Oh Say Can You

It is not possible to write about America without being caught up in a vortex of superlatives. The world’s biggest economy, the home of history’s most significant political revolution, first (and so far only) country to put a man on the moon, source of more Nobel Prize winners than any other nation, location of the highest paid entertainers and sportspeople – the list goes on.

There is much to admire about the United States. A constitution that takes the breath away by making clear that political and social rights are not a gift from the powerful in society but an inalienable right of all people everywhere purely by virtue of their existence. How exhilarating it is for people around the world to see a black man democratically elected to occupy the official residence of the head of a predominantly white state -- a building that has as a consequence had to be re-Christened Obama House. A marked contrast with our own situation where it is difficult to see a non-Han Chinese in Upper Albert Road, let alone Zhongnanhai. What’s not to love about a legal system where a conservative Supreme Court can unleash a social revolution by not just tolerating but requiring nation-wide recognition of gay marriage.

Yet there is also much to deplore and regret. How could a country born amid such idealism spend the early years of the 21st century invading sovereign nations without legal authority or reasonable excuse. A criminal act by a handful of evil men, however invidious their deed, does not justify overthrowing by force the government of the country where they happen to be resident absent evidence of culpability by that state itself.

At the working level, too, America seems to have lost its way in recent years. A single act of terrorism has led to the introduction of an absurd visa and immigration regime that looks calculated to insult and demean America’s friends and would-be supportive visitors while being unlikely to act as a meaningful barrier to entry by the ill-intentioned.

Physical infrastructure that defined world-class a generation ago now crumbles for want of proper maintenance. The New York subway system has elements of a joke in questionable taste. Leave aside the fact that a just-purchased ticket denied entry and required crawling on hands and knees under the turnstile at considerable risk to dignity, let alone arrest, many platforms have no information about arriving trains. The carriages themselves are not always helpful. After the train I was on had stopped at a station not shown on the on-board map and had failed to stop at some stations that were, then and only then did I notice the small remark in the corner "This map is not working". Well what was it doing on the train then? Some of the pedestrian tunnels looked – and smelled – like urinals.

Do American service organisations actually pay their employees? I ask because of the current practice in restaurants of demanding an extortionate service charge. In Hong Kong and many other places worldwide there is a standard 10 per cent service charge automatically added to bills. In instances of exceptional service, individual customers may opt to add a small cash sum. I was startled on an earlier visit to America to find that this surcharge had now been increased to 15 per cent. This year the situation has spiralled practically out of control. Bills now arrive at your table offering a choice of 18 or 20 per cent surcharge together with wording that implies your prospects of leaving the restaurant safely require a choice somewhere in that region. Service sector employees solicit tips with a brazenness that would embarrass a Hong Kong tourist guide.

If in doubt about the soul of a place, ask a taxi driver. Of the six taxis I have taken in the US on this trip, five were driven by Africans: two long-term immigrants from Ghana, and three refugees, one each from Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia.

It reminded me of the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty: " Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Can these powerful sentiments be written off as mere propaganda from another age? Looking around at modern America, I think not.