Two of the UK's best television presenters set out last year to try and answer the question about the United States: 'How the hell did it get to where it is today?' Both road trips were made before the pandemic struck, and before the growth of Black Lives Matter. In this, the election year in the US − with COVID-19 restricting the world we live in and with increasingly violent division in the US − is it possible to gain some understanding of what is happening on the other side of the Atlantic? This seems all the more important to comprehend, if the UK is going to lash itself more closely to a country that appears as if it is coming apart.
Sue Perkins − comedian, broadcaster, actor − travelled along the border between the US and Mexico, from side to side, from the west coast to the Gulf of Mexico, meeting and talking, joking and joining in, as only Sue Perkins can. The verve and the wit − quick on her feet as ever − are her hallmarks, but it is the empathy she shows for the human beings she encounters that also envelop the viewer. 'I'll just go off and have a little cry now', she says, after talking to a family divided by the wall. It is the wall, of course, that is the focus of this two-part BBC series, Along the US-Mexico Border
(which was aired in September), and the lives of the people who live along it.
The American poet, Robert Frost, wrote in Mending Wall
: 'Before I built a wall I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out. And to whom I was like to give offence'. Good advice, not taken. Although Perkins says she began her 2,000 mile journey along the wall trying to have an open mind, she found it was 'hard not to take a view'. For a young single mother from Honduras, with three young children, it was an attempt to escape violence from gangs and to seek a life where her children could receive an education that drove her to make a dangerous and arduous journey.
There are other Hondurans who are building homes in Mexico for their fellow countrymen, providing shelter and a place to rebuild a life. The more Perkins explores the Mexican side of the wall, the more she feels it isn't about a wall, it's about the haves and the have nots, and, as she says, 'what is wrong with us that we turn our backs when we see need?'
There is also, as there always is with Sue Perkins, laughter and fun. She revels in the culture and tradition. Perhaps Perkins in full Mexican ladies' riding regalia on a horse called Kevin would be a situation difficult to top. 'Adopt me, you beautiful nation', she exclaims. Speaking to camera, she throws herself cheerfully into all situations, including testing tequila (a lot of it at 'the offie') and the next morning eats the best home-made breakfast in Tijuana with a family that is part Mexican and part Haitian, where the dad says about the immigrants: 'Let them all come and we'll find a way'. This idealism and openness is tested to the limit, with the surges coming from South and Central America, as economic hardship worsens.
On the US side of the wall, near El Paso, Perkins meets the border patrol and ranchers who see hundreds if not thousands of migrants climbing the walls that surround their land to pass through from the desert after they have crossed the Rio Grande. Perkins finds people who are building their own wall, not waiting for the Presidential Wall to come to them, though not without opposition from a local priest. She visits a local community that − without any government support − provides food for border camps, and supplies rucksacks for children. In places, the river is patrolled by gunship. Perkins is not trying to offer solutions, but recording the circumstances.
Travelling further east, Perkins and her park ranger guide canoe through the colourful canyons of Big Bend National Park, where the river is the boundary. The grandeur of the scenery takes her breath away: 'It is so brilliant to feel this insignificant'. As always on a journey with Sue Perkins, she manages to hit the right note. With people she is clever and kind in her questions; with the landscape she avoids cliché and surprises with her insight. When it comes to politics, Perkins does not hold back: 'This is a wall that keeps everyone out, anybody and everybody else that is starving and in need of a better life. And there is no wall that could possibly contain that. It's about something bigger isn't it? It's about utterly reimagining the way that we treat people and opening doors rather than shutting them in people's faces'.
Grayson Perry − artist, commentator, writer − sets off on his custom-made bike and colourful leathers to travel across the US for his Channel 4 Big American Road Trip
, also recently broadcast. In three episodes, Perry travels to: The South
, The East Coast
, and Wisconsin
. He is in search, as he says, of 'how and for whom power functions in America'. Usually Grayson Perry, a very experienced interviewer, approaches his subject with the enthusiasm of an explorer in a strange land, but from the off, in this series, it is clear − starting with the credits of Perry posed in costume − that the subject is going to be a lot about Perry, his ideas and opinions. Too big for his biker boots?
Perhaps the most successful of the three programmes is the visit to Atlanta, where Perry deals sensitively and openly about the questions of racial equality, meeting up with groups of successful black people in what is referred to as 'the capital of black America'. He explores how and why black experience in America is different, and he isn't shy about asking awkward questions, such as 'are black people happier and more successful the less they have to deal with white people?' Furthermore, he listens. He lets them talk, to him, to each other. The answer, in case you wonder, is that they feel more 'comfortable and more authentically themselves'. Given a choice of all the groups encountered on this trip, these would be the people that would be the most interesting, the most enjoyable to spend an evening with.
Moving on to the East Coast, Perry exhibits what can only be called a very English chip on his shoulder when he travels to Martha's Vineyard to attend a dinner party given by Rose Styron, the widow of the writer William Styron. It is almost as if he came to criticise, having made up his mind that what is often referred to as the 'elite' bears responsibility for the terrible fracture that is splitting one part of America off from the other in terms of economic prospects. Curiously, his mindset seemed almost Trumpian, which certainly could not have been his intention, stating later in an interview that he finds the right wing people 'friendlier' and the left 'more venal', also that he was 'well pissed'. That, however, is just rude behaviour and not an intellectual reason.
Around the dinner table, some of these liberal East Coasters looked like rabbits caught in the headlights as Perry laid into them. None of them would deny their privileged position, but what Perry perhaps had not realised is that he was in the presence of a group of Democrats, all of whom would have voted somewhat against their own financial interests for Obamacare and 'socialised' medicine; they would have driven voters to the polls in black neighbourhoods; it would be people like this who contributed to protecting the American wilderness from exploitation.
David Aronovich, in The Times
, suggests that Grayson Perry is trying 'to make them responsible for the rise of Trump having decided that they are the problem'. There is no question that the educated left has been outmanoeuvred by Trump and his supporters; the question still remains, why?
Compounding his blundering in one part of Massachusetts − consistently a Blue State in Presidential elections − Grayson Perry continues westwards to the University of Massachusetts, a public institution − as compared to the private universities that are household names − where the cost to attend is roughly half if you live in the state, and therefore makes possible an excellent education for young people from families who might otherwise not be able to afford higher education. Perry is right, that 'it all boils down to access to education', the widening gap of income distribution that one sees not only in the States, but of course in the UK also.
However, in selecting a state university to make his point, Perry is attacking in the wrong direction. He interviews a group of freshman year sorority sisters, asking if being member of the sorority leads to networking and jobs following graduation, and, of course, they say yes, absolutely. Summing up, Perry says to camera, leaning on his bike: 'This is the next generation of the American elite. What starts innocently as a sorority party ends up as a kind of corralling of the capitalist resources in a major world economy'. This is a very good university, but the power brokers of America won't be found here on the whole, and to categorise the very nice young girls he spoke with in this way is almost shameful. Indeed, if anything, these students may help to bridge the very gap he deplores.
Not surprisingly, one supposes, Grayson Perry is at home with bikers, and he joins 'Bikers for Trump' in Wisconsin, on his final branch of the road trip. This is a key state in the up-coming presidential election, a very white state, very working class, and necessary to a Trump success. The bikers feel that education has been 'hijacked', with teaching favouring homosexuality and abortion. Unusual to see Grayson Perry left speechless. They consider themselves outsiders and that Trump also is one of them as 'he takes no shit'. What comes across from this group − all perfectly cheerful and jolly with Perry, a lot of laughter − is how desperately they want to be proud of their country, saying that Trump has restored pride, and 'God brought him to us'.
It would be very unwise to dismiss this, or any other, group, because of the overwhelming force that this kind of emotional allegiance brings to Trump's campaign. He is seen as a shepherd for the lost and forgotten. Perry puts it well, speaking of these outsider groups, when he says, 'their emotional superstructure makes up their identity'. President Trump is adept at tapping into these emotions and exploiting the divisions in America.
Is there any answer, to 'what happened and who was responsible?', let alone what can be done about the divisions in America, in the UK and around the world. Kenan Malik, writing in the Observer
, expresses very well what Grayson Perry ought to have discovered for himself, and what his series − entertaining though it is − fails to address. 'Inequalities, whether of race or of class, cannot be reduced to the question of white privilege or challenged by eliciting guilt. The heart of the problem lies in warped social relations and deformed institutional structures.'
Grayson Perry needed to talk to a very different group of people − none of whom would have agreed − if he wanted to discover the tribe that has its hands on the levers of power and how entrenched they have become. One has only to look at the erosion of accountability, the tentacles of fake news and the success of the old ploy, divide and rule. While Sue Perkins looked at the divide between the people of two countries, Grayson Perry articulated some of the internal divisions within America.
Two road trips; lots to think about; good company.