Sunday, May 23, 2004

What America means to me

1. Unshakable beliefs

The thing about America and torture and the whole bloody mess that Iraq has become, in Europe, is that nobody is surprised. A few die-hard americanophiles are hurt, but in general, the revelation that Americans have been torturing people out of need or pleasure isn't very shocking news to Europeans.

Actually, what I have seen discussed with disquieting frequency on mailing lists and newsgroups, is the possibility that the Nick Berg beheading footage were fake. The theory bandied about is that Nick Berg has actually been beheaded by Americans in Abu Grahib. This completely wacky theory - together with the ones that the Twin Towers attack was really the doing of some shady American agency - is actually considered by intelligent and educated people. It is based on so much pure bollocks that I am actually at a loss as how to counter it: the "evidence" is based on things like a fuzzy blob being likened to another fuzzy blob in the photos of Abu Grahib as proof that there is, in the Nick Berg video, a "typical American Forces beret". Another "proof" is that the white plastic garden chair Nick Berg was seated on look an awful lot like the white plastic garden chairs seen in the Abu Grahib photos... and in my own lawn, I might add.

What this latest conspiracy theory shows, disquietingly and, for me, maddeningly, is that people here are prepared to believe the most atrocious things on the flimsiest evidence, as long as they indict America of some Bad Stuff. Trying to counter the wackiest examples by pointing out that there is, actually, quite a lot of Bad Stuff that's historically attested and it should perhaps be wisest to base one's assessment of a country on that (including the fact that it was brought to light by, lookie here, other Americans) is useless.

The sad fact is that people are prepared to believe wacky theories because they hate the USA. They hold unshakable beliefs about it that no mere fact can dislodge. The terrifying but perhaps not surprising thing is that many of these "facts" are no more or less than buying the neocon or right-wing version of something. Example - many Europeans believe that the war on Iraq has its cause in the Twin Towers attack. They then proceed to point out that 5,000 civilian deaths are bad enough, without adding some several thousands civilian deaths in Afghanistan or Iraq on top of them. No amount of evidence can convince them that the war on Iraq was planned long before 9/11. This is not surprising because Europeans, especially those without a good linguistic skill, do not read American or English blogs and news, and have been missing out on lots of clues consequently.

For much the same reasons, Europeans believe that Americans are far more right-wing than they are, and that they are far more ignorant and less educated than Europeans. They attribute to the Americans in general a total lack of subtlety and political savvy, and no amount of pointing out exceptions can convince them. They will listen to Chomsky and Vidal, or have seen Michael Moore's documentaries, but they come out of such contact with the American liberal thought with the unshakable conviction that it's an isolated minority. They never pause to think that liberal, subtle, educated thought is a minority position in pretty much the whole world - and this is particularly puzzling in my compatriots, who have, after all, witnessed the landslide electoral victory of such a champion of educated political subtlety as Silvio Berlusconi (who last week attributed the attack on the Twin Towers to his personal obsession - the "communists").

Since it's not a problem for conspiracy theorists to believe mutually contradictory things, Europeans - and I mean particular individual Europeans I know - are fully ready to believe that Americans are ignorant clumsy idiots and that there are infinitely wily American agencies that will do things like bring down that bastion of anti-establishment thought, the Cantor-Fitzgerald offices, in pursuing their shady ends.

Why am I ranting about this in English?

I guess I have some sort of confession to make.

2. Confession

I have been one of the people irrationally irked by America. I mean, being very fluent in English and having lots of friends in the blogosphere, as well as having had a few selected and much loved American friends, I have always been aware that the popular picture was, to be kind, skewed. And I used to become pretty incensed at people having a go at Americana in general and at the supposed general characteristics of the American people in particular. I could be scathing about Americans, but nobody else should dare.

But still, I was irrationally irked by the USA. I wasn't too anxious to go there, and the accent got on my nerves. I remember sitting in Schipol airport waiting for my flight to Washington, my second time in the USA, and being irritated by random snippets of accent drifting my way. Irrational as it is, I guess the continental discourse on the USA influenced me, no matter that I knew how ignorant and misinformed it was. This is the awesome power of prejudice, it gets you even if you know better.

It took me about two months to be assimilated. I can pinpoint the moment of complete assimilation when, around the beginning of November, I realized I had ceased noticing American flags. This was a sort of scary moment. But maybe the first twinges of assimilation had come when I heard the third wave of Europeans make the same remarks to the Americans about the things that freaked them out. The Americans happening by at that particular moment were far more gracious about it than I felt like being. The third wave of Europeans - embodied, as it happened, by my soon to be ex partner - were unfairly subjected to my ire, seeing as I had said just the same things when I had first got there.

3. Things that freak Europeans out: flags

I don't know if Americans consciously notice them, I guess not. But Europeans do notice them - with a start. And it's a continuos starting amounting to Tourettic moments. They're bloody everywhere. You can't turn your head without spotting one. And believe me, until you get used to them, it freaks you out.

It's very hard to explain exactly why. I mean, one could go on for a long time about nationalism being sort of associated with your neighbours coming over the border to hit you with big sticks since time immemorial, but that wouldn't convey the deep-seated reaction of your average European to a flag.

So I'll recount the following anecdote.

We were driving down from Seattle to San Francisco, spotting flags here and there and the occasional bellicose hand-written sign, which my soon to be ex partner would photograph. We stopped at one coffee shop in Eureka, which had all the trappings of an obviously wishy-washy bleedin-heart liberal establishment, complete with rainbow-colored kite and general post-hippy ambience. And a good enough mocha to induce even my soon to be ex partner - who could spot a less than completely orthodox espresso at forty paces - to admit that, seen as a chocolate with coffee in it and whipped cream on top, it wasn't half bad. Provided one didn't think of it as coffee.
At one point my soon to be ex partner freezes, his gaze aimed past my shoulder, and stammers: "Wha-what is that?"
I turn and read the large sticker that I had already noticed on the coffee-shop's glass door: fluidly waving star-and-stripes, fiercely-looking eagle, and the caption "Peace is Patriotic".
"It means they're left-wing," I supply.
"But-but-but." He looks at me with the air of somebody caught in a world-upturning case of being smacked between the eyes by cultural relativism. "But the flag!"

Lest somebody think that I'm being unfairly hard on my ex, I did my share of flag-boggling during my first weeks in the US, and was repeatedly ready to share such bogglement with any handy American. They were very gracious about them.

4. Things that freak Europeans out: tips

Because you mostly don't tip in Europe. Oh, well, you do in case of particularly outstanding service, but it's very, very rare. I guess lots of Europeans tourists don't tip out of perfect and innocent ignorance of the custom, and are therefore a lot less liked overseas than American tourists (who, probably, tip out of sheer force of habit and not knowing it's not required) are in Europe. If you're even marginally clued, they would have told you that tipping in America is required, because waiters and staff will depend on that to reach a decent wage. This means that every time you add in the tip, you're reminded that some poor bloke's making the rent depend in part on how generous you feel. It's not a welcome feeling. It's also inconvenient to calculate the right amount every time, partly because nobody gives you real rules about it. Is it 15%? 20%? Used to be 15% but now is 20? Leaving 20% will be too much? Leaving 15% will be too little? What if you don't have the change? Will I be thought a miser? Clueless? Too generous?

Add to this the fact that tax is usually counted in the shown price in Europe, and every bill comes with a little nasty surprise and a moral problem for us. Every time we pay a bill, there's a little hint at the state of the working person in the US. It's not probably a fair picture - but disproportionately disquieting because it forces you to take part in what is, to us, a displeasingly arbitrary system.

4. Things that annoy and puzzle Europeans: money

The smallest annoyance, all right, but a curiously abiding one. Once you get over the flags, the tips, the taxes, you still have this itch. Why oh why in a country where so many things go out of their way to make your life easier - cars with automatic transmission, motels, round-the-clock seven-days-a-week shops, large friendly directions, cat's eyes in the middle of the road, and, well, friendly natives - why has the money to be so stubbornly difficult to tell apart? If cutting it different sizes is too much effort, would it be so difficult to catch on to that stroke of genius the rest of the world has had - printing each denomination a different color?

Pointing out that the greenback is part of the national identity doesn't cut much ice with people who just switched over to the, let's face it, rather drab euro. But as dubiously attractive as the euro banknotes are, at least they're easy to tell apart!

And if having money that's rigorously all the same is that important to the national sense of identity, how come the States mint their own distinctive quarters, eh?

5. Assimilation

It might have happened around the fourth of July. I was looking at the fireworks seated between two friends, and they were mumbling disgustedly at the whole nationalistic pomp and crassness. I said joyously that I was actually enjoying the whole nationalistic trip - hey, it was so quaintly American! They both - from their quite different backgrounds - looked at me in disgust, and shook their heads. Somebody in the back kept going "Yes! Yes! YES!" at every successive bang and shower of sparks, finally erupting in a positively climatic "GOD BLESS AMERICA!" that I suspect accompanied other climatic moments in his life. My two friends were still shaking their heads.

Or it might have been when I discovered Office Depot - a country that houses such a temple to stationery can't be all bad. Or maybe when I found out that the bookstore cat was more or less mandatory for most independent bookshops. Or when I saw the Employees' Rights placard in the already mentioned Eureka cafe. Or when I had to take the final leave from the last of my Clarion mates. Or crying over email in a San Francisco Starbucks, because email wasn't the same thing, and San Francisco was so windswept and mellow outside, all soft but neat whites and deep blues, and cheap sushi.

I'd always known Americans were uncommonly nice people, but I thought the ocean acted like a sort of filter, that only the best specimens came through. Well, admittedly, I met a very intensively filtered kind of American through Clarion - the best fandom had to offer. But I guess it was enough to counter prejudice. Somehow, even the accent sounds different.

So I was assimilated. I have reflected on that since I left. I would go back to the States if I could, despite the nasty government and the appalling working conditions, and even despite the frightening lack of protection from the misfortunes of your health. And the silly lookalike money. And despite what New York smells like in high summer. It's first and foremost because of the people, of course. And because Science Fiction is still alive and kicking there, and it doesn't kick you in the shins like it does in the UK - though there's no finer kick in the shins to be had, UK contingent, let me hastily add. But maybe it's because this strange, unclear, ultimately rather unsettling feeling that the US is more real than the rest of the world. I've been thinking about this, and I have found no other better way to phrase it. Put it down to cultural imperialism. Put it down to the world becoming globalized, and my country only supplying the shoes. Put it down to our imagination being colonized. Put it down to this being the cradle of the best and of the worst - mah. That was a Canadian saying that, after all.

I am left, sadly, with a lingering antipathy for my country. Maybe because it tries to be the US and keeps missing in embarrassing ways. I have never resented copying the US, on the contrary, I've always been very irked by those that leveled "americanism" like an offense at me. But I would have liked it to be copying like Sergio Leone used to copy - with love, and ultimately being himself. Instead we get faded carbon copies of the most unfashionable stragglers of the American Right wagon. They look worse than pathetic - they look unreal.


Blogger Jan VanÄ›k jr. said...

"You mostly don't tip in Europe"? - Count it as another of those boggling culture shocks. At least in this here bit of "New Europe", we do as a matter of course - and it would have never occured to me that it might be so fundamentally different, certainly not nearer than in overseas. (But if the process of "harmonization", catching up and generally civilizing us _nyekulturnyie_ hordes should mean that we'll take up practices of Europe proper even in this, I wouldn't mind at all, the spend-thrift that I am. :-)

Jan dot Vanek dot jr at seznam dot cz

12:57 PM  
Blogger AndyHat said...

BTW, the states don't mint quarters. All quarters are minted by the US Mint. The quarters with special state designs on the reverse are part of a 10-year "Special Program" to commemorate the 50 states, during which the Mint is producing 5 different quarter designs each year. You can read more about the program here (or could, if blogger didn't insist on munging the URL). This isn't the first time they've changed the design of the quarter; there was a Bicentennial quarter in 1976.

Being the cynical sort, I tend to think it's just a scheme to increase the Mint's take from seignorage (a large number of these state quarters will never see circulation as they've become quite popular collectibles).

11:33 PM  
Blogger Dr. Xent said...

1. TipsSo, first thing you should start distinguishing between Italians and Europeans. Since we are here, let's also distinguish between French, Germans and so on...
In Germany you always tip the waiters. It's not really a fixed percentage, usually you round up somehow... didn't understand all the rules exactly, but you do it.

2. FlagsExcept France and UK almost every other European country has been ruled by some asshole dictator waving patriotism and so on. As a matter of fact flags in Italy or Germany are associated with right-wing politics. In France it's already another issue.

3. Nick BergDidn't hear about the theory according to which, Nick Berg has been killed about Americans. As much as I don't know anyone - in Germany or Italy - who believes that the war against Iraq has to do with 11/9/01. I guess you know strange people.

4. 11/09/01Did Berlusconi really say that thing about communists pulling down the twin towers? Wow! It's something I missed... what an asshole!

1:46 PM  
Blogger Robert Marks said...

I am one of those Americans who who voted for Dubya. We don't want to be like the rest of the world, we don't like the U.N. . We like our country and we are proud of what it has done even with all the mistakes it has made.
There is a flag flying out front of my home right now, I can see it waving in the wind from where I sit and type this.
I've been to Europe and thought it beautiful and want to go back next year. But what I get from that is a greater appreciation of my own country. God Bless America!

6:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting that you formed the impression that the image of americans as being more right-wing was an unfounded prejudice BEFORE you went there.

I for one grew to appreciate the truth of this through being in America. Of course there is a political spectrum but there really are a LOT more people a lot further to the right than in the UK. and a lot of complete nut jobs too.

3:52 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home