Doing the Math: Summing up America

The American man carries a big gun, carries a big gut, and attempts to carry off the English language. That is the image set in our European minds. Going to America provided me with the opportunity to confirm my suspicion that this stereotype was just that – a stereotype. In my first visit to the United States I enjoyed several long drives through sublime country and two cities: Boston and New York.

The Empire of Liberty is an eminent and divisive issue. Come the hegemon’s 2016 elections everyone will be watching, only some will do so while muttering something sour underneath their breath. What was immediately evident to me was that there was none of that here. Traveling down from the northern border, your medium sunbaked street had every single porch fluttering the stars and stripes. Now picture a tattered Union Jack, dripping and limp from even the very finest of our council flats. Fortunately, the British feel no urgency to display themselves in this way. There is no comparison to be made at all. Civic nationalism, not to be confused with ethnic nationalism (it’s evil twin) is woven into their fiber.

And where were the white supremacists? The Metzgers and the ‘light-you-up’ policemen that infest this new world? A New Yorker later assured me that the further south you go the more numerous they become. I never experienced the bible-belt’s backwardness. I got as far south as Ellis Island, but could detect no obvious odour. I’m sure that it can be an abortion of a place. However, Boston and New York convinced me that they’re two different worlds. East Coasters tend to jump the gun a bit when the conversation comes up, as if determined to let you know that the holstered southerner should be viewed as the delinquent cousin of the family – been through the mill a bit, something to do with a troubled upbringing, if they’d had it their way, they’d have put him in one of those ‘Correctional Facilities’… oh so American… a long time ago.

Should we judge America by its worst or by its best? I went into the center of Boston via the subway. It was packed and sweaty, an excusable condition in any big metropolis. But it was also a graffitied, tin-can ride that rattled along without much grace. Whenever it stopped its’ brakes would screech at a volume and pitch and length that caused physical pain. The natives seemed immune, years of exposure having numbed their eardrums, but I checked it off as the world’s worst public transportation system. Boston itself was a charming city. It had a wealth of history and attractions, strangers who had casual conversations with you in lifts, and, gridless as it was, it had distinctly European feel. I invite you to look upon America’s dirty underbelly in the same way and balance the redneck homophobes against the progress made by Obama in his abolishment of the Defence of Marriage Act. Eventually the subway car will stop and you will step out into the light.

“Obama wants change, but we want twenties”. That was the conclusion to a display by a group of black male street performers. They were athletic, charismatic and funny. On the latter, anyone who still believes the myth that American’s don’t do humour, and when they do it is second-rate slapstick stuff, needs to be introduced to either the porter of the Hotel Metro on West thirty-fifth street, or to any old curb. The real surprise for me was the bystander’s reactions to these street performers. When a European street-act addresses his throng with an invitation to participate, an apologetic dispersal usually ensues. The American equivalent was insisting not only that people participated but that they paid for the privilege. Their business didn’t flatline. I noticed a similar difference in a Salem town cinema, where the movie ‘Spy’ received uproarious laughter from the get-go. Did these people not warm-up? Eventually my discomfort subsided and, imbibing some of the generous American spirit, I found a new way of enjoying an average movie.

The USA has a notable service culture. This shouldn’t be confused with generosity – waiters et al. are dependent on tips. Customer is King in America and the result is unparalleled service – a byproduct of living in the world’s most renowned capitalist state. These people are normal Americans, and a normal American is, of course, anybody. It’s a multiracial country with a proud history of accepting the ‘wretched refuse of your teeming shore’. It’s a country that will have to deal with the prospect of having a white minority. It’s open, free, the land of both economic opportunity and major economic inequality. The wealth gap is noticeable, just walk from one side of town to the other. An obsession for individualism can result in this brutal economic reality – there is no safety net in America. The flip side of this coin, or dollar bill, seems to be that everyone has instilled within them a relentless work ethic that I suspect stems from having to live in a country that owes you nothing but liberty.

In 1766 Edmund Burke said: “There is not a more difficult subject for the understanding of men than to govern a large Empire upon a plan of Liberty.” Oftentimes, America baffles us. It is plaintively ridiculous that gun control has not been brought about. Getting shot in America, although I failed to get the bloody t-shirt, is a service you just won’t get from any other first world country. However, it should be remembered that America is more continent then country. Eleven of its states are bigger than the UK and add to its size first diversity and then pluralism – it’s amazing that anything gets done. It’s remarkable that Manhattan is as easy to navigate as it is, considering the heaving mass of people and gridlocked traffic. Freedom Tower gives a view of the city from plus one- thousand feet. Looking out across the miles of organised chaos made one thing clear: this massive city is only a dot on the American map, a map that would take a lifetime to colour in properly.

My disclaimer then is this. Yes, I have attempted to dissect the American identity after visiting just two cities. Maybe this is a little too bold, but, given the scale of the country, it could well be impossible to give it ample justice in any case. There may yet be a more flattering reason as to why over half of Americans don’t have a passport. In which case, this is a snapshot of a very young country the surface of which is well worth a scratch if ever you have a year free. It’s a country that needs time to find its feet in the world, but finds itself in a world that doesn’t have the time to spare. I guess what it boils down to is whether you think the USA was a good idea in the first place or not. You do the math.

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