Stranger in a Strange Land. Encounters in the Disunited States
“There is a thin line between what we know to be true and what we can show to be undeniable. Whether it’s Rodney King or Abu Ghraib, only with incontrovertible evidence does an assertion shift from a debating point to a reference point” [220-21]. Gary Younge not only produces evidence but also hotly debates a range of issues concerning US domestic and foreign policy in this collection of fifty selected pieces written for the British daily The Guardian and one for the Washington Post. In the process, he gives insights into both American and British politics and society.
Described by Katha Pollitt, American feminist and columnist for The Nation, as “British, black and brilliant,” Younge has been familiar to Guardian readers since 1994. Dispatches on foreign affairs after 9/11 and the war on terror, are complemented by columns devoted to events such as Hurricane Katrina, the Jennifer Gratz case (challenging affirmative action), the 2004 presidential election, pen portraits of black icons such as Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks, Louis Farrakhan, and cultural players including Susan Sontag, Michael Moore and Maya Angelou. His references range from Wordsworth to Mayakovsky, from Ralph Nadar to Noam Chomsky, from De Tocqueville to E.H. Carr.
The opening words come from the article with the last dateline (October 31, 2005). The earliest piece dates back to January 1999. Republished in book form, the articles are organised into four themes dictated by the times and Younge’s personal interests. They cover war, race, politics, and culture. Each section is composed of a dozen or so articles, from three to fourteen pages long, organised chronologically, although they can be read independently. They constitute less a narrative, rather a running commentary, in the tradition of Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letters from America’ broadcast on BBC radio for over half-a-century.1
Younge himself claims a lineage back to the Caribbean socialist credentials of C.L.R. James,2 “not so much transatlantic as black Atlantic” [x]. He thus “came not with an agenda but with a view: that while America’s imperial intentions represented a sequel to European colonialism, that did not make those ambitions any more morally defensible or the world any less precarious” [xi]. His thesis on America is summarised in the book title’s two adjectives: strange and disunited. These two epithets can also be used to qualify the section headings: war, race, politics, culture.
The pieces that make up the first section are an attempt to understand the actions and actors involved in the US-styled “war against terrorism.” Concentrating on US foreign policy, they are both a record of the picture viewed by a non-American from inside the US in the aftermath of 9/11 and a forceful indictment of US (and British) policy. Drawing lessons from history, Younge compares contemporary issues with past incidents, demonstrating the permanence of humanist values and the errors of mankind.
In a piece written as Bagdad fell in April 2003, on the bicentenary of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s death, he makes thought-provoking comparisons between the situation in Iraq, Northern Ireland in 1969 and after, and, further back in time, San Domingo at the time of the French Revolution, drawing conclusions about the nature of freedom, slavery and liberation.
He defends himself from accusations of “leftwing axe-grinding” [37,53] by grounding the substance of his argument in humanist ideas. Younge is conscious that journalists can only aspire to objectivity. “The notion that there is a bald set of facts out there that once collected will lead us to an abstract and timeless truth is misleading and arrogant” [xi]. His disclaimer makes his analysis all the more convincing and his political position more easily defendable.
Younge’s book constantly analyses the similarities between apparently dissimilar situations, revealing contradictions and paradoxes, describing nuances that temper a Manichean view. His article on Hans Blix, the UN’s chief weapons inspector, describes Blix as a “shade of grey in a room full of black and white” . He denounces the hypocrisy inherent in the Anglo-American world view. “It has long been a staple truth of American foreign policy that the United States would claim to be fighting for rights abroad that it refused to extend to black people and others at home” . In the cultural field, Younge describes the paradoxical “cross-over” occurring between the urbane chic and the urban nouveaux-riche, the “fabulous” and the “ghetto-fabulous,” “two expressions of ostentatious chic […] supposed to be polar opposites.”
For Younge, nothing is necessarily straightforward or clear-cut.
In the articles in the section devoted to questions of race this nuanced analysis is continued. His pieces on this issue constantly remind the reader of the efforts needed to avoid falling into the trap of viewing the question solely in terms of one parameter: “if black American’s resistance to U.S. foreign policy is understandable, it is not uncomplicated or unqualified” . Similarly, despite repeatedly underlining the multiple disadvantages of his subjects as indicators of the climate and context, Younge criticizes those who see such people as passive victims. Berating both right and left, whether in the USA or in Britain, for a tendency to use victimhood fallaciously as an argument for and justification of what Younge considers unacceptable criticism or defence of “personal failures” in the field of social welfare, he extends his analysis to foreign policy to discuss misuse of the concept by the right, criticising contemporary “contorted metaphor and contemptuous logic, [by which] the harasser became the victim and the harassed was transformed into the perpetrator” . Both Jesse Jackson’s mother and Claudette Colvin are described as black, female and unmarried mothers but their achievements are emphasized. “Red diaper babies,”3 the children of persecuted American Communist Party members, are shown as having a higher than average rate of militancy in the 1960s and 70s. Younge’s individual case histories thus appear to support the thesis that one’s background and upbringing pre-determine a degree of resistance to authority and the establishment only waiting to be sparked. But, for Younge, it is precisely their attitude or act of refusal which make these people actors.
In the cases he examines, Younge attempts not so much to set the record straight, as to show how convoluted the story can be. In the column devoted to Claudette Colvin, he examines the fate of the little-known teenager who was the first to plead not guilty to a charge of violating bus seating regulations in Montgomery, Alabama, nine months before Rosa Parks. Relating both incidents, the context and the political capital made of them, Younge underlines the injustice done to Colvin and examines the reasons that explain why she was, and continues to be, sidelined, a mere historical footnote. The reasons cover a range of issues, from class, race and gender to moral righteousness and political expediency. Black civil rights leaders, male, middle-class and moralistic, thought the pregnant, unmarried working-class girl would be a liability. Younge points to discrimination within the black community as a further factor. Colvin was “very dark-skinned”  in a pigmented hierarchy, “a poor, single, black, teenage mother who had both taken on the white establishment and fallen foul of the black one” . She was ostracized, then forgotten and later refused to tell her story for the local museum, arguing: “They’ve already called it the Rosa Parks Museum, so they’ve already made up their minds what the story is” . Younge implicitly protests against this denial of voice.
This is a book about the United States that cannot be read without understanding the journalist’s own concerns about contemporary Britain. His analysis is informed by his British perspective. As an outside observer, “stranger,” he can see similarities which escape those on the ground. The style of American politics is not that of Britain. In De Tocqueville’s footsteps, Younge finds “liberals in America every bit as bombastic, preachy and doctrinaire as conservatives. Patriotism, meanwhile, infects the entire culture.”4 He remarks on the “partisan enmity,” the “dislocation between left and right, fact and fiction” [xiii] which underlies the American political scene. However, the questions discussed in these pages are reminiscent of those raised in the British political arena: “whatever happened to the left in America?” he asks. Interviewing the little-known radical activist but well-known actor Warren Beatty in 1999, Younge quotes him asking “Where’s the party of protest? […] What happens to that party, if everything goes to the centre?”  The journalist followed Howard Dean’s bid to gain the Democratic nomination in early 2004 commenting that
Thus despite dissimilarities he constantly reminds the reader of common trends and debate.
A strong theme running through the pieces is that of the blurring that occurs between fiction and reality. An article on American foreign policy written in January 2005 is entitled “A Fantasy of Freedom.” Younge’s portrait of dissident film-maker Michael Moore was written shortly after the latter delivered his Oscar acceptance speech in 2003 defending non fiction films: “We live in a time when fictitious election results elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons.” The piece on “Jayson Blair: The Man Who Took the New York Times for a Ride,” explores the “boundary between fantasy and reality” and the “descent into deception” [278-79]. Younge alludes to Susan Sontag’s analysis of the mystification of ailments and their treatment, a metaphor for social, cultural or moral decay .5
The cross-over from reality to fiction and back again is also developed in the piece entitled “Don’t Blame Uncle Tom,” examining the story of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s eponymous character and the misuse the term has been subject to: “It is time to save the signifier from the sign” . Never one to back away from speaking out, Younge recognizes the disapproval he will suffer from this: “This is suicide. For a politically engaged black writer I might as well pen my own obituary. Or at least sentence myself to a life in purdah” . He goes on to lambast the use of the term Uncle Tom as a synonym for sold-out collaborator. This “presents race not as a starting point from which to understand the world from your own experience, but the sole prism through which the world should be viewed and understood” . He is conducting his own war on over-simplification and against intellectual dictatorship.
Many of the words of those Younge has interviewed can be read as an expression and explanation of his own commitment, a profession of faith. “My profession is devoted to subtext. I respect text, facts and so on but I’m really interested in subtext—nuance and inflection” Warren Beatty told him . Younge’s subtext is that of a journalist critical of intolerance, incomprehension and intellectual dishonesty. Stranger in a Strange Land gives a critical but sympathetic picture of the United States since “Year Zero,” 2001.