Nothing sets your own country in sharper relief than seeing it through the eyes of another. Daily conversations with strangers remind me how much has changed in the past few years. When I traveled here as a teenager, during the George W. Bush years, my accent frequently met with anger, even blame or vitriol. I wondered what this new era might mean for those small interactions. In my experience so far, the response has been the opposite. Where once “your president” sounded like a condemnation, now it comes across in quiet or puzzled tones, fearful and sad, a question mark hanging at the end in disbelief.
Of course, Britain faces the burden of reordering its own world in the ongoing wake of 2016. When the prime minister called for a snap election in June, sending MPs rushing out of Parliament to build their party manifestos, most people greeted the news with more weariness than excitement, less than thrilled by the prospect of a third national vote in two years.
The election hinges on Brexit. Despite a barrage of other issues, among them the crippled National Health Service, education costs, and labor rules, last year’s outcome forces Brexit to the center of the debate over Britain’s future. With just a few weeks left until the vote, Theresa May’s promise of a “strong and stable” future seems undeniably attractive in the polls to voters now faced with the reality of divorce from the European Union. Opposing parties have struggled to achieve that kind of simple and cohesive message.
While we now know better than to express absolute certainty in any political polling, May seems likely to get her Brexit mandate from voters. Her ability to negotiate with the European Union, though strengthened by Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France, remains uncertain. The makeup of the United Kingdom itself may face the prospect of fracture, should future referendums on the fate of Scotland and Northern Ireland reflect disillusionment with a post-EU Britain.
I’ll watch the election from across the Atlantic. I write this as I pack for home, collecting my impressions of England. Of the many things the British find perplexing in American government, one of the most incomprehensible to those who are paying attention is our health-care system. Despite the many challenges of the UK’s National Health Service—in funding, manning, managing, and now cybersecurity—the basic belief in finding a way to provide care without regard to income remains intact. The determination, not just to deny health care to the poorest and the sickest, but to actively strip it from them, offers a shockingly coldhearted contrast to that principle, and a grave moral collapse.
I spent most of my days in London walking. To walk in London is to move through the past and the future simultaneously. In a small spot at the center of the city, the remains of the London Wall still stand. Just a few miles long when built by the Romans in 200 AD, the few crumbling stones once encompassed the entirety of defensible London. That small footprint gave way long ago to metropolitan sprawl. A few feet from the Roman remains, groups of tourists and British citizens speaking a dozen languages flow past each other, the streets ringing with voices from every corner of the globe.
I’ve been in England long enough now to see the season change, to see a cold, dry March and April give way to the liquid green of May. The news from America, seen through the eyes of British correspondents and their viewers, grows ever more daunting.
A few weeks ago, I stopped by London’s Royal Academy of Arts to see their new, prized exhibition: “America After the Fall.” That grim title attempts to encompass the nearly fifty paintings that span the artistic response to the Great Depression. With winter just loosening its grip outside, tourists, locals, and critics alike struggled to loosen coats and scarves once crowded into the small gallery. We shuffled slowly around, peering at the lesser-known works of Hopper and O’Keefe among their lesser-known colleagues, the uneasy mix of styles and methods adding to the unsettling nature of the experience.
The show, a collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago and the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, debuted in Chicago last September, soon after the Brexit vote and just before that disruptive U.S. election in November. The 1930s—here was an America in transition, its beliefs shaken, its economy and social injustice scars on a self-image of freedom, hard work, and hope. Economic failure raged and fascism loomed on the horizon. Anger and resentment stood beside uncertainty and fear.
A steady hum of conversation hung over the gallery, voices pulling that dark vision of the past to the strangeness of the present. They all seemed to ask the same question about where America would go from here. (May 19, 2017)