Some months ago I did a post on ‘Those Germans’. So, after spending quite a bit of July in the ‘Lower 48’ here are some mostly positive and not very deep reflections on ‘Those Americans’. As before, here’s an accompanying health warning about massive stereotyping …
[And I’m sure each one could have a negative twist but after time in the US I’m taking time to recover my cynically sarcastic default attitude – see 13 below)
1. They sure know how to build ROADS – from back highways into Mt St Helens to 6 lane freeways in LA to the mad twists of Highway 1 along the northern Californian Pacific Coast. A road trip in the US is easy and fun.
2. They like FOOD (too much) – every freeway junction has a bewildering forest of signs advertising fast food chains. Portions are, to put it delicately, on the large side. The abundance of cheap and not very healthy food is evidenced in the abundance of American waistlines.
3. And from the above two qualities, they believe in making life COMFORTABLE. From huge autos and mobile mansions (RVs); to logical city grid systems; to clear road signage; to one-stop shops for absolutely everything you might or could ever need [Walmart]; to free internet where you stay (or often where you eat); to paying for petrol [gas] by credit card at the pump (why haven’t we done that yet?]; to big houses filled with stuff; to soft chairs in a megachurch. [I was tempted to add here ‘to a soothing message and comforting worship’ – but that wouldn’t be fair to the place we were at. But its easy to see how an intense culture of personal comfort poses a pervasive threat to Jesus’ call to self-sacrifice].
4. They live in the most marvellous and rather big COUNTRY. You could spend a lifetime exploring the diverse land and city-scapes. Real wildlife, real wilderness (lots of it) and a real outdoor adventures await. Compared to the small safe domesticity of a little island, the expansive grandeur of the US is thrilling.
5. They live in a dramatically UNEQUAL society. From mansions displaying extravagant wealth to humble shacks; from those who succeed in a Western capitalist culture to those left behind on the streets; from the prosperity and success of European colonisers compared to the (to my eye) broken, defeated and virtually invisible culture of the native Indians. A hero of mine, Johnny Cash has a great song about this.
6. Sorry, but they have the WORST TV NEWS I’ve ever seen. Hard to find tough fair-minded journalistic objectivity amid the welter of sentimental partisan personality-driven superficiality. [And I should add, they have the best TV drama and comedy around]
7. They have a great CLIMATE with real winters and real summers as opposed to our 4 seasons of rain, cloud and occasional sun.
8. They make everything PERSONAL: Example – there are not so much real estate companies as real estate sellers. ‘Buy this house from x’ – with big picture of a smiling perfect-teethed x. And I guess this feeds into a celebrity culture of the worship of the successful (beautiful) individual. And the celebrity culture is transposed into the church with its successful pastors (and wives), with perfect teeth (see 9) running successful businesses churches, but I digress.
9. They value PERFECT TEETH – surely a good thing, especially for dentists.
10. They obey RULES. This includes the rules of the road; rules in campsites about no noise between 10pm-8am; rules about staying on trails; rules about no litter. This could be put more positively – there seems to me to be a high sense of ‘civic virtue’ and belonging and participation in ‘being American’. A trivial example – two ‘dudes’ on a mountain hike take a short-cut off trail and start sliding down the mountain, dangerously dislodging rocks on the way. Immediately numerous hikers shout at them to get back on trail, calling them stupid and various other adjectives.
I suspect the level of corruption in public life in the USA is less than in Ireland. In a country where, IMHO, the ‘Republic’ has been betrayed by generations of self-interested politicians glad to profit from elected office (I don’t exaggerate, see C J Haughey and Bertie Ahern, Ivor Calelly etc] and, it must be said, a culture where large numbers of the population routinely evaded tax and participated in ‘soft corruption’ – such a sense of civic belonging is refreshing. All too often here, if someone is behaving in an antisocial way, no-one says anything. Either because they are afraid of violence, or because others will not back them up, or because no-one feels it is ‘their business’ to interfere.
11. They are fantastically ORGANISED. We experienced the National Park system in our camping trip : efficient; informative; practical; helpful; fair; great online booking system, brilliant rangers. Can’t give higher praise.
12. They WORK HARD. At work by 7am. Few holidays. Competitive culture. Success available to those who knuckle down. No favours expected or granted?
13. Lastly and very importantly, they are wonderfully HOSPITABLE. My daughter calls Americans ‘friendly and bouncy’. They don’t treat customers like an annoying distraction (an Irish trait). They seem to believe the best about people, are positive, optimistic, patient, wonderfully generous and believe that you ‘having a nice day’ really matters.