04 July 2009

America, Uh Huh

This is a small thatch hut between Kalaw and Inle Lake, in the heart of Myanmar. Behind that calendar - yes, that is an Obama/Biden sticker.

I was in Udaipur, India during the November 2008 US elections and was traveling with 2 American girls, both with left wing politics. We were eating a nice supper on the eve of the vote when some red-nosed Scottish and British package tourists wearing Bermuda shorts and sandals with socks approached our table and eyed us suspiciously. “You Americans?” One of them asked accusatorily. I raised my hands.
“We are Canadians here.” I said, pointing to S and I.
“We are.” Sarah said politely, gesturing to Megan and herself.
“A lot of guts you've got to admit it – you better vote in Obama tomorrow.” He sneered at them in a gruff voice. “You've got a lot to explain to the resta the world for Bush – you better do the right thing tomorrow, you lot.” He tottered away and I was left aghast. If someone approached me and told me, rather demanded of me that I vote a certain way in my country's sovereign elections I would probably stand up and spit in their face. Yet Megan and Sarah sat there and just nodded.
“OK sir, we never voted for Bush – I understand. We like Obama – Go Obama.” I asked them how they could stand it. Megan answered.
“Well, a lot of people feel like they have a say in what happens because our government really meddles in a lot of things around the world that they shouldn't.” I agreed. That I understood.
“But the audacity to yell at you – that is absurd! I don't tell individual Israelis what I think, I don't get in shouting matches with Saudis and Qataris when I see a woman in a burqua – what gives someone the right to act as if you are personally to blame?” We all shrugged and went back to our meal. This was not the last time I would witness these 2 girls have to defend their home, usually from people with a taste for American music and clothing. It started me thinking.


America. The very word is enough to evoke pride, anger, fear and condescension. No nation has ever been more contentious, more powerful or more controversial than the red, white and blue. A republic of 50 states cobbled together as a social experiment, a nation of empire that vehemently denies empire building, a meddling country incapable of minding its own business that uses mind games and rhetoric on its own people. And I, the least likely supporter of the stars and stripes, am here to defend it.

Not for the reasons that you would think, either.

I am a Canadian. This means that I benefit from the good things of being North American while being able to vote in multi-party elections, visit my doctor for free for any reason (and even a therapist if I have hypochondria) and have memorized the lyrics to “God Save the Queen.” It is a good place to be, Canada, and if you can steel yourself for the freezing Winters and blistering Summers you will be rewarded with a laid back attitude, friendly neighbours and unparalleled natural beauty. But it is not....exciting.

Our movie industry, for instance, realized decades ago that it could not compete with the whizzbang excitement of Hollywood and instead began focusing on creating a quirky, arty cinema that can easily be recognized (and avoided) by all Canadians for its low budget aesthetic and ability to do really well at European Film Fests. Canadian children learn early on that if you see an NFB logo (National Film Board of Canada) you should immediately change the channel lest you be subjected to “The Log Driver's Waltz” for the tenth time. Even our authors, prolific writers like Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Mordecai Richler and Timothy Findley write with a sort if dull melancholy and sparse simplicity that distinguishes them around the world for being different – when in reality they are just being Canadian.

Our government protects our unique culture with 'Canadian Content laws' that require that a third of all broadcast media be Canadian – and it has to be protected from of our shiny, exciting, charismatic neighbour. He doesn't always wipe his shoes, he isn't always polite and sometimes he makes us so angry! But he is the life of the party, he's genuinely friendly and his intentions are generally good – its no wonder our citizens would rather hang out with him than their plain humble countrymen.

When it comes to all of our media needs we overwhelmingly prefer it to be American – just like the people of almost every country on this planet do.

Why do people around the world claim to hate America so much, claim to hate what it stands for and the way that they conduct themselves and get uppity and angry at the very mention of their politics - but gobble up their media like it is candy? Why can you buy American fashions in the European capitals? Why are US movies, books, TV shows and magazines the standard around the world? And music – jazz, rock n' roll, blues, country n western, rap, bluegrass, honky tonk, hip hop, heavy metal (sorry Led Zep, I know the term was coined for you, but Iggy and the Stooges beat you to the sound) were all born in the USA– who are we all trying to kid? We LOVE America. We idolize, mythologize and sexualize America.

Their Enemy Number One, Osama Bin Laden - loves Whitney Houston.
Saddam had photos of Brit Brit in his bunker.

Yet every day I meet Aussies, Europeans, Brits and yes – other Canadians who sneer and roll their eyes when the USA is mentioned (except when talking about Obama – the world's biggest crush) and then hop on their iPods and play some JayZ or watch 30 Rock. And instead of pointing this out, American travelers, when asked where they are from, quietly respond and try to downplay their nationality instead of shouting it from rooftops.


America's hypocrisy – the foisting of democracy on unwilling countries when they themselves have a voter turn out of 50%; the corrupt politics; the racism, sexism and classism inherent in its policies; the war mongering and money grubbing – is abhorrent. But then again, isn't Britain's? Wouldn't Russia be doing the same or worse if they had won the Cold War? What if Germany and Japan had won World War II – you don't think that there would be a few problems? The most powerful nation is always corrupted by its limitless power (Rome, anyone?) and while that is not a justification for their behaviour – for the graves of Iraqi civilians, the children dying of hunger in Afghanistan and the discrediting of legally elected governments whenever it is convenient– it does make me glad that it is in America's somewhat benign hands and not, let's say, Iran's.

Americans are generally friendly people with good hearts yet they are stereotyped in the world as ignorant and mean. Their country has some of the best universities and brilliant scientists, yet they still are generalized in the world as rednecks. They come from a place where it truly is possible to climb your way out from the gutter and emerge rich and famous a'la Horatio Alger, and while many people in the West deny it the numbers do not lie: ask almost any person in Asia, Africa and South America and they would say that America is where they dream of emigrating. They also happen to make media and both high (Jackson Pollock) and low (The Hills) culture that we all want to be a part of.

All of us – every person who looks down their nose at Pawdunk, Iowa and thanks their lucky stars that they are from Stockholm, Toronto or London instead – wants to be in New York for the art, the theatre, the nightclubs. We all want to dip our fingers into the gold glitter of LA and drape ourselves in New Orleans' beads. We want to ride trolleycars in San Francisco and pull on a one armed bandit in Vegas. We want to immerse ourselves in the mythical Wild West, to play Davey Crockett and Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan. We want Disneyland. But if you mention America as a whole – we cringe.

People around the world who sneer and claim superiority should look no further than the Pizza Huts, Starbucks, McDonalds and Walmarts in their cities – they are there for a reason. People have voted with their dollars and they want American goods. They want coronary inducing American food. They want to watch a Hollywood Blockbuster while munching fake-buttered popcorn, popping Milkduds and swilling a Coke. They want to laugh guiltily at Family Guy and read an Archie Double Digest. This is not some crazy US plot – if the people didn't want it than it wouldn't sell. Supply and demand. And they demand America.

And what about our hypocrisy? We're not better than them -we want to be them. We want to enjoy all of their good things and then to harshly criticize them every chance we get. No wonder they get defensive! Imagine how you would feel if an Aussie was eating poutine, drinking a Molson and watching Trailer Park Boys while wearing hockey jersey - at the same time telling you that Canada is backward, boring and should be destroyed. You would want to punch them. At the very least you would laugh at their hypocrisy. But this is exactly what we do to Americans. Take a look at your closet, your laptop contents, your DVDs and concert stubs and you'll see I'm right - if I'm wrong feel free to go back to your smug feelings of superiority – you earned them.

We should never allow our admiration of their culture blind us to the truly awful things that the US government does in the name of its people, nor do I think that the rising tide of the religious right and their determination to strip away human rights is anything to look up to. But I think that we need to stop pretending that America as a whole is low-class and simple minded unless we also accept that as the people that gobble up so much of their media - we are too.

I'm surprised they don't make bigger flags.

We don't have some invisible halo of superiority just because our passport isn't from the USA - my Canadianess does not make me a better person. The same logic states that a person should not be singled out on the street or in a restaurant and told that their country is bad or that they personally have some explaining to do.

The next time you have an urge to say “I'm sorry” when someone tells you they're from the US you should really say “Thank you for all the stuff” and think about what your country has done that is so much better.


Anonymous said...

Wow...I guess I have to rethink how I approach an American the next time I'm traveling.

Maybe, just maybe, sometimes, I'm the ignorant one.

Great read!

Love your #1 Fan


Violet Dear said...

I think we are all guilty of stereotyping Americans - I know I have been! Then one too many times people thought Sean and I were yanks and it really didn't feel good. I found myself getting defensive on their behalf rather than saying 'hey - I'm Canadian!'

We have the same culture (almost) and no one else is guaranteed to get 99% of the references that I make. That becomes important on a long trip when you have had to explain pop culture things again and again....I have found myself loving most Americans I have met.

Jason Thibault said...

American have generally been the most supportive of my creative endeavours. And I have a great deal of fun with them online.

I am an unabashed American culture whore.

Anonymous said...

I guess the popularity of the culture also has something to do with the fact that their content is the most widely publicised one. Their companies definitely try to enter new markets a lot more aggressively than companies from other countires, and given the amount of effort and money that goes into it, they are fairly successful. The popularity of the media too can be ascribed, at least in part to the huge advertising campaigns that run around the world.

In the end I would say it does not really matter if something is American or not. What matters is how something gets popularised.

As for Americans being answerable to what their nation does... why not? Dont Americans subject middle eastern muslims to much worse treatments? Are not Pakistanis going through similar issues? Dont American people do the same thing to "aliens" who come to their country? So why would an American be treated any differently in some other country?

Violet Dear said...

Trust me, as a Canadian I have thought about all of those things! :)

I guess it just seemed to me that regardless of whether their country has more advertising dollars or not, there is still something incredibly hypocritical about people indulging in American culture on one hand, and on the other lambasting it.....

I think this stems from the amazing yanks I have met in the last year....do they deserve to be called out and questioned on their gov't's policies? Absolutely. But so do Canadians. And Brits and Australians. And Bulgarians, for god's sake! No country is innocent.

And theirs just happens to make good music and fast food....:P

(PS - I don't think any country treats illegal entrants well.... not that I agree with it - I DO NOT, as I think that our huge wealthy countries have A LOT of room....but just imagine if I tried to stay in Germany past my work visa... they would not be thrilled. Let alone India!)

Melanie Alcorn Sims Wood said...

Wow! I had no idea of all the talk about my birth country and my people - oh yeah, sheepul. Lived overseas for years; never noticed the chatter - if there was any then. Seems like everyone chatters about everything these days. Interesting.

AS... said...

very deeply thought! i loved this post :)

Advocatus Diaboli said...

Have you ever considered that the scorn that America faces from the rest of the world is against the American Government and not the American Media/entertainment and Americans in general?
And you ask why just America and not Britain and other countries? Well that is simple. They are lesser evil as compared to USA. In recent history [Lets consider the past 5 decades] name a single War where uncle Sam has not poked his nose.
Post 9/11 they even came up with the "definition" of torture, because of which several people suffered. Please google the Bybee Memo and be sure to read the whole thing.
The reason why the American elections matter so much to the rest of the world is not because we hate them or not because we love them, it's only because every decision they make influences us directly. After all its only the USA in modern history to be the only known example of being "unipolar".

person within said...

that was a pretty interesting read.. haven't interacted much with people from other countries, hence did not know that so much talks revolve around America.
But, this had to happen. Being the only true 'Superpower', America would be present in the conversation of most people. This hypocrisy against US, also stems from jealousy that their country is not like USA.

Yeah, sometimes the US government is meddlesome. It tries to change the core principles and values of governments of other countries without understanding their culture. It might be that sometimes what you don't like might be the best way for a particular region.

But, being a superpower, it has that responsibility. Only wish is that instead of forcing, they should be more understanding.

nikki said...

so deep thoughts and so true ..
i m developing a liking for ur writing stlye...:)

Anonymous said...

trust me; America isn't that great. Though, I haven't been anywhere else. Even though I am young in age, I have seen a lot by living in this country. The government cheats you out of your money and spends it on useless things instead of actually helping the citizens when they claim they are. There are a lot of people homeless now-a-days and you can't trust anyone or anything. And yes America has good music, food, and items..but most of the sources come from foreign countries. Don't get me wrong, I love America but I would love to go to another country and discover what I can. Yes we have more freedom than most..but that freedom is being slowly taken away day by day.

And as much as everyone judges America, most people judge them right back. Though I don't stoop down to that level because we aren't the best country out there. The media controls everything and all they produce is lies.

America in the past was known to be wonderful and I wish it was the same today as it was back then. It would be nice to finish my life living freely and safely.

Of course; everything I just said is based off of what I have heard, saw, and have been taught. If you ask someone off the street they could say that they love the government and everything about this country.

lwb199111 said...

This was a great blog. I'm an American and you're so right about what you say. There are a lot of things that we do that I don't agree with but I can't really complain either. Life here is good. I love to travel but coming home, as for anyone I'm sure, is great.

Thanks so much for your travel tales. I am a huge fan.

whateverheather said...

Thanks for the post. I am American teaching English in Korea. I lived in Germany for a year and a half and worked at an international bar in 05-'06 and every night someone had something to say about how much Bush sucked. And how it was my fault. On the trains the young people all wore American brands and listened to 50 Cent, and tried to tell me that my country was terrible. I defended America by explaining, first and foremost, how giant it is and how different the people are from coast to coast and city to city... I never really tried to point out that they were speaking to me in "my language" or that they would be bored and bland without "my style and my music." I think it is fine for people to be upset with our countries political problems... with Obama now "in" people seem to sing a different tune. Here in Korea, I show my kids pictures of any black man and they ask me if it is Obama... so there is a whole topic that can be mused about now... Anyways, very interesting insight. I will continue reading as you journey:)

a.d.f. said...

I'm proud to be American, but I wish our governmental policies were quite different.

nrugkhapan said...

Your point on the contradictory stance of why some people profess to hate American when they in fact enjoy their culture may sound valid but there's nothing hypnotically about loving one side of the coin but despise the other. It speaks to our ability to compartmentalize.

Instead of wholesale hatred or devoted love, i think it's fair for people to pick and choose what they like and what they don't. That way, the good side of the coin can fully stand up for what they deserve while the bad side receives wake-up calls to immediately come to senses. I love eating apples so much. My love for it is never enough for me to eat a rotten one. I love American music and hate American foreign policy. And I don't think that makes me a hyprocritical person, because these two are two different categories that deserve two different judging standards. Just because their government is corrupt doesn't make their music or movies less deserving.

I'm from Thailand and if there's anything the current Thai politics has taught me, the lesson is that cult of personality or a wholesale love for one thing can blind us from seeing the rest of that thing. Instead of looking at things as a monolithic whole, i think we should look at its constituent parts and judge *each* of them in its own right and role.

I think the Bush Administration is the worst era of American diplomatic history (and i dont need to explain its consequences on the rest of the world do i?) and I stand by my opinion. But right now i'm typing to you on my MacBook computer, which i think is the BEST computer in the world. I don't see any hypocrisy in praising someone when he's done something good but alerting him to his wrongdoing he's inflicted on others, on purpose or not.

ps: i love jackson pollock and the hill.