As I write this, I am returning from twelve days in America, a country that has perhaps become more difficult to understand than ever before. We spent time in San Francisco, Silicon Valley and the Deep South of Nashville and Memphis. Almost universally, the people we encountered were decent, generous and warm. The service at airports, hotels and in museums and shops was notably helpful and friendly, sometimes exceptionally so. No doubt because of the circles we moved in – professional conferences – we met nobody who spoke enthusiastically about President Trump. Indeed, the prevailing sentiment among our contacts was embarrassment and incredulity.
We watched on TV as the President addressed his 100-Day rally in Harrisburg. It was indeed an incredible performance, reminiscent of the excesses of the campaign trail. Subsequently I picked up that week’s Rolling Stone magazine. It contained a psychological assessment of the President who, the article argues cogently, appears to suffer from NPD, Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Unfortunately, his condition may be of a rather extreme kind. Any hope of him mellowing in office seems vain.
The President is rolling back efforts to mitigate climate change. Some of his pronouncements are deeply worrying, betraying a wilful blindness to both climatic and economic realities. But more concerning to us was the remark made by our host in Silicon Valley. "Climate change, yes it may be happening, but it’s not the big pressing risk for humanity". Within 20 to 30 years, he predicted, artificial intelligence and the human brain will merge, the "singularity" he called it. He predicts that our days as the dominant species are coming to an end. I was rather stunned by the number of people I met who shared that view. Californian entrepreneurs, with the means to do so, have already acquired bolt holes and citizenships far away, we were told.
In Memphis, we visited the very balcony where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1967. The hotel is now the National Civil Rights Museum, a quite inspiring tribute to the best of human endeavour. Not far away at Sun Studios, a young Elvis Presley cut his first record 60 years ago, a moment of the greatest significance in twentieth century popular culture. Two icons of a post-war world, representing all that was confusing back then too, and wrestling with change in a world which is as unrecognisable to us now as today is likely to be 50-60 years hence.
I was stuck by the profound ambiguities which continue to be inherent in that great country, the USA. And by the irony that, just as we seem to be acquiring the knowledge through neurological and other science of how we really tick as humans, and as we acquire extraordinary technological capabilities which could transform our lives, we appear also to face the real prospect of bringing about our own species extinction. Perhaps it is indeed true, as our Silicon Valley host remarked, that the reason we haven’t been visited by aliens is that, ultimately, all life forms bring about their own destruction. With luck, however, they all made soul-enhancing vibrant music along the way, just as they still do in Nashville.