This article voices some thoughts about America and Americans that have been rattling around in my head for a few years.
The trigger for it came in the shape of two pieces written by two online writers, Justin Schmid and Patti Walden, but the underlying thoughts have been taking shape for a long time.
Justin Schmid writes a travel blog and wrote a piece on the way Americans are perceived on their (relatively notoriously few) trips to other continents. (Read it here.) Schmid asked whether it’s true that the world hates Americans abroad, as many Americans fear, and answered that in his experience foreigners around the world are perfectly open to meeting and talking to Americans who’re travelling through their countries. Obviously there are countries where it wouldn’t be safe to admit to being from the US but equally there are countries where it isn’t exactly safe to be British or white or, in other cases, black. Or rich. Or alone. And etc.
Schmid seemed to be saying Forget stereotypical ideas that the world hates ‘yanks’ and go and meet people.
Walden impressed me for a different reason. She posted photos of a lighthouse called “Point No Point Lighthouse” and it struck me that only the ‘yanks’ would come up with such a fabulous name. (Well OK, the Irish might too.)
What I’m getting at is the peculiar character of the USA as a vast, knock-your-eyes-out, never-seen-anything-like-it-in-your-life, wow-that’s-incredible, oh-yeuchh-how-gross country where somehow almost everything is polarised. To me, the USA doesn’t do bland. Or in-between. Or nothing much. In America, things are (very often, not absolutely always) either fabulous and amazing and exceptionally good or outrageous and appalling and unbelievably bad!
I should explain that while I spent my first five years in Washington DC I was then dragged back to tiny, dismal, rainy England by my (wrong-headed!) parents and spent, well, the rest of my life to date, with at least one eye on developments in the United States. (Who around the world doesn’t?)
When I first heard that England and America are two countries divided by a common language I remember thinking “What complete tosh.” The Brits have far more in common with the Americans than with, say, the Polish or the Greeks for the simple reason that we share a lot of culture based on the English language. The saying that whatever happens in America will soon arrive in the UK is much nearer the reality of the UK-US relationship.
When Justin Schmid talks about the perceived hatred of Americans, it’s clearly true that many regions of the world have substantial populations which hate the US. I remember the bemusement of a New Hampshire colleague on 9/11 when we heard the news about the World Trade Centre destruction during a conference in England. “Why” he asked me, knocking back a stiff whisky in the bar that evening, “do they hate us?”
It was a question which encapsulated that polarisation which typifies the USA. In his mind, America was the great successful melting pot, the land where anyone could become president regardless of sex, race or creed, the land which guaranteed your rights wherever you came from, whatever your background. But to the men who caused the carnage that day, America was the Great Satan which deserved to have destruction rained down on it from every quarter.
America is at the same time too rich and too thin, and too fat and too poor. It’s too corporate and too creative. Too urban and too wild. Too Democrat and too Republican. Too fair and too unfair. Too progressive and too backward, too redneck and too sophisticated. Too east and too west. Too New York and too Los Angeles. It’s too rational and too irrational. Too scientific and too religious. Too peace loving and too war-mongering. It’s too cool. And overall America, for many people, is exhaustingly too complex and too much.
I saw at first hand, duing the G W Bush years, how hating America became a kneejerk reaction in the UK and Europe. It got so bad at one point that there were people who theoretically supported democratic rights like free speech and religious freedom who were nevertheless saying it was quite understandable that islamic terrorists would behead Americans or blow up buildings in the US killing innocent people. Worse, they implied that societies which oppressed women and gays, enshrined the supremacy of men and allowed virtually no democratic freedoms, were morally superior to American democracy.
Everyone can agree, I guess, that America has its share of flaws. Some are serious flaws. Looking around the world though, it also has more than its fair share of plus points. There is simply no other society in the world which has integrated people from so many backgrounds and cultures and given them all fundamental democratic rights. Whatever gripe anyone may have about remaining flaws in the US, the history of America has moved in a reasonably linear way towards greater social freedom and equality.
And there’s more. America still posseses a degree of intoxicating glamour which is undeniable to many outsiders. If you’re in the America’s-the-Great-Satan camp of course you’ll refuse to see it. But if you’re reasonably open to what the planet has to offer, you won’t. The Grand Canyon. New York. Mount Rushmore. Wall Street. Hollywood. New Orleans. The Statue of Liberty. When I was a kid, then a teenager, we listened avidly to the music pouring out of the States: Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa… We watched American films: Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, 2001: A Space Odyssey…
There was no getting around the fact that England had no equivalent to “24 Hours From Tulsa”. Twenty four hours from Chipping Sodbury or Wolverhampton just didn’t cut it. Names like Nevada, Savannah, Santa Monica and Phoenix Arizona (not to mention Point No Point Lighthouse) left Littlehampton, Eastbourne, Blackpool and Norwich looking distinctly drab.
So I would agree with Schmid that Americans should get out there in the world and talk to other people. Americans should be proud, and of course many are, of the essential democratic freedoms protected in the States. Americans should not pull any punches about the things they do best and not attempt to hide the things they struggle with.
The world, as always, is in one of its periods where values, customs and beliefs are being debated on all sides. There are many people focusing on the flaws in American society at the expense of its hard-won freedoms. There’s every reason to want improvements in US democracy, as there’s every reason to want improvements in democracy around the world. But let’s not forget the many things American society has going for it. America’s a society where literally any citizen can become president, thanks to a social, political and legal culture of equality.
It’s also a society where a lighthouse can be called – fabulously, and with not a jot of logic – Point No Point!