those seeking to elucidate something of America’s self image during the heady years after 1945 would do well to explore the work of Artzybasheff, in many ways far more telling of the country’s mindset than the speeches and communications of the likes of John Foster Dulles or Dean Acheson. Whilst scholars debate the impact of Cold War politics and MacCathyism none I expect would turn to Artzybasheff’s illustrations and his seminal work As I See (1954) to gain an understanding of the nation’s psychoses. Scholars would do well to beat a path to Syracuse University to delve into the Artzbasheff archive and also pore over his advertisements and magazine covers that speak far more powerfully of America than Henry Kissinger’s magnus opus Diplomacy As in the case of all imperial powers, and the Pax America was an empire in all but name, it is essential that historians look beyond its physical manifestations and monuments to personal pre-occupations and aspirations rather than public policy and pronouncements.
Any imperial ideal or otherwise has to be believed in if it is to survive and be sustained. For most of the Twentieth Century Americans have rightly taken pride in what they have constructed, built largely on the virtues and values enshrined in the Constitution and the solid foundations laid down by its Founding Fathers. In ploughing its own furrow America has opened up new areas of endeavour and consequently been a fertile soil for those eager to maximise their potential. Its plurality has ensured that the country has exerted a magnetic pull on those seeking intellectual freedom and an environment that champions entrepreneurship and liberalism. Like the early days of Ancient Rome it is evident that the America has endeavoured to build its greatness on core ideological values which in turn have worked alongside commerce and military might. Rome knew its worth and standing in the ancient world and the USA has felt confident of its place for much of the last century. The Stars and Stripes connotes so much; a land of liberty, opportunity, prosperity and sadly at times insensitivity. Policy makers and the mainstream media inevitably view the world beyond through an American prism, this filters out much that may be unpalatable and distorts the reality. Drive past any American Embassy abroad and what do you see, vast buildings lacking subtlety or reference to the vernacular architecture, appearing to stake claim, an exercise in power akin to the Roman garrison in Jerusalem in 70 AD. Such buildings do a grave disservice to America, not least because they appear arrogant and unfeeling. Anyone who has seen the US Embassy in Amman (Jordan) or Dhaka (Bangladesh) will know exactly what feelings such structures generate in the local populace, sadly not admiration, but smouldering resentment and sometimes hatred. Embassies by their very nature are there to serve their nationals and help foster cordial relations, not to put peoples’ backs up and confirm prejudices.
In the post 9/11 world America like Rome in its latter days seems far less sure of itself. The world beyond appears a dark forbidding place. Just as the deep forests of Germania were an unnerving prospect to Rome’s legions, now much of the globe seems just as threatening. The America that Artzybasheff captured so beautifully appears to be on the wane, some of the old certainties are gone and with them the inner belief. The Declinists would have us believe America is done for. China and others as they awake from their slumber have the financial clout and military muscle to cause seismic realignments. There are very real signs of change from the leaders in South America dubbed “the New Bolivarians” by Oliver Stone in his documentary South of the Border to the fact that even the British are no longer willing to genuflect at the mere mention of the American President or Secretary of State. Just as Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a Changin managed to capture the mood of the US civil right movement and those agitating against involvement in Vietnam, all who care about what America has stood for are aware that it must return to its founding principles if it is to sustain itself in the future. It will inevitably have to accept that in many areas it will no longer be the world leader, but can still be a force for good and a place of inspiration.
History cannot provide us with the answers to the challenges that America requires for the age of readjustment, but can at least provide some useful warnings. Imperial Rome declined not because of external threats (although they certainly existed), but because it stopped believing in the imperial ideal. The Declinists and other merchants of doom constantly talk of the end of American economic and military power, but never talk of the ideal. America remains a powerhouse of intellectual dynamism, one that attracts the finest brains from across the globe. Commentators and pundits alike would do well to ask what it is that drew the likes of Boris Artzybasheff and millions of others to America and allowed them to forge successful careers.