America, the unappreciated

5 09 2007

I had a conversation with a friend of mine last night, on a patio of a stylized Mexican place in Midtown, which is to say buried in a mass of folk in the belly of Manhattan. She’d spent the summer in Paris, enjoying the distinct sense of levitation that Gallic nights and general forays abroad provide the traveler. She raved, as one should rightfully expect, about the food, the wine, the people, the lifestyle. She loved the way that outdoor bistros in summer occupy the same position of importance for the French as altars do for cardinals.

But we arrived, on the same destination that such conversations always seem to, and the same one that should make us cringe.

“I can’t wait to go back. I hate it here.”

I thought, briefly, that here might have referred to New York. Or that patio, on whose tables over-mixed, frozen margaritas gradually melted, sending droplets of condensation rolling down the stems of the glasses. It didn’t.

You hear this a lot lately. At least I hear this a lot lately. And it’s sickening. A still-hungover Jack Kerouac is puking in his grave while Emerson shakes his head disapprovingly.

It’s easy to hate on America. Right now, it’s a fat, stationary target. So much is wrong. Foreign policy. Domestic policy. No Child Left Behind. John Mellencamp’s “This is our Country.” Any song by Toby Keith. NASCAR. The Bush Administration’s politicizing of the Special Olympics. And the best we can hope for, right now, is a brisk and complete change of fate, to wake up from the eight-year national nightmare we’re almost done with when the White House has new occupants in two winters.

It’s harder to care for America. To really give a shit. We’ve been sundered into poles: Red and Blue, Northern and Southern, Sox and Yanks. And with our international profile being what it is, coupled with an executive branch that is everything one shouldn’t be, life in America’s as pretty as Larry David’s scalp.

It’s then fashionable — and, on the same token, as brainless as it is gutless — to talk about how great everything is elsewhere. Textbooks have saturated us with high-gloss images of alluring sights across oceans and skies. Friends who’ve gone overseas have re-affirmed the ideas. Finally, our hyper-education licenses this flight of mind and body; it supplies the backing for turning one’s back on this place. Like being part of a country is the same as transferring schools, that what goes on here does not stack up to our blinding talents. In Catch-22, Heller writes of the chaplain’s discovery of protective rationalization, and that ‘it was miraculous…anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.’

The effect implies that if our current state does not agree with our well-heeled intellectualism, it’s ok to just pack up and run. Like we’re too good for it. But it’s cowardice veiled as intelligence, as if it’s OK to bail when times are bad, but smile and celebrate the good times. It takes just as much thought to blindly knock a country as it does to throw its flag in front of your eyes.

The sentiment of escapism drips into high culture. Almost every piece of fiction in the New Yorker, which should, theoretically, host America’s finest dozen-plus short stories, takes place outside America. It’s a ploy, a device to inject some instant intrigue into a story. The writing and editing remain, as usual, unimpeachable. But the intent is less so. This is a land, still, of possibility and beauty, of roads that require multiple horizons to conquer. To give up on it as an item of interest is to renounce history.

But the idea that other countries can better serve our talents — that this one isn’t enough — drips with narcissism and presumptuousness. No land is static. History is cyclical. We must make our donations, because we will run our future.

We shouldn’t buy into American Exceptionalism. But we should recognize the breadth and scope of this land, the rivers to the mountains and everything else that Woody Guthrie sang about. We should recognize the confluence of cultures and the people who will look you in the eye and ask how you’re doing without ever having met you.

I’m no blind patriot. But I am of the mind that this is a place worth fighting for. After all, like Johnny Cougar says, this is our country.

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4 responses

5 09 2007
Justin

I have recently enjoyed the company of French government scientists. They were admirable gentlemen and basically confirmed all of my stereotypes about the French.

But after a night of discussing politics and such, it seems to me that they are just about as desperate and clueless as to the state of the world as any of us.

Grass/greener/other side.

If America ain’t doing it for you, you’re just not doing it right.

As for your figure of American life being as “pretty as Larry David’s scalp” I am entirely confused. I think Larry David is a perfectly handsome gentleman (and a new season starts soon, woo) and American Life is very beautiful.

5 09 2007
scheity

Haha, maybe I should have said ‘as complex’

5 09 2007
Drew

I think Justin’s exactly right. More likely than not leaders of all countries around the world are generally confused and a bit overwhelmed by the forces of global capitalism, terrorism, global warming, poverty, AIDS, ect.

What makes this country great is our will to face these challenges head on with the unabashed American sense of optimism and pragmatism. This is not to say that our current administration is equally committed to solving all the world’s problems at once, but no one can discredit them for not trying to do something. Many want to criticize Bush for going going to war against radical terrorist and rogue nations, but who else would have? We’re doing by far more than any other nation on the world to alleviate and search for a cure of ADIS.

Now compare this to the paralysis of Europe and their total ineffectiveness on the global scene. They (the privileged class) sit behind their protectionist economies and all think to themselves how wonderful life is. But that’s not reality. France isn’t Europe. Poland isn’t Europe. Bulgaria isn’t Europe. Europe, taken as a confederated nation, faces exactly the same problems as America. Let me point out where laura’s undeserved sense of self righteousness stems from. The French, more than any other nation in the world, is threatened by American culture. They can’t stand that American culture is supplanting theirs. It’s a zero-sum game and they’re losing badly. Except it seems they win a few converts among the impressionable weekend tourists.

Because of America’s global power Darfur by proxy has become America’s problem to solve. No one asks “Where’s France and how can they be so immoral and not come the the recuse of these suffering Africans?” You won’t hear that about any other country. This is why we’ve become the worlds scapegoat. Like it or not, and most do approve, America gives this world of ours order and a sense of general security. This is why I’m proud to be an American. I love our faults, our quirks and the idea we can do anything.

Tell laura I say that I say hi the next time you see her.

6 09 2007
scheity

Haha, just a note: it wasn’t necessarily Laura who fell so in love with Paris.

Though it wasn’t necessarily not Laura.

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