Justin Webb, the BBC’s “North America editor”, has long been an irritant to me. His reports, as featured on BBC News America, were fawning, establishment-toadying, and left one with an unpleasant after-taste reminiscent of the morning after a heavy bout of absinthe assimilation.
Listen to Webb, without the necessary knowledge only obtainable from permanent residence in this nation, and you’d be left thinking there was no greater place on earth; that America was coast-to-coast Disney, an enchanted land ruled by benevolent Congressmen dedicated to providing their citizens with every comfort and convenience.
Justin Webb, at best, was a dedicated Americophile; at worst, just another media piglet suckling at the doctrinal teat of its fat corporate master.
Webb’s tenure in the United States is coming to a close. He’s done his stint and is returning home to Britain. As a finale to his eight years in the States, he’s written a final piece for the BBC radio series, “From Our Own Correspondent”.
I approached it with some cynicism, expecting the usual overdose of sugary American sentimentality I’d come to expect from this reporter. By the time I was halfway through, my opinion was totally revised. No longer answerable to his US media masters, Webb was finally writing from the heart, and his words could as easily come from my own keyword.
It [Charleston, SC] gives a wonderful insight into hardscrabble American life, the sleazy glamour of the road that repels and appeals to visitors – and indeed Americans themselves – in roughly equal measure: gas stations, tattoo parlours, Bojangles Pizza, $59 (£35)-a-night motels, pawn shops, gun shops, car showrooms, nail bars, and Piggly Wiggly, the local supermarket chain which, in my limited experience, smells almost as odd as it sounds.
It is a panorama of the mundane: Doric columns a-plenty but all of them made of cheap concrete and attached to restaurants or two-bit accountants’ offices. On and on it goes, encroaching into the palm forests with no hint of apology………
……On the last day we spent in our home in north-east Washington, they were holding a food-eating competition in a burger bar at the end of our street. The sight was nauseating: acne-ridden youths, several already obese, stuffing meat and buns into their mouths while local television reporters, the women in dinky pastel suits, rushed around getting the best shots.
America can be seen as little more than an eating competition, a giant, gaudy, manic effort to stuff grease and gunge into already sated innards……
………There is an intellectual ugliness as well: a dark age lurking, even when the president has been to Harvard………”
Webb’s essay isn’t all negative. For all the “intellectual ugliness” and “dark age lurking”, he admits he’ll find it hard to leave America:
More than 300 million people live here now, settlers from all over the world. From Ho Chi Minh City, from Timbuktu, from Vilnius, from Tehran, from every last corner of the earth, they have made America their home and they are still streaming in.
I feel crazy going back to the old world. My five-year-old daughter Clara, who is the proud owner of an American passport, agrees.
She says she intends to leave home, at around 12-years-old, and return to her native land. I do not blame her.”
Time will tell if Clara still feels that way by the time she reaches her twelfth birthday.
Webb’s essay is worth a read, if only because it’s the first time he’s been able to tell the unfettered truth. I know exactly how he feels. America is ugly. It does still linger in the dark ages. Much of it is repulsive, unappealing, dreadfully boring.
Yet, like Webb, I would find it hard to leave the US after seven years of residence. There is something about this country that endears, despite its numerous faults. Perhaps I just haven’t lived here long enough to define exactly what it is.
Justin Webb says America “shines a light on the entire human condition”.
God help us all, if he’s right.
 “Checking out of ‘Hotel America'” Justin Webb, BBC, August 1st 2009
Filed under: Telling it how it is