The grand illusion is gone now. That sheen the United States once had for people around the world who were vulnerable to sheen has gone off. If Brand America were a soft drink and not a country, it would be funny, but it’s not. It’s the painful result of the monstrous egotism and stupidity of George W. Bush and his advisers combined with days of watching the news on-line or on TV with utter disbelief.

I saw, as you did, a row of elderly poor people in the New Orleans Superdome waiting to die. They were left to sit for days, defecating in their wheelchairs, thirsty, unfed and unwashed. They were surrounded by thousands of other poor people weeping with incomprehension. “Why won’t they help us?” one woman sobbed.

The reporter, the BBC’s Matt Frei, used the technique of juxtaposition, something American media don’t because it wouldn’t be “objective,” showing us the corpse of an old woman in a wheelchair, her feet rotting wetly in the heat. And then Mr. Frei gestured down the street where healthy, armed National Guardsmen in Jeeps prowled the streets for looters.

I’ve always been puzzled why intelligent people, particularly intelligent Brits, bought the American brand. Perhaps that sheen was so dazzling it hid the filth and degradation and racism beneath. It contrasted brilliantly with the drabness of the watchers’ own lands.

Part of Brand America was cleanliness. They were said to be the kind of people always wanting to take a shower. But filth did as much damage to the national reputation as anything else. The excrement was knee-high in New Orleans. The sewage and toxins being pumped into Lake Pontchartrain right now are stirring up the water moccasins, the only animals that will be left alive. Alligators, meanwhile, swam the city streets looking for live prey and even police stared in horror at a shark by the side of the highway.

Another element of Brand America was “can do” generosity. We remember it from the Second World War. Americans still see themselves that way, and indeed we’re used to their big transport planes, big trucks, big food, big handouts.

But since Mr. Bush began blowing money on tax cuts for the rich and pointless foreign wars, on elaborate non-functioning weapons systems and a political system that distracted voters from the looting of the public good, it became a “can’t do” nation, and then in New Orleans, a “won’t do” nation.

Money was the biggest element of Brand America. The United States was seen and saw itself as a rich country, loaded with mind-boggling amounts of money to spend as it pleased, which it did.But the world can no longer see a nation as an “economic superpower” when it accepts charity from countries like Canada, which is embarrassed for you and has sent all four of its boats.

In places, the United States is the Third World. A United Nations report this week revealed that the U.S. infant mortality rate is the same as in Malaysia. Washington, D.C., blacks have a higher infant mortality rate than in Kerala, an admittedly well-run state in India. The U.S. child poverty rate rose along with Mexico’s to 20 per cent, while even Britain, whose northerners are treated like peasants, managed to lower its own.

The United States isn’t clean, it isn’t competent and it can’t meet its own basic needs. You already knew this if you read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich or the statistics on literacy and the ecological toll on a land that gets poisoned more by corporations than did the former Soviet Union by its five-year plans. Lake Pontchartrain will be the American Aral Sea, a big dead thing in Central Asia.

There’s an old line from the music born in New Orleans, the only magnificent American gift to mankind. They gave us the blues and jazz, then rock ‘n’ roll.

But no one’s buying Brand America any more. It ate its own music industry. Hail Richard Brautigan and Tom Waits, who wrote and sang about a logo that could once “sell a rat’s asshole to a blind man for a wedding ring.” No more.

Remember the American Century? It was a lot like the Great Leap Forward. For there was another man once who thought about his own populace the way Mr. Bush does about his. He, too, had his privileged court of acolytes, fine homes and a yearning for superpowerdom that allowed him to send food aid around the Communist world, as his people starved. He, too, had a vast voiceless population living in astonishing poverty even as other world leaders (like Richard Nixon) paid him homage. His name was Mao Zedong.

Just as Barbara Bush casually points out that underprivileged flood victims are actually better off now, Mao dismissed the suffering of the peasantry as they starved to build his shoddy steelworks and collapsing pointless dams. (Odd how China and the United States are both crazy for dams.) Mao cared no more for his peasant dam-builders than Stalin did for the welfare of his own troops and citizenry.

Please understand, I am not saying Mr. Bush is deliberately expanding an illiterate, ill-nourished, desperate work force to power the Halliburton/Bechtel robber barons. Okay, I am saying that. But it’s not deliberate. That would require a Cheney cunning. Mr. Bush just lets it happen.

The incomprehension on the faces of Americans in that stadium revealed people who had believed their national marketing. Tell that man who couldn’t find clean water to mix up milk for his newborn baby that he should pull himself up by his own bootstraps. He has no boots. Then tell me why “looter” should be an epithet.

Brand America. A rich, go-getting, meat-grillin’ nation. The American dream. The Dream Team. Marlboro Country. Live free or die. Every man for himself. Just do it! I’m lovin’ it!

Americans will be suckered into buying Brand USA again, but I doubt the rest of the world will.