Americana What is Americana?

Matt Frei describes what America means to him

"America is so vast that almost everything you say about it is likely to be true and the opposite is probably equally true."

That's how the late Irish-American novelist James T. Farrell summed up the intriguing complexity of the United States. I have found this to be a very useful quote. It covers just about everything and gets me out of a tight corner if I am accused of misrepresenting the country which has been my family's adopted home for the past seven years.

I am also reminded every day that it happens to be true on so many different levels. For instance two of my daughters attend a Church school but they are not allowed to celebrate Christmas. Compared to Europe America is devout, but the separation of Church and State - a brilliant move dreamed up by the founding fathers - continues to be an article of faith.

Two thirds of practising Christians believe in the Second Coming but roughly half the country describes itself as agnostic or atheist, a number which is rising. America has the reputation of being a melting pot but to me it often seems more like an archipelago of tribes living separated from each other in a country with space to spare.

Visitors get their thumbprints taken and their retinas scanned when they enter America but it is estimated that as many as 15 million migrants from Latin America live and work here illegally by walking across the 2000 mile long border with Mexico.

The list of contradictions is practically endless.

America suffers from an epidemic of obesity but the slim foods and diet industry is one of the fastest growing and most lucrative in the country. American news media can be hopelessly parochial and yet National Public Radio, the New York Times, my local paper, the Washington Post or the Chicago Tribune provide a nuanced and detailed eye on the world.

The Iraq war continues to be unpopular but the military is more revered here as an institution than in any other democracy. Baseball games kick off with a salute to the troops; supermarket chains offer special discounts for all military families and even our staunchly liberal neighbours, who regularly give money to the Peace Corps hang out a huge Stars and Stripes flag on Veteran's Day.

Oh, and by the way, in this country "liberal" tends to be an insult.

And yet beyond these contradictions I have witnessed the tectonic plates of America shift while we have lived here. We arrived a year after 9/11 when the world's most powerful nation felt vulnerable and fearful. Vengeful grief at home morphed into muscle flexing abroad and - at times -- arrogance. The agony of Iraq and the shock of Hurricane Katrina triggered a period of introspection.

The 2008 Presidential race reignited political engagement and turned the internet into a shrewd electoral tool. The election of an African-American President showed America the scope of its ambitions while the implosion of the economy hammered home the limits. The country that had learned to distrust big government was prepared to crawl to it for salvation.

Has the crisis changed America's love affair with money? Is America seriously ready to re-engage the world at a time when there is plenty to worry about at home? How many compromises will the exercise of power force upon a President who stormed to office on the promise of change? Can America still inspire with the power of its ideas or is it hinged more to the idea of power? With all these questions should Uncle Sam check in with a shrink?

Americana hopes to answer these questions by telling you what America is talking, arguing, fretting, laughing and, yes, dreaming about. We hope to surprise, entertain and inform. And by letting America itself do most of the talking we promise never to be dull.

Matt Frei presents Americana every Sunday evening at 7.15pm on Radio 4

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