November 1st, 2005


Schadenfreude? Avoid.

If I had to identify the biggest disappointment of the 21st century so far, it would be America's swing to the right. I loved Bill Clinton's 1990s dot com boom America so much that I moved there in early 2000, taking up residence in Manhattan Chinatown. Perhaps things were already swinging by then. Clinton had already come under attack from the very people who would soon take over. The Republicans hounded him for some minor sexual peccadillo, and their opportunistic puritanism, astonishingly enough, nearly got him impeached. Then the digital culture boom—which had seemed to position the US as the most future-oriented civilization on the planet—collapsed as "irrational exuberance" was replaced by the sound of bursting bubbles and plunging indices.

The 2000 presidential election revealed that Americans may have enjoyed Clinton's Slick Willy persona more than his Democratic policies; Gore was seen as a "policy wonk", lacking Clinton's popular touch. The theme of the 2000 election debates became a problem which any nation would love to have: what shall we do with our record budget surplus? It looked like there were two answers to that question: spend it on a socialized healthcare system and other moderate social leveling, or give it back to consumers (mostly very rich ones) in the form of a tax cut.

But it seems that America wasn't going to become either moderately socialist or even just a big, rich, effeminate consumer culture. After the debacle of election stalemate, in came Bush. He made his promised tax cuts, but, after 9/11, what he mostly did was turn the US's massive surpluses into massive deficits by fighting wars all over the world. I got the hell out. America became the problem, not the solution. The election of 2004 was the final blow, proof (unless we believe the conspiracy theory that the Diebold machines were rigged) that the Bush presidency hadn't just been a Supreme Court fix, but had genuine popular support.

Ever since Hurricane Katrina wrecked New Orleans, though, there have been signs that the Bush presidency is crumbling. In the last week, the president's misfortunes have reached critical mass. Bush's "brain", Karl Rove, came under critical investigation. Bush lackey Harriet Miers's nomination for the Supreme Court was shot down. Former ally Berlusconi yesterday tried to boost his election chances in Italy by saying he'd tried to talk Bush out of invading Iraq.

But before we throw a schadenfreude party, let's note that these are not attacks on Bush from the left. They do not signal a change in the national mood which will automatically see Hillary Clinton swept to power in 2008. Bush's setbacks come from the right. Out goes Miers, suspected by the right wing of the Republican party of moderately liberal views, in comes Alito, a conservative. Even Berlusconi's "betrayal" is in the interest of strengthening the right wing — in the form of his own continued rule at home in Italy.

Although I no longer call the US my home, my life is intricately and intimately tied up with the country. I'm writing more and more journalism for magazines, and they're almost exclusively American ones: Wired News, Index, AIGA Voice and ID. I've invited an American (Rusty Santos, a New Yorker from Arizona) to produce my next album. I recently pitched a book to an American publisher about an American artist (Laurie Anderson). And it looks entirely possible that I'll spend the first five months of 2006 in the US, engaging in art-related activities (I can't tell you the details yet).

All this is happening because, in selected areas, America is still the most creative nation in the world, and creativity is my biggest interest. In the design, art and music fields America still has amazing energy and enthusiasm. It's still a cosmopolitan, generous and outward-looking nation: recent or forthcoming articles I've published in American magazines include two pieces on Japan-based designers, a piece about global biennials, a piece about a German designer, and a piece about a Scottish artist. (But, come to think of it, three of my commissioning editors are actually America-based Brits!)

It's utterly dismaying, though, to see that outward-looking, generous and creative America (the tolerant, secular, gay-friendly blue-state America of Richard Florida's "creative class") marginalized and impotent, or, worse, linked reluctantly to a boneheaded regime. And, while it's great to see the first signs that that regime may be disintegrating, the fact that it seems to be splitting into two factions, and that the dominant faction is even further right than Bush sends a chill wind right through me. Let's keep the celebrations on hold; we don't yet know that something even worse isn't on the way.